From Hell It Came (1957) From Hell It Came (1957) -***

     One speaks a lot, in this business of commenting on other-than-fine film, about actors putting in wooden performances. It’s not often, however, that one encounters a movie in which someone is called upon literally to play a tree. That’s From Hell It Came in a nutshell, though: this is the one in which an unjustly executed man seeks revenge from beyond the grave in the guise of an ambulatory, killer tree stump. Its notoriety has waned as the era of black-and-white movies recycled into late-night television filler recedes into the past, but it remains a minor classic of 50’s junk cinema.

     Kimo (Gregg Palmer, from Son of Ali Baba and Scream) is having a shitty day. There’s been a coup on his South Pacific Island, his father (the former chief) is dead, and his wife, Korey (Suzanne Ridgeway, playing a much bigger part than she had in stinkers like Mesa of Lost Women and The Siren of Bagdad), is helping Maranka the usurper (Baynes Barron, from Space Probe Taurus and Phantom of the Rue Morgue) and Tano the witchdoctor (Genesis II’s Robert Swan) frame him as the traitor. The way they tell it, Kimo poisoned his father with the aid of outsiders, but of course it was really Tano who supplied the deadly drug. Trials among these people are pretty informal affairs, so it’s no surprise when Maranka declares Kimo guilty, and orders a knife hammered into his heart. Inevitably, Kimo proclaims his curse upon the conspirators, swearing to return from Hell for revenge. This is a pretty cynical bunch, however, as superstitious primitives go, and none of them take his threats of supernatural retribution very seriously. (Incidentally, Kimo spends the entire trial scene staked hand and foot to the ground before Maranka’s portable throne. He also spends it surrounded by chickens, which continually mill about near his head and upper body, giving not a single fuck for whatever these humans are doing on their dirtpatch. Makes it a mite hard to focus on the trial proceedings, that does.)

     Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island, physician Dr. William Arnold (Tod Andrews, from Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Voodoo Man) and anthropologist Professor Clark (John McNamara, of The Lost Missile and The Return of Dracula) are having a competition to see which one of them can air the most bigoted, condescending, paternalistic opinion regarding the local natives. Arnold has a slight lead when Mae Kilgore (Bad Ronald’s Linda Watkins), the Counterfeit Cockney widow who operates the island’s trading post, flounces in and leaves both men in the dust. Over the course of this microcosm of end-phase colonialism, it comes out that the whitecoats are under US military jurisdiction, that they’ve been sent to study the effects of fallout from nuclear weapons experiments carried to the island by a wayward typhoon, and that radiation poisoning is actually the least of the islanders’ worries. Sure, radiation levels in the vicinity are elevated somewhat, but they’re still within safe limits. There’s a virulent and deadly disease on the loose, though, and Arnold has so far had no more luck attacking it with his biochemistry than Tano has had with his magic. In fact, it was the plague that gave the witchdoctor his opportunity to poison the rightful chief, who was already sick when the conspirators moved against him. But to return to Arnold, his continued failure is the reason why the army is sending reinforcements in the form of Dr. Terry Mason (The Man Who Turned to Stone’s Tina Carver). She’s been fighting a similar epidemic on the neighboring island of Baku, where she has it just about pinned to the mat.

     I should probably take a moment now to explain that Arnold and Mason have a history together. They’ve been dating off and on for years, and William really does love her in his boorish and overbearing way. Terry isn’t about to give up her career for any mere romance, however, and that, as I’m sure you’ve already assumed, is exactly what he has consistently demanded of her. From the moment when Eddie, the scientists’ military adjutant (Mark Sheeler), drives out to meet Terry’s helicopter from Baku, the sniping between the two doctors over their competing visions of her future is virtually unending.

     But Arnold’s marriage-pestering is not the only hazard that awaits Mason on her new assignment. The reason why the natives were so quick to believe that Kimo murdered his father with the Americans’ aid, even though everyone knew the chief was sick with plague, is because some of them more or less understood what Arnold and Clark were saying when the scientists explained, back at the beginning of their mission, that they were looking for nuclear fallout. After all, one needn’t know anything about atomic fission to grasp the concept of poisonous particles borne on the wind. Nor did it take much for Tano to twist that understanding into a panic over “devil dust” released into the air by American wizards to destroy the tribe and conquer their homeland. Mason’s arrival, coming so soon after the old chief’s death, coincides with a movement among the islanders (energetically stoked by Marnaka and Tano) to work themselves up into a mood for war. A much stranger peril is taking shape on the island, too. As a native man named Norgu (Lee Rhodes) explains when he brings his plague-afflicted wife (Lenmara Guerin) around for treatment, there’s a tree stump growing out of Kimo’s grave. Not a sapling, mind you— a stump. It’s thick and squat, blackened with age, and unmistakably dead. And yet it plainly is growing just the same, because any such obstacle would necessarily have been cleared before Kimo could be buried there in the first place. By the time Arnold and Mason go to investigate (blithely disregarding the taboo against outsiders setting foot on the tribe’s burial ground), the inexplicable stump is waist high, and its bark is undeniably gnarled into a grotesque parody of a human face. What’s more, the stump has developed an equally undeniable human-like heartbeat, and there’s a knife protruding from the wood through which said heartbeat can be most clearly heard. Also, we’ve seen that knife before. It’s the very one with which Kimo was executed. That clinches it, so far as Norgu is concerned. The stump is a Tabonga, a personification of vengeance. Kimo’s curse upon his killers is about to be fulfilled!

