CAPSULE: THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE (1971)

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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

Still from The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

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)

4 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE (1971)”

    1. Yes, Green is usually credited as director, and he is in the opening credits. In the final credits, however, the only person credited as director was Ed Spiegel (he was credited specifically for the “Hellstrom sequences”). Green is credited as producer and one of three persons responsible for “principal photography.” This project defies crediting a director and Wolper is probably as responsible for assembling the final product as anyone. I figured that, since the Hellstrom sequences were the only ones that were “directed” in the sense we usually think of, Spiegel should get the credit. But I’ve gone back and edited my “director” credit to reflect the separate contributions of Spiegel, Green and Wolper. This in not an auteur production, it’s a true collaboration, and all three men should probably be mentioned.

  1. Thanx for posting about this film. Also of note is the Frank Herbert (author of ‘Dune’) novel “Hellstrom’s Hive”, based on the film ‘The Hellstrom Cronicle’. In the novel (some spoilers here), Dr. Hellstrom is actually the member of a secret human society patterned after the society of social insects. In the novel, Hellstrom regrets he made the film, as it leads to government agencies becoming suspicious of Hellstrom’s operation.

  2. Saw this picture in 1971 at an afternnon matinee with a childhood friend. Many years later with a granddaughter who is extremely curious about insects and any other animal…I decided to seek out this film as I remembered many vivid scenes I thought she would find fascinating. Only after seeing the film this evening with my wife and reading the ending credits, did I actually know that “The Hellstrom Chronicles” was not done by a scientist with the last name of “Helstrom” but instead done by an actor named Lawrence Pressman. After a bit of online research I was surprised at the fact it was really not a “true” documentary but when it it was released in 1971, that is exactly what the audience thought they were seeing, a documentary. I enjoyed the film this evening and will still show my granddaughter as there is some great insect footage that she will be entertained by. In my own words…who would have “thunk it”?

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