I’ve detailed each film to convey the strange and strict extent to which they each cohere to one base fear: reproductive control. The only hope for human survival in Phase IV is the death of the queen, who commands the hive-mind. The very horror of The Hellstrom Chronicle is the question it leaves open as to the value of life lived on such a mindlessly collective scale, and of our survival if we are any less collective in our aim. Long Weekend’s Marcia is a gem here; she alone among eco-horror women leads is not a metaphor for the beauty or purity of the natural world but a screeching and shrill aid to its ruin.
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Enough has been written about the most popular eco-horror films of the 20th century to fill celluloid litters, swarms, and herds, from the earliest models like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Them! (1954), Godzilla (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Tarantula (1955), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), and The Birds (1963). This demented animal collective peaked in the ’70s with films like Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), Sssssss (1973), Jaws (1975), Grizzly (1976), Orca (1977), Tentacles (1977), Day of the Animals (1977), The Swarm (1978), Barracuda (1978), and Piranha (1978). I’d like to revisit the four most underrated specimens – Walon Green and Ed Spiegel’s The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), Saul Bass’s Phase IV (1974), Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend (1978), and John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy (1979). In doing so, I’ll revisit the relevance of this increasingly psychotic and increasingly realistic ecological paranoia in popular consciousness today.
The Hellstrom Chronicle is the most incongruous of these animal horror flicks, because it is a documentary (and one of the most bizarre to have won an Oscar at that). David Seltzer’s script was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award; it contains some of the most unsettling, ponderous, and cracked writing in any documentary to this day, like a BBC nature film narrated by Michael Hordern on STP. The first thing one hears, to a black screen and untuned sitars: “The earth was created not with the gentle caress of love but with the brutal violence of rape.” The narrator is Nils Hellstrom, MS, PhD, a fanatical scientist whose nine-year bug-obsession has cost him two fellowships, one professorship, and friendships in legion. He only regrets having learned a fact that will wipe us from existence if we do not heed it.
The film is a diorama of arresting scale and motion. The camera pans out from spindly waving bugs in spindly waving grass to swaying lovers amid swaying trees, from psychedelically blurred and trembling rings to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings to its perfunctory slaughter in the glistering filigree of a spider’s web. Hellstrom returns, time and time again, to one uncaring conclusion: “Life must take life in the interest of life itself.” The tapestry of beauty is a tapestry of revenge. Bugs are instruments of death through an indifference born of necessity. By human negligence, nature’s order is the pattern of human demise. Intelligence has the same dark destiny as ignorance; the only shock is that, on this scale, we are not where we thought ourselves to be.
As mindless brown battalions range the screen like virus clouds, each with 300 million years of inborn experience, Hellstrom volleys factoid after factoid until it is clear that if any creature will inherit the earth, it will not be us but them. In the time it takes a human embryo to develop, they reproduce “401 billion 360 million” of their kind; unnoticed, unloved, untaught. They survive us for the reasons we consider them primitive: without intelligence and without stupidity, and in that sense far more like computers than we. The few that survive our pesticides confer this immunity to billions, else we poison ourselves. Their world is perfect because “there is no ego, no competition, no individual need,” the fate of each the future of all. However demonic this view may be – after all, it requires the death of all who outlive their usefulness – it is difficult to defend individual wants without sounding a bit too much like Ayn Rand.
A critic noted that the film could not have been more “ideal and ingenious family entertainment”. It’s 90 minutes of unforgiving sex and limb-rending violence set to free jazz (it is a “nice touch” that torn antennae still twitch to the beat), but the Grand Guignol is kid-friendly; it plays out between ants. This utopia is, after all, a “husk of fluff.” After praising it, Hellstrom takes a hose to every nest of bees, ants, and beetles in sight. We wonder at the value of such an unreasonably resourceful, fatally desperate life quashed by a finger and drenched by a drop. The insect has the answer because he is blind to the question.
After this entomological sociopathy, the end credits inform us, to dazed relief, that Hellstrom is a fictional character portrayed by Lawrence Pressman (of Shaft  and Doogie Howser fame). The intended entomologist – who director Walon Green met while fleeing his sources, having discovered on an undercover mission to document fugitive Nazis in South America for a TV series that Josef Mengele was alive in Paraguay – died of hepatitis. Green conceived the film while bug-collecting in Rio, musing that mindless adaptation prefigures and survives human intelligence. Quaker Oats was to sponsor the film but withdrew, for cross-branding liability fears. Evidently, all protein was not created equal.
