Marauding Ants Make “Hellstrom” Best Bug Movie Ever: DVD Review

A scene from the 1971 documentary "The Hellstrom Chronicle." The film has its mad scientist trappings, yet contains some of the most startling nature photography ever filmed. Source: Olive Films via Bloomberg

“The Hellstrom Chronicle,” one of my favorite headtrippy movies from the 1970s, announces its intentions from the first frame.

According to its hyperintense onscreen narrator, “famed entomologist” Nils Hellstrom, “if any living species is to inherit the Earth, it will not be man.”

Hellstrom isn’t a real scientist. He’s played by actor Lawrence Pressman, who went on to become a fixture on TV series. Although “The Hellstrom Chronicle” won the 1971 Oscar for best feature-length documentary (beating “The Sorrow and the Pity”!), it’s not quite real, either.

Director Walon Green and his crew intersperse startlingly beautiful insect footage with clips from grade-Z sci-fi movies and Hellstrom’s doomy end-of-days rants. Finally out from Olive Films on DVD/Blu-Ray, it’s a one-of-a-kind movie whose awesome nutbrain fascinations are undiminished by time and the advent of computer-generated imagery.

Green had one of the weirder movie careers leading up to “Hellstrom.” Specializing in National Geographic documentary specials about reptiles and amphibians and the “the mystery of animal behavior,” he also co-wrote the classic western “The Wild Bunch” with director Sam Peckinpah. That film memorably opens with a close-up of a scorpion being eaten alive by a torrent of red ants as laughing children look on.

I used to think that scene was pure Peckinpah but now I’m not so sure. It’s pure “Hellstrom,” too.

Buggy Put-On

Green and his screenwriter, David Seltzer, frame the film with deadly seriousness, yet it all seems like a put-on. How else are we to interpret a scene like the one in which we see a copulating black widow spider “thrashing with obese sexuality”?

Green portrays most insects as essentially walking (or crawling or slithering) digestive tracts, which predate humans by 300 million years and birds by 50 million, and are a lot tougher than we are.

Insects will prevail because, Hellstrom says, unlike mankind, which thinks too much, bugs are “mindless and soulless” battalions ignorant of everything except survival. It’s going to take more than a Roach Motel to win this war.

And make no mistake, this is a battle to the death. Famed movie composer Lalo Schifrin, best known for his theme for TV’s “Mission Impossible,” amps up the jangliness as if he were scoring a horror film. Come to think of it, he was. (I could have lived without the scene where Hellstom kills a lab mouse with a wasp.)

Moth Marvels

But if this is war, it’s an eerily photogenic one. Few documentaries have brought us closer to the marvels and intricacies of insectdom: the caterpillar emerging from its cocoon as a butterfly, the architectural wonders of African termite hills, the poignant 18-hour lifespan of a mayfly, the mating of moths. (A female luna moth’s pheromones can attract a mate 20 miles away.)

In sequences like these, you may regret the film’s mad-scientist trappings, which were clearly designed to break out of the prettified Disney/National Geographic nature-film mold.

I’m glad that stuff is in here, too. It transforms what might have been a straightforward documentary into a loony frolic.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)

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