The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) Dr. Nils Hellstrom (Lawrence Pressman) serves as our guide to the overlooked world of insects and arachnids in this pseudo-documentary, directed by Walon Green and Ed Spiegel. Supposedly shunned by the academic community for his controversial theories, Hellstrom opines that our days on Earth are numbered. In contrast, the insects, which have successfully reigned for 300 million years, continue to thrive. After you’ve watched the scenes depicting the hidden worlds of insects, and their complex organized societies, it might be hard to disagree. The heart of the film is the captivating macro-photography by Ken Middleham, who would go on to shoot the insect sequences for Phase IV (1974). Even after 50 years, and the subsequent advancements in imaging technology, the sequences are nothing short of mesmerizing. Despite some narrative hyperbole, the film provides much to consider, including an environmental message that we’re killing ourselves with pollution and pesticides.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
The Wasp Woman (1959) This cautionary tale from director Roger Corman explores the hazards of chasing the proverbial fountain of youth. After serving as the CEO and spokesperson for her cosmetics firm for the past 18 years, Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) is beginning to show her age. She hires a researcher with dubious credentials (Michael Mark) who’s developed an experimental therapy, using royal jelly from wasps. Starlin begins to see dramatic results, but it comes at a cost when she transforms into a hideous wasp-human creature that devours her victims. The film has a bit of a slow start, but hits its stride halfway through. Part of the fun is spotting the Corman regulars, including Barboura Morris as Starlin’s secretary, and Bruno VeSota as an unfortunate night watchman.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Kanopy
The Black Scorpion (1957) Richard Denning stars as Hank Scott, an American geologist studying an erupting volcano in rural Mexico (where for some reason, everyone seems to speak English). When he explores a local village that’s inexplicably deserted, he deduces something deadly has been unleashed. Mara Corday plays Teresa Alvarez, a rancher, who’s affected by the mystery creatures. Hank has about as much charisma as a chunk of obsidian, but somehow Teresa falls for him (If you ask me, she’d be better off with Hank’s colleague, Artur, but no one asked). Unsurprisingly, the real highlights are the creepy giant scorpions, animated by Ray Harryhausen’s mentor, Willis O’Brien. It all leads to a climactic, albeit convenient showdown in a Mexico City stadium. Good fun.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Mr. Bug Goes to Town (aka: Bugville, and Hoppity Goes to Town) (1941) This mostly forgotten animated musical from Dave Fleischer has its moments. A group of anthropomorphic bugs flourish in their tiny village, unaware that they’re about to be uprooted by a big skyscraper development project. Hoppity the grasshopper (Stan Freed) is in love with Honey the bee (Pauline Loth), but the wealthy C. Bagley Beetle (Tedd Pierce) tries everything in his power to put a stop to their romance. Most of the plot hinges upon a missing check for their human benefactor, Dick Dickson (Kenny Gardner), who’s provided a safe haven for the bugs in his garden. When Dick loses his house, the fate of the bugs is in question. Most of the songs (except perhaps for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Katie Did, Katie Didn’t”) are forgettable, and some of the throwaway gags (including some unfortunate racial caricatures) haven’t aged well. Most of the character design isn’t particularly distinctive, and the story is similarly unfocused. It might be worth a look, however, to see what other animation studios outside of Disney were up to.
Rating: **½. Available on DVD, Amazon Prime and Tubi
The Deadly Bees (1966) After pop singer Vicki Robbins (Suzanna Leigh) suffers a nervous breakdown in a TV studio, her manager sends her someplace peaceful, away from the limelight. She arrives at a secluded island community, where two rival beekeepers (played by Guy Doleman and Frank Finlay) are in the midst of a quiet feud. Meanwhile, a swarm of killer bees (depicted with some dodgy effects) threaten the vicinity. This slow-paced (and I mean slow) movie never quite hits its stride in the excitement department. If you’re looking for a thrill a minute (or even every half-hour), look elsewhere. Despite the usually reliable director Freddie Francis and co-writer Robert Bloch, this slight Amicus horror film is far too tame for its own good. It’s always nice to see Michael Ripper pop up, though, even if it’s the usual barkeep role (at least he gets a few more lines in this one).
Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
The Naked Jungle (1954) This adaptation of Carl Stephenson’s short story, “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” by production/direction team of George Pal and Byron Haskin, is a mixed bag. Joanna (Eleanor Parker) arrives from New Orleans to meet her husband, Christopher Leningen (Charlton Heston), sight unseen, to a plantation in the middle of the South American jungle (the country is never specified). She begins to question her choices when Leningen turns out to different from the man she envisioned, and an immense roving colony of army ants 20 miles long and 2 miles wide threatens the plantation. The Naked Jungle takes a while to get going, and the film’s pro-colonialism stance is hard to take. Also, for most of the movie Leningen is an insufferable misogynist, whose abrupt change of heart never quite rings true. There are a few tense moments, once the ants arrive, but most of the movie suffers from too much Hollywood schmaltz (you expect Joanna to break into song any moment) and not enough authenticity.
Rating: **½. Available on DVD
The Deadly Mantis (1957) It’s never a good sign when a movie starts with a lengthy explanation about the North American early warning system, which simply sets the stage for more exposition to follow. A giant prehistoric praying mantis has been accidentally unleashed in the arctic. The behemoth predatory insect kills everything in its path, while making its way south to a warmer climate. It’s evident that the filmmakers didn’t have enough material for a full-length movie, so the majority of the running time is padded out with stock footage and a dull romantic subplot (between stars Craig Stevens and Alix Talton). Unlike the rest of the film, steeped in Cold War paranoia, the mantis holds up well, thanks to some good effects.
Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Monster from Green Hell (1957) An experimental rocket lands in Africa (yep, just “Africa”), and a team of researchers travel to the continent to retrieve the craft and its valuable data. The researchers, led by Dr. Quent Brady and Dan Morgan (Jim Davis and Robert Griffin) encounter a region that the natives call “Green Hell,” where giant killer wasps reside. The movie is filled with interminable scenes of the characters walking, insipid narration that adds little to the story, and a bland lead who does nothing. The giant wasps that don’t resemble wasps in the slightest are sort of cool, but they’re only in a few scenes. Unfortunately, you’re forced to sit through the movie to get to any halfway decent parts, and in the end, viewers are rewarded with an anticlimactic ending. If you must watch it, keep your thumb on that fast-forward button.