Lalo Schifrin, an Argentine entomologist who composed the Mission Impossible theme, composed one of the grossest soundtracks ever heard by recording insectoid chewing and footfalls with an Echoplex tape-delay. Producer David Wolper, in the middle of producing Willy Wonka (also scripted by Seltzer and, fitting enough, featuring a Martin Bormann golden-ticket cameo), sold the film to ABC and hired Pressman. His point is that our cross-purposes, insofar as they resist others and our environment, strengthen us as individuals and endanger us as a species. After all, nature is as indifferent to the ruin of one man as to the utopia of another.
I’ve recently moved from the loud gray heart of my city to a quieter, greener place in the hills. I left last weekend with a window ajar and returned to an infestation. I’m aware of the irony in the fact that I’ve interrupted writing this piece only to wage merciless chemical carnage on every ant in sight. Every time I believe I’ve won I’ll see one more, always just one and always just beyond. The annoyance owes not to the bug itself but to irritation at the fact that such a small and disposable form of life could at all affect me.
This is the essence of Phase IV. It’s the first and last film directed by Saul Bass, the man who designed the title sequences for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and Goodfellas (1990), to name a piddling fraction. It shows. It concerns a cosmically caused cross-species ant hive mind; they nest in the Arizona desert, where scientists Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and James R. Lesko (Michael Murphy) conduct experiments – traps, sprays, even communication – from a sealed lab. A local family ignores evacuation warnings, convinced that the infestations are merely cyclical. They’re not wrong. The horror is that natural cyclicality doesn’t preclude fatality.
The parents die in a pesticide ambush; the camera cuts, obviously and horrifically, between dim encrusted ant and human bodies, each blindly waving limbs, somewhere between The Last Days of Pompeii (1984) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Immunized ants infiltrate and short-circuit the lab. James wants to convince them that people are worth keeping alive. Hubbs wants to knock the queen so low it’ll make the Tet Offensive look like a fender bender. The orphaned daughter Kendra (Lynne Frederick) sacrifices herself to the ants, convinced that they want her. There’s an eerie scene where she leaves the compound, barefoot, eyes fixed on the life swarming her feet, quavering “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
Hubbs follows and falls in an earthen trap as ants swarm his body. James, outnumbered but still convinced that “given time, we could have come to an understanding, some rational accommodation of interests,” slides down the nest-hole like Chuck Norris. Kendra emerges from the sand, somehow changed. He learns the answer to the unposed question: ants don’t seek to destroy but adapt humanity. The film ends with a blinding disc of sun rising over a red sky and redder valley. There was a long-lost ending, unearthed ten years ago, in which the three ranged a maze, observed by ants. Their verdict – the defenselessness of individual ants and their power in the mass – applies as much to them.
There is no hint of the adventure comedy or crime-noir of Bass’s four-decade design oeuvre. Phase IV abounds only in dread; and yet it’s slap-in-the-face Bass, somehow equally sinister and glib. He hired National Geographic photographer Ken Middleham (who shot Bug ) to lens the ant scenes. They’re near enough – and hence, alien enough – that they don’t relieve but advance the plot. The camera pans back – during a conversation, during silence – to reveal that people are placed in nature by a hand that is not their own: faces scatter from below through a latticework of grass-blades and bare sun, from above through an eroded filigree of desert stone, amid apocalyptic trivia of bitten house-beams and cracked TVs.
The soundtrack flares an oscillating, crunching whirr; sometimes of endless minute scuttling herds, sometimes of machines tracking them. An overhead scene of an ant-made crop circle is the first-ever filming of the phenomena, even preceding the first modern reports by two years. The message, if there be one, is never resolved. Clearly the orderly, unthinking mass of society is the problem here, but it can’t be that we must think beyond the collective, for individualistic pursuits brought us here.
No eco-horror film more fatally portrays these pursuits than Long Weekend, directed by Colin Eggleston. Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets, married to Eggleston but not his first choice) spend it camping on the beach. Whatever the film’s flaws – plotless, heartless, unsuspended disbelief whenever the beasts attack – I cannot recall a more (technically) crimeless yet innately despicable couple than the one it depicts.
This is to the film’s advantage because the acts that reveal their faults alone advance the plot, like a trifling and fatal outback avalanche. On the drive alone, Peter traumatizes pigeons, tests his rifle’s sight by targeting Marcia, flicks a cigarette out the window and starts a brush fire, hits a kangaroo in the road (there is a brutal and wordless scene as other cars unceremoniously speed over the jolt-dancing corpse). Marcia refuses to find a sitter for the dog, Cricket, emptying three cans of food on his plate on the grounds that he’s fat enough to fend the rest without. He comes with.
