MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1958)
Directed by Kenneth Crane
Jim Davis - Dr. Quent Brady
Robert Griffin – Dan Morgan
Joel Fluellen – Arobi
Barbara Turner – Lorna Lorentz
CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Directed by Orson Welles
Orson Welles – Charles Foster Kane
Joseph Cotton – Jedediah Leland
Dorothy Comingore – Susan Alexander Kane
Ray Collins – James Gettys
Agnes Moorehead – Mary Kane
Let’s be clear from the outset: Monster From Green Hell is not an undiscovered gem. It is not one of those films that have resurfaced because of the advocacy of an insightful and dedicated fan base; nor is it even a film that has earned a stubborn and dedicated following for its charming faults or unintentional humor. It is highly unlikely that even the unpredictable French Intellectuals will ever sing its praises (although considering their love for Jerry Lewis, one can’t say for certain what the future holds).
No, Monster From Green Hell is just a bad film that no one cares about and few have seen.
It is, in short, a profound and utter failure; so much so that in its complete lack of value it becomes something pure as crystal. Monster is that rare, amazing anti-triumph that fails to fire on every single cinematic cylinder. This is no small accomplishment and is actually as scarce as a particular alignment of the planets. Here nothing – absolutely nothing – works to the film’s benefit; and because of this it becomes, certainly in spite of itself, a rare specimen and worthy of a close look.
In thinking about Monster, I naturally thought of Orson Welles’, Citizen Kane. To say the least, the jury is in on Kane: It is a gold-standard classic. In Kane, every moment of screen time works for the film, controls the viewer in some subtle or bombastic way; grabs its viewer by the ear and walks him on tiptoes toward the films’ conclusion. For the purposes of this post I even watched Kane again and, as always, was beaten into submission.
It is a complete and relentless success; and as such becomes the twin of Monster in the anti-matter universe. Everything fails in Monster. Everything succeeds in Kane. As love and hate are forever twinned – good and evil duel faces on the same coin - so are Monster and Kane. One can imagine a personified Monster standing at the threshold, the border, of the anti-matter universe, crackling for a moment in phosphorus/electric discharge, then blinking back to life on the other side as Kane (imagine further this new creation grinning, looking down over its perfect, flawless body – now full of the power to force an audience into adoration).
Before we consider the Monster/Kane blood bond, lets consider, in whatever detail is available, Monster:
Monster begins with a shot of a laboratory complex nestled in the hills of some western location. The shot is obviously a stock shot or matte, appropriately enough, of a much older and no doubt better film. We hear a gruff male voice read this voiceover:
“This is the age of the rocket – the jet – atomic power. When man prepares to reach for the stars. But before he dares to launch himself into space, there’s one great question to be answered: What happens to life in the airless void above Earth’s atmosphere? Will life remain untouched – unharmed – by flight through space, or will it change into . . . what? There’s only one way to find out.”
Speaking is Dr. Quent Brady (played with a dry-gulch Missouri twang by Jim Davis) who, along with assistant Dr. Dan Morgan (Robert Griffin) and a team of scientist, are shooting animals into space as test cases. It is a rather lackluster list of specimens chosen: a monkey, crabs, spiders, wasps, and a guinea pig; and each classification gets its own rocket (clearly NASA, in this age of the rocket and the jet, didn’t have the budgetary concerns it does now). It is the rocket carrying the wasps’ nest that will present a problem, as will the radiated wasps it brings back home from the airless void (though, I think a more interesting choice would have been an irradiated guinea pig, squeaking and running wild with surfboard sized front choppers).
“If the computer is correct,” he says, “here. Just off the coast of Africa.”
This leads us to a jump forward in time of six months and stock footage of African natives dancing and milling about to drumbeat in the Congo. Once grainy, stock footage has set the scene, we find Dr. Lorentz (Vladimir Sokoloff), his daughter, Lorna (Barbara Turner), and African native assistant, Arobi (Joel Fluellen) doing missionary work among the tribes. Lately, faithful guide Arobi has been bringing the doctor natives badly mutilated and stuffed with gallons of insect venom. The natives speak of these victims as having ventured into a cursed part of the jungle, the “Green Hell” where legendary monsters dwell. The natives, and guide Arobi, are too frightened by the legendary creatures of Green Hell to speak about it. The doctor, naturally, curses them all as ignorant savages. To contrast the enlightened doctor’s words, however, we are treated in the next shot to a piece of stock footage (natives fleeing by the hundreds across a great plain) as a giant insect with ant mandibles is poorly superimposed over it, rising over a hill and making a sound like a dentists drill.
