Tuesday, April 28, 2020

"The Swarm" Is The Ultimate Bee Movie

Henry Fonda reacts in horror after watching his latest film, 1978's "The Swarm."

Hello to you and yours, movie lovers.

Back in the late 1970's, reports began surfacing that a strain of African Killer Bees were heading for our shores.

Besides causing death and destruction in their wake, these nasty little buggers were mating with scores of otherwise well-behaved bees and creating offspring that were just as bad or possibly even worse. 

As news stories telegraphing this threat began to grow in intensity, scientists began to fret that the public was becoming unnaturally paranoid about bees.

Veteran producer/director Irwin Allen, on the other hand, decided this fast approaching winged menace was a perfect tie-in for his next big blockbuster: "The Swarm" (1978), where an all-star cast would heroically battle a fleet of deadly buzzing bees.

Micheal Caine is mad as hell he accepted a role in "The Swarm" before reading the script.

So confident was Allen about his latest flick, he declared, "I think 'The Swarm' is going to be the most terrifying movie ever made."

Mmmm...Irwin? Ever hear the old saying, "Don't count your chickens (or your bees) before they're hatched?" 

That might have proved helpful, because instead of crafting (along with screenwriter Stirling Sililliphant) a timely terror, Allen inadvertently created one of the zaniest bad movies EVER MADE, a flick so delightfully dense it regularly appears on "The Worst Movies of All Time" lists--and was a top vote-getter in the first Golden Turkey Awards, ranking right behind third place finisher "King Kong" and second place honoree "The Exorcist II: The Heretic" ("Plan 9 From Outer Space" was the ultimate winner).

"I never thought it would be the bees!" wails Michael Caine at one point. "They've always been our friends!"

Not any more.


The bees are no longer our friends.

Cast member count off:

Brad Crane (Sir Michael Caine)--The world's leading insect expert, he's been sounding the alarm about a possible insect attack for years, but has anyone listened to him? Now that the bees are on a rampage, the President has made Brad (a foreigner!) in charge of the whole shootin' match.

General Slater (Richard Widmark)--A gung-ho, by-the-book military man charged with helping Dr. Crane coordinate the US' response to the bee threat. Slater and Crane disagree on everything and get into huge hissy fits over tactics and their environmental consequences. Gen. Slater also has a potty mouth.

Dr. Helena Anderson (Katharine Ross)--A medical lady doctor somehow attached to the military. Helena bravely led four fellow soldiers to safety by crawling through an air conditioning duct when a swarm of killer bees attacked their base. As the fight to save humanity from the bees takes shape, Dr. Crane and Helena begin a very tepid romance--and I do mean tepid. They don't even hold hands!

Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain)--Often an adversary of Dr. Crane, Dr. Hubbard creates some eco-friendly poison pellets to stop the bees, but the insects refuse to eat them. As Dr. Crane surmises, "The bees somehow realize (the pellets) aren't good for them."

"Bombs away!": The US military tries to buzz bomb the killer bees.

Damn, these bees are smart!

Later, Dr. Hubbard will have the thankless task of trying to convince Dr. Andrews (Jose Ferrer) to shut down his nuclear reactor as a safety precaution.

"Billions of dollars have been spent to make these nuclear plants safe!" Dr. Andrews sputters. "Fail safe! The odds against anything going wrong are astronomical, doctor!"

To which Dr. Hubbard replies, "In all your fail-safe techniques, is there a provision for an attack of killer bees?"

Sadly, no.

"Now do you BEElieve me?": Dr. Hubbard's prediction that Dr. Andrews' nuclear power plant wasn't safe from killer bees proves true.

Dr. Walter Krim (Henry Fonda)--Yet another world renown bee expert/epidemiologist, Dr. Krim has analyzed the venom of these nasty little buggers and declares, "They're more virulent than the Australian Brown Box Jelly Fish!" What's more, their fecal matter "smells just like bananas." (Although Dr. Krim is confined to a wheelchair, you see him kick open a swinging door as he's pushed around the air base.)

