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Articles & Reviews by Mike Bogue

Fire Starter With Six Legs

by Michael Bogue

(Slightly revised version of an article that originally appeared in Scary Monsters Magazine #48, Sept. 2003 Issue)

Fire Starter With Six Legs Still.

Stephen King’s Carrie obviously has nothing on Bug’s six-legged firestarters.  Haven’t seen the latter film?  Neither had I, until recently.  Now I have finally beheld Bug -- a movie I’d been curious about for almost thirty years -- in all its gloomy grandeur.

Some of you may not remember this minor effort at all, but Paramount theatrically released Bug in 1975, and it was William Castle’s last film production.  Now I know most of you know who William Castle is, the flamboyant producer/director of such cult film favorites as Macabre (1958), The Tingler (1959), The House On Haunted Hill (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Homicidal (1961) , Mr. Sardonicus (1961), Strait-Jacket (1964), The Night Walker (1964), and I Saw What You Did (1965).  Of course, “serious” critics remember Castle as the producer of 1968’s ground-breaking adult horror film Rosemary’s Baby.  But most Monster Kids probably prefer Castle’s “fun” genre efforts of the late fifties and early sixties.  I know I do. 

Getting back to Bug, circa 1975, I recall a Fort Smith, Arkansas TV channel showing Bug previews that depicted huge flying beetles swarming around a manic Bradford Dillman.  That preview, plus the fact that the movie was based on Thomas Page’s novel The Hephaestus Plague, kindled my curiosity.  Alas, I was without a car in those days, and since I lived forty miles from Fort Smith, I had no way to get to the movie.

But now, nearly thirty years later, thanks to the wonders of videos and VCRs, my Bug-bitten curiosity has been sated.  It turns out that Bug, a strange item to say the least, is highly reminiscent of genre made-for-TV movies of the early to mid seventies.  Everything from the music to the plot to the acting makes you think you’re watching a lost ABC Movie of the Week

The premise:  An earthquake in the Southwest opens up a fissure, out of which crawl strange, beetle-like insects that, rubbing their back antennae together, start infernos wherever they go.  During the course of the film, they set fire to cars, trucks, real estate, and, of course, people.

Scientist Dr. James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman) feverishly studies the incendiary insects that have surfaced from below and realizes that the earth’s above-ground pressure is slowly killing them.  Strangely, he seems disappointed by this revelation.  Even worse, because of an unintentional act of carelessness (Parmiter failed to remove all the firebugs from his house), Parmiter’s wife Carrie (Joanna Miles) becomes a victim of one of the six-legged firestarters. Said bug literally catches her head on fire, and she subsequently burns to death. 

Afterward, an anguished Parmiter decides, for reasons completely unclear, to mate one of the strange incendiary beetles with an ordinary cockroach.  He does this in an isolated house near the earthquake fissure from which the firebugs originally emerged.  (Of course, it seems more than a little odd that the U.S. government hasn’t taken over this plot of land [1] to conduct scientific investigations of the bug-belching fissure, [2] to guard the mysterious chasm, and/or [3] to drop bombs or gas down the crevice to make sure no more firebugs see the light of celluloid.) 

Fire Starter With Six Legs Still.

Well, in true mad scientist fashion, Parmiter’s attempt to crossbreed the firebug with a cockroach of course succeeds, and naturally, the resulting hybrid insects are bigger and nastier than the original fire-starting bugs.  They’re also smarter.  In fact, in a sequence that is inexplicable but eerie, several of the bugs crawling on a wall begin to spell out messages.  A dumbstruck Parmiter finds that when he speaks a letter out loud, the bugs form the shape of that letter.  Horrified, Parmiter clams up.  However, his silence doesn’t faze the bugs, who proceed to spell out a simple declarative sentence: “We live.”  This scene is both fascinating and chilling – ah, if only most of Bug’s set pieces had been so inspired!

In any event, a freaked-out Parmiter tries in vain to battle the little buggers.  Indeed, prior to the firebugs’ spelling out messages in English, Parmiter wakes up one night to find several of the brainy carnivores chowing down on his bared chest.  Understandably disgusted, the unkempt scientist rips the insects from his flesh.  He then stuffs them into a deep-sea diving helmet mounted on a table (his bug-breeding bridal suite) and turns up the pressure until the tiny monsters perish.