They set up camp and interrupt their bickering only to wreak systematically thoughtless environmental destruction. Marcia asks Peter why he axes a tree; he asks her “why not?” She genocides an ant colony. He shotguns beers, hurls them in the ocean, and shoots every bottle and bird in sight. The source of their tension is an abortion that Marcia had after an affair that Peter encouraged, wanting to bed the man’s wife. Disorientingly atonal electronic music melds with animal whirrs. She hears a baby crying. While surfing, he shoots a dugong calf until the tides foam scarlet. Its mother washes up, apparently the source of the crying. He buries her. Marcia throws an eagle egg at a tree and it cracks crimson. He sallies a hypocritical and thinly veiled indictment that she needlessly destroyed a living thing. She retorts that nothing was destroyed. The egg’s mother claws him. Mosquitoes swarm him. A possum bites him.
Peter prevents Marcia’s departure and suicide. She demands divorce (not Monday, Peter has tennis on Monday) and drives off. She hears the crying again, now a sustained and tremulous howling, like an underwater call to prayer. A rabid duck splatters her windshield with blood as the radio hisses NATO’s coverage of Chinese nuclear tests. She, by now hysterical, leaves the van and runs. Peter spies the dugong on the shore, undead and unburied; he empties his gun in her.
He cowers in the woods, stranded, shooting a spear-gun at every crack. By dawn he sees Marcia’s corpse before him, with a spear through the throat. He drenches the dugong in gas and burns it. He pours the rest on the earth, finds the van, and runs a path over every green thing in sight until the tires catch in mud; he leaves it with Cricket inside. He runs through dense dry scrub, sparring reptiles, marsupials, and birds galore, each more psychotic than the last. He reels onto the main road. He waves down an 8-wheeler. The driver is assaulted by a dove and swerves, killing Peter. There is no buildup of plot in the horror, just a slow biological cannibalism.
If there is any hero, it is nature itself. Conversely, it’s the only cohesive target. Somewhat uniquely for eco-horror, there’s no one vengeful beast or species. This, in tandem with the bravely unlikeable actors, should spell the film’s flop; on the contrary, they ensure that it builds to a breathlessly unfocused climax in which death seethes from everything and everyone. Peter is horrified not to have to wield his gun, but to have nothing (and everything) to target. His domination of nature is as illusory as his separation from it.
In a curious way, Vince Moton’s cinematography and Everett de Roche’s script tell opposing stories. The close-up lens knots the couple in undergrowth and microscopic doom, whereas de Roche regretted that this threat was so predictable from the start. He wrote an alternate ending in which the animals take mercy on Peter. At the edge of wising up, he hears a truck and bolts to the highway and then the critters let rip. Due to an ironic inability to garner animal cooperation, the scene was scrapped. For such a masterfully, mundanely dreadful creature feature it was consigned, like much Australian cinema, to cultural oblivion until it was pointlessly remade (2008).
Similarly, John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy was slated not for the vagueness of its killer – it’s a mutant bear – but for the unintentionally absurd disconnection of these monster scenes from the plot. It’s gauche and plodding: on behalf of the EPA a “rat-bite and gas-leak” inner-city doctor, Robert (Robert Foxworth), and his concert cellist wife, Maggie (Talia Shire), fly to Maine, where a paper mill is in deadlock with Native Americans blockading the land in protest of water pollution.
Robert notices salmon so large they prey on ducks (he preys on one in turn); convulsing but non-rabid raccoons; staggering, blind, and stillborn Native Americans who haven’t touched a drop; missing lumberjacks and a search-and-rescue team. The avuncular mill director Isley blames the Native Americans; the Native Americans blame Katahdin, a vengeful forest-spirit “larger than a dragon with the eyes of a cat.” It resembles a half-skinned steroidal pig. Maggie hides a pregnancy from Robert for fear that he will have her abort it. He’s convinced that the world is so bleak it’s unfair to subject a child to it. In a twistedly sincere scene, a violinist confidante tells her during a recital break that “it’s your body and it’s your choice.”
