The b-monster flick Beginning of the End marked the start of an epic year for filmmaker Bert I. Gordon. He directed not one, not two, but three giant monster movies in 1957. I’m impressed, but would be even more so had any one of these films looked like it took more than a week and a half to shoot.
Beginning of the End, from a screenplay by Fred Freiberger and Lester Gorn, tells the tale of a plague of giant locusts that descend on Chicago. For you readers in the American Midwest and points nearby, that’s ‘locusts’ as in real locusts, aka grasshoppers — not the colloquial locusts, aka cicadas. Either way, the bugs are about the size of city buses, with murderous appetites.
Gordon, as was his wont, crafted a film with a very slow setup. Immediately after the opening credits he starts padding the running time with a long, long shot of a car approaching the camera. He really was shameless with this type of nonsense throughout his career. He was like the kids in high school who would use bigger fonts and line spacing on their term papers to meet page length requirements. Those kids never fooled anyone, and neither did Gordon.
The town of Ludlow, Illinois has been flattened by forces unknown. All 150 of the townsfolk have disappeared. The national guard is on site, but they have no clue what could have happened. Photojournalist Audrey Ames (Peggie Castle) learns of the mysterious and tragic event and decides there’s a story to hunt down. Some investigation points to radiation being associated with the town’s destruction in some way or other, and that leads her to a Department of Agriculture lab being run by Dr. Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves). He’s been conducting experiments in plant yield, by feeding plants radioactive isotopes. His experiments have been successful, as the gigantic fruits and vegetables in his lab attest. Wainwright joins Ames in investigating the Ludlow incident, and they discover that some grasshoppers got into the isotopes, and have grown to enormous size. In search of food, it is they that descended on the town of Ludlow and wiped it off the map. Now, the insects are on their way to Chicago, and the only way to stop them might be with…an atomic bomb!
Beginning of the End follows a path that was well-worn by the time it was released in 1957, so there aren’t any surprises when it comes to the plot of this film or its resolution. There are gigantic monsters, main characters figure out how to combat said monsters, denouement, fin. The more of these flicks one watches, the easier they become to deconstruct. What makes this flick somewhat more memorable than some of the others that have appeared, or will appear, in this year’s Horrorshow, are the colossally shitty special effects. They are, somehow, more inept than is normal. Like in King Dinosaur, Gordon, who did the effects work himself, eschewed model work or puppetry in favor of compositing real animals into his shots. The locusts in this film are real insects, filmed in his garage and then incorporated into shots using mattes, rear projection, etc. Actors playing national guardsmen fire guns in the woods and then scream in terror as these pasted-on locusts descend over them. It looks ridiculous.
But Gordon wasn’t done. When the locusts make their way to Chicago, Gordon had to show that city under attack. He did so by putting locusts on photographs of Chicago buildings and then blowing air on them to get them to move around. Let that sink in. He didn’t put the locusts on models, i.e., a three-dimensional surface. He put them on pictures of buildings and out here in the audience we were supposed to believe that looked like gigantic bugs crawling up the sides of real structures. This is among my all-time favorite shitty movie special effects, alongside such classics as the shark in Jaws 3-D, the opening tugboat scene in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and, of course, the monster in The Giant Claw. It has to be seen to be believed.
And that’s about all the value this flick has. It’s a piece of garbage, best watched as something worth mocking rather than appreciating. Which leads me to a recommendation I don’t normally make. Should one wish to watch this film, seek out the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode which featured it. It’s one of the best episodes they did, and treats this flick with the respect it deserves. Alien: Resurrection is a better movie than Beginning of the End.