May 23, 2013

The Ronald Reagan Memorial Killer Tree: Tabanga

Poster - From Hell It Came (1957)
Now Playing: From Hell It Came (1957)

Pros: Screwy yet strangely disarming South Sea Islands premise; A crazy rubber-suited monster that earns an A for effort
Cons: Dull patches of exposition; Clunker lines of dialog; The island natives look like a random assortment of extras with tan makeup and ridiculous costumes

You don't see much in the news these days about killer vegetation (at least not since Ronnie Reagan revealed in the 1980 presidential campaign that malicious trees polluted more than automobiles). The green-environmental movement has pretty much covered up the shocking truth that even though most plants and trees are rooted to the ground, many of them bear a grudge toward those of us in the animal kingdom who can move around at will, and a select few would even do us harm given the opportunity. We're all familiar with plants like cacti that have developed spines, or better still, the many varieties of flora that have brewed up internal poisons to discourage animals and humans from eating them.

But plants aren't always on the defensive. What American kid growing up in the 1960s wasn't fascinated by the ads for Venus Fly Traps in the back of all those comic books? Little did we know that the venerable Fly Trap has many cousins in the plant kingdom. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 630 carnivorous plant species that "attract and trap prey, produce digestive enzymes, and absorb the resulting available nutrients." Yum!  Science tells us that reports of actual man-eating trees are mere legends and fabrications, but then, I'm not gonna go looking for the deadly Madagascar Tree or the South American Ya-te-veo just to prove it can't grab and digest something my size.

Comic book ad for a Venus Fly trap
Show of hands-- who all ordered one
of these when they were a kid?
I've had my own encounter with a malevolent cactus, and it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Some years ago I was hiking in the Grand Canyon. Toward the end of the day, with my feet sore and aching, a low-lying prickly pear leaned out and stabbed me with one of its spines straight through the mesh of my hiking shoe and right under the nail of my big toe. My hiking buddies just chalked it up to me being clumsy, but I swear that thing was gunning for me! (After the hike, the toe became infected and I had to have the nail removed. Yeah, bummer!)

As you might expect, all this malignity on the part of the plant kingdom has attracted Hollywood's attention from time to time. The reigning Queen of B movie carnivorous plants is still Audrey, the beloved flesh-eating creation of Seymour Krelboyne (Jonathan Haze) in Roger Corman's legendary quickie, Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Two years later, a ferocious meteor storm seeded earth with ambulatory killer plants in The Day of the Triffids (1962). Lost worlds and unexplored planets have also featured their share of man-(and woman-)eating plants: for example, the plucky heroine of The Land Unknown (1957) has an encounter with a hungry primordial piece of vegetation (almost the least of her worries in a land brimming with pterodactyls and T-Rexes).

Deadly walking trees are somewhat rarer in vintage B films, but they do exist. Night-walking, acid-secreting trees transplanted from Antarctica give the U.S. military (and Mamie Van Doren) all kinds of trouble in The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966). And then there's the dendrological nightmare from Hell, the Tabanga.

Native islander Kimo is accused of the most heinous crime.
Poor Kimo (Gregg Palmer) is about to know real heartache!
From Hell It Came opens in dramatic fashion with the natives of an unnamed South Seas island gathered around handsome Kimo (Gregg Palmer), who is tied spread-eagled on the ground. The tribal elders, medicine man Tano (Robert Swan) and Chief Maranka (Baynes Barron) have accused Kimo of the most heinous of crimes -- killing his own father, the old chief. Kimo strenuously denies it, accusing Tano of poisoning his father in order to make his ally Maranka the new head honcho. But even Kimo's wife, the duplicitous Korey (Suzanne Ridgeway) feigns ignorance of such a plot. The elders also accuse Kimo of being too friendly with the Americans visiting the island, who they think have brought the plague and "devil dust" (fallout from H-bomb tests) to their once peaceful home. Before the executioner can plunge the ceremonial knife into Kimo's heart, the passionate young man declares "I shall come back from Hell and make you pay for your crimes!"

