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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: The Swarm (1978)




During the post-”Towering Inferno” boom of interest, Irwin Allen announced several projects. Alongside “The Day the World Ended” and the unrealized “Circus” – pretty easy to guess what that would've been about – was “The Swarm.” Based on a novel by Arthur Herzog, the film would attempt to capitalize on America's hysteria over the ever-encroaching killer bee. Allen would direct the movie himself, his first directorial credit in sixteen years. By the time “The Swarm” actually arrived in theaters in 1978, the public's interest in disaster movies was waning. Despite a big budget, an all-star cast, and a catchy premise, the film would flop hard. The reviews were vitriolic, causing “The Swarm” to quickly be regarded as a laughing stock. The film's failure would signal the end of the disaster movie era.

A military investigation marches into a missile base. Everyone inside is mysteriously dead, save for Dr. Bradford Crane. Crane is an entomologist – an expert in insect – and blames the attack on a swarm of Africanized honey bees. His theory is proven true when a cloud of bees destroys two helicopters. Soon, the killer bees are descending on the small town of Marysville, Texas. This is but the first of many highly fatal attacks. The hyper-aggressive bees are hard to ward off and their venom is incredibly deadly. Soon, the entire American south-west is overtaken by the bees. The military, led by Dr. Crane, attempts desperately to come up with some way to defeat the swarm.

As a kid, I saw some alarmist TV documentary about the killer bee. About how they were going to invade America and murder all of us. That was in the early nineties and the bees still haven't killed me, so I guess we're winning. “The Swarm” does, sometimes, successfully build on those hysterical fears. The scenes of the bees swarming over a picnicking family, killing the mother and father, are effectively grim. The scenes of the bees invading Marysville, leading to much mayhem, generate some okay panic. Later scenes, where an attempt to fight the swarm with flamethrowers, feature exploding ambulances and airplanes, work well. The film's production utilized a lot of real bees, which does provide a genuine squeamishness to some scenes.

For the moments that work as intended, there are many that do not. “The Swarm” frequently veers into the world of unintentional comedy. Survivors of the attacks, still delirious from bee venom, frequently hallucinate giant bees hovering over them. In one sequence, a giant bee seems to leap out of Michael Caine's eye, a real laugher of a moment. The bees are resilient enough to work their way into a military facility but, in one scene, a trio of young boy foils them with an aluminum trash can. The scenes of Michael Caine arguing with various military officials about what to do get so overheated, so quickly, that they make the audience laugh. Scenes of people screaming in slow-motion as the bees cloud the room, sometimes resulting in a nuclear explosion, result in giggles, not screams.

The unintentional humor jives badly with a movie that is among the grimmest in the disaster genre. The scenes of bees stinging people to death are more visceral and personal than the typical carnage. In a sharp subversion of what usually happens, at least two children are killed by the bees. (We don't see any pets stung to death but, considering the scope of the fatalities here, it can be assumed that poochies and kitties bite it.) “The Swarm” is so grim that a sense of futility quickly sets in. The little boy doesn't live. An attempt by Jose Ferrer's scientist to make an anti-venom goes horribly wrong. The flamethrowers fail. The poison fed to the bees fail. A train, full of all of the lovable country bumpkins, is attacked by the bees. It derails, rolls down a cliff and explodes, killing everyone inside. Combined with the film's two hour and thirty-six minute runtime – yes, really – the audience really starts to wonder what the fuck the point of any of it is.

“The Swarm” features many veterans of the disaster genre. Lee Grant and Olivia de Havilland both survived “Airport '77,” to appear here as a news reporter and a resident of the small town. Henry Fonda, as the Marysville doctor, and Richard Widmark, as a military official, return from “Rollercoaster.”  Jose Ferrer, after appearing in “The Big Bus,” plays a scientist in a squeaky wheelchair here. Even the small roles are occupied by recognizable faces like Ben Johnson, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, and Cameron Mitchell. Starring in the film is Michael Caine and Katharine Ross. Caine's best qualities are crushed by the melodramatic script. Ross, meanwhile, isn't given much to do but stare in shock at the chaos around her.

The version of “The Swarm” released in theaters in 1978 was 116 minutes long. A pretty standard runtime for a film of this type. For whatever reason, a nearly three hour long extended cut was released on Laserdisc in the nineties and remains the most widely available version. This painfully long version presumably gives more attention to utterly unnecessary subplots, like the going-ons around Marysville or a pregnant woman's fate. Allen's direction too frequently dissolves into watching people stand in rooms and talk. Jerry Goldsmith's score is ridiculously overblown. Too long, too grim, and too ridiculous, it's not hard to figure out why “The Swarm” was such a flop. It still got an Oscar nomination, for Costume Design. I don't know why. [4/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

1 comment:

Monty Park said...

Jerry Goldsmith always knew when he was working on a bad movie. Compare his scores for Damnation Alley and Capricorn One. Same year, the awful movie has an awful score, the good movie has a good score.