The couple tours the mill. Robert finds mercury deposits on his wife’s boots. It’s a cheap de-sliming agent. She grows justifiably neurotic; it’s also the only mutagen that jumps the placental barrier, and she’s eaten as much freak salmon as he has. Cut to the subplot-schlock: a raw roaring bloody bear mauls a vaguely Midwestern family of campers. Inexplicably, the novel describes Katahdin with “noticeably large breasts.” In a horrifically funny scene, a boy encased in a pale-yellow sleeping bag is hurled like a banana. The blond mummy thumps a boulder with a cloud of feather-down. Robert, Maggie, Isley, tribe representatives John and Ramona Hawks, and a sheriff investigate the scene.
Robert frees a leftover cub from a poacher’s net and nurses it with a jerry-rigged IV. Maggie, aware that the nightmare feeds inside her, gapes ambivalently at the cradled ursine Eraserhead. The mother blitzes the camp. Everyone dies gruesomely except for Maggie and Robert. The mere omission of Isley’s disembowelment scene dropped the film’s R-rating to a PG. After a 12-minute tussle, Robert drowns and stabs the bear (symbolically enough, with a Native American arrow). In a tried but fine use of the Godzilla-egg sequel grab, the film ends with a shot from the shore of the getaway plane, occluded by a larger, jammier bear roaring from the pond. This from the fellow who directed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and (my favorite horror film of all time) Seconds (1966). Frankenheimer blamed its shoddiness on his alcoholism; he was reliably drunk while filming.
For all the overdone content, the form is strangely restrained. Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography is almost Japanese at times; dancing about the fire reflected in someone’s glasses, cutting from the virgin lake to the lakehead where the sawmill seeps. Given the gore, Leonard Rosenman’s music is neededly underwhelming. The script is downright poetic. Each scene ends with the same yellow-journally punch to the gut as those in The Hellstrom Chronicle. In fact, they share the same writer, David Seltzer. Like Godzilla, Prophecy is inspired by Japanese tragedy; in this case, the discovery of mercury poisoning among citizens of Minamata Bay, courtesy of Chisso Chemical Plant.
When Seltzer saw the bear, he left the set. Three people play it at different times. The film abounds in feverish yet bloodless cutaways, to mask the costume joins: 7’3” Predator (1987) actor Kevin Peter Hall wears the suit for the towering long shots, professional mime and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) director Tom McLoughlin for the close-ups, and Charles Flemmer for the rest. The guttural growls come from Frank Welker, who voiced Fred from Scooby Doo. Prophecy released weeks in the shadow of the cheaper monster flick of the decade, Alien, but churned a tidy $22 million against an eye-watering $12 million budget. The most confounding mystery the film leaves unresolved is where the money could possibly have gone.
The bear scenes are so discontinuous with the mercury mystery that they may as well comprise two separate movies; indeed, Frankenheimer exploits this, cutting from Robert’s fatalistic revelations to Katahdin’s ear-splitting howls and back with no buildup. Owing to the nature of the material, this isn’t a criticism. It may have been a tawdry failing in the ’70s, but it accords with our experience of climate catastrophe now: we live in good faith with a blind eye turned to our excess, suffer life-ending and life-altering ruin with no forewarning, and those of us remaining and able carry on as closely to the original pattern as life allows, world without end.
The most interesting character is Isley. He causes the bloodbath, but only by omission. When Robert asks about mill pollution, he fires a quasi-righteous speech about private contractors and supply and demand and all of the paper in all of the EPA reports in all of the filing cabinets in Washington. When asked, after the first mauling, whether he knew about the mercury, he murmurs, “I didn’t want to.” Far from demonizing him, the closeness of his willed ignorance to ours redeems (and ultimately decapitates) him.
The terror of Prophecy, Phase IV, The Hellstrom Chronicle, and Long Weekend is of humanity past the point where necessity precludes fatality. Even natural acts of life – eating, drinking, breathing – are suicidal. The films retain an eeriness well beyond their camp veneer because they depict the acts that brought us to this ecological tipping-point not as some toxic crusade but as a series of trite and callous oversights.
I’ve detailed each film to convey the strange and strict extent to which they each cohere to one base fear: reproductive control. The only hope for human survival in Phase IV is the death of the queen, who commands the hive-mind. The very horror of The Hellstrom Chronicle is the question it leaves open as to the value of life lived on such a mindlessly collective scale, and of our survival if we are any less collective in our aim. Long Weekend’s Marcia is a gem here; she alone among eco-horror women leads is not a metaphor for the beauty or purity of the natural world but a screeching and shrill aid to its ruin. Her hysteria is ultimately ennobled. Peter’s results from his inability to control her. By the time he bites the dust, he garners no more sympathy than an Old Testament sinner.
