Friday, June 16, 2017

On Trees and Apes

From Hell It Came (1957)
In my pre-teen childhood I loved monster movies, as do most kids. Slasher films were not a thing back then and I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted to those, but I loved Wolfman, Dracula, Rodan, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and so on. I enjoyed the outpouring of low budget productions from studios in the 50s and early 60s, some of which I saw in the theater but most of which I watched on Saturday TV; they included such monsters as a giant spider, giant snails, a giant bird, a giant lobster (yes, really), giant octopus, disembodied brains, aliens of all kinds, and a 50 foot woman. One of the most ludicrous was a vengeful murdering tree. TCM, of all channels, played this on Wednesday. I hadn’t seen it in decades, and I couldn’t pass up the nostalgic silliness.

The wooden hearted fellow means to
toss her in the quicksand
The initial crawl sets up the plot: “Our story occurs on a savage island where a Prince is killed unjustly. The victim was buried upright in a hollow tree trunk. The legend says that ‘the tree walked to avenge its wrongs!’” The legend proves not to have been a one-off event. As is common in un-PC 1950s B-movies, the island witch doctor is a scheming murderer; he frames and executes Kimo, the island prince, for a crime. An American scientific research team on the South Sea island soon finds a tree growing in radioactive soil where the prince was planted. The tree has characteristics of both plant and animal; it even has a heartbeat. (It also has a knife sticking in it that was used to kill the prince.) The researchers dig up the tree and take it back to their lab. It seems to be dying but Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) insists on using her experimental formula for countering effects of radiation. She injects the tree and then they inexplicably all go to bed, figuring they’ll check on the tree in the morning. Of course the formula works during the night and the ligneous beastie lumbers off to avenge himself on the villagers.

This is a 1950s movie, so spoilers are hardly possible. You know pretty much the fate of the monster, but he doesn’t meet it until evildoers get their comeuppance. The whole thing is so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but enjoy it…but I don’t think I need to see it again.

** **
King Kong (1933)
After From Hell It Came I did feel the need to revisit the archetype of all monster movies. It wasn’t the first monster movie by any means. The 1925 The Lost World showed what was possible with stop action, but we first see the full panoply of what would become standard plot elements for the genre in King Kong. Besides, while I didn’t see Kong: Skull Island (2017) in the theater, it will be on DVD in month or two, so a revisit to the original was in order anyway as a proper precursor. As always, it was rewarding good fun even though there are ways in which the movie doesn’t rise above its time.

I don’t think the 1933 King Kong needs a plot description. Though I have met a surprisingly large number of Millennials and GenZs who haven’t seen it, I haven’t met one unfamiliar with the plot.

There is a hypothesis widely bandied about on the net that the theme of King Kong is racist. I don’t buy it. The movie is immensely racist beyond all possibility of argument, but not thematically. (The hypothesizers might be on firmer ground with the remakes.) The racism in the original King Kong is overt, unselfconscious, blatant, and simple-minded – not uncommon in a 1933 movie – which are the opposite of subtle, reflective, cryptic, and thoughtful. The minds of Cooper and Schoedsack were thinking more broadly when it came to the underlying theme.

A few words are in order about Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the creators and directors of King Kong. They were adventurers of a type uncommon in their own day and extraordinarily rare today. Cooper flew for the US Army Air Corps in World War 1 and then for the Poles against the Soviets. Shot down in 1920, he escaped from a Soviet POW camp. In the 1920s he met and struck up a lifelong friendship with Schoedsack. They traveled the world together on tramp steamer, acquired cameras and filmed remarkable documentaries from Iran to Thailand. Cooper is much like the Carl Denham character in King Kong and much of Driscoll’s awkward dialogue with Ann (Fay Wray) in the movie reportedly was lifted from Schoedsack’s own utterances. Moving on to Hollywood, they made three iconic films in succession, all of which shared sets: King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Fay Wray), and She. The inspiration for King Kong in particular was a World War 1 propaganda poster that was on Cooper’s office wall. Cooper and Schoedsack appear in the movie: they are the pilot and gunner who take out Kong at the end.

What is the theme? That transcending the inner beast is not about the superficial trappings of civilization. Kong, the villagers, and Americans all behave in fundamentally the same (violent) way and for the same reasons despite the surface differences in technology and civilization: at bottom they all act as beasts. When she hears about Kong, a woman in a New York scene even makes a remark about gorillas, “Gee, ain't we got enough of them in New York?” It is only in the pursuit of beauty that any of them transcend themselves. Beauty kills the beast. It’s why we feel bad for Kong, unlike, say, the critter in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms that would have chomped Ann without a thought. It’s why Kong is still the king, and why he keeps turning up in popular culture.

Messer Chups - Curse of Stephen Kong


  1. I thought the acting in From Hell It Came was pretty wooden. Actually I don't think I've seen that one, but couldn't avoid a pun. I was the same way--if there was a monster in it, I would want to watch it. I don't ever remember any set night for monster programming back then. I'd just happen to catch them by chance. I remember seeing one of the Quatermass movies that way--the ones with the large blobs in them. Of course it frighten me silly. I don't know why I thought blobs were so scary. I guess as they can engulf you. It's funny how radioactivity caused a lot of problems back then.

    King Kong disturbed me too, not that it stopped me from watching monster movies. I saw The Most Dangerous Game here recently and thought it was pretty good. A bit slow in the second act once the shipwrecked guy got onto the island, but the final showdown was great.

  2. There were quite a few blobs back then for some reason including "Caltiki, the Immorta Monster," and, of course, "The Blob." Yes, whenever radioactivity wasn't making something grow ("Them," "The Amazing Colossal Man," "The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock") it was making them shrink ("The Incredible Shrinking Man"). If I'm going to get a high dose of radiation I at least want superpowers out of it.

    "The Most Dangerous Game" is fun and has influenced the hunt-people-for-sport genre ever since. It has been copied and parodied many times including even an episode of "The Simpsons." The "Get Smart" parody of the movie (the "Island of the Darned" episode) has a great closing line. After defeating their hunter, Agent 99 opines, "Sometimes I wonder if we're any better, Max." Max answers, "What are you talking about, 99? We have to shoot and kill and destroy. We represent everything that's wholesome and good in the world."

  3. I've never heard of "From Hell It Came" but it sounds like a fun one. That is one monster trope I've never seen in film before... oh wait there was the evil tree in the 80s film, "The Guardian". I think that had something to do with druids, if memory serves.

    "King Kong" also give us one of the first and best adventure movie templates. Its got all the tropes right there, but it does them so well they are still entertaining. I think you are spot on with the racism in the original film. There is very little subtle about Kong, and the theme of the film is not a dig at racism.

    1. You’d think someone on that whole island would have a chain saw. Filmmakers were stretching to come up with new monsters in the 50s. Some were stranger than a walking tree, such as “The Monolith Monsters” which are big crystalline rocks that grow up out of the ground, topple, crush anything beneath them, and then grow up again. Yeah, rocks.

      King Kong remains an astonishing film. I’m glad a couple of clips censored in US rereleases were restored in the 1970s – they were still on French copies. They didn’t deserve excising even in Hayes Code terms and they reveal more of Kong’s character: in one he toys with Ann a little and in the other he stomps on one villager and chomps another.

      The Russian band Messer Chups, btw, does a lot of homage vids of campy American horror movies. Mostly they reference the 1930s-60s though the one above also nods to Twin Peaks.