Thursday, October 24, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: S is for The Savage Bees (1976)

As a cargo ship sporting the Brazilian flag putters up the Mississippi River Delta toward the port of New Orleans, all seems nominal until we move inside and see the ship is abandoned and adrift as a quick tour of the engine room, living quarters, and bridge prove deserted, disheveled, and silent except for an angry buzzing of an unseen insect-type nature -- he typed ominously.

And while it appears to be the middle of the day, the entire crew of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter somehow failed to notice this runaway freighter was on a direct collision course with them until it was too late. Luckily, when they do inevitably collide (-- on the cheap, represented by some of thee worst editing and over-emoting in a 'bridge of the Starship Enterprise under attack' sense), neither boat sinks. But a quick headcount shows two American sailors went over the side during the chaos and are currently MIA. And when the owners of the freighter contact the Captain, wanting to know how many survivors and the extent of any injuries, the reply is a simple, So would I, as his men confirm the other ship is empty.

The captain then gets a report on the freighter’s last transmission, which, and I quote, sounded frightened and garbled, as if the sender was choking on something as he warned everyone to stay away from the ship, end quote. With that, all leave for Mardi Gras is cancelled as the Coast Guard begins an ever widening search for all those missing men.

Meantime, further inland, a patrol car is toddling down a backroad until the driver spots a carcass in the grass and abruptly stops. Out steps parish Sheriff Donald McKew (Johnson), who is overcome with grief when he recognizes his dead dog, Zeke. Presuming someone with a grudge poisoned his pet, McKew lets his wife know he will be taking the corpse into New Orleans, where he will have the coroner do a necropsy on the animal to determine what kind of poison was used, and how he will then dedicate the rest of his life shaking down every store in his parish until he finds out who sold that poison to the low down dirty bastard what killed his dog and make him pay most righteously.

Meanwhile, up the road a piece, a mother (Sutton) sends her young daughter, Julie (Chase), off to church for her singing lessons. Told to mind her pretty new red dress along the way, the girl happily blows a plastic trumpet to serenade her journey on foot, waving to Sheriff McKew as he determinedly drives by. But when she nears the church, her tinny notes are overwhelmed by a deadly, pulsing drone as something large detaches from the steeple and swoops down toward her. The girl screams and turns tail. Alas, she is not fast enough.

Back on the river, the first body from the maritime disaster has been recovered. And to everyone’s surprise the waterlogged corpse is riddled with strange welts and pockmarks all over his body. Meantime, in Nawlins, Mardi Gras is in full swing when Sheriff McKew arrives at the coroner’s office with his dog, demanding an autopsy -- something, the secretary insists, they do not do on animals.

Luckily for McKew, the regular pathologist is off for the city-wide party but his temporary fill-in, Dr. Jeff Durand (Parks), is willing to take a look. And what he finds is most troubling. Like the dead sailor, the canine is covered in the same welts from which Durand retrieves a broken off stinger. And stranger still, when he begins an internal examination, he discovers the poor dog’s stomach is stuffed full of dead bees...

Like the backstory of any good disaster movie the root cause of the real-life Killer Bee epidemic was greed. Apparently, there are a total of 29-different subspecies of bees based mostly on where they are found with most differences linked to the geography they inhabit and how they adapted to survive there. But all species of bees are cross fertile, and the African honey bee was found to be far superior than their counterparts when it comes to pollinating and honey production -- a single hive of Africanized bees can produce 220lbs of honey annually while the European standard only generates 20 to 60lbs. But pluses always come with minuses  -- like the African bee’s more aggressive behavior when guarding the hive, making them more easily provoked; and once provoked, they are more likely to attack a perceived threat en masse; and they will then pursue this threat over much longer distances than your standard bee.

But contrary to popular belief, the venom of an African bee isn’t that much more potent than, say, a European honey bee. The problem lies in the number of stings received as once stirred up, African bees remain riled for hours. You piss one off, you’ve pissed them all off. Even if you’re not allergic, multiple stings can cause skin inflammation, dizziness, headaches, weakness, edema, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. And in more extreme cases, an increased heart-rate, respiratory distress, renal failure, and death.