     Mason does several astounding things at this point. First, she orders Eddie and the men to dig up the so-called Tabonga, and to bring it to the lab. Then, when the uprooted tree-thing begins losing its vital signs (Huh. Who would have thought you could kill a tree by uprooting it…), she injects it with an experimental adrenal stimulant which she’s been developing. The result is that the Tabonga not only regains its health, but becomes fully animated, trashing the lab and commencing the promised rampage of slaughter. The islanders turn much more willing to accept outside help after that, let me tell you! But exactly how does one destroy a walking tree suffused with a residue of human spirit?

     The first half of From Hell It Came is sure to be rough going for modern audiences. The Western characters hold approximately the same attitudes toward the islanders as the nuns in Black Narcissus hold toward the people of the Himalayas, but From Hell It Came lacks any trace of that movie’s self-aware skepticism regarding such prejudices. William Arnold specifically is furthermore a 24-carat Male Chauvinist Pig, and although the movie isn’t quite completely in his corner, we’re plainly expected to consider it weird that Terry Mason would prefer the life of an active, do-gooding medical field researcher to making pot roasts and squeezing out babies. Similarly, we’re just supposed to take it in stride when Mason is presented with— there’s really no other word for it— a slave girl (The Flame Barrier’s Grace Mathews, who was one of the titular creatures in She-Demons) after taking up residence at the research station. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to decide whether it’s for the better or the worse that virtually all of the islanders are played by bronzer-besmeared white people. Either way, it’s at once uproariously funny and squirm-inducing whenever Suzanne Ridgeway’s Harley Quinn accent comes squawking out of Korey’s ostensibly Polynesian mouth. (I eventually took to calling her “the Girl from Burbank Atoll.”)

     But then the Tobonga started growing out of Kimo’s grave, and I was ready to forgive From Hell It Came pretty much everything. Although it was not actually built by him, the monster suit was designed by Paul Blaisdel, American International Pictures’ original master of crapnificent creature costumes. The rival Allied Artists studio got some of Blaisdel’s most extraordinary work here, too. Only the She-Creature unambiguously exceeds the Tabonga as an example of what could be done in the 50’s with $25 worth of foam rubber, but probably shouldn’t. Imagine one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents as the protagonist of a “Florida Man” news headline, and you’ll have a fair idea of the thing’s appearance and demeanor. The suit’s stiffness and immobility are defensible for once, given the creature’s nature, but still pose problems for the movie. To begin with, there’s the usual need for the actors playing the victims to modulate their fleeing very carefully in order for the Tabonga to have any chance of catching them. But beyond that, only in one case is it quite clear how the monster is supposed to be doing its killing. Most of the time, it just sort of invades people’s personal space, and they die. Are we to take it that it’s crushing them with its titanic strength? Raking them to death with the jagged bark of its hands? Injecting them through its thorns with some kind of herbaceous toxin? There’s really no way to tell, since it’s all the poor bastard wearing the suit can do just to walk in a straight line and occasionally lift his arms at the elbows. That said, the one exception is also my favorite Tabonga kill, because it demonstrates that the creature retains the human capacity for personal hatred, even if there’s nothing left of Kimo’s personality apart from that. When the Tabonga comes for Korey, she is so terrified that she faints right into its arms. Rather than snapping her neck (or whatever) on the spot, the creature hauls her for what seems at first to be miles across the island (satisfying thereby the “carry an unconscious girl” clause of the mid-century movie monster union rules), and finally tosses her into a quicksand pit. Fulfilling a transsepulchral curse is one thing, but that’s just being a dick!



Can you believe the B-Masters Cabal turns 20 this year? I sure don't think any of us can! Given the sheer unlikelihood of this event, we've decided to commemorate it with an entire year's worth of review roundtables— four in all. These are going to be a little different from our usual roundtables, however, because the thing we'll be celebrating is us. That is, we'll each be concentrating on the kind of coverage that's kept all of you coming back to our respective sites for all this time— and while we're at it, we'll be making a point of reviewing some films that we each would have thought we'd have gotten to a long time ago, had you asked us when we first started. For this first 20th-anniversary roundtable, we're keeping it simple, reviewing a slate of movies that we feel reflect the core competencies of our respective sites. So from me, you can expect to see something dark and horrid from the 70's, something garish and fun from the 80's, something from the 50's with a rubber-suit monster, and something smutty and European. Click the banner below to peruse the Cabal's combined offerings:




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