Bug (1975)

JANUARY 11, 2021


Sometimes it's legitimate ignorance/confusion, but one type of joke I often can't stand is when there are two movies with the same name and when you say you are watching or enjoying one, someone will make a crack about the other (one basic example: you say you're enjoying Jack Palance in Alone in the Dark and someone will ask if he's in a scene with Tara Reid, who starred in the other, awful one). The reason for this is that I am already annoyed I have to clarify which one I mean, because so many producers are too lazy to come up with a title that hasn't already been used, so when I take the time to specify and STILL get a hacky joke reply, it's just twisting the knife. I bring it up because when I said I was watching Bug, I specified that it wasn't William Friedkin's while simultaneously thinking that the two films couldn't be less alike - only to discover they actually DID have a number of similarities by the end.

I mean, if you haven't seen Friedkin's 2006 thriller, the quickest way to sum it up would be "Two people gradually go insane while barricading themselves in a room", whereas *this* Bug is, in general, a typical 1970s nature gone amok movie about a breed of cockroach type bugs that begin decimating the populace of a small southwestern town. And given that it was produced by William Castle and directed by Jeannot Szwarc - whose work here helped him get the Jaws 2 gig - it's reasonable to expect the same kind of schlocky thrills you also got from the likes of Frogs and Giant Spider Invasion, right? Well, for about 45-50 minutes that's indeed what you get, and then... well, it turns into a movie about a guy going insane while barricading himself in a room. Hell, I can go further with a SPOILER and note that the protagonists also burn to death, which means that Friedkin's Bug, while obviously not a remake, shares more surface similarities with this one than some legitimate remakes did with their originals (Prom Night and the most recent Black Christmas come to mind). It might actually be an interesting double feature, especially on a crowd of people who had never seen either and only knew that they were in no way related despite having the same title.

Until it pivots, it's certainly a fun killer bug movie, if a bit TV movie-esque (no surprise; Szwarc came from TV and, after Jaws 2 and a couple other features, returned there and hasn't come back). An earthquake sets the little things loose in the opening scene, so you get the Star Trek sort of "shake the camera and have all the actors tip themselves to the side" goofiness that's always enjoyable and also more visually exciting than the usual man-made explantion you get in this kind of film (i.e. the pesticides in Kingdom of the Spiders). It's like a bonus mini-disaster movie! From there we get a few isolated attacks, including one in, believe it or not, the Brady Bunch kitchen! Seems that this film was going into production right around the time that show had gotten canceled, so to save money they just slightly redressed their set and shot the scene there. Since the victim is a Mrs Brady-esque lovely lady, it almost feels like a strange, Adult Swim kind of sketch to see someone in that iconic room being killed in the most ridiculous way possible.

See, these bugs don't bite people to death or whatever. Instead they... well, they basically fart fire. Our hero scientist James (Bradford Dillman) gives it a more scientific explanation of course, but "they fart fire" is how it looks, and it's this little superpower that causes all the deaths. In the Brady kitchen, one of them gets in the poor woman's hair and starts a fire, one she doesn't even notice at first while she is puzzling over her recipe. In another scene they cause a truck to burn up, and since they are also attracted to fire and eat ashes, this is the most pyro-driven killer insect movie I think I've ever seen. There are like four different scenes of Dillman lighting a newspaper or something on fire and sticking it near them in order to lure them somewhere, which at the time was kind of obnoxious but when it was over I actually appreciated the repetition, as it was lulling me into thinking this was gonna be the usual deal and the climax would involve them finding the nest or something and blowing them all up.

Nope! You see, that lady in the kitchen was Dillman's wife, and after her death he becomes obsessed with the bugs and studying them in order to find a way to eradicate them permanently. And this is where the movie pivots into nuttier fare, with the non-Dillman cast more or less disappearing as we focus almost exclusively on him in his house for the final thirty minutes. But it's not like, him facing off against the bugs as a last man standing thing; instead it enters into Phase IV territory (the bug footage was actually shot by the same guy, incidentally) as the roaches start communicating with Dillman by forming words out of their bodies. It's like the writers had gotten 60 pages into their standard nature gone amok script, went to see Phase IV during a break, and got inspired to change course but never bothered to thread their new ideas into what they had already written.

But I liked that! One thing I love about 1970s genre fare that was never as prevalent in other decades is that they were often pretty grim, killing off heroes and/or ending on a note that suggested the evil thing was just getting stronger (even Kingdom of the Spiders, a pretty goofy movie throughout, ends on a major downer), but the TV movie aesthetics had me thinking this would not go that route. Plus, even though Rosemary's Baby had already come and gone (well, not GONE but you get it), William Castle's name still suggested whimsy and fun, an element that is entirely absent from the film's back half. Hell if anything the end was dark even by the standards of this sub-genre, since the insects are seemingly specifically driving this guy crazy after murdering his wife, AND they evolve into something bigger/stronger for good measure. Hahaha, GRIM. I love it!

The disc has but one bonus feature of note: a commentary by Troy Howarth that is a little more defensive than I'm used to for him. He tends to be one of the more engaging historians they get for these things, but here he seems to be particularly annoyed that Dillman never got as much respect as an actor as he believes the man deserves. I don't disagree, necessarily, but it starts to overwhelm the track at times, at the expense of learning more about the other players involved. The movie is almost over before he even really starts to give a little background on Szwarc, for example, but by then we've heard him defend Dillman's presence five or six times. Calm down, man!

I tried to focus on the track, but I did zone out a few times, so maybe Howarth mentioned this himself, but I think it's amusing that this movie - released two weeks before Jaws - starred the guy who'd star in one of its most famous knockoffs (Piranha) and was directed by the guy who'd direct the actual Jaws sequel, both films released a few weeks apart just three years later. After Jaws came along there was definitely a shift in these sort of things, some holding on to the darker elements of the earlier movies while attempting to make things more commercial, so I think it's funny that the director and star of what had to be the last one released (perhaps even made) prior to Jaws changing the game forever went on to make films that literally owed their entire existence to it.

Long story short: I'm gonna program a film marathon of Phase IV, Bug (1975), Jaws, Jaws 2, Piranha, and Bug (2006) someday, hope you can make it.

What say you?


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