Back at the lab, we find Dr. Brady gazing at a newspaper article entitled “Central Africa in Turmoil.” Say, do you figure there’s a connection to that rocket of wasps we lost six months ago? asks the somewhat dim and subservient Dr. Morgan. What do you think numbnuts? retorts Dr. Brady (okay, he doesn’t really say that, but you can tell that’s what he’s thinking). Dr. Brady takes his second banana assistant to the laboratory to help convince him of the possible horrors of cosmic radiation. It is fortunate that Dr. Morgan is so eager to please, as the catalog of Irradiated mutation presented by Dr. Brady is thumpingly unimpressive.
Brady shows Morgan three cages, set conveniently side by side on a table, all holding test specimens sent up in rockets. The first cage holds a pair of white-haired guinea pigs. “Their hair was brown when they were sent up,” says Brady in a leaden voice as though describing the red machinations of Satan’s workshop. In the next cage we see two obviously stuffed baby alligators, stiff as boards. “These two returned yesterday,” intones Brady. “They’ve been in a trance ever since.” Finally in cage number three we have a pair of spider crabs, one larger than the other. Brady explains that the small one is the mother, the big one the baby. Before laying eggs, mother spider crab was exposed to radiation!
Well, in the light of such overwhelming and horrid scientific evidence, Dr. Morgan is convinced, and how! The two doctors decide, as responsible scientists, they have to go to central Africa. After all, there may be a dozen or so white-haired guinea pigs running rampant over the veldt. It is arranged that the impromptu safari will rendezvous with Dr. Lorentz, whose medical camp in Central Africa is located near the reported trouble.
And it is at this point that the movie quickly veers off and is lost. What is left is barely a monster sci-fi movie at all. It becomes instead a badly edited, extremely dull jungle picture, completely dominated by tons and tons of stock footage from the 1939 film Stanley and Livingston, starring a young Spencer Tracy. When I say that extensive footage from the 1939 film was used, I’m not whistling Dixie; and this factor completely dooms the production. The problem is that the stock footage used was from a period piece, depicting a 19th century event. Thus, so that scenes would blend nicely, all actors in our atomic age film were fitted by wardrobe with antiquated dress and had to equip themselves with antique weaponry. In addition, our malarias safari could not take advantage of air transportation, which by 1959 could have airlifted the entire operation into the African interior in a few hours time. In short, we have a film built around stock footage. Edward Wood is often accused of this practice, but it was never true. His use of stock footage was always, at the least, inventive; and he loved playing with a camera far too much to build an entire film on stock.
The trek to the interior takes 27 days, but it feels much longer onscreen. We are treated to torturously long sequences of our explorers, dressed in ridiculously dated pith helmets and white, British jungle garb (the natives, of course, are in loincloths, toting spears, and carry baskets on their heads) snaking in caravan line through cramped sets interspersed with grainy long-shot footage of Stanley and Livingston. I even dozed off once, and upon sputtering awake found Dr. Brady and company still slogging over unremarkable terrain. Feeling duty bound, I even went back a scene or two to make sure I hadn’t missed something noteworthy. I needn’t have bothered: More trails, more drums. When finally reaching the interior and Dr. Lorentz Camp, we find that Dr. has been killed by one of the mutated wasps. The Doctor’s surviving daughter (Barbara Turner), will do her best to supply the obligatory 1950s eye candy and possible romance with male lead, but simply isn’t up to the mark in either capacity.
When the monsters do appear, which is seldom, they are a disgrace, pure and simple. These irradiated wasps, which are nimble and sleek in nature without exposure to space cosmic radiation, are here boxy, artless blocks; terribly immobile and resembling (sort of) large ant/flies. They are so graceless and stiff, the film-makers largely have them simply poking their bulkish heads up from the grass or around trees, where victims more or less fall into their barely moving mandibles - which sometimes resemble lobster claws and at other times long spear shaped stingers (these wasps sting with their mandibles).
Finally, mercifully, the film ends with actual footage shot in California’s own Bronson Canyon, where the immortal canyon (a book will one day be written cataloging all the great sci-fi b films that were shot at this legendary local) is shot to look somewhat like a volcano in eruption. The large fleets of wasps, of which we never see more than two at a time, meet their end by this extremely convenient volcanic activity. Our survivors watch the event by peeping over the edge of a cliff like kids watching a ball game from the bleachers. The (Thanks be to Jesus) End.