The Americans are William Arnold (Tod Andrews), a medical doctor, and Prof. Clark (John McNamara), an anthropologist. They're on the island to study the native culture, battle the plague and deal with the effects of the radioactive fallout that's accidentally blown in from an H-bomb test site hundreds of miles away. They realize that the evil, ambitious Maranka and his flunky Tano poisoned Kimo's father before modern medicine could heal him, and that the pair are inciting the rest of the natives against them. With relations between the natives and the visitors worsening, the foundation sponsoring the expedition flies in super-competent and compassionate Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) to help with the health crisis. Arnold and Mason go way back, and Bill is secretly in love with his colleague.

Tina Carver as Dr. Terry Mason and Tod Andrews as Dr. Bill Arnold
Smooth-talking Bill (Tod Andrews) tries to convince Terry
(Tina Carver) to give up science and run away with him.
When she arrives, Bill warns her about the dangerous situation and tries to get her to leave, but she's serious about her mission and won't hear of it. While Arnold clumsily tries to woo the no-nonsense Mason, a strange tree or bush is rapidly sprouting up from the spot where poor Kimo was buried. A couple of islanders still friendly with the Americans alert the team to the thing. At first the professor and the doctors think it's some sort of new, unclassified plant life, but when the thing grows to human size with a face only a weeping willow could love, the team digs it up and takes it back to their makeshift lab. To their amazement, they find it has a "human-like" heartbeat and is radioactive. Stranger still, the ceremonial dagger projects from the "chest" of the mutant tree, right in the area where a human heart would be.

One of the natives calls it the Tabanga, meaning "creature of revenge." He relates the story of a previous murderous rampage by another walking, revenge-minded tree. Terry, monitoring the vitals of the man-tree, detects a weakening heartbeat and fears the thing may be dying. When she tries to enlist Bill's aid, he's not so sure keeping it alive is such a good idea-- "I'm no tree surgeon!" he complains. She administers an experimental stimulant serum that she assures her colleagues will take several hours to work on the creature's circulatory system. When they return to the lab, they find it wrecked and the creature gone. Tabanga has shambled off to take its revenge!

I wooden't say that From Hell It Came is a great film, or even a particularly good one, but if you think that there's nothing to recommend it, you're barking up the wrong tree. Anyone with the cockeyed optimism to think that they could make an effective sci-fi programmer out of the concept of a grumpy, revenge-driven walking tree deserves at least a little credit. The Tabanga is so unique and unlikely that you can't help but root for these impecunious filmmakers and their rubber-suited tree monster.

Much of the credit for the Tabanga goes to legendary creature effects artist Paul Blaisdell, the creator of such iconic '50s monsters as The She-Creature (1956) and the alien invaders from Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957). According to Blaisdell biographer Randy Palmer, Jack and Dan Milner (producer and director, respectively) approached Blaisdell to create the tree creature (they had contacted him previously to design the monster for their 1955 production The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, but he was busy at the time working for Roger Corman on The Day the World Ended). Having been burned on another low-rent production by people he hardly knew, Blaisdell was reluctant to go all in (and he also had a commitment with Bert Gordon to do The Amazing Colossal Man). Blaisdell did provide some concept drawings, and even went so far as to create some very realistic-looking foam rubber tree bark to guide the eventual maker of the creature suit. [Randy Palmer, Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker, McFarland, 1997.]

Paul Blaidell's concept art for the Tabanga
Details from Paul Blaisdell's Tabanga concept art.

