Saturday, July 26, 2008

Random Movie Report #52: Bug (1975)

Order BUG (1975) from here
You know, sometimes you watch a movie and expect not to have to write anything about it. BUG (no relation to the William Friedkin film which I’ve already covered) was in my Netflix queue, for a while it looked like a perfectly nondescript killer insect movie, and then... it kind of lost its mind, or maybe that was just me. BUG’s major distinction, as such, is that it’s the last film from horror meister William Castle, who produced movies like HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and THE TINGLER, came up with great in-theatre gimmicks to promote them, and then went on to produce ROSEMARY’S BABY, one of the best horror movies ever made. BUG, not so much, but I’ll give him points for finishing on weirdness.

The film takes place in a small town, where an earthquake opens up a large fissure. Out of that fissure come a number of roach-like insects, harmless looking at first, but with the ability to start fires (they feed on ashes.) They manage to blow up a couple of cars by crawling up the exhaust pipes, and start fires across the countryside, even attaching themselves to and burning animals and people. A local science teacher (Bradford Dillman) discovers some interesting things about the bugs’ behavior, deducing that they must be an entirely subterranean species. He discovers that the pressure differential between their original habitat and the surface may actually kill these creatures off in time, but discovers their weakness too late to save his wife (Joanna Miles), who is burned alive by one of the insects in a scene that’s funnier than it should be. Insane with grief, the professor rescues one of the bugs as they begin to die. He crossbreeds it with a normal roach, creating a new strain of firestarters.

And this is where the movie takes a bit of a left turn. The first half of the picture is more or less your standard nature-gone-bad story, albeit slightly condensed. When the professor starts his experiments, however it becomes a first person portrait of a descent into madness with sci-fi elements. Some characters from the first half of the film disappear completely, and the professor becomes increasingly unhinged. He gets attacked by the bugs at least twice as a result of leaving their terrarium unlocked, feeds them raw meat, and starts to think they can understand English. It helps that Dillman convincingly plays crazy, going over the top at times (especially in the scenes before he’s supposed to start going insane) but not really given what’s happening.

Suffice it to say we get lots of extreme close-ups of roach behavior (actual cockroaches seem to have been used for most of it) and increasingly bizarre narration. Some treats I don’t want to spoil since they need to be seen on their own, but the firebugs develop a hive mind and start laying eggs on their own (the pouches resemble stylish leather purses for some reason.)

The picture fails in one key respect, in that it never seems like the bugs are that big of a threat. Whenever they attack people, it’s rarely in large numbers, and it seems like it should be pitifully easy to pick them off. It doesn’t actually make sense why they would go after people in particular, since there has to be plenty of food elsewhere. Your mileage may vary, but while I find roaches genuinely unpleasant, they’re not really frightening. While the ability to set things on fire makes this breed more dangerous than most, they don’t project menace like they should. They’re too easy to deal with, or at least they would be had they not attacked a town where 50% of the inhabitants evidently lack basic motor skills.

I can’t really call this a good movie. It’s too disjointed, for one, and the growing abstract insanity is more amusing than terrifying. But amusing it is indeed, and the climax is so fucking surreal that I’m still not entirely sure I saw it. I’m not often prone to using profanity on this blog, but there is no better way to talk about the end of the film: it is batshit. It makes no fucking sense but is both garishly beautiful and totally hilarious.

William Castle was a great influence on future horror notables, specifically underrated director Joe Dante (who inserted a film break gag into GREMLINS 2 specifically in homage to the producer.) BUG isn’t his best film, it’s not even one for which I can make a general recommendation, but it does show some of his mad genius. The guy always valued shock over coherence, and the end is definitely some kind of sensationalism. This gets the guilty pleasure grade; it’s not good but I liked it.

From the novel “The Hephasteus Plague” by Thomas Page
Screenplay by William Castle and Thomas Page
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Grade: C+

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