With the possible exception of the haunted house movie, there is no sub-genre of prewar movie more prone to meandering filler than the Safari picture. The mere act of setting a film on the Dark Continent in this era was enough to ensure that it’s nominal plot would be crowded out by an over generous helping of padding. The mountains of wildlife and native stock footage proved a godsend to filmmakers looking to stretch their meager budgets into something approaching feature length. The undeveloped nature of Africa, at least in the imagination of the American public, forbids the possibility of any form of rapid transit. There can be no trains, cars, or even carriages in the Safari film; every distance must be covered painstakingly on foot. Most filmmakers feel the need to depict every step of this journey on film, fearing the audience would refuse to believe that the characters had actually traveled anywhere if informed of it through inter-title. Needless to say, I was not excited when I sat down to my viewing of Monster From the Green Hell, a film that promised to combine the Safari film with the giant monster picture. Despite being only 70 minutes long this film is dreadfully boring, and boring films are like light-speed travel, they have a curious effect on the passage of time.
The film opens in the American Southwest, a setting that could only be described as the exact opposite of the one promised by the title. It’s there though that an embryonic NASA-like organization is conducting tests to determine if life can survive in the vacuum of space, where it will be exposed to dangerous cosmic radiation. As the Fantastic Four wouldn’t be created for another four years the scientist heading the operation, one Dr. Quent Brady, contents himself with sending up a variety of lower life forms: crabs, monkeys, guinea pigs, and, most important for our purposes, wasps. The tests are going well, but the technicians loose track of the rocket carrying the wasps when it flies far higher and longer than expected. There’s a tense moment where they wonder if the rocket will land on a city before the computer informs them that the rocket has crash-landed in the African jungle. Brady’s government handler, Dan Morgan, isn’t particularly worried about one missing rocket, and doesn’t bother to send a crew to pick it up. Now, if I was running a space program in 1957 I would be very concerned about my experimental rockets falling into the hands of Soviet competitors, especially if it landed in neutral third world wilderness. No Russians ever show up though, so maybe the Reds, after putting Sputnik in orbit, are riding so high that they don’t feel the need to pick over downed American rockets like a pack of space-age vultures.
In Africa however, the landing of the rocket is causing some serious problems; people are dying under mysterious circumstances whenever they venture into the nearby wilderness called The Green Hell. Even the animals seem to sense something is off, and they have begun avoiding that particular stretch of wasteland. The natives say it’s a vengeful spirit, but the local missionary, Dr. Lorentz, suspects that it’s nothing more than particularly dangerous example of the local wildlife. He gets a chance to confirm his theory when a native hunter named Arobi comes to his compound with the dead body of his brother. A quick autopsy confirms that the man has been killed not by any ghostly apparition, but by everyday venom. Dr. Lorentz does concede that something odd is going on though, as there is no known insect or snake that could deliver the dose of poison that killed this man. You don’t become a missionary in Africa if you’re lacking in faith, confidence or adventurousness though, so Lorentz, with Arobi in tow, ventures into the wilderness to find and kill whatever creature is causing this trouble. Its here that we get our first look at the film’s monster, and even by the high standards of 50s horror movies it is a particularly ridiculous specimen. The giant wasp doesn’t zip around like it’s smaller brethren; instead it flies slow and steady, somehow staying aloft on two comparatively tiny wings. Our first glimpse of the creature shows it droning over the grasslands, sending local wildlife fleeing in its wake. This ridiculous puppet wipes out the whole search party, save for Arobi who heads back to the missionary compound to deliver the bad news to Dr. Lorentz daughter, Lorna.
Back in America, news of strange disturbances in the African hinterland is beginning to drift back to Brady and Morgan. Morgan, being the standard unimaginative type you find occupying every level of government bureaucracy from the president down to your local mailman, cannot connect the dots. What’s that you say? There are reports of monsters coming from the exact same place we lost a rocket, starting at the exact same time that we lost it? Why would you ever think there’s a connection? Fortunately, Quent Brady is just as skilled at sounding the alarm in the face of intransigent authorities as you would expect from a guy whose name is one letter off from not one but two Jaws protagonists (My suspicion is that his middle name is Hoopar). After a good deal of wrangling he manages to convince his superiors to send him and Dan to Africa to investigate the situation. Upon arriving at the port of Libreville, Brady and Morgan will have to hoof it through the wilderness. Their destination is Lorentz’s missionary camp, which they can use as a base while scouting the Green Hell. They assemble a team of porters headed by an Arab guide named Mahri. In their baggage is a crate of absurdly named Galignite bombs, which they hope will pack enough punch to kill any mutated creatures they run into.
