Cult Cinema: The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) - Reviewed

Documentary filmmakers Walon Green and Ed Spiegel’s Academy Award winning 1971 “documentary” The Hellstrom Chronicle represents a curious form of documentary film-as-fiction or satire not unlike Bowling for Columbine while not being nearly as crazy as Room 237 but pretty close.  On the one hand you’re drawn in to a miniature world of insects as your eyes have never seen it before.  On the other hand you’re stuck with a goofy crackpot ‘explaining’ it to you. 

Serving as the conceptual as well as technical blueprint for Saul Bass’ science-fiction masterpiece Phase IV, The Hellstrom Chronicle posits a fictional quack professor Dr. Nils Hellstrom (Lawrence Pressman) warning knowingly of an impending takeover of all forms of life by insects.  Spun in the editing room to resemble a science fiction horror film, what makes The Hellstrom Chronicle so difficult to dismiss is it’s still-striking macro-photography of insect and botanical life. 

From beginning to end, set to an entrancing experimental score by legendary composer Lalo Schifrin akin to his ethereal soundtrack for THX:1138, we are entranced by the footage painstakingly lensed by four cinematographers including co-director Green himself and Phase IV cinematographer Ken Middleham.  Coupled with the use of stop-motion photography and high-speed photography, the resulting footage is nothing short of breathtaking. 

While audiences now are accustomed to technological breakthroughs such as Planet Earth, back in 1971 footage of this sort hadn’t been seen since the early nature documentaries of Jean PainlevĂ© and still manages to captivate the eyes.  Sonically, coupled with Schifrin’s score is the use of the waterphone in the film, creating otherworldly sounds never heard in a film before which are as disturbingly alien to hear now as they were then.

The footage is so good it demands a film that takes it seriously.  Instead, however, we’re treated with a satirical post-apocalyptic doomsday foreshadowing if our ways of life are undone, whatever they are.  Our actor “scientist” in good faith aims for a kind of H.G. Wells or Isaac Asimov science-fiction prophet caricature but winds up instead with a paranoid fear-mongering wacko as our invertebrate tour guide, making the voiceovers sillier than chilling.  You almost want to close your ears at times when this guy starts lecturing us about the futility of trying in the face of an impending bug invasion.  

Let it be said this was written by David Seltzer who wrote the screenplays for The Omen series as well as contributing numerous uncredited rewrites of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  You can almost feel horror threads permeating this documentary in a way that feels like a narrative feature rather than a slice of nonfiction.  That a frequent horror-thriller screenwriter would be chief writer of The Hellstrom Chronicle should confirm for many the work in question is indeed one of fiction.  

That said, there are scenes in The Hellstrom Chronicle, particularly involving snakes and lizards being devoured alive by ant hordes, which are indeed hard to look at and merit the foreboding Rod Serling inspired host.  Scenes like it, however, also dare to tip the proceedings from classy nature show to Prosperi/Jacopetti Mondo Cane.  Nature can be brutal and unforgiving but I also wondered if these intended shocker moments could have been avoided or left on the cutting room floor.

As aforementioned, The Hellstrom Chronicle wound up winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film in 1971 despite being shrouded in controversy for mixing fact with fiction and even went on to become a commercial hit.  In a move sure to have terrorized unsuspecting children, producer David L. Wolper attached this as a double-bill with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on it’s original theatrical run.  Try to imagine the horrors unleashed in the tunnel sequence of Willy Wonka coupled with the finale of this on minors and you’ve got a decade’s worth of nightmare fuel wrapped into one double-bill.

On a more inspiring note, the film also went on to inspire Dune author Frank Herbert to pen the insect-oriented science-fiction novel Hellstrom’s Hive.  For a film whose point of view and narrator take on the laughable tone of Nostradamus for invertebrates, The Hellstrom Chronicle still somehow managed to leave an indelible mark in pop cultural media from what it influenced to the bar it set for nature photography to strive for.  Not to be dismissed but not to be taken completely seriously either.

--Andrew Kotwicki