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As veteran horror-film viewers, FANGORIA fans are exposed to
endless monsters that come in endless forms. Corpses, sharks, blobs and even an
ill-tempered Plymouth Fury can wreak havoc on screen, and fans will not only
accept them but cheer for more. But a tree monster? I can safely say that FROM
HELL IT CAME showcases the first tree-monster I have witnessed on screen.
To clarify, I don’t mean the angry apple-hurling sort from
THE WIZARD OF OZ, the rape-y branches in THE EVIL DEAD, or the “taunting the young
’un” tree in POLTERGEIST. This is an actual tree monster—by which I mean a tree
that walks around and attacks people, even chasing them down (well, kind of,
but I’ll get to that in a second). Let me start at the beginning of FROM HELL
The year is 1957, and for the “good” of our nation, the ol’
USA has been dropping radioactive bombs over the South Pacific. A group of
scientists are hanging out on a rural South Sea island, observing the effects of
the radiation on the natives and trying to help these folks by reinforcing that
America’s modern hi-tech scientific way is much better than their pitiful
island culture and backward religions.
The film’s action (and I use that word loosely) begins when the
island’s prince refers a family member to the scientists for medical
assistance. The tribe persecutes him for siding with the enemy. In one of the
most boring death scenes in cinematic history, the prince is executed with a
knife to the heart and then buried in a hollow tree. This cues a lengthy and
very stereotypical choreographed hula dance, followed by a tropical drum solo.
Meanwhile, back at our modern science lair, the doctors are
continuing to help some of the locals, who are sneaking away from the pack to
seek out Western medicine and experimental chemical cures. Reports start coming
in of a strange tree rising out of the ground. Enter Tabonga—tree reincarnate
of the executed prince, which is now roving about the island and slowly avenging
his death…very, very slowly.
There is one problem with buiding a film around a marauding
killer tree: Trees were never meant to move. They don’t have the capability for
rapid travel, and in this 1950s man-in-giant-rubber-tree-suit flick, the
monster moves almost as slowly as the plot. Sure, trees can look scary; we all
have childhood memories of that one in the backyard that had that weird, evil
face in the bark, almost gargoyle-like in its features. The filmmakers were
obviously trying for something similar here. But what appears on screen looks
like a grumpy and sleepy 80-year-old man who has lost his dentures and is
shuffling very slowly around a jungle-like soundstage searching for them.
Helmed by the Milner Brothers (who, not surprisingly,
decided to make this their last film as a director/producer team), FROM HELL IT
CAME is a beautiful example of ’50s atomic-age cinema. The fear of
radioactivity and the uncertainty of the side effects ooze out of this film
like glowing green tree sap. There also seems to be a hint of guilt about what
“Old Glory” dropped on the South Sea natives. Too bad the filmmakers decided
not to cast any of them in this film. Instead, FROM HELL IT CAME is filled to
the brim with the whitest bunch of Polynesians this side of Central Casting.
Buff Hollywood hunks drenched in light tanner speak slightly broken English to
achieve that native look. Brown-haired, leggy chorus gals hula dance around
with big Hollywood smiles and grass skirts. And strangely enough, all the
natives wear the same pattern of fabric. It’s like the costume designer only
had one bolt of standard Hawaiian hibiscus print, and had to construct an
entire Polynesian island’s wardrobe out of it.
Beyond the wooden villain and the whiter-than-white natives,
there is one more side to the film’s kitschy trifecta: the scientists who never
shut up. This flick is practically a talkie where (not unlike a Howard Hawks
movie) the characters are constantly bantering and making witty retorts to each
other’s witty comments. One scientist falls in love with another scientist, but
she is not sure if she’s ready for commitment, while another scientist is
trying to seduce a native…and blah blah blah…would the damn tree just move
faster and start wiping out these dullards?
Despite all my gripes here, FROM HELL IT CAME does hold a
valid place in the pantheon. It is a great expression of the period’s Atomic
Age fears and a superb example of the creature films that saturated the time.
No, Tabonga is not at all scary. The plot is slow and dry, and the scientists’
constant mocking of the natives’ primitive ways comes across as a giant “We are
America, and everyone else sucks,” yet the film still has a kitschy charm that
makes it a decent watch.
Now available as part of Warner Home Video’s Archive
Collection, FROM HELL IT CAME is recommended not as an example of brilliant filmmaking or
intense scares, but more as a fun, cheesy laugh and a fine example of 1950s
atomic worries. Check out the trailer below, and marvel at the wonder that is
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