The New Creature Canon: The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

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This month, as a special Halloween-themed project, I will be writing a few posts under the “New Creature Canon” moniker—this is actually an idea for an ongoing post series I’ve been kicking around for a while, and it seems appropriate to test it out during this, the most monstrous of seasons. The basic gist of it is to cover a wide variety of media—movies, books, games, even music—with a monster bent, mostly focusing on things that are either obscure or are maybe outside the traditional idea of a monster story. I plan on continuing it past this month, but don’t have any concrete plans just yet—so sit back and enjoy this preliminary run.

What The Hellstrom Chronicle is trying to do is combine wildly different forms—a genuine nature documentary, satirical mockumentary, and horror film—to take something we all know and frame it as something completely monstrous and alien, basically demonstrating the manipulation at the heart of the documentary form. It’s sensationalism, but not done in the name of making people dumber; by crediting a writer in the opening of the film and putting the fact that scientist narrator Dr. Nils Hellstrom is played by an actor in big bold font at the end, it’s putting its own fictional nature out there as openly as possible. There are whole sequences where the film is definitely wearing its own fakeness on its sleeve—the part where Hellstrom tries to prove humanity’s instinctual fear of insects, by showing random people in a grocery store and restaurant having their days ruined by them, is played as comedy (also played as comedy: the blues music playing over a scene of two black widow spiders mating); similarly, an interview between Hellstrom and a farmer about his use of DDT is also filmed like a scene from a movie, not like an interview in a documentary. It’s not trying to be any sort of propaganda; this is basically just one long prankish experiment in tone, which makes the fact that it won the best documentary Academy Award all the more baffling (although considering that the previous year the academy nominated the film version of Chariots of the Gods?, maybe it’s not so surprising.)

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