In Robert’s defense (in Prophecy), Maggie maintains the most deluded reason for remaining pregnant in the history of our species: “I thought having a baby would bring us closer together.” Regardless, her answer to Robert’s jeremiads about children suffering in a dirty world prevails, because it is unanswerable: “When I was a child my mother told me I needed to eat everything on my plate because there were starving children in the world. It didn’t make any sense to me. Now you tell me I mustn’t get pregnant because there are starving children in the world and that doesn’t make any sense to me either.” It is unanswerable for the very reason that these children suffer: a nearsighted view of the environment by those polluting it, as though it were merely a matter of rocks and trees. When Robert brushes off the Hawkses’ blockade on the grounds that he’s “just here to study the environment,” the incredulous John asks him just what he thinks is mangled when the environment is at stake: “The end of the forest is end of my people.”
No surprise that eco-horror began with the first films of the Atomic Age, which the fatal illusion of man’s invulnerable split from his environment haunted as no age before. Godzilla may as well have been a special-effects curio and its inspiration The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms a chicken-wire lizard were it not for the generative fear that they leveraged with hair-raising plots of mutation and contagion. With proof of animal cognition and communication in the mid-50s (most notoriously, John C. Lilly’s dolphin research) and proof of ecological harm in the Silent Spring era, paranoia about destruction on a monstrous scale bled into paranoia about the monsters we reproduce in the name of wealth. On the other hand, it was a catholic (if fatal) source of comfort that nature harmed us not in blind consequence of our neglect but as a deliberate and vengeful punishment.
In his 1972 essay “King Kong, Where Are You?” the film critic Vincent Canby gave only one the distinction of “good ecology film”: Hitchcock’s The Birds. All the rest, he held, encountered a great deal of trouble rendering a devil from detergent. Close-up rabbits, however rabid, still hop like Easter bunnies. Close-up ants, however homicidal, still teem like pests. Unlike the nuclear films that bore this genre, pollution doesn’t rouse fear, only guilt. The Birds succeeds precisely because the source of fear is undefined and unreasonable. The threat to man suggests an order, not an exception, to nature’s hand, and one ever above our grasp.
Yet, even the most chilling eco-horror film comes off tepidly. Their warning, as Canby writes, is as unobjectionable as that of cautionary films about the need for proper dental care. If the story begins with apocalypse, there are only so many ways for it to end. A half-century later, pollution has wrought the immediately and indiscriminately frightening effects of the atomic films. Their logic (rather, our inability to forsake the logic of capital enough to even temper them) wreaks undefined and unreasonable ruin. Our door to any prevention of a sixth mass extinction is slammed if not sealed. There is no way to feel hopeful that somebody make it better soon without ending on the same tepid note, no way to feel frightful that somebody not make it worse without ending on the same tepid note.
Unlike humankind, who are born into their physical limitation, birth ensures that the bug improve on its body. At the limits of its form, it takes on another – the butterfly. This is used as a metaphor for humanity’s intellectual ability to overcome the circumstances given him, but it is always omitted that the butterfly is a creature with no awareness of a life before its current needs, no memory of the lessons learned. We’ll end, then, as we began: walking backwards into ecological horror so long as our wealth is at odds with our survival. As Hellstrom warns, “the true winner is the last to finish the race.”
Burgos, Danielle. “Notebook Primer: Eco-Horror.” Mubi. April 21, 2022. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/notebook-primer-eco-horror?utm_source=letterboxd&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=letterboxdhq_notebook
Canby, Vincent. “King Kong, Where Are You?” New York Times, July 16, 1972, section D, p. 1. https://www.nytimes.com/1972/07/16/archives/king-kong-where-are-you-king-kong-where-are-you.html
Davies, Paul. “Everett de Roche.” Senses of Cinema. July 2008. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2008/dossier-on-australian-exploitation/everett-de-roche/
Kaye, Don. “Prophecy: A Monster Movie That Needed a Better Monster.” Den of Geek. November 27, 2019. https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/prophecy-1979-a-bad-monster-movie/
Paradine, Colin. “The End Is Surreal in Saul Bass’ Phase IV.” Nightmare on Film Street. December 22, 2020. https://nofspodcast.com/video-vault-the-end-is-surreal-in-saul-bass-phase-iv
Tompkins, Dave. “Swarming the Field: Bugs, Nazis, and The Hellstrom Chronicle.” Grantland. February 27, 2012. http://grantland.com/features/the-hellstrom-chronicle-one-most-bizarre-films-win-best-documentary-feature-oscar/