Friday, August 1, 2014

Killer Tomates! Wild Strawberries! Giant Grasshoppers! It's "The Beginning Of The End"!

 Size does matter in Bert I. Gordon's grasshopper epic "The Beginning of the End".

Say, movie lovers, I have a question for you: How do you feel about genetically modified food? You know, food grown from seeds that scientists have dickered around with in the lab?

Some folks see GMF as a clever way to feed the world. Others fear unforeseen side effects.

Me? I tend to side with those who urge caution. Why? Is it because I am a vegan? A back to nature type? A foodie?

None of thee above. It's because I am a Junk Cinema lover--and I have seen Bert I. Gordon's "The Beginning of the End", which dared to show way back in 1957 that GMF was a VERY BAD IDEA.

It all begins innocently enough. A teenage couple in lover's lane are happily making out in a spiffy convertible. They come up for air and the girl suddenly screams. A few seconds later, a pair of cops out on patrol find their car twisted into a heap and the teenagers are nowhere to be found.

After that shocking discovery comes another even more shocking discovery: The entire town of Ludlow, Illinois (pop. 150) is destroyed! Ruined! There is not a single soul left!

 "Hey, Mare! Get Lou Grant on the line!" Hot-shot reporter Audrey Ames works her beat.
Next we are introduced to spunky girl reporter/photographer Audrey Ames (Peggy Castle), who works for "National Wire Service." She's en route to another assignment when she comes upon a detour. What gives? When the military won't let her through, Audrey smells a cover-up.
Turns out the town of Ludlow (pop.150) has been destroyed and there are no survivors. But you already knew that, right? Well, Audrey doesn't buy it, telling the C.O. in charge, "A town of 150 people just doesn't vanish!"
Because all spunky girl reporter/photographers are, well, spunky, Audrey decides to do some investigating on her own. Her nose for news leads her to a pre-"Mission: Impossible" Peter Graves, who plays Ed Wainwright, a scientist for the Department of Agriculture. Ed is using atomic energy to grow fruits and veggies. Huge fruits and veggies. I mean, his apples are the size of a Dodge Dart.
Hmm. Could there be a connection this atomic powered produce and the events at Ludlow?
Audrey, Ed and his loyal assistant Frank (who lost his hearing in a radiation accident) travel the back roads to Ludlow. Poking around, the trio discovers the grass has been chewed to bits. Then they hear a strange clicking sound. Suddenly a grasshopper the size of a skyscraper hops on screen and eats Frank! Audrey and Ed drive off in horror.

"Peek-A-Boo! I see you!" Ill-fated Frank has a close encounter with a giant grasshopper.

At military HQ, Peter and Peggy try to convince pug-faced Col. Sturgeon (Thomas B. Henry) that danger is imminent. In vain. The military brass doesn't buy the idea of king sized grasshoppers turning the great state of Illinois into their personal salad bar of doom. But after Graves accompanies a platoon on maneuvers, opinions quickly change. Despite tons of guns and ammo, the gigantic grasshoppers devour half the company. Suddenly death by grasshoppers is a very real possibility.

How did this happen? Well, it turns out some grasshoppers got into Ed's super atomic plant food. They then hippity-hopped over to a grain silo, where the bugs chowed down with abandon. The more they ate, the bigger the bugs got until they burst out of the silo. Now the size of freight trains, the grasshoppers proceed to munch the hapless citizens of Ludlow into oblivion. Oh, the humanity!

With the fate of the entire human race at stake, what's to be done? The military, naturally, wants to go in with guns a-blazin'. Failing that, they want to bring in the nukes. Nukes! Ed, on the other hand, argues for a more scientific approach. Audrey, never in the same outfit twice, stands by Ed. She does that for the rest of the flick. Literally. She never moves.

As the clock ticks away and all of Chicago hangs in the balance, Ed finally comes up with a solution: he makes a recording of the grasshoppers mating call (I bet you didn't know that the bigger the bug, the hornier they are. Well, it's true.). With this siren song playing, the grasshoppers are then lured into Lake Michigan, where they quickly drown. The world safe at last, everybody breathes a sigh of relief...oh, what's this? Ed isn't so sure the danger has passed. Could other insects have eaten the super duper plant food? Could other insects and bugs and stuff be growing at a super sized rate as we speak?

On that cheerful note, "The Beginning of the End" concludes its broadcast day. Good luck and God bless.

Now, experienced Junk Cinema lovers will note that the fate of the gigantic grasshoppers in this flick mirrors the fate of the killer bees in Irwin Allen's notorious "The Swarm" (1978). In that flick, bee expert Michael Caine (!) lures the nasty little buzzers into the Gulf of Mexico with the sound of the Queen Bee's mating call (you knew bees were total sex maniacs, right? Well, they are.). After the bees dived in head first into the drink, the scientists then poured OIL on them and SET THE GULF ON FIRE! Green Peace must have had a fit.

 "This is a bug hunt, man! A bug hunt!" The military goes great guns after the grasshoppers.

I also feel it is my duty to ask if drowning gigantic grasshoppers who gulped down some atomic plant food (and their killer bee buddies) is really such a good idea. I mean, wouldn't the bugs pollute the water? And wouldn't setting fire to the Gulf of Mexico be a bit, oh, dangerous environmentally? I'm just asking, mind you; I don't have a better solution. I am just, well, concerned.

Moving right along, Bert I. Gordon wasn't the only one warning folks about the dangers of rouge bugs and evil plants. If you happened to watch "Lost in Space" way back when, you would know that "Space Family Robinson" encountered no less than three episodes about evil plants: "Attack of the Monster Plants", "The Space Croppers" (which featured Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge, no less) and "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" where the whole family was turned into plant people. Meanwhile, over on the set of "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", a mad scientist forced his twin to make evil plants and vicious sea weed during the "Plant Man" episode in 1967.

Film-maker Bert I. Gordon became known as "Mr. B.I.G." because of A) his initials and B) his fondness for super-sized subject matter. Bet I. has dealt with giant people ("The Amazing Colossal Man" and its sequel "War of the Colossal Beast"), giant rats ("Food of the Gods"), and giant ants in "Empire of the Ants"--which starred a pre-"Dynasty" Joan Collins battling cheap special effects with only one costume change. In this dilly, the ants grow to the size of Buicks after sampling a bit too much of the illegally dumped toxic waste some corporate baddies dumped in the sea. After they mutate, the ants take over a tiny town and enslave the human residents. In her autobiography, Joan admitted she did "Empire of the Ants" because her family needed the money; shortly after film wrapped, poor Joan went on unemployment.

This just proves my point that Junk Cinema is not merely entertaining; it's also educational. After watching "The Beginning of the End", who would believe that GMF is a good idea? The message of the film is loud and clear: Don't fool with Mother Nature! Use natural fertilizer! Grow your own produce! And keep nuclear by-products away from the bugs, for heaven's sake!

Until next time, save the movies!

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