Tuesday, June 16, 2015

June Bugs :: An Uncomfortable Fear of the Known: The King of the B's Flames Out with Jeannot Szwarc's Bug (1975)

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"We live."
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I remember watching Bug (1975) when I was like, eleven or twelve, a movie of the week, and remember it fah-reaking the hell out of me, which had me anxious to give it another spin. I knew I had a copy, somewhere, having bought the DVD when it was released back in 2004 but, turns out, I never even removed the plastic wrap until last night. Guess there was some residual freak-out still lingering. Mebbe. Whatever. Wait. Why is my leg suddenly itching...

Anyways, the film was based on the Thomas Page novel, The Hephaestus Plague (1973), which is set in the fruit and tobacco belt down south. It kicks off with an earthquake that opens up a near bottomless, several-counties long chasm, which disgorges thousands of large, beetle-like insects. Armored like a mini-Sherman tank, making them nearly impossible to squish, and filled with a strange symbiotic bacteria instead of the usual internal organs, this new breed of pesticide-resistant bug are also equipped with a special set of rear antennae, which when rubbed together, spark like two pieces of flint, burning everything it comes into contact with and reducing everything around them to carbonized ash; the only thing these critters will eat. And so, like a slow but relentless plague of highly flammable locusts, these firebugs start wreaking all kinds of havoc with the local farmers. And once these bugs start hitching a ride on passing automobiles, what was once an isolated problem soon becomes a nationwide epidemic.

Enter entomologist James Parmiter, a pompous unlikable lout, whose morbid fascination with all things that creep and crawl give him the insight to classify and find this new species of bugs' vulnerabilities, which, in a feat of hubris, he names Hephaestus parmitera, putting himself in the same league as the Greek god of fire. Labeling them as an offshoot of the common cockroach, Parmiter deduces that the reason these bugs are so slow and dense is because they come from deep beneath the Earth's crust, where they were under considerable atmospheric pressure; and now, basically, they're suffering from a case of the bends. Things get a little weird from there as the obsessed Parmiter -- some might even call him... mad -- has no intention of destroying the bug but instead starts to crossbreed them with regular roaches, creating a new strain; a new strain that can communicate with him!

It's been awhile since I'd read Page's novel, as well (-- I vaguely recall reading it not long after I saw the movie, finding one of those "Now a Major Motion-Picture' tie-ins at some broken-spine), and the only thing I really remember about it is the hair-brained efforts to find a natural predator for the firebugs. A tarantula's venom proves worthless and a centipede is no match and quickly shredded; but the one test I recall vividly is the Gila Monster, which ate one of the bugs only to have it burn itself back out through its stomach. The film adaptation alludes to this scene at the beginning, when a family farm-cat has a similar fatal encounter with several of the bugs, the first of many gruesome and prolonged casualties -- especially if you're a feline, or blonde and pretty and female.

After establishing a reputation as the low-rent master of fright, William Castle had unleashed over a decade's worth of gimmick-driven films; and at the zenith of his popularity, the man's personal fan club had nearly a quarter of a million card-carrying members. But after introducing the world to Percepto, Illusion-O, Emergo and the Fright Break, the producer / director seemed to achieve a paradigm shift in his career when he secured the rights to Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, which he leveraged into a deal with Paramount, who would let him produce the film but not direct it. Unfortunately, this shift stalled when bad health kinda derailed things after Rosemary's Baby (1968) proved a box-office bonanza. His next film, Project-X (1968) was a disaster, and his personal art-project, Shanks (1974), which is better than you've heard, failed to find an audience. With Paramount's patience at an end, in an effort to get his groove back, Castle decided to return to his roots and make another horror movie.

The 1970s saw a brief resurgence in "mad science" monster movies. Some were pretty great -- Phase IV (1974), some will surprise you by how good they were -- Sssssss (1973), some were hilarious -- Night of the Lepus (1972), and some were pretty awful -- Food of the Gods (1976), and then there's Bug, which is kind of a combination of all the above.

Again, Castle would only produce Bug, leaving the directing to Jeannot Szwarc, who, for a brief -- and I mean, brief, period of time, was pegged to rival Spielberg as the best of the new young Turks of Hollywood in the 1970s. I've never been a big fan of Szwarc, finding his films flat, lifeless, and dull-looking. Perfunctory. I've never seen someone who can make cinema on some of his budgets -- Supergirl (1984) and Santa Claus (1985), look like cash-in made for TV movies. Bug didn't have that kind of money, but the director still managed to pull the effect off. *sigh* In his defense, I guess he was really good at that.

During pre-production, Castle had also wanted to bring back some of his old-school ballyhoo by installing automatic brushes under theater seats that would activate and tickle the audiences' ankles at certain strategic points to induce a case of the heebie-geebies. This was deemed not cost-effective by the studio and nixed. Undaunted, Castle still embarked on a personal cross-country promotional tour with "Hercules," one of the giant cockroaches used in the film, which Castle took out an enormous life insurance policy on.

As for the actual film, aside from moving the action to southern California, their adaptation doesn't stray too far from the source novel (in fact, Page co-wrote it with Castle), with one notable and sizable exception. Page's Parmiter was a bachelor who had turned his back on humanity long before the earth had broken open and belched-up his new best friends. One could almost consider him a co-conspirator of sorts. Szwarc's Parmiter, played brilliantly by Bradford Dillman, is very different. A little too caught up in his work perhaps, a little too target-fixated, but still a good man trying to solve a potentially epoch-level problem only no one will listen to him or pay attention to his findings. And what I remembered most about that initial screening wasn't the killer bugs, but the scientist slowly cracking up and making some horrific decisions; essentially one very sick man dooming humanity by adapting the "Bugs From the Earth's Core" to breathe and breed topside. This is what kept me up that night, not the giant cock-a-roaches. Though they were pretty gross.