Still, despite the danger, there was money to be made. And so, noble intentions or not, a biologist named Warwick Kerr brought several hives of African bees to an apiary near São Paulo, Brazil, with the intent of crossbreeding them with the European version. The hope was to create a new strain with the best traits from both species: the superior production of the Africans and the more docile nature of the Europeans. But things went staggeringly awry in October, 1957, when a visiting beekeeper unwittingly removed all the proper filters allowing a grand total of 27 swarms of the smaller African bees to escape quarantine, allowing the more aggressive insects to take over the Amazon basin, wreaking havoc on the domestic bee populations along the way, essentially breeding them out of existence, resulting in the deaths of nearly 1000 people and untold numbers of livestock. And then this new invasive species slowly and surely started migrating to the north.

But folks in the United States weren’t all that concerned about these bees until it became abundantly clear in the more ecologically-minded 1970s that these swarms would definitely breach our borders sometime in the next decade. Here, the media played this up big and lurid, focusing on all the casualties that could be linked to this new strain of Africanized bees, exaggerating their aggressive territoriality into actively seeking out human victims, which soon bred a brand new designation: the Killer Bees. This twist in the narrative caused a bit of panic and paranoia, which in turn fueled several speculative books and feature film adaptations on what would happen when these Killer Bees finally reached our shores and the havoc and mass-destruction they would cause.

It was one of these very same sensational articles that inspired Arthur Herzog to write The Swarm in 1974, which was later optioned and adapted into a feature film by the Disaster King himself, Irwin Allen. And though The Swarm (1978) was truly awful and a box-office dud that effectively killed the star-studded-has-been disaster boom of that decade (-- which is too bad, as Herzog’s novel, written in a Michael Crichton ticking-clock vein was actually pretty good), the, forgive me, buzz during its production was enough for Roger Corman to get there first with The Bees (1978) -- well, until Warner Bros. paid him off to hold up the film’s release until after The Swarm debuted, along with several TV-networks who also tried to cash in.

But films about rampaging bees were nothing new, really. The Deadly Bees (1967) saw a recuperating pop singer stuck on an island retreat where a killer used a new strain of aggressive bees as his murder weapon of choice. 

And Curtis Harrington’s Killer Bees (1974) saw Gloria Swanson telepathically controlling a hive of bees to do her deadly bidding. But while both of those films involved killer bees we didn’t get to a true “Killer Bee” movie until Bruce Geller’s The Savage Bees (1976) aired on Monday, November 22, 1976, on NBC. I was there, and I remember watching it with my siblings on the old family Zenith.

Now, one of the reasons the inevitable invasion of the Africanized bees was played down for so long was the powers-that-be did not want to start any kind of mass panic that would backlash against the vitally important domestic bee population in a “kill ‘em all just to be safe” sense. And surprisingly enough, given the tenor of the times, The Savage Bees stays on a surprisingly even keel as Durand, unsure of what would cause bees to behave this way, puts in a call to an old acquaintance, Jeannie Devereaux (Corbett), an entomology professor at Tulane, for some help.

She confirms his diagnosis of “toxic paralysis” as a cause of death and asks to examine one of the dead bees just as the recovered sailor’s remains arrive for autopsy, who also has bees in his stomach and enough venom in his system to kill an elephant. Thus, Durand has two samples for Jeannie to examine. And while she has her suspicions on what they might be, she wants another second opinion. And get this they do from Dr. Rufus Carter (Hecht) of the National Bee Stock Center, who confirms the specimens were from an Africanized strain.

Then, after hearing what Durand knows about the sailor’s death, Carter theorizes the colony must have hitched a ride on the freighter, got disturbed, killed the whole crew, and are now on the loose near a highly-populated area. And while Durand wants to sound the alarm bell, both Carter and Jeannie say it’s not that simple and show him a video that features Dr. Jorge Mueller, the world’s leading expert on the Africanized strain, who gives a brief history lesson and tries to dispel a few Killer Bee myths, saying the main thing is not to panic or the consequences for the domestic bee could be catastrophic.

