Do you remember when the tree grabbed that kid out of his bedroom in Poltergeist? Or how about the poor girl getting raped by the forest in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead? As genres go “The Killer Plant Movie” is a rather small subset of horror films – with a few notable films like Little Shop of Horror and Day of the Triffids being any good – while the rest can easily be forgotten. Does anybody even remember the 2008 film The Ruins? Well, today we are taking the Wayback Machine to the year 1957, where director Dan Milner and his producer brother Jack, brought us the jungle thriller called From Hell It Came.
This movie was the kind of creature feature that would have populated the local Drive-Ins in the 50s – where teenagers could neck in the backseat while gleefully ignoring the action on screen – but even by low-budget monster movie standards the monster in From Hell It Came was bargain-basement bad. In a film that looks like it was shot at either a local park, or possibly someone’s backyard, the production value is almost non-existent and the film’s only stand-out feature is the monster itself because it is so hilariously goofy that you almost have to admire it.
The movie opens with a group of South Sea island natives killing the former Chief’s son, Kimo (Gregg Palmer), by virtue of staking him to the ground, and then driving a ceremonial knife through his heart. The reason for this killing is that the tribe’s witch doctor, Tano (Robert Swan), has accused Kimo of being responsible for the Chief’s death by allowing Western medicine to be used on Kimo’s ailing father. Conspiring with Tano is new Chief Maranka (Baynes Barron), who informs his people of Kimo’s crimes of working with those evil Americans, and Kimo’s wife Korey (Suzanne Ridgeway) backs him up by informing the tribe that it was Kimo who had allowed the American’s to poison their chief, and not Tano as Kimo claimed. It’s Korey’s damning testimony that seals the deal, Kimo’s heart is pierced and his body placed in a wooden upright coffin that is then buried in their sacred burial grounds.
Question: Why bury the supposed killer of your beloved chief in the sacred burial grounds? You would think the body of such a betrayer wouldn’t get such nice treatment but instead would have been tossed into the local quicksand patch like so much garbage.
Of course, before Kimo died he was able to proclaim his plans for revenge from beyond the grave, “I promise you all, I shall come back from Hell and make you pay for your crimes.” So with our supernatural revenge plot properly set up, the film jumps over to those sneaky Americans Maranka was complaining about. First, we have Dr. William Arnold (Tod Andrews) and Professor Clark (John McNamara), who are scientists hired by the American government to study fallout from a nearby nuclear bomb test – apparently an unexpected typhoon blew the fallout toward this poor island – and these two manly men spend most of the time bitching about being there, and the awfulness of dealing with the superstitious locals. We learn quickly that Arnold would rather be back stateside – drinking martinis while being openly racist – but the woman he wants to settle down with is Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver), who has no interest in leaving her work to pump out babies. Arnold laments, “Why did I have to fall in love with a dedicated female scientist? She considers marriage some kind of prison, and sometimes I could kick her beautiful teeth in. Here I offer her the Earth, the Moon, the stars…” with Clark cutting in “And she prefers test tubes on a tiny Pacific atoll.”
Their commiserating over the “failure of the modern woman” is interrupted by a scream, and the two rush outside to find British expatriate Mrs. Mae Kilgore (Linda Watkins), who had witnessed the execution of Kimo and fled for her life, struggling with one of the natives. The villain is chased off and it is here that we are introduced to the film’s odious comic relief. If you are familiar with the works of character actress Una O’Connor, from such films as Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, you will recognize that actress Linda Watkins is from the same school of over-the-top Cockney comic relief characters. Her incessant babbling has one praying for the title monster to shamble on screen and end our suffering, but sadly she survives, and our sanity does not.
Now it turns out that nuclear fallout isn’t the real problem causing illness among the locals, it’s the plague, and witch doctor Tano has forbidden his people to seek medical help from the Americans. This brings us to the arrival of another doctor – who has arrived because of Clark reporting their problems to Washington – and it should be no surprise that said doctor would turn out to be the aforementioned Terry Mason, and before you can scream “Sexual harassment” Bill is trying to force his tongue down her throat.
Terry tries to explain things to the idiot, “Bill dear, I’m not the girl you want or anybody’s girl.” Explaining further that she has no interest in living the “normal life” that Bill wants for her, as her idea of normal is certainly not being cooped up in a stuffy apartment getting her ears blasted with Rock and Roll music. His rebuttal is, “Do you want to go through life alone? Don’t you want a husband, children, like other women?” He then kisses her hard and passionately, and then asks, “You do love me, don’t you? Admit it.” She shakes her head, “I don’t love you,” and his rebuttal to that is, “Then why did you kiss me back?” This guy is one class act, but she does beautifully shut him down by answering, “I don’t know…my metabolism? It was unconscious, involuntary.” Then he lands the Sexist Pig of the Year award for uttering the following line, “Terry, will you stop being a doctor first and a woman second? Let your emotions rule you, not your intellect.” Instead of a well-deserved punch to the throat – as he so richly deserves – Terry calmly informs the asshat that, “I live by my intellect and reason, if I let my emotions run away I wouldn’t be any good in my work.” Dr. Terry Mason is a career woman fighting for the right to live her life on her own terms, can you guess how this will eventually end?
