Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Swarm (1978)

          Hollywood’s master of disaster, producer Irwin Allen, was well into the unintentional self-parody phase of his career by the late ’70s, less than a decade after he first started mining mass misfortune for mass entertainment. Instead of the towering infernos and upside-down cruise ships of yore, he restored to demonizing insects in The Swarm, an undercooked comin’-at-ya picture in which killer bees, mostly depicted as animated blotches roaming across the skyline, attack a small town in the Southwest before heading to Houston. Filled with all the usual tropes of Allen’s pictures, from large mobilizations of rescue forces to trite melodramas playing out against the backdrop of tragedy, The Swarm also features one of Allen’s trademark hodgepodge casts.
          Michael Caine, starting his slide into ridiculous paycheck gigs, stars as a bug specialist who takes command of the government’s response to the bees, and he’s accompanied by Richard Widmark (as a general who wants to blow up everything in sight), Henry Fonda (as a wheelchair-bound immunologist), Richard Chamberlain (as a Southern-fried scientist/crankypants whose sole function seems to be scowling at Caine), and Katharine Ross (as a scientist/love interest who gets stung by more than Cupid’s arrow), plus Patty Duke Astin, Olivia de Havilland, Bradford Dillman, Jose Ferrer, Lee Grant, Ben Johnson, and Fred MacMurray.
          Even though a few elements are respectable, like Jerry Goldsmith’s exciting score, The Swarm is, well, swarming with ludicrous highlights, because the movie’s so preposterously straight-faced it plays like a comedy. The plotting is, of course, extraordinarily stupid, with Caine regularly leaving his post as the government’s top man during a major crisis to run inconsequential errands with Ross so they can share cutesy patter while driving around the countryside. Better still, from the perspective of amusing awfulness, is the outrageously limp dialogue, which nails the audience with clunky exposition as mercilessly as the bees zap their victims. “Just because you’re the mayor of Marysville, that doesn’t make you an engineer,” Johnson barks to MacMurray, who replies, “Look, nobody asked you to leave Houston and come here to retire, you know.” Ouch.
           In its most hysterically insipid moments (which are, sadly, outnumbered by long stretches of flat tedium), The Swarm approaches full-on camp, like the bee attack on a nuclear power plant or the colorful bit of Caine running through the small town, screaming, “The killer bees are coming! Everybody get inside!” (On a less amusing note, Widmark takes to referring to the Africanized bees as “Africans,” leading to icky lines like, “By tomorrow, there will be no more Africans in Houston!”) The movie’s best moment, though, is undoubtedly the scene in which Caine coaches a young bee-sting victim through a bout of hysterics by convincing the boy that the giant bee floating in front of his head—depicted, with goofy obviousness, by a giant superimposed bee—is a hallucination.
          For good or ill, The Swarm is no hallucination, because this two-and-a-half-hour venom blast of a gloriously bad creature feature really exists. And, yes, you read that right: Though originally released at 116 minutes, there’s an extended version of The Swarm clocking in at 155 minutes. Rest assured the whole damn mess was endured for the sake of this review. Anti-venom, please!

The Swarm: FREAKY

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