Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bug (1975)

          The final film produced by B-movie kingpin William Castle, Bug starts out like a standard-issue monster movie, then morphs into a tragic character study about a mad scientist. Later, Bug enters quasi-surrealistic terrain thanks to inexplicable character motivations, jarring lapses in story logic, and a gonzo finale peppered with apocalyptic overtones. Very little of what happens in Bug makes sense, but the film is strangely beguiling nonetheless. Bug opens with an impressive earthquake sequence that’s staged entirely inside a small church. Next, director Jeannot Szwarc’s probing camera reveals that giant, mutated cockroaches have invaded the small California town in which the church is situated. Meanwhile, the story zeroes in on Prof. James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman), a science teacher at the local college. Thanks to clues provided by townie Gerald Metbaum (Richard Gilliand), who witnessed strange phenomena in the desert, Parmiter determines that the cockroaches emerged from deep inside the earth after the quake. Evolved for survival under massive pressure, the bugs have the ability to spark fires. Yet Parmiter’s realization comes too late to prevent tragedies including the death of his own wife (Joanna Miles), so Parmiter seeks revenge against the killer insects.
          That’s when Bug drifts into craziness. Parmiter captures a specimen, holes up in a remote cabin, and performs experiments including crossbreeding the “firebugs” with common cockroaches. A diving bell is involved. Concurrently, characters wander around town as if nothing unusual is happening, even though citizens are dying from spontaneous combustion at a rapid clip. On one level, Bug is so outrageously stupid that it’s almost a comedy. On another level, the movie is fleetingly effective as a horror show, thanks to elaborate scenes of bugs crawling onto people and then bursting into flames. On a third level, Bug is fascinating simply because the storyline is constructed in such an eccentric way—for the last 45 minutes of the movie, nearly all the screen time is devoted to scenes of Parmiter hanging out with bugs in his makeshift lab. Dillman’s twitchy performance is fun to watch, even though his characterization is cartoonish and silly, and director Szwarc—who later returned to the shock-cinema genre with Jaws 2 (1978)—shoots the material for maximum pulpy impact. Not a single frame of Bug can be taken seriously, but insufficient credibility has never been on obstacle for enjoying creature features.



Unknown said...

This is the movie in which Dillman wakes up to find the bugs arranging themselves to spell out his character's name PARMITER across a wall. Then they scatter, regroup, and spell out WE LIVE. Blessedly absurd -- but still creepy.

Unknown said...

Notice the old Brady Bunch set? The series was canceled in March of '74, so Bug, also a Paramount production, took cost-cutting advantage of the suddenly-available space.

Will Errickson said...

I've never seen BUG but I remember as a kid hearing about the scene in which the insects spell words on a wall and I've never forgotten it!

Unknown said...

A couple personal recollections - I had purchased and read the paperback novel The Hephaestus Plague as a 14 year old. It was fine but kind of weird - and then I was thrilled to hear that the one and only William Castle was making it into a movie.
Then I heard he was going to call it Bug. Which I kind of got a kick out of. (I guess more people would go to something called "Bug" than they would called "The Hephaestus Plague," but it seems this is the least imaginative title ever.) Then I saw the film and it was so weird. I had imagined Gene Hackman in "The Conversation" mode doing the lead role when i read the book. Or maybe Bruce Dern. Bradford Dillman is an okay actor I suppose but a tad too much was riding on his shoulders for him to carry out the strange final act of this very strange movie.

Grant said...

I've always been a little bothered by the title change too. I also have a genuine PHOBIA of roaches. But somehow even that doesn't keep me from liking this film.

It might have been an inside joke, but the actress Patty McCormick plays a character who's killed by a fire from the insects, and as a child actress in THE BAD SEED, she herself did that to someone else.

fakebaconimprov said...

My father worked for Paramount in the publicity department and there were plastic bugs made especially for this film. Word was that Castle had suggested the bugs be put in the popcorn but the idea was thankfully put to rest in lieu of safety (I still have a bagful of the plastic bugs in my collection and for clarity sake, it is my remembrance from childhood on the popcorn story--it may have been a tall tale.)