It is at this point in a post where I normally get to the Good Stuff – describing the elements about a film I love or consider worthy of attention and praise. There won’t be any of that here. As previously stated, this film is an absolutely perfect failure with nothing to recommend it, and as such holds a bizarre fascination for the true B movie aficionado. For those of this persuasion, it’s like finding an albino vulture hopping around a carcass; vaguely wrong and ungainly, certainly, but so rare one cannot look away. So, what we will do instead is to contrast elements of Monster with similar elements in its Bizarro universe brother, Kane; and by shinning a spotlight on this Ying and Yang, gain insight into Monster’s unique and uniform lack of worth. Let’s call this section:
Kane and Monster – The Matter/Anti-Matter Twins.
Let me begin by saying that it is my fervent hope that somewhere, somehow, there exists a person that both cares for film and does not know about Welles’ 1941 film. I simply have to believe that such a thing is possible, and I hold fast to this dream. If you are this person – God bless you. Really, God bless you. This brief synopsis is for your benefit.
Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, who by a combination of luck and brash attitude grows from a child of poor parents to a mega-rich media mogul, controlling the opinions of the country. It is a very American rags-to-riches story; a Dickensian story where the little waif, instead of becoming safe and beloved, becomes the richest and saddest man in the world. It is considered a biopic as well, as many of the events of Kane’s life mimic exactly the rough and tumble passage of William Randolph Hearst, publishing magnate and also at one time one of the saddest and richest men on the Earth. Kane is about how power corrupts, or maybe how much a boy needs a mother’s love; or perhaps it is about America and the vast moral vacuum created by capitalism? All and more, I’m sure.
Where Monster utterly fails on every count, Kane succeeds. Where Kane shines brightest, Monster develops its most inky shadow. In ever respect – matter/anti-matter! There is no element of one that is not polarized in the other. It is useful to look at them together in their contrasts.
Please keep in mind; we are not comparing the two films, which would be an act of blissful stupidity. Kane, after all, cost a mega fortune and went way, way over budget into the bargain; so much over budget, if fact, Kane nearly destroyed its parent studio (RKO) when it completely belly-flopped at the box-office. Monster, on the other hand, had a budget one could carry in a hip pocket, was delivered neatly on time, and made it’s investors a tidy profit as it did brisk business at the drive-ins. No, we will simply be contrasting elements of these star-crossed films, exploring the polar qualities that keep them both spinning around one-another like positive and negative ions.
These contrasting elements are:
Matter/Anti-Matter Element No. 1: Casting
In all of the glorious history of low budget film-making, no film has ever boasted the kind of willful miscasting that exists in Monster. Our lead scientist, Jim Davis, was a rawboned actor from Missouri who never even tried to loose his hard, rural accent. He was a solid presence in many westerns, and his big, gruff manner was a natural fit for the genre. Not so natural was his casting here, where he never can quite manage to convey “rocket scientist.” In short, I cannot imagine an actor less comfortable around test tubes, nuclear theorem, and genetic theory of radiation mutation. I think my favorite moment comes when Dr. Brady decides he must go to “Warshington,” to explain his irradiated wasp theory. Mr. Davis, who finally found his niche on the long running TV-hit Dallas, seems terribly embarrassed and often bored here; and in several scenes gives his lines such a brusque, flat going over it’s obvious he’s rushing to get it over with. At least Davis’s large-boned scientist might have seemed at home on the safari trail, but being forced to dress in silly 19th century garb ruins this opportunity. It is not possible to see poor Mr. Davis, posing in white-scarved pith helmet and ankle high boots, and not snort a laugh.
Actor Joel Fluellen as Arobi, the loyal, African guide and servant of Dr. Lorentz, is treated very poorly as well by casting. Fluellen was the most accomplished and hard working actor in the cast, having a long and busy career on television. He tries hard here but cannot escape looking ridiculous, reading his stunted lines of African native English (Animals flee monster in Green Hell. This I have seen!) in his distinctly American voice with a faint Louisiana tinge.
