The single-camera mockumentary has become such a common genre over the past couple decades through sitcoms like Arrested Development, The Office, and Modern Family that it’s hard to remember a time when it was more of an outlier than the norm. We’re familiar enough with the mockumentary format now to immediately understand the way they play with our perceptions of authenticity, but there was a time (let’s clock it as pre-Best in Show) where the genre was more subversive. There are a lot of urban legends about audiences taking early mockumentaries at face value, believing Spinal Tap to be a real band, the cannibals of Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Cannibal Holocaust to be real cannibals, the Blair Witch to be a real witch, etc. I never really knew how sincerely to take those stories until I read that The Hellstrom Chronicle won the 1972 Oscar for “Best Documentary Feature” despite being an obvious parody of the documentary format instead of the real deal. I assumed that factoid was a prank Wikipedia edit, but then I confirmed it on the Academy of Motion Pictures website. A mockumentary indeed won the most prestigious industry award for documentary films, which has got to be some implication of how novel the genre used to be before Jim met Pam – novel enough, apparently, to make moviegoers believe in witchcraft & killer insects.
The Hellstrom Chronicle is a drive-in era exploitation horror about the inevitability of insects taking over the planet, recalling 1950s B-pictures like Them!, Tarantula, and The Deadly Mantis. It just happens to be delivered in the style of a David Attenborough nature documentary, hosted by the fictitious Dr. Nils Hellstrom, PhD (credited as a performance by actor Lawrence Pressman in the final scroll). Hellstrom lectures for the entire 90min runtime in deliriously overwritten, Ed Woodian dialogue about how bugs are “gruesome robots” and an “infectious virus” that will soon violently overthrow humanity for planetary dominance if we don’t act soon. These rants are illustrated by hi-fi nature footage of insects eating, mating, and waging war in the wild, scored by arhythmic drums & winding strings to emphasize their gnarly brutality. The opening credits thank well-respected universities and research institutions to feign an air of legitimacy, but by the time Hellstrom is opining about how termite mounds are primitive computers built to calculate our collective doom, it’s so outrageously over-the-top that it cannot be taken seriously. Screenwriter David Seltzer (The Omen, Willy Wonka, Bird on a Wire) is obviously just amusing himself with how far he can push the film’s central conceit without fully tipping into comedic parody, and it’s a pure-trash joy to tag along for the indulgence.
To the Academy’s credit, The Hellstrom Chronicle did eventually prove to be prescient of where documentary filmmaking was heading, at least the version of documentary filmmaking you’ll find on basic cable. It particularly recalls the ominous pseudoscience of Discovery Channel & History Channel programs, where facts are allowed to be fuzzy as long as they freak out the audience enough to keep them hanging on through commercial brakes. Pair that basic-cable sensationalism with William Herzog’s deadpan rants about the cold cruelty of Nature, and you pretty much have The Hellstrom Chronicle‘s basic blueprint. It’s not actually useful or even functional as an educational tool about the resiliency of insects, nor does it really pretend to be. Halfway into the runtime, it gets bored with sticking to pure nature footage and takes self-amusing detours into classic horror movie clips and candid camera pranks. It’s less appropriate for the classroom than it is for late-night “Bad Movie” parties, so you can have a laugh making your roommate paranoid about killer ants between bong rips. Phase IV might as well have won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. They’re working with about the same level of authentic, scientifically presented nature footage, and the one that was featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is likely the one that’s more realistic about the collective killing power of ants as a species. Not for nothing, they’re also both great films.