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From Hell it came…and Hell is apparently somewhere in Hawaii.
Now, in the past, there’s been a rather strange response to articles where I apply modern sensibilities to films and cultural outcroppings of the past. Most notably, when I reviewed a few cartoons made during the second World War and a people started emailing angrily saying such thing as (I paraphrase) “We were at WAR, so that makes it alright that our cartoon characters were racists that used ethnic slurs!” I seriously can’t wrap my head around why people would want to defend racism…there had to be a REASON the civil rights movement happened. Anyway, I already know that this article’s going to be in a similar vein. From Hell It Came takes place in some mysterious Pacific island. While they don’t say that it’s Hawaii and I can’t confirm this, the film WAS TOTALLY MADE IN HAWAII. You might not realize how screwed up this is just yet, but that’s what articles are for, right? Hold on to your hats for a slightly spooky look at a killer tree monster movie with far too many underlying issues buried within it.
Now, let’s give a little trivia here before I talk about the man in the rubber tree costume. I slept through history class myself, so feel free to just skip down until you see the pretty pictures. I know I would. Hawaii wasn’t officially made a state until 1959…remember that, it’ll be important later. One of the major things in Hawaiian history is the U.S. government’s involvement in the overthrow of Hawaii’s last monarch (Queen Liliʻuokalani) in 1893. The president (Grover Cleveland) deemed this to have been illegal (which was rather swell of him) and offered to give her the throne back if she pretty much forgave everyone that that had screwed her over. So some kid on the playground beats the crap out of you, realizes he's done a bad thing, and agrees that he'll let you out of his closet if you promise not to tell anyone. Hawaii's Queen reacted as most of us would have in a parallel situation and declared that those who had broken the law to overthrow her would be put to death. Well, maybe she didn't respond as most of us would have, but you get what I'm saying. That wasn't that cool to any Americans involved, as you can imagine. As such we get a provisional government followed by an annexed territory with a republic…pretty much a military occupation of Hawaii. Throw in the fact that early American missionaries deemed local practices (like the hula) to be “heathen,” and you get a weird history of foreign invasion and desecration of Hawaii if you look at it in a certain way. I’m not saying this is what I think, but people in Hawaii today are still trying to return the land to its original people. Not all of them, but the diehards are out there...they even had a revival in the 1970's.. So, history lesson aside, why am I talking about this?
From Hell It Came seems to have been filmed in Hawaii two years before it became a member of the United States. A certain filmmaker decided to utilize the local population by pretty much calling them ignorant monkeys whenever he got the chance. First off, let’s just confirm something:
Hmm. That could be Hawaii. I mean, it LOOKS like Hawaii…but I can’t be sure. Do you have any other evidence?
I think the fact that the heathen voodoo dancers of the film are simply doing the Hula at a luau while wearing leis is a good clue. In fact, almost every “pagan ignorant savage” in this film is wearing a floral garland commonly known as lei, in case you didn’t know what I was talking about. Now, I’m not calling the Hawaiian people ignorant or savage. I’m just repeating what this movie has to say about the "mysterious islanders" featured in it. Sure, they don’t SAY the word Hawaiian, but if you watch this thing, it becomes pretty obvious who these people are supposed to be. As if Hawaiians didn’t have enough to be pissed off about, here comes something FROM HELL. We’ll get to the monster (which is both awesome and full of suck) in a moment, but I really need to expound on the loathsomeness found here.
The hero of this film couldn't be more smug if he tried. The good Doctor Arnold has come to the island to study the effects of radioactive fallout on the native population (something to do with crosswinds in the Pacific and the bombing of Japan, the less said about that the better). He's basically the great White Hope, here to save the ignorant native culture from it's stupid backwoods practices. In the end, the Hawaiian people accept the Great White Man's help and ask him to be their witch doctor. This is, of course, after they sacrifice one of their own and perform their pagan rituals to no avail (translation: They do a hula dance). I guess this movie puts Hawaiians in their place (for 1957, I guess), just as early movie-makers decided to cast almost all Native Americans as psychotic warriors that would rape their women before scalping them. Early films weren't exactly known for their political correctness, and some genres, notably the whole Cowboy/Western thing, show it more than others. Horror only really persecutes Sluts, Witches, and people from Haiti (voodoo, remember?), so when I saw this, it kind of threw me off. By the way, the good doctor isn't just insulting when it comes to local demographics. When the female lead won't respond to his romantic advances, he becomes angry and confides to his friend, "Sometimes, I could just kick her pretty teeth in." Nothing makes me relate to a character quite like a sense of racial superiority and a taste for domestic violence.
There's also a British character, who all the Americans point out is evil by calling her a "Capitalist." So we have Americans...using the term Capitalist as an insult....while in the U.S. territory (not state) of Hawaii. If you think about how messed up that is, your brain aneurysm is indeed on its way. Let's move on, if only a little.
By the by, this film is freaking hilarious once you get over what I've been pointing out here. From Hell It Came obviously cost about five dollars to make, and the sheer fact that everyone totally buys into the Great White Man thing is really, really funny by today's standards. The other thing that's important to note is that when this was made, it was sort of assumed you wouldn't figure out that all the natives are supposedly Hawaiian. Sort of how the film The Exorcist takes place (initially) in Iraq, but they don't advertise that fact because some people would reach weirdly to it. Or something like that. Maybe.
This is Orchid, the local servant girl with the shiniest teeth on the planet, who one day "hopes to be paid." That's a quote by the way. Man, I don't know how long I'd stay with a job if them paying me was optional. What offsets the screwed up thing there is the strange lesbian hotness that goes on between her and the female lead. Well, that's probably just something I like to imagine, but when the desperate-for-money local girl who doesn't speak English so good helps the rich lonely white woman shower and dry her naked body, you really get the idea that someone botched a perfectly good porno plot.