The remainder of the cast was all similarly abused by their agents and the film –makers: Barbara Turner is cast as Lorna Lorentz, the headstrong, beautiful daughter of an African missionary. The casting agent, if there was one, seemed not to notice that Ms. Turner was a dour actress that, while not unattractive, was simply plain and projected a fragile, quiet darkness - a woman perhaps crushed by hard times or bad luck. That is to say, Ms. Turner fails to communicate the impassioned fire of a missionary’s daughter and then some. Naturally, she is given absolutely no help here either by make-up or wardrobe. Ms. Turner is given a short bowl haircut, just to insure a complete absence of feminine softness, and her clothes always look about two sizes too big. A brief romance is hinted between Dr. Brady and Lorna, but no one concerned – writers, actors, and director – has any energy for it.
Vladimir Sokoloff and Eduardo Ciannelli where actors often called into service when an ethnic type, any ethnic type, was required. Ciannelli, with his dark eyes and grim mouth, was often cast as a foreign agent of evil; and in his time played everything from Hindu mystics to Mafia bosses. He was a powerfully intense actor, most notable as the turbaned villain to Cary Grant’s hero in Gunga Din. Here he is completely wasted as a tight-lipped Arab guide, his black glower completely unappreciated and unexplained. He might have had a line or two, and the actor seems often winded and off-balance, blundering along the endless trails (perhaps Mr. Ciannelli’s stoic glare isn’t so unexplainable after all).
Vladimir Sokoloff is cast as the Albert Schweitzer-esque, Dr. Lorentz. Sokoloff, a Russian by birth, played in his time virtually every nationality under the sun – Chinese, German, Italian, Mexican, Indian; you name it. He often played the noble, gentle peasant/sage; as in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), where he played the sweet rebel, Anselmo. Mr. Sokoloff would really strike gold, however, when cast in The Magnificent Seven (1960), cast wonderfully as the wise peasant spokesman and town elder. In Monster, however, he is perfectly and completely miscast as a modern man of science, berating the ignorant natives for their primitive superstitions. Mr. Sokoloff was well off his game in monster. His talents burned most bright when cast as an “ignorant peasant,” dressed in sun-bleached cotton, smiling gently with the innate wisdom of the peón.
So in ever case, Monster terribly and irrevocably miscasts its actors, strangles and destroys what natural gifts the actors have, and inevitably blunts their beauty and crushes their spirits. Let’s move on to Kane.
Citizen Kane has members of the Mercury Theatre troupe as its stars. These were the hand-picked cream of America’s acting talent, and part of a troupe of actors formed by Welles and fellow wunderkind, John Houseman. These were not only a collection of the finest actors in the world, they were all also something more – brilliant and slightly exotic, certainly, or maybe the coolest kids in the world; collecting together like the mutants in the X-men, unable to feel comfortable with the normals and drawn to their own. If so, Welles was certainly their Professor Xavier; proud of them, loving them, using their super powers for good.
And, yes, he cast his collection of super-freaks perfectly; from Agnes Moorhead as the stoic, magical Mother Kane to George Coulouris as the bleak capitalist, Mr. Thatcher. The credits read like a shimmering double helix of DNA perfect casting: Joseph Cotton as the warm, cynical best friend, Jedediah Leland; Susan Comingore as the simple, tortured and very blonde Susan Kane; Ray Collins as the professional politician, James W. Gettys - in every case it seems the actors had been born and bred on some remote farm for their roles. Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloane: Perfect in every case. You get the picture. Hell, even Alan Ladd, a non-Mercury interloper, is perfectly selected as one of the baritone-voiced newsmen in the shadows, seeking the answer to Rosebud, his pretty head looking nicely symmetrical with stylish hat.
Matter/Anti-Matter Element No. 2: Screenplay:
Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz wrote many great screenplays (Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful life), but Kane is by far his best. The pairing with Welles certainly brought out the best in a very good script writer. Here’s an example from a scene often referred to as “Bernstein’s memory”:
Mr. Bernstein: (referring to a question about the meaning of Kane’s last word – Rosebud) Maybe some girl? There were a lot of them in the early days.
Reporter: It’s hardly likely, Mr. Bernstein, that Mr. Kane could have met some girl casually and then, fifty years later, on his deathbed suddenly remember----
Mr. Bernstein: (Speaking over the reporter) Well, you’re pretty young, Mr. Thompson. A fella might remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day back in 1896 I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry; and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress, she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.
This is one sampling, but the entire script, from the opening credits to the final shot of Rosebud, every line seems chiseled into its proper place, yet always brimming with inspiration as though it were imagined on the fly.