Now, there are two important factors to remember from this lecture: one, Killer Bees don’t like the color red or black (-- Julie’s new dress was bright red), and they respond aggressively toward high pitched sounds (-- like, say, boat’s collision warning horn). Thus, a plan is set in motion where Sheriff McKew heads back to his parish to try and locate where the Killer Bees have nested but not take any action against them while Durand and Jeannie at least make the civil authorities aware of the problem.

Seems Carter has been in contact with Dr. Mueller about their dire situation and he is on his way with a possible solution -- make that the only real solution. However, the police play deaf and dumb and send them higher up the food chain. But most of City Hall is empty due to the Mardi Gras celebration. And while Deputy Mayor Pelligrino (Best) seems helpful at first, they even have contingency plans in place for such a thing, he warns the wheels of bureaucracy runs awful slow and it will probably be at least three to four days before the city takes any action.

And the fact that Mardi Gras doesn’t end for another three days essentially means the City of New Orleans has officially refused to close the beaches. (Mr. Deputy Mayor, what you are dealing with here is a stinging machine that only sleeps, pollinates, and makes little bees. That’s it. And you’re gonna ignore this problem until it flies up and stings you in the ass!) Here, Jeannie has to work fast before an incensed Durand takes their deadly discovery to the press and convinces him to give Mueller’s plan the time it needs.

But it’s already too late for some as a missing dead farmer is fished out of the river, and then McKew and his deputies find what’s left of poor Julie all while looking for the hive. This search is soon joined by Durand, Jeannie, Carter and Dr. Mueller (Bucholz), who explains why carpet-bombing the bees with pesticide won’t work and will only exacerbate the situation if even one drone escapes. He then reveals his plan to replace the hive’s Africanized queen with a domestic queen, which will leave this batch of Killer Bees at a genetic dead end. (My cursory research shows this plan won’t work, but, eh, lets roll with it.)

When they finally find the hive, located inside a roadside food stand, Mueller tells McKew and the others to set up roadblocks to keep everyone else away while he and Jeannie move in closer to facilitate his plan.

Here, Mueller has Jeannie stop her car about fifty yards from the shack. She will remain inside the car while he, decked out in a bee-proof suit of his own design, enters the shack, finds the owner, dead, and then slowly approaches the hive and starts digging into this living mass of death for the needed queen.

Meantime, Deputy Doofus and Deputy Dipshit allow two costumed revelers destined for Mardi Gras to blow right past their checkpoint. And to make matters even worse, fearing McKew will kill them, they don’t report this breach. Thus, these intruders continue on, a man and a woman, dressed as pirates, who stop at the shack when the woman decides she’s hungry. Jeannie is too far away to warn them as they honk their horn, demanding service. 

This, of course, causes the bees to swarm and attack them. And as Mueller tries to herd them to safety, the man, blindly swinging his pirate sword around, slices open the protective suit allowing the bees to get inside.

Thus, as all three die rather horribly, Jeannie helplessly watches the whole thing. And as she tries to look away, her head bumps into the steering wheel, triggering the car horn of her cherry red VW Bug. Thus, the angry bees soon swarm again and envelop her car completely. Contacting Durand over the radio, Jeannie gives a panicked update on her dire situation. 

Brainstorming for solutions on how to save the woman and stop the bees, Carter offers bees become immobile at 45-degrees. McKew asks about an ice house, but Carter feels that’s too risky and the noise would scatter them. No, what they need is a quiet controlled environment to guarantee they don’t lose one single solitary bee. And there’s only one building close enough to fit the bill: the Superdome in New Orleans. Because, sure.

Thus and so, Jeannie is instructed to drive her car, very slowly, as they form an ersatz convoy to escort her and the nesting swarm through the heart of the French Quarter. And as the others clear the streets ahead of her in a scene eerily reminiscent of Night of the Lepus (1972), Jeannie, who can barely see out the windshield, manages to almost make it before the swarm fouls the engine and the car stalls out in the shadow of the Superdome. Here, Durand commandeers one of the squad cars and gently pushes her through the entrance. Already inside, McKew and the stadium attendant have sealed the building and turned the air-conditioner on full blast.

And as the scoreboard continues to flash the current temperature -- and the attendant isn’t even sure he can reach the designated 45-degrees, Jeannie tries to hold it together as Durand keeps assuring her over the radio. And after a few tense minutes, the temperature finally drops far enough that the bees, after one last surge of activity, become inert and fall to the ground, ending the threat -- for now.

