Monster from Green Hell (1957) is representative of common practices afforded to the themes of race and ethnography in early 20th century scientific exploration filmography. The quintessential scientific exploration film sought to uncover the Ethnographic other, and effectively present it as a spectacle or monster to the audience. The Ethnographic other was made to be something that was both fantastical yet terrifyingly intriguing in its alteration away from the established institutions of white culture. Monster from Green Hell follows this structure in its story of two American scientists who travel to remote Central Africa to uncover the nature of the mysterious giant wasps that are terrorizing the local village people. The scientific exploration model is a means by which director Kenneth G. Crane captures the Ethnographic other. Crane creates a metaphorical “cage” in which he places his findings from the African continent, presenting to the audience a pre-historic land that is the source of monstrosity or mutation in its darker-skinned inhabitants and the strange beasts with whom they coexist. This presentation of the Ethnographic other in this way speaks to the ideals of white racial superiority over institutions of darker skinned peoples that were prevalent in American culture during the time of the production of the film. In the film’s trailer, a white scientist outwardly rejects the ideas of an African man as to the origins of the giant wasps, stating that “these monsters are not a thing of evil spirits, but of science!” (Crane, Monster from Green Hell). It is this attitude that affirms the attribution of the Ethnographic other to intellectual backwardness and monstrosity. The Ethnographic other is inferred as having an inherent link to monstrosity due to its physical alteration at the molecular or genetic level. The use of science thus serves to prove the division between white, civilized culture and that of dark skinned peoples. In the spectacular commercial cinema of this period, the exploration of monstrosity through scientific exploration is the mode by which the Ethnographic other is understood (Rony p.159).
The use of the Ethnographic other in Monster from Green Hell can be coined with the term Blaxploitation, which describes any use of expressly black or African characters to serve the plot of a film (Benshoff). African characters serve the purpose of displaying otherness to what can be assumed as a predominantly white, western audience at the time of the production of this film. This audience was open to viewing the unknown and so Monster from Green Hell explicitly tries to retain a certain authenticity in the presentation of the Ethnographic other. This can be contrasted with some recent films which only offer minute elements of cultural otherness for the sake of creating compelling and monstrous plots. An example of this can be seen in Mikel J. Koven’s analysis of the presentation of the Golem, a Jewish folkloric monster, in an episode of the television show The X Files. Koven argues that the cultural background of the Golem was seen as lacking cultural truth and so the monster was written into the show with an emphasis on the scientific. There was a clear exploitation of the Ethnographic to fit the purpose of the show. Benshoff identifies that the root of Blaxploitation in horror film was to explore rather than exploit race and race consciousness, an ode to the original purpose of the class scientific exploration films of the early 20th century (Benshoff p.219). In this way, we see that Monster from Green Hell not only uses Blaxploitation to present a compelling story but to explore and understand the Ethnographic other in its natural existence.
Benshoff, Harry M. “Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?” Cinema Journal 39.2 (2000): 31-50. Print.
Burnham, Philip. “The Ethnographic Zoo.” Transition 60 (1993): 184-91. Print.
Koven, Mikel J. “”Have I Got a Monster for You!”: Some Thoughts on the Golem, The X-Files and the Jewish Horror Movie.” Folklore 111.2 (2000): 217-30. Print.
Monster from Green Hell. Dir. Kenneth G. Crane. 1957. Film.
Rony, Fatimah T. “King Kong and the Monster in Ethnographic Cinema.” (n.d.): n. pag. Rpt. in Teratology. 157-91. Print.