The eventual product, while not quite as elegant as Paul's original drawings, certainly captures their spirit (not to mention the signature scowl of just about every movie monster Blaisdell created):
"The Milner brothers became concerned about the cost of reproducing Blaisdell's two-dimensional design in three dimensions. Had the Tabanga been constructed using the sketches as exact blueprints, it would have had to be made as a stop-motion model, rod puppet, or marionette. There was clearly no way it would have been able to interact with the cast to the extent required by the script-- at least not in 1957 and not without a more substantial special effects budget-- so the Milners took Blaisdell's illustrations to Hollywood's Don Post Studios and had a standard rubber and latex monster costume made. Since Paul's original design was so thin and spidery, the basic visual concept needed to be altered. The dimensions were enlarged so that a normal actor or stunt specialist could play the part as Paul had played the monsters in his own pictures. The end result was nowhere near as nightmarish as Blaisdell's original concept, but there was no mistaking it for anything that might have wandered over from the Disney studios either." [Ibid.]
I suspect that there are folks out there who, even allowing for the era's less sophisticated effects, will conclude that the Milners went too far out on a limb with this particular monster. All I know is that the Tabanga made a far greater impression on me as a kid than the standard-issue giant rubber spiders, lizards standing in as dinosaurs, and tin-plated robots that were so prevalent in sci-fi of the time. The Milners were wise enough to exploit their creature and give it a lot of screen time while also covering up its more obvious deficiencies. We see several shots of the creature moving through the thick brush, its legs hidden, its mouth moving uncannily, grim determination etched on its hideous wooden face. (There is one ill-considered long shot of the entire creature shuffling along a forest path -- it has the crab-like walk of someone whose pants have been pulled down around his knees; needless to say the spell is somewhat broken at this point.)

The Tabanga grabs Terry (Tina Carver)
Remember: Don't stand under a tree or a
Tabanga during a lightning storm!
Regardless of what you think of the monster suit, there is an obvious problem with the concept of a mobile tree creature. To say the least, this is not one or the quicker or more agile B movie menaces. Like Universal's Mummy, the average viewer must think, "how dangerous could this thing be if a little old lady with a walker could outrun it?" So the script twists and turns in unnatural ways to place the victims within the grasp of the slow-moving but inexorable monster: one trips (of course!) and hits his head on a rock; another misses the thing with a spear at a distance of about 3 feet, and apparently is so chagrined by his poor aim that he forgets to get out of Tabanga's way; yet another mistakes the grumpy tree for one of its more natural, non-ambulatory cousins, and stands right next to it.

It also doesn't help that From Hell's modest budget and production crew (Jack Milner wrote, produced and edited; brother Dan directed) is obvious from the get-go: the ostensible South Sea island setting looks like a rundown city park, and the natives look like random actors pulled from a casting call and given tan makeup and floral print tablecloths to wear around their waists. To add insult to injury, the Milners follow up the promising opening scene with dull exposition of the American scientists complaining about the island, the weather, the natives, what they had for lunch, you name it. Worse yet, they then engage in "sparkling" banter with an egregiously unfunny "comic-relief" character, the self-absorbed trader and professional widow Mrs. Kilgore (actress Linda Watkins employs the worst Australian accent ever and says "bloomin'" every third word in an annoying attempt to make her character colorful and endearing). Last but not least, lead dog doc Bill Arnold embarrasses himself in an extremely feeble, yet chauvinistic attempt to woo the committed heroine Terry Mason (despite the name, she's a B movie doctor, not a TV lawyer).

In one cringe-inducing scene, Arnold whines to Terry, "don't you want a husband and children like other women?" and then quickly digs himself deeper with an exasperated "Will you stop being a doctor first and a woman second?" (Presumably the plague that's decimating the native population will wait while the lady doctor gets her feminine priorities in order; even for the decidedly non-feminist '50s, this is nauseating stuff.)

But don't let this stuff deter you from seeing one of the crazier monsters in all of '50s B sci-fi. You may laugh, you may cry, you may throw your popcorn at the flatscreen (especially when you see how the Americans finally dispatch the monster), but I guarantee the Tabanga will move you in some way (even though he doesn't move so well himself).

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Warner Archive Collection

"Creature of unholy vengeance, born in the heart of a man unjustly condemned to death!"