Later, however, after Parmiter witnesses the bugs’ revelatory spelling bee, he finally realizes the enormity of what he has done.  “What are you?” he asks of the terrarium-imprisoned insects and the breathing insect egg-case contained within.  Speaking into his reel-to-reel microphone, Parmiter says, “I’ve gone too far.”  Then, sounding like every mad scientist since Colin Clive who finally wakes up to the horror he has created, Parmiter exclaims, “They must be destroyed!”

Noting that the glass faceplate on the pressure helmet is broken, he dashes from his house to get it fixed.  Nonplussed, the firebugs push their eggcase into the earthquake crevice next to the house and also kill Sylvia (Patty McCormack), one of Parmiter’s friends, who unwisely drops by the deserted residence unannounced.  

When Parmiter returns, he discovers Sylvia’s corpse, as well as the fact that the mutated firebugs have escaped.  At this point, an anguished Parmiter seems to know, as the viewer surely does, that the bugs now have the upper antennae.

The next step in the bugs’ evolution produces large, winged insects that boil up out of the red-tinted earthquake fissure like locusts from hell.  Making strange, bird-like cries, the flying squadron of incendiary bugs attacks Parmiter and sets him aflame.  Wreathed in fire, a screaming Parmiter flees from the house and plunges into the earthquake fissure, literally going to blazes.  The flying mutant bugs follow him into the crevice, and then, as though the inscrutable insects have willed it to happen, the fissure closes shut.

As a movie, Bug is often mediocre, sometimes unpleasant, occasionally effective, and largely inexplicable.  Director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws II, Somewhere In Time, Supergirl) does scare up a few genuinely creepy moments, such as the aforementioned episode in which the bugs spell out letters and words in English.  In another effective scene, we see a phone in the foreground and one of the mutant beetles on its mouth-piece.  As the characters talk in the background, we of course know that sooner or later, that phone is going to ring.  It does.  And in a nice bit of editing, as soon as the woman picks up the phone, the bug is on her cheek and burrowing into her ear.

Also successful, if somewhat disagreeable, is the scene in which we spot one of the firebugs on the back of Mrs. Parmiter’s blouse.  She is totally oblivious to the sinister insect as she saunters into the kitchen and riffles through a cookbook, but we the viewers are just waiting for the “gotcha!” moment, and director Szwarc milks the scene for maximum anxiety.  Soon enough, the insectival arsonist crawls into Mrs. Parmiter’s hair and sets it ablaze.  Realizing in horror that her hair is on fire, she runs screaming into the living room as flames engulf her.

Regrettably, effective touches such as these are few and far between.  In fact, save for the PG-rated language and violence, Bug plays more like a seventies made-for-TV movie than many genuine seventies made-for-TV movies.  But strangely, Bug doesn’t live up to many of its genre telefilm cousins.  Indeed, some sections of Bug crawl more slowly than an ant caught in Jupiter’s gravity well.

Another problem for some viewers may be the unsavory notion of watching sympathetic humans done in by (1) creepy bugs and (2) engulfing flames.  Probably the most repellent scene, however, features a cat getting its skull lethally scorched by one of the firebugs.  This scene is made all the more repugnant because the human character who watches the cat suffer does nothing to save the hapless feline.

Immolation of human beings or animals is always a horrific concept, as the notion of being burned alive is one of our greatest collective nightmares.  And the scene of Parmiter’s hideously screaming wife burning to death in the living room goes on far longer than it needs to.  Ditto the scene of Sylvia getting done in by firebugs at Parmiter’s temporary residence.  As is true of most modern horror movies, Bug seems to enjoy extended scenes of human suffering, though the film is admittedly not nearly as graphic as it might have been.

