A Movie A Day: THE SWARM (1978) Oh, my God! Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!
Published at: Oct. 25, 2009, 7:58 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the newest October special horror run of A Movie A Day!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my usual A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day. At the end of each standard AMAD I’m going to include a recommendation of a genre film that is either one of my personal favorites or too good of a double feature with the AMAD title to pass up a mention.]
Even with all the talkbacker warnings I wasn’t prepared for just how bad THE SWARM was.
I mean, I love Irwin Allen disaster movies. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are huge fun spectacles, but The Swarm is a jumbled mess that’s about an hour too long. And so cheesy that I think my cholesterol went up while watching it.
Poor Michael Caine. He’s trying so so hard to make this movie work, giving it 110% with each and every take in each and every scene. Much like his laid back and likable performance as Hoagie in Jaws: The Revenge, he tries to save the turd he’s in, but there’s only so much you can do with a screaming dialogue scene where you’re trying to convince a General that honey bees are our friends.
In Caine’s autobiography (the great What’s It All About… read it if you haven’t, it’s amazing) he talks about taking this film because Allen was a friend and offered him the role as a favor. Caine had just moved with his family to LA to avoid the horrible UK tax rate that was taking 2/3rds of his income. After spending a ton of money on his place in LA he was in desperate need of work and Allen came through with the lead in his next epic disaster picture.
Caine’s not alone in trying to save the picture. Both Richard Chamberlain and Slim Pickens take it more seriously than it deserves. Pickens especially has a heart-wrenching scene of grief as the father of one of the boys stung to death that pops in for about 5 minutes before leaving for a better movie. Chamberlain delivers his ridiculous lines with real conviction, which tends to make them even funnier. For instance while touring a nuclear reactor in striking distance of the swarm of killer Africanized bees he delivers this gem: “In all your fail-safe techniques, is there a provision for an attack by killer bees?”
Henry Fonda can’t be judged badly either. He’s probably second only to Caine in trying to save this movie, even though he’s given some of the more ridiculous moments. It’s a tribute to both actors that they worked as hard as they did to pull this particular plane out of the downward spiral to certain death.
Richard Widmark plays the grumpy General forced to take orders from the civilian scientist that Caine plays and while he’s not bad there’s almost a visible sagging of the shoulders and audible sigh before most of his lines like he can see the ship sinking from day one.
And Katherine Ross delivers one of the most annoying and horrible performances in the history of disaster pictures… and I know she’s a good actress… she was in THE GRADUATE for Christs’ sake! It doesn’t seem like she gave up, but that she’s pushing the cheese on purpose, which doesn’t really work in this case. At least not for me.
With something like The Poseidon Adventure you have one large group of people gathered together each with their own moments that have a specific goal. Get from Point A to Point B.
In The Swarm there’s roughly the same amount of characters to get to know, but they are all in different places doing different things. There’s the boy whose parents were stung to death plotting his own revenge on the bees, a love triangle between Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray happening off in the town and Chamberlain running across Texas gathering research.
Add on to that a mild threat that isn’t all that scary when put on film… that of a shifting cloud of killer bees… and the deck is stacked against this movie despite the talent in its corner fighting for it to work. A sinking ship, a building on fire… those are simple, real dangers that you can understand… but there’s only really one bee attack at the very beginning that is actually kinda creepy and that’s because you get a long, lingering shot of the two actors with thousands of bees crawling on them. I’d bet these guys were real deal bee handlers and given a couple of lines specifically for this shot.
The rest of the movie the bees are represented by what looks like chunky sawdust dumped in a fan and blown structures and people.
Final Thoughts: The DVD features the longer cut… god knows why… so that’s the one I had to watch. I get the feeling the theatrical cut would have been too long before the movie was released on laserdisc and then DVD at 2 ½ hours long. One thing I didn’t mention was the giant bee hallucination scenes experienced by the people who are stung, but survive… there’s one classic moment where Katherine Ross hears a knocking at her door, opens it and there’s a giant, badly composited bee on the other side. This is the kind of movie drinking games were invented for.
The natural instinct is to pair this movie with a favorite killer bug movie, but I’m honestly not all that well versed in killer insects. Argento’s PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS) jumps to mind, but there’s a better movie to pair with this… nature gone amuck in a horrible way.
The Birds was my go-to Hitchcock movie of my childhood, the gateway drug to his better known and just plain better films like PSYCHO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, VERTIGO and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.
I grew up in the Bay Area of California, just some 40 minutes south of San Francisco, so this movie had a real impact on me. I recognized the area as my own surroundings, so when the birds started attacking poor little Tippi Hedren and the school children this movie really affected me.
Plus there’s just something about this Technicolor look that was magical to me growing up… movies like THE BIRDS and THE WIZARD OF OZ seemed otherworldly and fantastic to me, heightening reality to a point that it was almost dreamlike.
And this movie is scary all the movie because of it. If you don’t believe me, rewatch the scene where Hedren sits down to smoke a cigarette in front of a the empty monkey bars that begin to slowly fill with birds as the school children sing Wee Cooper of Fife in the background. It’s a master’s lesson in suspense, a visual version of Hitch’s own belief that the audience knowing a danger before the characters do heightens suspense.
There also seems to be a hopelessness to this movie that isn’t often found in Hitchcock’s work.
Against all that you get some good performances out of Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and even young Veronica Cartwright who would later go on to fight an Alien in Ridley Scott’s film.
Hitchcock, though sheer filmmaking skill, executes this movie superbly. The Birds could have been just as cheesy and overcooked as The Swarm would be some 15 years later, but Hitchcock could outdirect Irwin Allen from his own bloody coffin.
Watch for his use of sound (the birds are fucking horrible, little evil monsters from hell if their screeches are to be believed), music, and pacing and you’ll see a master at work, even in a movie that most Hitch aficionados view as one of his lesser entries.
Here are the next week’s worth of AMAD titles:
Sunday, October 25th: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)
Monday, October 26th: COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970)
Tuesday, October 27th: THE SADIST (1963)
Wednesday, October 28th: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)
Thursday, October 29th: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE? (1969)
Friday, October 30th: WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972)
Saturday, October 31st: CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
We’re less than a week from the big day! October has flown by! I have a screening of The Fourth Kind to catch tonight, but come hell or high water I’ll have it watched and reviewed before I sleep.
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