As a child of the 1970s and a complete cryptid nut, I was keenly aware of the impending Killer Bee Apocalypse and, therefore, saw every feature in their oeuvre and can honestly say every last one of them is awful. Which is why when I say The Savage Bees is probably the best of the bunch that ain’t really saying a whole lot. It’s pretty turgid and moves with no urgency at all, and the editing is seizure inducing in spots. And while the actual bee attack scenes come off pretty well thanks to the efforts of head bee-wrangler, Norman Gary, the film’s ultimate failure is there just weren’t enough of them to keep the audience interested.

I’m also thinking most of the telefilm’s budget was spent on the cast, and they’re all pretty much wasted. Still, professionals all, they do their best to make something out of nothing. Ben Johnson is always great, and two scenes really stand out. First, when he excuses himself from his dog’s autopsy -- the anguish is real.

And second, when Durand and Carter find a dead chicken and ritual chalk patterns on the ground while looking for the hive, McKew says not to touch anything because it’s a sacred veve, voodoo, and to leave it as is because they need all the help they can get at this point.

Also, I’ve had a long standing crush on Gretchen Corbett since her Beth Davenport days on The Rockford Files, and her performance did nothing to diminish this; and Michael Parks is fine as the hero. Again, they’re all too good to be wasting their time with this nonsense.

Strangely, there was a lot of clout behind the camera, too. Bruce Geller was a TV legend when it came to writing and producing, having created hit series like Mannix and Mission: Impossible. But The Savage Bees was a rare outing in the director’s chair for Geller and his inexperience shows badly as the film comes off as barely perfunctory half the time. The script came courtesy of Guerdon Trueblood, another TV vet, who penned some excellent made for TV movies like Sole Survivor (1970), and the totally gonzo The Love War (1970), and SST: Death Flight (1977), along with two solid feature films, Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (1971) and The Last Hard Men (1976); and don’t forget he directed the total mind-f@ck of a movie, The Candy Snatchers (1973), where a kidnap and ransom go horribly, horribly awry.

And one of the telefilm’s producers was Alan Landsburg, whose Alan Landsburg Productions had their fingerprints all over the place when it came to cryptids and strange phenomenon with things like The Outer Space Connection (1975) and Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle (1978). Landsburg had also recently launched the 'Mysteries of the Unknown' anthology series, In Search Of... hosted by Leonard Nimoy, which even featured an episode on Killer Bees. In fact, Landsburg and Trueblood would team up again almost immediately, sticking with the theme of multi-legged, killer creepy crawlies and brought to the small screen It Happened at Lakewood Manor (1977), featuring killer ants, the self-explanatory Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978), which was a half-assed sequel to The Savage Bees, where even fewer people are attacked. Thus, The Savage Bees had quite the pedigree, but it still kinda stinks.

I seem to recall there was one final big Killer Bee panic when they hopped over the Panama Canal around 1982, which some had hoped would provide some kind of not-quite-natural barrier. They reached Mexico by 1985, and had established their first colonies in the United States by 1990, spreading into Texas and Arizona. And by 1997, the Africanized strain made up nearly 90% of the total bee population in some southern States. And while the colder climate further north does act as a deterrent, colonies had been discovered in Colorado as of 2012. But who knows, as the climate goes to hell and regular bees die off with frightening regularity, wouldn’t it be ironic if this tougher strain, which we thought would be the bane of our existence, turns out to be our only hope to keep the food chain in one piece? Noodle that for a bit, why don’t ya.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! That's 19 reviews down with seven more to go! Up Next: The Bermuda Board of Tourism Takes Another Hit for the Team.

The Savage Bees (1976) Alan Landsburg Productions :: Don Kirshner Productions :: National Broadcasting Company (NBC)/ EP: Merrill Grant, Don Kirshner, Alan Landsburg / P: Bruce Geller / D: Bruce Geller / W: Guerdon Trueblood / C: Richard C. Glouner / E: Bud Friedgen, George Hively / M: Walter Murphy / S: Ben Johnson, Michael Parks, Gretchen Corbett, Paul Hecht, Horst Buchholz, James Best

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