Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

          Quite possibly the least truthful film ever to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, The Hellstrom Chronicle plays like a horror movie about insects plotting to seize control of the Earth from mankind. Actor Lawrence Pressman appears onscreen in the role of Dr. Nils Helstrom, a scientist whose investigation into the adaptive and reproductive habits of insects leads him to believe they are the only species on the planet capable of evolving in step with changes wrought upon the environment by humans. The picture is loaded with “real” footage depicting activities within ant colonies and beehives, filmed with macro lenses that capture tiny objects in fantastic detail. This stuff is breathtaking, not just because of cinematic beauty—directors Walon Green and Ed Spiegel, abetted by a small army of cinematographers, shot insect scenes as if the creatures were trained extras hitting their marks perfectly—but also because of insights the footage provides about a world beyond normal human vision.
          Allowing that certain things were juiced through editing, musical scoring, and narration, the behavior and feats of strength shown in The Hellstrom Chronicle are stunning. Drone insects sacrificing their bodies simply to move an immobile queen and her pulsing egg sac from one safe place to another. Bees breeding several replacement queens, forcing the first two replacements to fight to the death upon birth, and then eating the half-formed bodies of unborn replacements so only one queen exists. Hordes of ferocious jungle ants piling onto the body of a lizard easily 100 times the size of an ant, then immobilizing and eventually consuming the huge lizard through a terrifying process of attrition.
          Holding all of these scenes together are creepy vignettes of Pressman hammering the theme that when insects prey upon man, man doesn’t stand a chance—hence locusts, which Pressman-as-Hellstrom says can consume in one week the quantity of grain that would otherwise feed 1 million people for a year. Codirectors Spiegel and Green, the latter of whom is a prolific Hollywood screenwriter with credits ranging from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) to myriad episodes of various Law & Order shows, and Spiegel gracefully advance The Hellstrom Chronicle from a cautionary tone to an apocalyptic one. The picture’s screenplay was penned by David Seltzer, who later scripted The Omen (1976), so there’s more than a little bit of horror-movie mojo sprinkled into the Hellstrom Chronicle mix. Still, there’s no arguing with results, and The Hellstrom Chronicle is compelling and even periodically frightening. Even though the movie’s bullshit quotient probably exceeds in scope the number of verifiable facts that Pressman delivers with quiet menace, The Hellstrom Chronicle is mightily entertaining.

The Hellstrom Chronicle: GROOVY


Peter L. Winkler said...

"filmed with microscopic lenses"

That suggests that the lenses themselves are incredibly small. Actually, the camera lenses, which are the size as normal camera lenses, are referred to as macros, and are used for extreme close-ups.

By Peter Hanson said...

Of course you're correct (as usual). Thanks for catching. Fixed.

Allen Rubinstein said...

Would make an amazing double feature with Phase IV.