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  to conduct
scientific investigations of the bug-belching fissure,  to guard the
mysterious chasm, and/or  to drop bombs or gas down the crevice to make sure
no more firebugs see the light of celluloid.)
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
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.
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
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
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.