It all falls apart for Parmiter when a careless oversight on his part results in the tragic immolation death of his wife (Miles) and the destruction of their home. Sharp eyes will notice the interior is the recycled kitchen, family room and den from the recently cancelled TV-series, The Brady Bunch. And even not-so-sharp eyes will spot Miles obvious stunt-double.

 Joanna Miles.

  Not Joanna Miles.

After that, he holes up in an isolated farmhouse with a pressurized tank, determined to crack and break the bugs to his will in several scenes that can best be described as insect torture porn. And while his method of cross-breeding a newer and even deadlier strain seems completely illogical to the viewer it's completely logical to him. That's what I mean by scary. And as a third generation of firebugs gestate, and a psychic hive-mind link is established between man and insect, it becomes crystal clear as to who is really controlling who.

Dillman's big break seemed to come early in his career when he played one half of Leopold and Loeb in Compulsion (1959), based on the notorious true-crime case and the resulting trial. But things kinda sputtered from there, which was bad for him but great for schlock cinema fans everywhere because he wound up in things like this, The Swarm (1978), Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979) and Piranha (1978), adding a metric-ton of gravitas. I have never encountered a more intriguing and pathetic mad scientist than James Parmiter; mostly because his efforts are based on emotional damage instead of the usual narcissism. He truly is insane. And in anyone else's hands, I fear it would've been a disaster.

If you read up on Bug the general consensus is: it's pretty good but drags in the middle. On that I will disagree, because the middle is about 80% wild-eyed and twitchy Dillman taking a long walk off a very short sanity pier and the other 20% is Patty McCormack getting eaten alive. No, where Bug ultimately fails is in the climax, and that's completely due to a grievous misstep by the FX department.

Up 'til the end, the bugs were played by a succession of real bugs shot with a macro lens to great effect, starting with the 'Blaberus giganteus' a/k/a the Central American giant cave cockroach as the first generation (-- the males look like freakin' trilobites), the Madagascar hissing cockroach as the second, and the Palmetto bug as the last incarnation. Palmetto bugs, of course, can fly, and when they burst out of the chasm, the super-imposition looks a little cheesy but it works. Unfortunately, Dillman has learned too late that he's made a grievous error in judgment (actually about six or seven of them), and is soon swarmed over by a bunch of plastic, off-the-shelf toys that no amount of quick-cut editing will make you ignore the very visible strings they're hanging from, nearly torpedoing all the creepy and icky stuff that had been happening for the previous half-hour.

Others may be more forgiving for such compromises, and they are endearing to a point (and bring to mind the flying cruller monsters from It Conquered the World (1956)). And if this film had been in the same gonzoid vein as, say, Night of the Lepus, it would've been fine and more forgivable -- even applauded, but the film was a little more ambitious than that I fear. And then Bug just kinda ends, with a fire-engulfed Parmiter cannonballing into the chasm, with his "children" swarming in after him, followed by what can only be quantified as a Divinely-timed aftershock that seals the breach before the end credits roll.

Well, crap. Until the last five minutes, Bug was as eerily effective as I remembered -- better than I'd remembered, actually, but is ultimately skewered by this digital age that isn't as forgiving as broadcast TV on a 12-inch screen was way back when. Sadly, this would be Castle's last film. (He died two years later.) And to add insult to injury, Bug had the misfortune of premiering the exact same day as Jaws in 1975, a big-budgeted B-picture that Castle and others of his ilk used to churn out almost weekly from 1955 through 1974 -- in fact I'd argue that Castle had already done this with Rosemary's Baby, and it got killed at the box-office. (Somewhat ironically, Szwarc's next project would be directing the sequel, Jaws 2 (1978), which, true to form, looks like a MFTV cash-in of the original.) 

This, is too bad. For even though it tripped over the finish line, I'd still give Bug a hearty recommendation. Watching Dillman work, alone, makes it worth a spin, the firebugs are just set-dressing. Nightmare inducing set-dressings, sure, because, I mean, *bleaugh* AND WHY ARE MY LEGS STILL ITCHING!?!

This post is part of June Bugs, a whole month long bucket of creepy-crawly reviews courtesy of The Celluloid Zeroes. Be sure to click on over to Cinemasochist Apocalypse, Checkpoint: Telstar, and The Terrible Claw Reviews for more insecticide insanity 

Bug (1975) William Castle Productions :: Paramount Pictures / P: William Castle / D: Jeannot Szwarc / W: William Castle, Thomas Page (novel)/ C: Michel Hugo / E: Allan Jacobs / M: Charles Fox / S: Bradford Dillman, Joanna Miles, Richard Gilliland, Jamie Smith-Jackson, Alan Fudge, Jesse Vint, Patty McCormack


Anonymous said...

I last watched this a couple of years ago and *my* legs are itching just reading this. .

W.B. Kelso said...

Bet you can also still smell the Typhoid Dillman funk, too.

Warren JB said...

"which, in a feat of hubris, he names Hephaestus parmitera, putting himself in the same league as the Greek god of fire."

Er, no. It's maybe a bit forward to name it after himself, but it basically means 'Parmitera's Hephaestus [beetle]' (or cockroach, or whatever it is), not "I NAME MYSELF HEPHAESTUS". If there was a second species discovered and named, say Hephaestus ciniphagus ('ash-eating Hephaestus beetle') that wouldn't be putting the greek god Hephaestus on the same level as pica sufferer.

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