Sometimes it's a nice cosy feeling, to review an old-fashioned creature feature. This little film from 1957 has quite a bit of charm, and a very memorable monster designed by special effects legend Paul Blaisdell. What we basically have is a murderous, walking tree. A very slowly walking murderous tree, I must add, yet it manages to track down and kill its fleet-footed victims, somehow. Although the film takes a while to get to the point where the actual ďTabangaĒ appears, there are many enjoyable moments before we finally encounter the shambling monstrosity. I suppose this is one of those films on peopleís ďworstĒ lists, but I donít really go for that approach as my regular readers will know. If thereís elements of enjoyment and entertainment in a film, then I'm usually left happy as the final credits roll. What's the point in bagging a film, when I couldn't make any better myself?
Set on a small Pacific island which has been exposed to radiation from American atomic tests, scientists Dr. William Arnold (Tod Andrews) and Professor Mason (John McNamara) are trying to solve the problem of a mysterious plague ravaging the population without much progress. The natives donít trust them, and are becoming hostile. Meanwhile there is trouble within their own ranks, as they execute one of their number, Prince Kimo (Chester Hayes) by a knife to the heart for killing the tribal chief - his father. Kimo swears itís the ďblack plagueĒ gripping the island but none of the crowd will listen, not even his own wife. This is a fairly odd death scene as there seems to be a number of chickens involved in the execution. Well, theyíre pecking the ground near his head, where he lies tied downÖ but I digress. Before he dies, Kimo swears to come back from the dead and seek revenge, but not in any specific form. The evil new chief in charge, Maranka (Baynes Barron) laughs it off, and the deed is done.
Back at the American base, William is happy to hear that Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) is soon joining them, as they obviously have some kind of semi-romantic history. Conditions on the island are hot, humid and miserable, so they need all the cheering up they can get. The local eccentric widow Mrs Kilgore (Linda Watkins) doesnít offer much solace as she is portrayed as an annoying shrew, and purely comic relief. The group welcomes the arrival of Terry, but Williamís romance doesn't go as smoothly as he had planned. Terry is independent-minded and doesn't just want to become a housewife on the island. Fair enough, too. A native servant called Orchid (The pretty Grace Matthews) who is an outcast for some reason, tells them about the violence engulfing her people, including the death of Kimo. The scientists want to investigate, perhaps feeling some Western guilt at infiltrating the once pristine society.
What they find baffles them. A strange humanoid tree stump, known to the natives as a Tabanga - an evil, vengeful tree spirit - is growing out of Kimoís grave. As it gets larger, they dig it up, and find itís giving off high levels of radiation. It also seems to have a heartbeat, despite the ceremonial knife still sticking out of itís chest. How is this happening? Did mutated plant-life grow around the corpse and bring it back to life? Is it black magic? As they study this bizarre creature, the scientists find itís slowly dying, and Terry, in particular, wants to save it. She injects with a solution of her own invention but nothing seems to help, and the humanoid tree ďdiesĒ. They leave it overnight, and on their return, they find it has revived on its own, and escaped. Kimoís treacherous wife soon visits the scientists as the evil chieftain, whom she betrayed her husband for, has rejected her for another. Itís too late for some, as the silent Tabanga has finally begun its slow, shambling rampage. Kimoís wife and her rival have a fight in the jungle but soon become separated, as the walking tree appears. With a scowling, expressionless face, it soon captures itís no-good wife. The thing then throws her into some convenient quicksand, to her doom. The villainous chieftan is next, given a mighty bearhug by the creature, which soon finishes him off. Not wanting to be next, the other villagers lure the stumbling horror into a pit and throw in flaming torches to set it on fire. This approach looks like itís working but once theyíve all left, the Tabanga rises untouched by the flames. How this thing made of wood can be immune to fire, I'm not sure but perhaps it truly is a supernatural creature.
Soon the Tabanga attacks again and this time, manages to seize the shrieking Terry, attempting to carry her off to the fate reserved for all attractive women carried off by lumbering monsters. The scientists, natives and Mrs Kilgore give chase, and corner it near that same pool of quicksand that consumed the creatures wife. Professor Mason theorises that as the killer tree still has the knife that killed it originally sticking out of itís chest, perhaps a shot to the handle will drive it further into the thingís heart, killing it for good. William aims and fires Ö will the Tabanga succumb to the weapons of the west or is it supernaturally immune to gunfire as well?
I must have seen an image of the Tabanga when I was little as itís always stayed with me, and I looked forward to seeing it in action. Thereís something about the work of Paul Blaisdell thatís memorable - think the monsters of Invasion of the Saucer Men, It Conquered the World and others. The tree monster on display here has an understandably motionless face, but Blaisdellís put plenty of detail into the sculpting and occasionally the mouth or eyes move. It trudges along slowly and, of course, thereís no way in real life it could get itís gnarled hands on anyone, but I still think itís an iconic monster. The acting on display is all what youíd expect for a B-picture of the era, no better or worse than any other. One thing worthy of a mention is the hideous shrieking of Tina Carver once sheís caught by the monster - Iíd drop her in a second and shamble away quickly, if I was a Tabanga! This is the most grating woman-in-peril screaming Iíve ever heard Ö and Iíve heard a lot.
As directed by Dan Milner, From Hell It Came is basically good black-and-white, old style fun, from start to finish. Itís probably not the all-time greatest creature feature ever, but Iím glad Iíve ticked it off my to-view list. Itís also the only walking killer tree movie around that I know of, so thatís a reason to see it if nothing else is. Thereís also some nice nuances before the monster even makes an appearance. The trashed laboratory, with snakes slithering and monkeys scuttling about the floor after the Tabangaís made itís escape, merits an extended scene and itís quite atmospheric. I also appreciated how Terry resists Williamís advances - for most of the film, Iíd better add, you know how itís going to end in 1957 - in favour of an independent, scientific life. Thereís also a nice sense of western guilt by the scientiists at whatís happening with the partially radioactive island, instead of the usual Americans- are-right-in-everything attitude of the time. The music is also classic horror film bombast and weaves in and out insistently - but in an enjoyable way.
So if youíve found yourself on a dark, cold night with nothing to watch, you could do a lot worse than putting on From Hell It Came for a spot of retro viewing. You probably wonít be hiding under your couch in terror, but you may have a fun night all the same. Just pop those earplugs in when Terryís caught by our eager monster, otherwise Ö ouch!
© Boris Lugosi, 2016.
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Review written: 03/06/2016 01:36:39