Now, because all this back and forth between bickering scientists and military brass can get very old very fast, director Allen often turns his attention to Marysville, a small Texas town best known for its annual Flower Festival. Of course, all those flowers have put the town in the bees' line of fire. Even worse, Marysville is populated by irritating sub-plots, hammy actors and cheap F/X.

The first sub-plot is a torrid love triangle between engineer Ben Johnson, store owner Fred MacMurry and school principal Olivia de Havilland. Both men want to marry Olivia, and MacMurry even turns up at school to desperately plead his case: "Maureen, how long have we known each other? About thirty years? All that time, have you ever heard me beg? Maureen, I'm willing to beg now. I want you to marry me. I know people look at me and think I'm just the man behind the aspirin counter, but inside I love you!"

Too bad the killer bees are heading straight for town and everybody has to be evacuated and de Havilland can't make-up her mind and this is no time to plan a wedding!

The second plot point concerns Patty Duke, a local waitress with a bun in the oven. Her fiance (a soldier at the near-by military base) was one of the killer bees' first victims, so Duke is pretty bummed out. Then, wouldn't you know it, she goes into labor just as the bees swoop into town. The good news is attending physician Tomas (Alejandro Rey) is crazy about Patty and hopes she'll marry him, especially since that other guy is out of the picture.

Patty Duke (as pregnant waitress Rita) struggles to answer the question, "Why are you in this movie?"

Our third and final sub plot involves a sniveling little twerp named Paul (Christian Juttner). He was out enjoying a picnic with his parents when a swarm of killer bees swooped in to join the fun. Not only did the evil insects endlessly jab mom and dad with their lethal stingers, they absconded with all the sandwiches and potato salad!

Paul manages to lock himself in the family car, but the bees cover the vehicle, causing the hysterical kid to turn on the windshield wipers to fight them off. Seconds later, he drives off toward town (Paul is about 11 or 12), landing in the hospital fighting off lurid bee hallucinations.

Later on, Paul sneaks out of the hospital and, with the help of two buddies, fire bombs the bees' hive in an act of retaliation. The highlight of this revenge attack? When Paul and his pals take cover in the aluminum garbage cans they handily brought along!

Of course, the boys' attack on the bees did send the nasty little buggers into Marysville, where they attacked everybody in sight and caused, like, 200 casualties. Filled with regret, Paul confesses all to Helena, who, weakened by her own bee stings, can only wail, "Oh, Paul, oh, Paul" over and over again. Eventually Paul tells Dr. Crane what he did. The good doctor (who lost his own parents in a house fire) forgives Paul and makes him promise never to do it again. Paul agrees.

Now, you may begin to wonder what set the bees off in the first place. Was it pent up rage over centuries of exploitation by mankind? Was it anger over the destruction of their natural environment? Was it fury over climate change, global warming and deforestation? Perhaps a combination of all of thee above?

"He's Got a Bee in His Bonnet"--Sniveling twerp Paul and his friends cleverly hide from the bees.

Nope. Clever Dr. Crane has figured out that the military base and the nuclear power plant each had warning alarms that sounded just like the mating call of a Queen bee. As you probably know, bees are total sex fiends, they have no shame and that's what's causing the problem. So, at Dr. Crane's direction, the city of Houston is evacuated. Speakers are lowered into the ocean broadcasting the Queen's mating call. Right on cue, swarm after swarm of horny bees emerge and dive into the drink. Then, oil is poured onto the water's surface and set aflame--yes, oil is poured on the water's surface and set aflame. The killer bees are burned to a crisp and the nightmare is finally over. The flick is over, too.

Whew!

When a movie is as bad as "The Swarm", you must ask yourself, was it the awful direction, the awful script or the awful acting that created this buzzing turkey?

I'm of the opinion that all three of those elements working in tandem made "The Swarm" the Junk Cinema Jewel we love today.

First, the insane script by Sterling Silliphant is absolutely jam-packed with lines guaranteed to go down in the Scriptwriters Hall Shame. To wit:

Hey, future filmmakers! Pouring pepper over your camera lens can create the illusion of swarming bees. Or not.

