Monday, June 20, 2011

Movie Monday: The Swarm

We're continuing our Killer Animals on The Loose theme for Movie Monday with the 1978 all-star disaster/horror epic The Swarm!

Take a look at that poster, and check out the aging names producer Irwin Allen managed to bribe/persuade/extort into appearing in this, one the last of the big 1970s "disaster" films: Michael Caine! Richard Widmark! Olivia de Havilland! Slim Pickens! Ben Johnson! Fred MacMurray! Henry Fonda! Henry Fonda!!

I love old school cheesefests like this one, and since I had never seen The Swarm before, I was quite excited to watch it. As I was starting it up, I was doing a little background info on it: directed by Irwin Allen, okay; written by Sterling Silliphant, okay; based on a book, okay; running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, okay, pro...wait, what? 2 hours and 35 minutes?!?

Yep--apparently Irwin Allen saw this film in the same mold of his other hits, like The Towering Inferno (2 hours, 45 minutes) and The Poseidon Adventure (2 hours), thinking people wanted to see a two hour-plus film about killer bees. Oh boy, this is going to be rough going...
Anyway, The Swarm opens with its absurdly long list of actors, over a series of scenes of men in hazmat suits heading into some sort of heavily-fortified goverment base. It seems to be deserted, and they put in a call to their commander, General Slater (Richard Widmark).

But just they get him on the line, they see someone is inside:
sg's world-famous entomologist Brad Crane, who has bad news to report all the mysterious killings that have been happening: its a swarm of killer bees!!

General Slater of course thinks this is nonsense, and the two of them have a completely ridiculous, overheated argument that sets the tone for the movie: Irwin Allen thought 1978 filmgoers wanted to see big-name actors yell at each other, instead of what the title promised: people gettin' killed by lots of bees.

Problem is, the film doesn't even really work on that score (which was by Jerry Goldsmith, BTW). Visually, bees can only be shown two ways: first, as a giant cloud, like they are here when bringing down a military helicopter:
(I'm pretty sure M*A*S*H 4077 was just off the bottom of the frame)

Or secondly, like this, in close-up:
Like in Frogs, the killer animal in question, when its just sitting there minding its own damn business, just isn't that frightening. And when the bees finally do kill some people--like they do when they attack a family on a picnic--Allen doesn't have the money (I guess) to do any gruesome make-up effects; so we're left with shots of people lying really still as swarms of bees crawl over them. Kinda icky, sure, but once you've seen it, you've seen it. And this movie only has two more hours to go!

After the first set of victims are discovered, they are brought--along with their son, who survived--to the military base. Then Dr. Walter Krim (Henry Fonda) arrives, and issues a grim warning: these bees are going to keep killing, and there's not much anyone can do!

Caine's Crane (ha!) is aghast. He always knew Man has been fighting the insect world, and it would eventually come to a head. But
: "I never dreamed it would turn out to be the bees. They've always been our friend."

The word starts to get out about the bees. A reporter played by Lee Grant, gets on the story. Caine and Widmark argue some more. A bow-tied Fred McMurray (in his final film appearance, a million miles away from Double Indemnity) romances a school principal, played by Olivia de Havilland. A local farmer (Slim Pickens) is mad at the government for letting members of his family get killed by the bees, and refuses to help. Caine teams-up with, and romances, a military office played by Katharine Ross. Another so-called expert, played by Richard Chamberlain, tries to undermine Caine at every turn.

The bees attack a nearby town, causing everyone to scurry in-doors. Caine receives a call from Fonda, who says just two stings from the bees is fatal. The streets are lined with bee-stung corpses. It's a madhouse, I tell you; a madhouse!!
Widmark wants to cover the area where the bees are with a deadly toxin, that will kill all bees, period. Caine tries to explain that the honeybee is a vital part of the eco-system, and killing them would be disastrous. But Widmark's Slater is a man of results, dammit!
The town residents are ordered to evacuate, and that includes a young, widowed pregnant woman played by Patti Duke Astin. But due to all the excitement, she begins to go into labor!

Night falls, and the town becomes mostly deserted. Crane resumes his experiments on an antidote, alongside Fonda's Krim (who has to wear an Andromeda Strain-esque hazmat suit to deliver a lot of his lines).
The train carrying many of the evacuees crashes when a bee stings the engineer, causing the whole magilla to come tumbling down a mountain (this movie was not sponsored by Amtrak). It explodes, killing Fred MacMurray, Olivia de Havilland, and Ben Johnson! Who knew Irwin Allen was such a nihilist?

