DIRECTED BY: Ed Spiegel (Hellstrom sequences), Walon Green (producer and principal photography), David L. Wolper (executive producer)
FEATURING: Lawrence Pressman
PLOT: The fictional Dr. Nils Hellstrom explains the evolutionary advantages of insects and
concludes they are biologically superior to humans, leading him to predict dire consequences for the future of our species.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Documentaries don’t come much weirder than this, but even the orgies of insectoid sex and violence and Dr. Hellstrom’s flaky mad scientist rants about the inherent superiority of spiders, termites and centipedes can’t raise this to the level of the truly bizarre. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the goods to rank among the weirdest movies of all times, however, it’s still a beautiful abnormality that’s well worth your attention.
COMMENTS: The Hellstrom Chronicle contains a lot of curiosities, but the heart of the movie are the amazing images captured through (then miraculous) micro-photography: a caterpillar developing from a fertilized cell to a larva in the space of a minute, a shot of beetles locked in a death struggle that widens and pans to show a human couple cuddling on the lawn, individual brightly-colored butterfly scales glowing in the sunlight like Lite Brites. As that last image suggests, there is a psychedelic character to much of this parade of fantastical bug-tography, one that the filmmakers play up as they segue from those super-closeups of wings to shaky cam scenes of fields of butterflies flying through a forest, as Lalo Schifrin’s electronic free-jazz symphony soars ecstatically. From sequences like this we realize why this documentary was so popular on college campuses in the 1970s; you can almost see the clouds of pot smoke rising up in front of the five-foot tall black beetles with their jutting horns silhouetted against the sunrise, and hear the low murmurs of “far out, man.”
With its dissonant sitars, electric pianos dithering over waves of cymbals, and waveform synthesizers wavering in the background, Schrifin’s remarkable score evokes not only midnight trips but also conventional sci-fi giant insect cues, which is appropriate because much of the time Hellstrom resembles nothing so much as a mondo horror tour of the insect world: we’re treated to such entomologically exploitative sights as a decapitated ant head still waving its antennae, the sickly undulating egg-sac that is the Termite Queen, bee cannibalism, a black widow spider “throbbing with obese sexuality,” and a column of millions of driver ants that sweeps its way across the savannah devouring iguanas and scorpions. In a distasteful scene that would never make it to the screen today, a white lab mouse is injected with an unspecified insect toxin, and we watch it twitch and expire in its cage (mercifully, its torment lasts only seconds). The spectacle of these entirely natural but seemingly alien scenes—the insect world meticulously depicted here is as beautiful as it is terrible, awesome in the original sense of the word—would be enough to bring Hellstrom to your notice.
But it’s the narration by the documentary’s very own mad scientist, Dr. Hellstrom—who warns us of this phylum’s power to bring humanity to its knees in paranoid prose that’s purpler than the most extravagantly painted butterfly wing—that turns the movie from a slightly demented episode of “Nova” into something endearingly odd. Hellstrom begins his tale by informing us that “the Earth was created, not with the gentle caress of love, but with the brutal violence of rape” and then warns us that “incubating in the darkened womb of prehistory was a seed of grotesque variation… specters as limitless as the imagination of the insane.” If anyone ever doubted that writers relish the opportunity to ham it up just as much as actors do, Hellstrom will cure that misconception. As the loony entomologist, future television mainstay Lawrence Pressman maintains an ambiguous demeanor, simultaneously conveying scientific authority and an unbalanced personality. What are we supposed to think of this “fanatic, lunatic, heretic” when he gets that tiny smile and far away look in his eyes as he remembers the time he placed centipedes in the lettuce in the produce aisle to watch people’s terrified reactions, “Candid Camera” style? Or when he launches his discourse on insect sexuality by visiting a drive-in and peering at teenagers making out, tsk-tsking them for their needlessly complicated heavy petting rituals (“as a biological mechanism, you can see that this is not terribly efficient,” he complains) as compared to the streamlined rutting of the insect world (“free from the concept of romance, the act of procreation occurs as simply, naturally and obliviously as eating”). Hellstrom’s half-insane narration put off many critics at the movie’s initial release (both Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby took the doctor’s pronouncements entirely at face value, and let it ruin the film for them); today’s audiences, steeped in decades of mockumentaries, are likely to find Hellstrom’s obsessive admiration for our creepy-crawly superiors more fascinating rather than off-putting. There’s more than a mite of irony in Hellstrom’s outlandish positions, and a lot of carnival hucksterism in his prophecies of doom. Hellstrom does address some serious environmental policy issues regarding subjects like pesticide overuse, but the documentary’s overriding ideology is to preach biological materialism. “What is the value, even for oneself, to sustain an existence that must ultimately end in death?,” Hellstrom wonders. “The insect has the answer—because he never posed the question… [man] is unable to accept, as the insects do, that life’s only purpose is life itself.” The pompous proclamations ironically support the documentary’s theme of man’s arrogance in supposing he is the pinnacle of either creation or evolution. Hellstrom puts us in our place by showing us a microcosm of nature red in tooth and claw—or, better yet, grasshopper-guts green in mandible and pincer—and reminding us that, as far as natural selection is concerned, those little pests scurrying about under our floorboards may well be outperforming us.
Hellstrom was the brainchild of producer David L. Wolper, who also brought us Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the same year. Wolper hired David Seltzer to pen the crazy narration for the documentary, and also brought in the same scribe to rewrite much of Roald Dahl’s script and dialogue in Wonka. Despite (quite unexpectedly) winning the 1971 Academy Award for Best Documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle had never appeared on DVD until Olive Film’s 2012 release. The DVD and Blu-ray are cropped full frame and contain no special features, but we’re appreciative for the chance to see these amazing images at all.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…at best a rather peculiar little film that stands apart from its ‘documentary’ kin for the very reason Milli Vanilli stand apart from their Best New Artist Grammy kin: it’s a fake! This isn’t to say that the film isn’t enjoyable in a bizarre, almost outré, way, but as a documentary? Sorry, using that term for The Hellstrom Chronicle really does bug me.”–Jeffrey Kauffman, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)