The screenplay for Monster From Green Hell was also written by a team: Endre Bohem and Lois Vittes. Endre was once an assistant to Harry Cohen. He wrote most often for television and was story consultant for two excellent television westerns, Gunsmoke and Rawhide. Lois Vittes wrote for television as well, but is best remembered for writing a very good script for the underappreciated I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Although both were capable of better, the script for Monster is a slight, weightless thing, never achieving any sense of poetry (snort) or even moderate drama. It is completely and uniformly flat and dead.
This sample is from the picture’s grande finale, so emotions are at their summit. The giant wasps have all just been incinerated by molten lava, and our survivors are looking down into the simmering, liquid pit of death:
Dr. Brady: Well . . . it took a volcano to do what we failed to do.
Dr. Morgan: Sometimes nature has a way of correcting its own mistakes.
Lorna Lorentz: My father must be pleased.
Arobi: The death of the creatures will bring about the deliverance of my people. The gods have been kind. They have taught us, as Dr. Lorentz taught us, to have faith. (Arobi casts his eyes skyward.) (Screen fades to black.)
As I say, emotions are running (yawn) very high. At the scene’s end, actress Barbara Turner stares flatly right into the camera, obviously done.
Matter/Anti-Matter Element No. 3: Cinematography
This won’t take but a minute.
The cinematographer for Monster From Green Hell was Ray Flin. Mr. Flin worked sporadically in television until the 70s. Considering that at least a quarter of Monster is comprised of stock footage, little is asked of Mr. Flin in this, his single movie credit. Little was asked, less was given. There is nothing but medium shots throughout, and very, very few close-ups. I don’t recall any dolly shots, either. Flin’s camera is completely static, his shot composition as exciting as a photograph of the track team for the yearbook. The camera is simply positioned to include the speaking characters and turned on. When the scene is over, the camera is turned off.
Gregg Toland was the cinematographer for Kane. Toland shot Grapes of Wrath (1940), Little Foxes (1941), and he surrounded Olivier in all those beautifully dark clouds in Wuthering Heights (1939). He also shot a ton more classic films. Of course Welles demanded him and used him. He was the best in the world, and Welles had studio money burning a hole in his pocket.
What's that? Yes, Yes, Goddammit, I was coming to that: (ahem) In Citizen Kane, Toland used the “deep focus” shot, with a remarkable depth of field, to tremendous effect. Happy now? Toland's greatest moments in Kane come when filming the enteriors of the mamoth, soulless mansion, Xanadu, that Kane has built high atop a bleak and sunless hill.
Hopefully we have demonstrated why these films should always be shown on a double bill. Together, they would represent the perfect movie going experience – the absence of light in one making the other shine the brighter, the challenging depth of one allowing us to appreciate the complete worthless superficiality of the other. As we wrap this up, it may seem that I hate Monster From Green Hell and love Citizen Kane, but this isn’t so. I actually feel nothing powerful for either film.
Both films represent a kind of perfection, and we humans love the imperfections in one another – and in other things as well. Mona Lisa and her odd smile, Robert Mitchum and his odd, crooked face. Marilyn Monroe and her fragile desperation. Both these films, because of their respective, uniform perfection, are completely unlovable.
Kane is a film only a film maker could love. I don’t love Kane because Kane doesn’t love me. It is simply a bright, shiny machine built by a brilliant boy, playing with all of daddy’s (RKO Studios) expensive tools. Loving Kane would be like loving the cheerleader with the perfect skin and breasts, or the school’s star quarterback who also gets good grades without trying. In other words, to love Citizen Kane is to love one of life’s winners; to feel your love turn small and unnecessary. Everything is too easy for Kane. He can’t have my love along with all his easy triumphs.
Monster? Much the same for the Monster From Green Hell.
Monster pretends he loves you just so he can pick your pocket for the price of a ticket. The film makers spent their real energy on the trailers, putting absolutely nothing of themselves in the actual film. It is just a cheap, carelessly made contraption to extort money. At least the trappings of Kane are beautiful to look at; with Monster, only something sordid and a bit greasy is ever revealed. Loving Monster would be like loving the carnival barker with the sweaty face and soiled jeans. He promises exotic thrills but delivers only women with slight mustaches and two headed chicken embryos in alcohol.
What I mean is, like the Bizarro twins that they are, I think of both these films in the same way.
Should you see these films? Hell yes. I demand, however, that you see them as a double feature. Snuggle up with someone you love or at least lust for, a bowl of popcorn between you, and watch these anti-matter twins perfectly compliment one another. If there is no significant squeeze at the moment, that's alright. Don't forget the popcorn, though.