October Horrorshow: Bug (1975)

This isn’t the original trailer, but this is the video that made me want to see this movie.

This movie had such shitty promise. For one thing, it was produced by William Castle, whose lasting contribution to film history was a series of horror flicks with gimmicky contraptions placed in theaters to enhance the experience for viewers. Much of the silliness of something like House on Haunted Hill doesn’t translate into a restrained living room viewing, but it’s still a well-regarded b-horror flick nonetheless. Bug is the last film in Castle’s filmography, and while it had the potential to be a spectacle of shitty proportions, it falls short.

In lovely Riverside, California, an earthquake rattles the community. Sunday churchgoers are thrown about as their house of worship shakes and falls apart around them. This scene happens early in the movie, and is one of the reasons I had so much hope for what I was about to see. Director Jeannot Szwarc, who would later go on to helm such films as Jaws 2 and Santa Clause: The Movie (I will always associate the color puce with that disaster), pulled out all the stops. The set literally shakes itself to pieces. The f/x crew set up some sort of device under the floorboards that created a wave, meant to simulate what happens during a real earthquake, but it moves through the church at a crawl.

As the shaking continues, plaster falls off the walls, but rather than lathing or studs, the destruction reveals plywood hiding behind the plaster. There were lots of things that betrayed this scene was filmed on a cheap set, sure, but I half expected one of the walls to come down to reveal a crewmember grabbing a donut and a cup of coffee from the craft service table.

The earthquake was not just some throwaway event in this film, however. The temblor opened a crack in the earth, releasing a species of cockroach from the depths that has the unique ability to cause explosions and fire. How they do so is unimportant, but I will say that of all the shitty creature features I’ve seen, Bug has a more plausible scientific explanation for how the mutation works than most flicks.

All of us on the real life side of the screen know how the rest of this movie should play out. The insects should spread out in a wave, collecting victims as they spread. There should be a scientist studying the problem, a skeptical mayor or county sheriff, followed by scenes of destruction as the bugs finally reach the center of town after burning down some lonely farms or ranches. This idea was teased, but Bug decided to head in a different direction.

There is a scientist, Professor James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman), but there are no waves of insects that must be battled. The bugs of this film insist on behaving like bugs. They occasionally cause some death and destruction here and there, but they are more pest than apocalyptic menace. After the bugs burn down the good professor’s home and kill his wife (Joanna Miles, in the type of death scene that almost rescues the film — bonus fact, it was filmed in the living room set used for The Brady Bunch, which had just been canceled), the professor becomes a bit of a shut-in, dedicating all his time to studying the bugs and trying to get them to breed. Why he wants them to breed is anyone’s guess. It seems that in his grief he forgot there was a movie outside his door that was just begging for things to happen. But, it was not to be.

The eco-disaster flick audiences expected and deserved is instead replaced midstream with a study in the decaying psychology of a grieving etymologist. As if this weren’t enough, the professor succeeds in breeding the bugs, creating a hybrid species that develops collective intelligence! What a disjointed mess. Castle and company really misread what this film should have been. All the psychological drama is misplaced in a film with that setup. It’s fine that they tried to do something different, but different doesn’t work when the true aim is making a quick buck. I wanted to see cockroaches blow up a California town and threaten civilization, à la Kingdom of the Spiders or Them! Instead we get the lowest rent Dr. Frankenstein I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Alien: Resurrection is a better bug film than Bug.