“They Look Like Rocks…Possess A High Intelligence…Have No Eyes…And Eat Ashes…They Travel In Your Car Exhaust…They Make Fire…They Kill.”
Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Cast: Bradford Dillman, Joanna Miles, Richard Gilliland
Synopsis: An earthquake releases a strain of mutant cockroaches with the ability to start fires, which proceed to cause destructive chaos in a small town.
Mad scientist movies, once a staple of the horror genre, had more or less been erased from the movies by the 1970s. Apart from a few spoofs and ultra-cheap foreign imports, the only ones that spring to mind are the ill-advised The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), and this fairly obscure 1975 horror movie, in which schlockmeister-supreme William Castle (13 Ghosts) served as writer and producer. Castle was the king of the gimmick movie back in the 1950s and ’60s, but he plays it straight here, and manages to deliver a movie which, while it can hardly be described as a success, does at least appear to stick as closely as it can to microbiological and entomological facts.
Life in a small Californian town is disrupted by an earthquake which rips a hole in the land of the Tacker family one Sunday morning. The Tacker’s are unlucky in all manner of ways on this fateful day, because family patriarch Tom (Jesse Vint) – after surviving the quake which destroyed the church in which he was attending service – and his son (Jim Poyner) are killed shortly after the quake when their van inexplicably catches fire. Setting aside the budgetary constraints which no doubt made it necessary for director Jeannot Szwarc to shoot the earthquake from inside a building, it’s no coincidence that our viewpoint of it is restricted to the confines of the church. Because what Bug boils down into is a good old-fashioned cautionary tale in which we’re warned of the dangers of messing with matters that are best left to God – although that doesn’t become apparent until Bug’s second half, which is almost a different film to its first.
Anyway, Tacker’s daughter Norma (Jamie Smith Jackson) is understandably too distraught to notice the large bugs roaming sluggishly around the new hole in the ground, but that night her boyfriend Gerald (Richard Gilliland — The White Buffalo) does notice them. It’s difficult for him not to, really, because one of them burns his hand when he tries to pick it up, and another one incinerates the family cat which is trying to eat it. These are no ordinary bugs, then, and the following day Gerald takes the body of his dead cat to the local university to show his former tutor, James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman), making sure, for some reason, that the good professor has got his lunch in front of him before opening the box in which the cat is interred.
That certainly grabs the professor’s attention, and he immediately accompanies Gerald to the site of the hole in the ground. Unknown to him, while he’s incredulously examining the strange little creatures, some of them hitch a ride in the exhaust pipe of his car. Given that this is how Tacker met his death, Parmiter’s lucky to make it home alive. Shortly after arriving home, he realises that he has unwanted visitors from the scraping noise they make and sets about catching them all. Unfortunately, unknown to him, one of them gets away. It’s an escape which is to have tragic consequences for him and, especially, his wife Carrie (Joanna Miles).
While Bug starts out as a typical monster movie in which it’s reasonable to expect that the town-folk will find themselves increasingly under siege from this previously unknown brand of insect, it takes off in an altogether different direction at the halfway mark, focusing instead on Parmiter’s increasing obsession with the bugs. They were dying out naturally, suffering from a fatal insect version of the bends due to the abrupt way in which they were spewed out of the earth during the earthquake, but Parmiter rescued one and placed it in an improvised pressure chamber into which he then placed a common cockroach in the hope that he might witness a little bit of inter-species hanky-panky. Sure enough, nature takes its course, but the spawn of this congress prove to be a highly intelligent hybrid with enhanced firepower and an appetite for raw meat.
Even allowing for his tragedy-fuelled obsession, the recklessness with which Parmiter embarks on this creation of a new, potentially deadly species is, quite frankly, mind-blowing. And his reasons for doing so are never clearly explained. There’s no need to create a new species to kill the bugs because they only live for a few days on the surface, anyway, and even the biggest idiot is going to have an inkling that mating a fire-starting insect with one that’s difficult to kill perhaps isn’t the best of ideas. Maybe Parmiter is simply unhinged, but it would still be nice to have a clear, realistic explanation for why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Bug also fails to explain just how a species of bug, no matter how intelligent, can learn the English language well enough to form messages on a wall. Do they read Parmiter’s mind? Have they been studying the newspapers strewn around his increasingly dirty chalet? Or is it all a hallucination, a creation of Parmiter’s mind as it descends into madness? Who knows? Going back to that religion thing I mentioned earlier, the impression is given in later scenes that the enhanced flying bugs created by Parmiter’s genetic tinkering have emerged from the pits of hell, and his experiments are earlier directly responsible for the death of a woman (Patty McCormack) who visited his house to deliver a bible. It seems like something of an old-fashioned message to be delivered in the cynical 1970s, but then it is in keeping with a mad scientist movie…
(Reviewed 6th February 2014)