Of course, Bug is decidedly downbeat, as were many genre entries of the 1970s.  For example, remember the dark closing shots of The Omen and The Devil’s Rain, if not to mention the gloomy finales of telefilms such as Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark and The Devil’s Daughter?  The times they were a-frownin’, and pessimistic themes also formed the spines of money-making mainstream films such as The Godfather, Cabaret, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Network.  All was not gloom-and-doom at the movies, of course – bear witness to The Sting, American Graffiti, and Rocky, and in the SFantasy field, The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, The Land That Time Forgot, and, of course, Star Wars.

Bug, however, definitely attempts to commit cinematic bigamy by marrying seventies glumness to the double spouses of fifties sci-fi horror and mad scientist melodrama.  In addition, echoes of disaster films and nature-gone-mad epics (such as Frogs and The Birds) clearly reverberate in the movie. That Bug wants to be a “message” film is at times obvious; however, for much of its running time, Bug seems to want to be nothing more than a moody monster movie, albeit with monsters only a few inches long.

The William Castle-Thomas Page screenplay is erratic, at best, and lumpy, at worst.  The firebugs are a menace, but they don’t seem to be that big of a menace to anyone outside the movie’s small town – or even to much of anyone inside it.  Of course, budget concerns may have downsized any large-scale firebug conflagrations.  But the story’s structure is strange; the bugs crawl from the fissure, briefly cause pandemonium, and are found to be dying.

The End?


For then, the film switches gears and becomes a “mad doctor” movie in modern dress.  But Dr. Parmiter’s motivation for crossbreeding a firebug with a cockroach remains opaque.  After all, the incendiary insects just killed his wife.  Why does he now want to insure their survival?

Still, Castle and Page infuse their script with several interesting ideas, and as I mentioned earlier, director Szwarc makes the most of Bug’s better moments.  Perhaps the often humdrum pace is less a problem of the script than of the director and film editor.

Looking at Bug’s other technical aspects, Ken Middleham’s insect photography excels, giving the firebugs a disturbing credibility (Middleham is also responsible for the first-rate microphotography of 1971’s The Hellstrom Chronicle and 1974’s Phase IV).  In addition, Phil Cory’s and Walter Dion’s special effects are good.  Furthermore, the acting is uniformly competent, but Bradford Dillman clearly steals the show as the ultra-intense, sweat-soaked, swollen-eyed Dr. Parmiter.  You just know this guy must be related to Norman Bates.  In fact, you could even say Parmiter is more than a bit buggy, if you didn’t mind terrible puns.  Fortunately, I don’t.

Genre buffs may want to see the movie because it is, after all, William Castle’s last film.  Interestingly, one review of Bug states that it is “an entertaining throwback to the mutant-monsters-amok theme of the 1950s . . . that he [Castle] found so profitable.”  Actually, Castle never produced or directed any “mutant monsters” flicks in the fifties or sixties!  Apparently, the reviewer is mixing up the real Castle with Lawrence Woolsey, the Castle-inspired movie producer of 1993’s Matinee, director Joe Dante’s seriocomic tribute to both the scare show showman and fifties monster flicks.

Still, the movie poster for Bug does feature the famous silhouette of Castle sitting cross-legged in his canvas director’s chair.  Next to the silhouette, a message proclaims:  “A SERIOUS WARNING:  Many people have an uncontrollable fear of the unknown.  If you are such a person, please believe me when I say – this movie is not for you.”  The quote is attributed to, and I quote, “WILLIAM CASTLE – THE KING OF HORROR.”  Clearly, this “warning” recalls the best of Castle’s “gimmicky” ads and trailers for his earlier pictures, and allows his horror career to come full-circle.

Genre fans may also want to view Bug since its director, Jeannot Szwarc, directed several segments of NBC-TV’s 1971-1973 cult favorite Night Gallery.  In addition, Patty McCormack, who played the psychopathic child in 1956’s The Bad Seed, appears as an adult done in by the firebugs.  Further, any pre-1980 movie that features mutant bugs as the leads simply must prove irresistible to any bona fide Monster Kid.   All tolled, however, the film is one of those somewhat frustrating SFantasies that, despite its occasional moments, fails to live up to its potential.

So did Bug bug me?  Not really.  But it did make me think about buying stock in Raid.

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