"I'm going to be the first officer in U.S. battle history to get his butt kicked by a mess of bugs!"--Gen. Slater.

"Oh my gosh! Bees! They're all around me! Bees! Bees!"--doomed Air Force pilot.

"Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!"--another doomed pilot.

"This use to be such a happy little town..."--Dr. Helena musing about how the killer bees have made life in Marysville so sad.

"Are you endowing these bees with human motives?!"--Dr. Crane screams at Gen. Slater.


"Mind your own BEEswax!": Gen. Slater has yet another fight with Dr. Crane.

"I always credit my enemy, no matter what he may be, with equal intelligence!"--Gen. Slater retorts to Dr. Crane.

Then there is the acting. Or lack of it. Although Michael Cane, Olivia de Haviland, Ben Johnson, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke, Lee Grant and Henry Fonda were former (and future) Oscar winners (Olivia had two Oscars, in fact), these performers stumble through the movie with all the finesse of porn stars attempting Richard the Third. That's because their characters are thinly drawn cliches and Silliphant's script (he was an Oscar winner, too, by the way) has them say really dumb stuff, like this exchange between Dr. Crane and Gen. Slater:

Dr. Crane: "General, if you use that (highly toxic pesticide) nothing will grow here for ten years!"

Gen. Slater: "Why worry about shaving when somebody's going to cut your head off?!"

Given the material at hand, it shouldn't be surprising that even good actors couldn't avoid disgracing themselves. Meanwhile, the bad actors (like Katharine Ross, Richard Chamberlain and that kid who played Paul) were their usual bad selves, so no surprises there.

"Now that's a dumb idea!": Testy Gen. Slater tries to shoot at killer bees.

The awfulness of Silliphant's script, wouldn't you know, dove-tails nicely with Irwin Allen's flat-footed direction. Simply put, he doesn't know how direct actors. What's more, he has all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, especially when he wants to make "a point". For example, while Fred MacMurry is waiting outside deHaviland's office to propose marriage, he's accosted by a tow-headed tyke licking a huge lollipop. Moments later, the bees attack the school during recess and, alas, not everybody makes it in in time. As Irwin pans over the playground littered with kids and a few teachers, there is that tow-headed tot, deader than a door nail, still clutching his sucker, which is now covered in bees. Oh, the humanity!

Now, since Irwin had the nickname "The Master of Disaster" for a reason, his fans could argue it was the set pieces and F/X that he was good at--and what movie goers wanted to see. Unfortunately, "The Swarm" has some of the cheesiest F/X around. The deadly swarms of killer bees resemble nothing more than pepper sprinkled over the camera's lens. When the bees attack people, the actors flay their arms and contort their faces while an off-screen stage hand douses them with either Styrofoam pellets, bird seed or instant brown rice (I can't decide which it is); indeed, certain "attack scenes" resemble an out of control wedding reception where the guests began pelting each other with the rice instead of the bride and groom.

And I won't mention the "train wreck" that involves 95% of the citizens of Marysville, which looks like a toy train derailed in the backyard.

Alas, "The Swarm" was not destined to be "the most terrifying movie ever made" as Mr. Allen hoped. Instead, it became (in the words of the New York Times) "the surprise comedy hit of the season." The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film raved, "Well-known actors try to outdo each other while reading terrible dialogue and being stung (in) this multi-million-dollar flop." Meanwhile, Punch magazine declared, "The story is of a banality matched only by the woodenness of the acting." Perhaps the worst critical assessment of "The Swarm" came from Irwin Allen himself, who was so disappointed with the finished product he refused to allow people to mention the flick in his presence.

Ouch.

Producer/director Irwin Allen was badly stung by the critical reception "The Swarm" received.

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, it isn't nice to fool with Mother Nature and, as always, help me SAVE THE MOVIES.

A nifty graphic of the cast of "The Swarm" running for their lives from the killer bees--and hostile movie critics.




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