On Air

the fleapit


Exploring a pair of highly eccentric 70s nature lovin’ docs which aren’t all they seem. Or are they?

Words Hellfire Video Club Published 13.02.23

The Hellstrom Chronicle

Walon Green & Ed Speigel, 1971, USA.

A long forgotten ‘best documentary’ Oscar winner in 1971, these days this would be coined a mockumentary, but given that the term didn’t exist then, we can only second guess what audiences were thinking when they encountered this - a bizarre treatise on the forthcoming extinction of man at the hands of… Insects!

Basically, this is a sci-fi horror film about an upcoming insect-led apocalypse, only told through the medium of earnest documentary instead of dramatic narrative. Fictional scientist ‘Dr Hellstrom’ punctuates 90 minutes of insect documentary footage (the macro photography would have undoubtably blown minds at the time, and still looks great today), with increasingly portentous interjections comparing ‘rational and emotional’ man to various insect species, slowly building his theory of how this will result in extinction of the human race. Hellstrom (or rather the actor playing him) has quite the propensity for a melodramatic turn of phrase, which he especially likes to combine with a lot of meaningful pauses and thoughtful stares into the distance, for maximum effect. Some choice lines to quote here, from many:

“The industrial waste that poisons our air. The DDT that poisons our food source. The radiation that destroys our very flesh, are to the insects nothing more than a gentle perfume”.

“We earlier established that the insect has no heart. Now let it be known that he has no soul”.

In-between the doomy proclamations, we get lots of hypnotic footage of insects building, crawling, reproducing, plotting (?), underscored by Lalo Schifrin’s abstract, jazzy score, which occasionally erupts into fuzzy psych-outs when something drastic happens (like a Black Widow spider attacking and eating its mate). Overall, the Hellstrom Chronicle makes for a fun, unique watch, if you like the idea of watching a vintage David Attenborough show loudly reinterpreted by an eccentric science fiction freak on an apocalypse trip.

The Secret Life of Plants

Another weird one. Pre internet, many folks used to see Stevie Wonder’s soundtrack album (released at the height of his fame, reportedly to a fairly baffled response) in bargain bins and wonder if it was actually a real film, and IT IS! Albeit one which had more or less vanished from circulation since its release in the late 70s. It’s not hard to figure out why once you see it. It’s a real time capsule of Californian new-age speculative pseudoscience, enthusiastically presented as fact. Plant consciousness was seemingly big news at the time, so you get a mishmash of theories. A few of which seem reasonable in basis, but are frequently extrapolated into the realms of lunacy.

Amidst some great footage of scientists attempting communication with plants, affecting bemusement when they prove unable to spell correctly, you get all sorts of other unexpected oddness making up the bulk of the runtime; interpretive dance, Stevie Wonder singing in a boat, ethnographic footage, plus lots of lovely timelapse plant and sunset footage set to Stevie’s sometimes rather bombastic moogy doodles.

Today, parts of the film exist in YouTube in variously mangled forms, often with Wonder’s music removed and replacement music that’s twice as loud as the rest of the narration crudely dumped in. One uploader seemingly failed to notice the whole video corrupting and turning to digital mulch around 40 minutes in. Welcome to the ‘secret’ world of plants. Even though the film is pushing fifty years old, in true contemporary style the comments left under these videos seem to be a mix of people taking the whole thing in total earnestness, or those taking the piss, with little inbetween. It’s impossible to gauge from this distance how seriously the director was taking this material (I hadn’t even realised this was made by the same person as the above film until I’d pretty much finished writing this), but given the nature of the earlier film, you can’t help but speculate.

For more of the same (and further indicators of the 70s ‘botanic intelligence’ subgenre, if we can call it that), also see ‘The Kirlian Witness’ aka ‘The Plants are Watching (1979). A slow burning NYC set murder mystery about a woman’s attempt to solve her sister’s murder by telepathically communicating with her house plants (the ‘witnesses’ of the title). An episode of Roald Dahl penned TV thriller series ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ called ‘The Sound Machine’ explores similar themes, concerning a wartime inventor who invents an experimental audio device, inadvertently discovering he can hear the plants screaming as he cuts his garden back. Plus, in music, there’s Mort Garson’s now infamous ‘Plantasia’ (“warm earth music for plants and the people who love them”), so this kind of vibe was most definitely in the air at the time. The plants may well still be having a chuckle at our expense.

You can check out more from Hellfire Video Club through their radio shows here.