The film’s entire second act is stock footage, mostly lifted from the 1939 film Stanley and Livingston. I exaggerate of course, but not by very much. To be fair, its very well made stock footage and it’s spliced into the movie very well. The sequence in which hostile natives attack the party is so impressively put together I would swear it was shot for this film if not for the fact that 1). There’s no way that Monster From the Green Hell had the budget to hire all these extras, and 2). It has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. The expedition survives the wildlife, the hostile natives and shortages of supplies before Brady takes ill and collapses. When he awakes he is in Lorentz’s compound, being tended by Lorna. Their arrival coincides with the return of Arobi, whose brought with them a piece of stinger that confirms Brady’s theory about the wasps. This makes the mission all the more urgent: wasps reproduce rapidly and if the queen is not taken out soon they’ll overrun the whole continent.
There’s the obligatory scene where Lorna offers her aid only to have it initially rejected by Brady, who thinks hunting giant wasps is men’s work. She wins him over by pointing out that the locals will only help them if she comes with them, and that she knows the jungle in these parts better than any of them. The native porters aren’t much of a factor, as they abandon the named characters at the first sign of danger (an omnipresent, and rather obnoxious buzzing sound). The heroes build a bond fire to keep the wasps away at night, which is silly because wasps are diurnal (except for Apoica pallens, who cannot be the original strain of mutant wasp as they have queens that are the same size as the drones, and as we will see later the mutant queen is noticeably larger than her drones) and absurd because everyone whose ever gone camping knows that bugs are attracted, not repelled by light. Smoke of course is effective at putting insects to sleep, but the smoke of a bonfire wouldn’t be effective against an insect if it were say, the size of a school bus. The fire works though, so shows what I know. From there the group proceeds to a smoking volcano, at whose base the wasps have made their nest. The galignite bombs, whose name recalls nothing so much as the infamous solaranite from Plan 9 From Outer Space, are totally ineffective against the wasps. All they manage to do is piss the bugs off. Fortunately for our heroes the volcano erupts and provides them with a convenient deus ex machine.
So the ending sucks something awful, most of the film is shots of people walking to and fro, and the cast never rises above the standard B-movie boilerplate that genre fans are accustomed to. Is there anything to like about Monster From the Green Hell? Well, the monsters are suitably goofy, and it’s a real treat whenever they are trotted out onscreen. The high point comes towards the end when the film breaks from the narrative to show a short stop-motion battle between one of the wasps and a giant snake. However, for most of the film the wasps might as well not exist.
Beyond that the only redeeming feature of Monster From the Green Hell comes in its unusual (for the time) picture of governmental incompetence. In Them!, and most of it’s numerous rip-offs, the authorities are capable, reasonable figures that respond decisively to the threat posed by whatever insect has ballooned up to 200 times it’s normal size. In Monster From the Green Hell however we’re treated to official incompetence from the very first shot. That the scientists loose track of one of their rockets is not great cause for concern, but that there is a genuine worry that the rocket will crash into a city is far more alarming. The sudden confusion and panic that the rocket scientists are thrown into shows they haven’t prepared for this contingency in the slightest. Then we have the endless delays and bureaucracy that keeps Brady cooling his heels first in the American South West, then in the port of Libreville for weeks. All the while the wasps are growing and multiplying out of control. Then we have the insufficiency of the government response, two men (neither of them soldiers even) and a hastily conscripted force of natives against a swarm of giant insects. The fact that the heroes are only saved by a fortuitous volcanic eruption only underscores how ill-prepared the expedition was despite all the hold-ups along the way. Altogether this is not at all what I expected from a film originating in the midst of the good feelings and optimism of the Eisenhower administration. The bungling incompetence of those sworn to defend the public good is far more frightening than the giant bugs.