What's even more troubling than that is the location--its 70 miles away, towards Houston. That means the bees are headed for more densely-populated areas! Crane realizes time, already short, is running out!

Finally, Crane and Krim develop a solution they think will work--a pellet that, when dropped from the air, will ideally attract just the killer bees. And when the bees touch the pellets, they'll die. Except--the bees won't touch the pellets. One of scientists grimly observes, "They're smarter then we thought." Another Big Government plan, wasting our precious tax dollars!

Krim goes back to work, coming up with an experimental serum--but it needs to be tested on a human. Crane volunteers, but Krim refuses due to their long-standing friendship. Later, when he's alone, Krim tries it on himself. Unfortunately, it kills him, in a scene that seems to be a visual tribute to Fonda's classic 12 Angry Men:
The bees attack a nuclear plant, run by Jose Ferrer (who was literally across the WB lot, shooting another Irwin Allen project, The Amazing Captain Nemo). Richard Chamberlain is also there, trying to get Ferrer to take the bees seriously as a threat.

Ferrer pish-poshes this, but changes his tune when the bees swarm in, killing everyone inside. This is the film's only moment that approaches anything like horror, with some cool lighting and the site of the actual stars getting attacked:
Upon news of this, the President issues an order, putting Slater in charge and essentially side-lining Crane.

Crane is helpless as he watches Slater orders a bomb of "Nutricide" dropped on Houston. Crane argues that doing so will prevent anything from growing there for ten years, but Slater is unimpressed. He has the bomb dropped.

Unfortunately, the bomb doesn't work--the bees have become immune to the spray. Slater is despondent, Crane is dismayed, and the bees begin to take over Houston: getting jobs, opening small businesses, going to Astros games, etc.

At this point we're at hour six of The Swarm (or maybe it just feels like it), as Caine and Ross pretty much just sit around, bemoaning the fact that there's nothing they can do. At one point, Ross is left alone to sleep. She hears a weird scratching noise, and she looks to see what it is. She opens a door, and:
Uh-oh! Things "bee" gettin' worse!

Crane figures out that the bees have been attracted by the government's alarm sound--the vibrations being the exact same as the ones between the bees and their queen! Maybe, if that sound can be amplified, it can be move the bees away from Houston!

Slater, who appears to have to check with no one in higher government about this (talks about a hands-off President--no wonder Carter only served a single term), gives Crane the a-okay, and before you can say Pre-sold international distribution rights, Crane is in a helicopter over the ocean, hoping the bees will follow the sound.

The bees, being stupid, follow the sound into giant globs of oil that have been dumped onto the ocean (which seems like trading one problem for another, IMO). While the bees are stuck, the oil is set on fire, causing massive explosions!

The film ends with some of the worse blue screen projection since The Hunt For Red October (or is that the other way around?), as Caine and Ross wonder if they've truly won, or just bought Humanity a little more time:

Credits roll, and Irwin Allen sends the moviegoer back out into the world with this little caveat, lest we leave The Swarm with a totally negative view of bees:

The Swarm was a notorious bomb when it came out; apparently it made Irwin Allen so mad that he demanded no one in his employ ever mention the film; apparently he once bolted from an interview as soon as the ne-'er-do-well reporter brought it up.

Why, then, when the film was released on laserdisc(!), did Allen add forty minutes to its running time? If anything, The Swarm might have been salvageable if cut down to the bone; but by adding more and more scenes of Caine and Widmark yelling Allen just made a bad film interminable.

Many film fans who remember the "golden age" of 70s moviemaking say "They just don't make 'em like that anymore." And in some cases, that's a good thing.


Caffeinated Joe said...

In some cases, that is a VERY good thing. Too long, by far. But, glad you have a bit of a masochistic streak in you, Rob. We are benefiting by getting reviews of these flix!

rob! said...

I suffer so you don't have to!

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

We love this movie! We hope a 5 hour version is out there! Joseph Gelmis, in his half-star review of this film said that there were "more liverspots than bees on the screen" -- due to the preponderance of septuagenarian cast members. Classic.

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