Directed by: Jeannot Szwarc
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Joanna Miles, Richard Gilliland, Jamie Smith-Jackson, Alan Fudge, Jesse Vint, Patty McCormack, Brendan Dillon, Frederic Downs, James Greene, Jim Poyner
1/2 (out of 4)
William Castle’s “bug movie” (and the last movie before his death) was released in 1975, only a few weeks before the most famous “shark movie” in film history terrified theatergoers, but it wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen in comparison. Although Spielberg’s Jaws is superior to Bug in almost every way, I feel like this lesser known flick still deserves a look for its offbeat take on the man-versus-nature genre. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc (who would, ironically, direct Jaws 2 three years later) and based on the Thomas Page novel The Hephaestus Plague, Bug somewhat represents a union of the 50s monster movie and the supernatural fare of the 60s and 70s. While most people have concentrated on the ickiness (or silliness) of the title antagonist, little has been said about the film’s existential dilemma of its leading mad scientist and the noticeable Biblical subtext/religious imagery. Bug 1975 (not to be confused with William Friedkin’s 2007 movie of the same name) is schlocky in the way a William Castle film usually is, but I think it’s better than its reputation suggests.
Inside a modest church somewhere in the California desert, a preacher rants on about the sins of modern society right before a giant earthquake wrecks havoc. A huge crevice opens up in the field of the nearby Tacker farm and out come a deadly breed of roaches with extremely hard shells and an uncanny ability to start fires. Hitching a ride inside the tailpipes of trucks, they waste no time in burning up a few victims while demonstrating how easy it is to start brush fires in this dry dustbowl of a community. Those little arsonists! Prof. James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman) seems like a competent entomologist (although the term is never used in the film, strangely); he discovers that not only are the critters eye-less but they like to feast on carbon and can start fires by rubbing their cerci together like good little boy scouts. Along with his scientist friend Prof. Ross (Alan Fudge), they discover that the “firebugs” cannot handle the pressure at sea level and will soon die off on their own. You and I, reader, would consider this a good thing, since by now the bugs have attacked and set on fire various victims, including Parmiter’s poor wife Carrie (Joanna Miles) who is burned up in the kitchen (on the same set from The Brady Bunch). But no – Parmiter is not firing on all cylinders, and decides that the thing to do would be convincing physics student Gerald Metbaum (Richard Gilliland) to create a pressure chamber out of a divers helmet and cross-breed the buggers with your common household cockroach. Yeah, great idea, Mr. Scientist! Take the most dangerous prehistoric beetle around and make sure it becomes immortal.
Bug is two movies in one. The first half is a killer bug/nature-run-amuck film like a subdued version of The Birds or Kingdom of the Spiders. The second half is a slower-moving illustration of a man’s descent into madness. It has similarities to other paranoid 70s flicks, especially in regards to man’s social alienation. There are certainly parallels between the firebugs and damnation. When Parmiter creates the new breed, they have horn-like protrusions and slick, enlongated reddish bodies. As he isolates himself from the world, mourning his wife’s death and living out Psalm 102 (he dines on ashes, just like the bugs do), he notices that the creatures have grown in intelligence. They can even communicate with him by spelling out words on the wall. After Ross’ wife Sylvia (Patty McCormack) shows up to give Parmiter a Bible, she is aggressively killed by the firebugs (payback for all the horrible things she did in The Bad Seed). Obviously, it is now too late for our protagonist to be saved from hellfire. The bugs breed again and sow their “seeds” inside the earth, out of which is born demonic flying bugs that take Parmiter down with them in a fiery climax. It’s not a stretch to call Bug a metaphor for a guy’s descent into hell or madness; until the final scene, the movie does a decent job of keeping things ambiguous. Are the cockroaches really talking to him or is he just insane? Can the ending be anything other than one giant metaphor?
The weaknesses of Bug 1975 can be seen in the scenes of the roaches attacking victims, which come off as more silly than serious (like Kingdom of the Spiders). Oh sure, the actors do their best to make it look real, but how realistic is it for somebody to get a bug on their ear or in their hair and not attempt to swat it off? Victims scream loudly and wave their arms all over the place, except directing them towards the insect that can probably be scraped off easily. The other thing that got chuckles from me is the tendency for everything in this film to catch fire from simple sparks. Did the characters in Bug douse themselves with gasoline before every scene? Nevertheless, the movie is rather violent for a PG, with multiple scenes of people burned alive (and one cat, very realistically), and some really good macrophotography courtesy of Ken Middleham, who also was responsible for another similar entry in the genre – Phase IV. Speaking of which, I would recommend watching Bug and Phase IV back-to-back, as they both feature similar themes involving superintelligent insects, impressive photography, and isolated, ominous desert settings. Szwarc and Bass have both crafted scenarios where civilization seems worlds away, and a desert outpost serves as an opening battle between man and a possibly superior species. Phase IV is the better film (and its electronic score by Brian Gascoigne is better than Charles Fox’s electronic score in this movie), but Bug can still offer a little something for the B-movie lover to chew on.
- Bill Gordon
The DVD release of Bug from Paramount thankfully comes in Widescreen 1.33:1 and is a decent transfer. Too bad that there’s nothing else on this bare bones disc – not even a trailer. Take what you can get, I suppose.