Saturday, January 21, 2017

THE BEES (1978)

The horror sub-genre generally known as 'nature attacks' blossomed in the 1970's and probably reached perfection with Jaws (1975). Certainly Jaws was not the first movie to put humans at the mercy of a relentless animal antagonist but it's success guaranteed that it would never be the last. Being very well respected and the most profitable film of its type there was little doubt that more such movies would be made but while much fun can be had watching the various carbon copies with monsters of all types, it's the nature attacks tales that stretch outside the basic formula of Jaws that are the most interesting. That's not to say that most of these films are good but they are usually fascinating viewing just to see what threat from the animal kingdom can be blown up to epic proportions to frighten the public. I'm sure the producers of The Bees had Hitchcock's brilliant The Birds in mind as a template but that is a level of competence that this film could never reach.

Somewhere in South America a United Nations science outpost has Dr. Miller (Claudio Brook) running some tests and experiments on African killer bees. Miller is part of a team that is working to figure out a way to increase the production of honey and their plan is to crossbreed African killer bees with less deadly bees to create a new, less aggressive but highly industrious breed. Unfortunately the lure of top grade honey is too enticing for a local villager who, along with his young son, sneaks into the killer bee compound at night. The pair of would be thieves disturb the bees resulting in the son’s death and the father's disfigurement. The nearby villagers blame the death on Dr. Miller so they storm the research compound releasing the bees and killing Dr. Miller.

Dr. Miller’s wife Sandra (Angel Tompkins) smuggles some of the remaining bees back to America and takes them to Dr. Sigmund Hummel (John Carradine) who also happens to be her uncle. Siggy, as he is called, is the head man of this UN bee project in the States and has been working in the field for years. With the assistance of John Norman (John Saxon) and Sandra Dr. Hummel tries to continue Dr. Miller’s work. While their work progresses a group of greedy American businessmen try illegally importing some killer bees of their own into the United States. Their plan goes horribly wrong and their courier is killed in transit releasing his bee stash into North America and off we go into disaster film territory. The bees set up shop in a cave near a public park (!), begin multiplying, building hives and occasionally stinging a person to death.

As the bees become a bigger and more deadly problem threatening to destroy the entire human race the UN team begin to make some real progress and actually slow the insects' advance for a while. But at that point the bees evolve into a species smarter and more deadly than anyone could have imagined leaving Dr. Norman fighting to find a way to communicate with the creatures to stave off the end of humanity. I don't want to give away the completely mad ending so that the curious can marvel at it's unusual solution to the problem. I'll just say that the ending is almost worth getting through the rest of  the movie just to witness.

Let's be clear about this now - The Bees is a terrible film. It's inept in a dozen different ways with awful dialog, a ridiculous romance angle, ham-fisted villainy and generally wretched acting. The only two actors that make it out of this mess with their self-respect intact are Saxon and Carradine even if that venerable actor is saddled with a truly stupid German accent. I love John Carradine and it was great to see him featured so prominently in a film this late in his career. He’s good in his role but I did find myself constantly distracted by the sight of his arthritic, crippled hands. I'm aware of Mr. Carradine's arthritis problems later in life but this was the first time I've seen a director choose not to hide this deformity onscreen. It drew my attention repeatedly and made me wince whenever I saw him holding things or picking up objects. Saxon is the only actor that seems to be rewriting his dialog on the fly which is to say that his lines sound the least stilted and juvenile throughout. Saxon finds a way to seem naturalistic in his role even when he is being asked to do some pretty dumb things and, as a plus, he gets to have a gratuitous fist fight.  

I wish The Bees was a better movie. I really enjoy the nature attacks sub-genre and the idea of swarms of malevolent insects engulfing people automatically gives me the chills so I'm a fair mark for the story being told here. But this film is so poorly produced and badly written that it is impossible to ever take anything seriously. I can get behind the film's basic message of dialing back the harm we do to the environment before we damage something vital but the entire affair just seems like an under budgeted amateur mess. Most of the time it feels like a 1970's Saturday morning cartoon script that somehow got made into a feature film. On the plus side I do have to give the director credit for some creative use of (a lot) of stock footage to show the military's fight against the invading bee horde. This footage is well integrated and the scenes of the Rose Parade were very well done with a surprise appearance by President Gerald Ford before the bees descend.

Just one more note about the film that I can't ignore. The sort of jazzy score by Richard Gillis is pretty bad and entirely inappropriate to the events it is used under. It feels like music written for another story idea that got grafted onto this film out of necessity. It is almost always out of place and distracting especially after the seventh or eighth time the same few bars of music leap out of the soundtrack to emphasize whatever is happening.   The music might work in another movie but here it's overused and it's repetitive nature just grates on the viewer's nerves.

Luckily for fans of nature amok movies The Bees has been release on Blu-ray by the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome. The movie looks and sounds fantastic putting to shame the poor quality transfers from video sources I've seen in the past. In fact, I can't imagine a better looking presentation of the film and one might even say the excellence in evidence here is better than the film deserves. The only special features are the movie's trailer and a very nice ten minute interview with the film’s director Alfredo Zacarias. Zacarias speaks with a lot of passion about The Bees and it's clear he really felt he was doing something important. I certainly don't think this is a good movie but I can appreciate the work the director put into this project and hearing his story from his own lips might have been the best part of this Blu-Ray. 

1 comment:

Nick Rentz said...

I recently watched Shock Waves and the director didn't hide John Carradine's hands.