Back in the days of the drive-in, the local passion pit thrived on a limited set of genre titles. As long as the film didn’t distract from any heavy petting, it was deemed a success. Among the more pleasing of these B-movies was the mutant insect saga. Trading on the paranoia produced by the atomic age, filmmakers crossed every entomological boundary to find the right combination of segmented thorax and scare tactics. Spiders turned giant, mantises were deadly, and grasshoppers with pituitary problems signaled apocalypse.
Still, none of these overgrown pests was as bizarre as the fire-farting cockroaches of 1975’s Bug. New to DVD from those crafters of barebones product, Paramount, Bug was William Castle’s last gasp, the final film in the ballyhooed canon of this notorious cinematic carnival barker. Known for perfecting the pitch of his movies, supplementing their onscreen limitations with all manner of theatrical gimmickry, Castle developed such trademarked tricks as “Emergo” (in which a plastic skeleton flew over the audience) for 1959’s The House on Haunted Hill and “Percepto” (in which audiences were given a mild shock) for the classic The Tingler (1959).
By 1975, Castle had become something of a mainstream success, having bought the rights to a then unknown Ira Levin book about a woman giving birth to Satan’s child. He then hired a few barely famous faces (Mia Farrow, Roman Polanski) to bring this torrid terror to life. The result — 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby — gave the producer a legitimacy he could only have dreamed of years before. But after the failure of Shanks (1974), an odd little film featuring Marcel Marceau as a mute puppeteer who could control the dead like marionettes, Castle was again looking for a comeback. What better way to regain your confidence than an incendiary insect movie?
In Bug, Bradford Dillman plays James Parmiter, the kind of college professor who has inordinate amounts of free time to pursue his personal passions. Constantly sweating through every outfit he wears, presenting a face screwed up in one of those deep thought facades that suggest inner angst — or a bowl of bad chili — James really suffers for his science. When an earthquake rips through his desert city, spark-spewing roaches crawl out of a crevice and start torching the town. They have a nasty habit of burning the flesh off animals — and other, more important mammals — and crawling into the tail pipes of cars to ignite their gas tanks. While these creatures commit random acts of arson, James tries to figure out where they come from and how they can be stopped.
But when they kill his Bible-thumping wife (played with white-bread wistfulness by Joanna Miles), James follows the fate of most B-movie scientists and goes bonkers. Holed up in a deserted shack, he learns to control the bugs, then mates them with common household pests to create a super-intelligent master species. Naturally, whenever you wander onto God’s domain, things get out of hand and more people die. And it takes an act of unexplainable divine intervention (a second earthquake and a noble individual sacrifice) to end the debacle.
For all its ludicrous storyline, Bug is visually reminiscent of more serious looks at the subject, like Phase IV (Saul Bass’s classic 1974 killer ant film) or The Hellstrom Chronicle (the gloriously photographed 1971 savage insect documentary). It pays far more attention to the images of its creepy crawlies than to its locations or characters. The noble beauty found in the motion control shots of the bugs is thrilling (looking even better in the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer offered on the DVD) and the detailed shots of the monsters’ mandibles make their actions seem almost plausible.
Still, Bug‘s plot does it in. Instead of focusing on the continuing conflagration of the town, it sidetracks when James starts to unravel. His rationale for helping the hellspawn procreate is never clear (one senses he may be trying to “domesticate” them), and the formation of a race of hyper-intelligent, flesh-craving super bugs makes even less sense. Apparently, James begins to “understand” his test subjects. Pouring his heart out in several strange monologues, he waxes philosophical about the internal pain of the mother bug and then cries out in anguish. A lot. While it’s not as nutty as Seth Brundle’s insect politics speech in David Cronenberg’s update of The Fly (1986), Bug‘s pro-pest propaganda is still awfully odd.
It’s also part of the professor’s drive toward a flummoxing final act. James has determined that his evolutionary experiment has been a big mistake (we knew this 25 minutes ago, Sherlock) and he needs to end it. Director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2 ) abandons his “realistic” approach and resorts to very fake-looking bugs, complete with obvious wires. Any goofy goodwill Bug has built up disappears in a flurry of winged stupidity.
Bug is also plagued by a desire to diddle with what’s already been honed by decades of drive-in schlockmeisters. You’d think Castle would have understood this. But something about these insects threw him for a loop. It’s the same bewilderment that an audience will feel once this movie has scampered out of the light.