Well, it's about time for the monster. But we can't have a monster without a juicy creation story, can we?
Say hello to poor, poor Kimo. Kimo was the old prince until he was betrayed by the tribe's witch doctor, who poisoned the king and blamed the murder on Kimo and his "evil medicine that came from the White Man." The locals hate the intellectually superior Americans, and they're going to pay for it by the end of this film. The moral might be "trust the White Man," but I think we all know better, if history tells us anything. :cough diseased blankets cough cough: I digress. They kill Kimo by tying him to the ground and attaching chickens to him for some reason. They follow this by doing another Hula dance and pretty much stabbing him with the help of a voodoo doll...finally burying him. Don't ask, I'm only repeating what traditional Hawaiian punishment entails. The Americans find the body...or at least where the body was buried. In fact, Kimo has turned into a creature of unholy vengeance and is slowly growing back out of the ground as a horrible monstrous....tree stump.
I think what amuses me most here is just the fact that none of the cast seem to notice the tree has a freaking FACE on it. :sigh:
Every monster needs a believable story of origin. The beginning of the movie featured a small story about the Tabanga, a horrible tree monster that comes to life to avenge a horrible crime. So, magic must be the reason we've got a killer tree monster, right? Apparently, the director didn't think that was believable enough, so he made the ground radioactive. Radiation causes all sorts of freaky monsters, right? Apparently, magic AND radiation wasn't enough, as the American scientists inject the wooden stump beast with an experimental formula that is...experimental. So yes, the Tabanga comes to life, thanks to a combination of local folklore/magic, radiation, and White Man Science. I think the only thing they forgot was letting him get bitten by a radioactive spider. Now that all the bases are covered, it's time to unveil the monster that I've been building up all this time. Will an evil tree monster live up to the hype?
The answer: No. Not at ALL. The Tabanga is a big lumpy tree-man with a dagger sticking out of his chest (this was how Kimo died and is important to the "killing the monster" plot later), who pretty much waddles around at a speed only slightly slower than a two-legged puppy. Luckily, the Tabanga is intelligent enough to only choose the most distracted of victims...sleeping women and blind bong-smokers, for instance. Sure, he'd never be able to run you down, but if you ever stopped for a nap...he'd have your ass in about an hour.
To be honest, the Tabanga would make a great action figure. Of course by "great" I mean retardedly easy and practical. You see, the Tabanga's got hot "ARM-LIFTING ACTION!!!" which pretty much explains his M.O. when it comes to killing his victims. The Tabanga is the spirit of (radioactive) revenge who can only pick people up and drop them into or off things. Considering how slowly he walks, his victims either go to sleep or get very, very bored, as he slowly trudges toward the nearest cliff or patch of quicksand. It's all kind of tedious, until the cast starts trying to figure out ways to kill the beast.
The villagers (or ignorant savages, according to our film's hero) have the right idea: Let's set it on Fire! Not a terrible plan really. I mean, the monster is made of wood...an alternative might be just throwing termites or dutch elm disease at it, but fire's definitely a good route to killing the beast and ending the film. The native Hawaiians dig a pit trap and lure the beast into it. Now that they've got the Tabanga trapped in a hole in the ground, they throw in a few torches, setting the beast ablaze. So what could go wrong? I'll tell you what. They leave. It's the classic horror movie move, where you assume that the monster is dead just because you executed your plan. There's no reason to CHECK if the killer is actually dead or anything. Sure enough, all the villagers have a luau to get to, so they skedaddle as soon as the torches are thrown. Of course, the Tabanga rises out of the hole, scorched and smoldering, severely pissed off.
The great White Men end up saving the day. Now, you might remember I mentioned the monster has a big freaking knife sticking out of its chest. The key to killing the beast is...pushing the dagger in. The Tabanga grabs the hero's girl (you know, the one with the kickable teeth) and starts carrying her towards quicksand. Instead of just running up to the slow-moving Tabanga and twisting that little knife "off switch" he's got there, they decide to start shooting at it. This is screwy for many reasons...for one, the monster's still carrying the girl and they're actually trying to shoot the HANDLE of the knife so that it sticks in deeper. But, as expected, the film's theme of "The White Man is Always Right" comes through, and the hero and his guns save the day. The Tabanga sinks into the quicksand, funnily enough, after killing most of the people that it was supposed to. So the Tabanga succeeded in his goal, the White Man gets the girl who's required to put out now that he's saved her, and the ignorant heathen locals want the White Man to be their new witch doctor.
There are very few films that contain a terrifically goofy monster as well as an almost endless fountain of White Man smugness. Whether or not you're supposed to figure out that this movie was filmed in Hawaii using Hawaiian customs, this film brings me a lot of joy. There's nothing better than white people making up scientific stuff while a big rubber tree slaughters the native population around them. Naturally, there are other films that follow this formula. I've just never seen one so overt...or so confident that no one would ever recognize something from Hawaii. Bah. I'm over it. From Hell It Came succeeds in being a weird film that kept me laughing for all the wrong reasons. Of course, in fifty years all our films will be considered horrifically discriminating because we don't have homosexuality represented in them, or something silly. How could the world of 1957 have known that racism would have become less popular and respect for native cultures would have caught on? Admittedly, it took long enough, but whatever.
Thanks for humoring me and remember: Please don't take anything too seriously. You know, like Hawaii's rich culture tradition or a terrible film made in the 1950's about a killer log monster.
Copyright 2006, jared von hindman, except for images that are used via Fair Use review purposes. Also, if you're from Hawaii....I'm sorry for over-simplifying your history and taking the dramatic side. An unbiased article just isn't that damn entertaining or fun to write. And if you watch this....dear Lord I feel for anyone who enjoys the hula.