It’s at this point that the film remembers it’s supposed to be a monster movie – as the poster promised us – and so Terry spots a weird tree growing out of the sacred burial site. This rare plant discovery warrants immediate research – sorry plague-ridden villagers you’ll have to wait your turn, this looks more urgent – and word from Washington is for our “heroes” to dig up the plant and study it. Norgu (Lee Rhodes), one of the more friendly natives, identifies the wooden growth as the Tabanga, a creature of vengeance animated by Kimo’s angry spirit, and like a previous vengeful dead chieftain who came back as a tree monster, it will wreak unspeakable death and destruction. Professor Clark “Pooh-poohs” such superstitious nonsense – even after the weird wooden stump with a face turns out to be radioactive and has a ceremonial blade sticking out of it – and when he discovers that it also has a human heartbeat he still manages to state, “Norgu, what you fear is scientifically impossible.”
In record time the tree stump grows to man-size, and our trio of scientific morons dig it up so they can cart it back to their lab, but what is startling here is that Bill is all for chucking the thing in the nearest quicksand patch they can find. Up to this point, Bill has been a complete jerk, yet all of a sudden he’s the voice of reason, “If moving that monster violates another tribal law, we’ll be in for it. You know we’re greatly outnumbered here. They could easily overpower us. And don’t forget what Norgu said about it being taboo for strangers to go near the… Tabanga.” Sadly he is outvoted – one man cannot stand in the way of science – and Terry even uses an experimental formula – that she had developed earlier – to save the creature when they realize its heart rate is decreasing. This, of course, results in the creature reviving and going on a revenge-fuelled rampage of death and destruction…well more of a revenge-fuelled shuffle if one is to be accurate.
This brings us to the key problem with this particular monster, not only is he an incredibly silly-looking creature but he moves at a speed that makes The Mummy look like an Olympic sprinter. The only way you are in danger from Tabanga is if you accidentally back into him, or by some happenstance are knocked unconscious or dazed when he is nearby, thus allowing him time enough to get close.
The first person to fall victim to the evil that is Tabanga is Korey, who gets dazed after a hit to the head while fighting her rival Naomi (Tani Marsh), the native girl who took her spot as Maranka’s main squeeze when he didn’t feel comfortable marrying someone who betrayed her last husband. Tabanga grabs hold of her and ever so slowly he carries over to some quicksand and tosses her in. Next on the revenge list is Maranka himself, who manages to get killed because he has no peripheral vision, or apparently the ability to hear a tree monster slowly lumbering up behind him. Maranka even manages to miss Tabanga with a thrown spear, when the creature was barely a spear length away.
Then in a surprising display of courage Tano, realizing that the creature is hunting those Kimo swore to kill, he offers to use himself as bait to destroy the creature, and the plan works…briefly. Tano is able to lure the monster into a disguised pit trap, and then the remaining villagers toss flaming brands to turn the pit into a fiery hell. As plans go that is a pretty good one, but unfortunately, this particular tree monster is of the non-flammable kind, and so Tabanga just climbs out of the pit, hunts down Tano, and then kills him by rolling him down a hill.
With the three villains that Kimo vowed to get revenge on now being dead, you’d think the monster would peaceably wander into that ever-present quicksand patch for some nice sweet oblivion, but sadly we still have our “Great White Heroes” to contend with, and so Dr. Clark, Bill, Terry – and even the annoying comic relief Mae – along with Eddie (Mark Sheeler), the camps security specialist – a man voted most likely to be fired for being bad at his job – load up with guns and venture into the jungle, to hunt down the creature. It should surprise no one that Terry is grabbed by the monster – it is on the poster after all – but that she is nabbed because she leans against the thing while adjusting her shoes – and we won’t get into questioning why she was wearing heels for a trek through the jungle – is truly sad, and so our heroes have to chase after the monster before it can toss her into the quicksand.
The group unloads a barrage of bullets at the monster, but the bark of Tabanga seems indestructible, “Doc I’ve never seen anything like. The bullets bounce off it like bee-bee shot on a stone wall,” The group then somehow comes to the conclusion that if they can shoot the ceremonial knife, the one that is sticking out of the creature, they could drive it deeper into the monster’s heart and end its reign of terror. The small end of a knife’s hilt is certainly no easy target – not helped by the creature refusing to turn around and face its attackers – but eventually, a volley of bullets annoys it enough that it drops Terry, turns around to face our heroes, and Bill is able to land one round on the knife’s hilt. The monster staggers back and falls into the quicksand which disappears below its murky surface. The day is saved, and Norgu runs up to Dr. Clark and exclaims, “We now know American magic is better.”
Do remember that debate earlier in the film, the one where we heard Terry claim she didn’t want to give up her intellect for a career in baby-making? Well after being saved from the clutches of Tabanga the once-spirited Terry runs to her rescuer, gives him a deep kiss and a passionate embrace, and upon seeing this Clark comments to Mae, “Looks like a honeymoon and back to the States for them.” So according to the Milner Brothers, all it takes is a life or death situation to show a woman that her place is in the kitchen.
The monster Tabanga will always have a place in horror movie history as one of the dumbest-looking creatures to ever grace the silver screen – Sam Katzman’s The Giant Claw the only true contender in that category – but From Hell It Came also briefly gave us a female scientist who seemed more interested in her career than in men, and though she kind of recanted that belief at the nine-yard line, it’s still something that a film of this nature would even bring up such a notion in the first place. At seventy minutes in length, the film isn’t long enough for the lack of monster action to be too detrimental, but the annoying Cockney comic relief does make things a trifle painful at times. On the other hand that most of the natives are played by Caucasians is certainly typical of the time, and their stilted acting as “primitive natives” is quite awful. From Hell It Came is good as a curiosity, but not one I can honestly recommend seeking out.
From Hell It Came (1957)
The 50s brought some classic monster movies to life but From Hell It Came is certainly not one of them, though it does get points for giving us one of the most goofiest and inept creatures.