Thursday, November 12, 2009

Buzz Off!

In what was probably meant to be the pinnacle of Irwin Allen’s stint as The Master of Disaster, the opposite came true and it became close to the nadir of his career. (I say close to the nadir because, believe it or not, my beloved showman actually tried two more times after this to put another successful disaster epic out there and both of them were dismal failures as well! Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and When Time Ran Out.)

In 1974, Arthur Herzog published a novel about the catastrophic events that occur after a gigantic swarm of African killer bees makes its way to North America. Seeing it as prime material for a disaster movie, Allen eventually turned it into the all-star spectacle The Swarm. Perhaps the greatest example of a “box movie,” this film’s poster had thirteen name brand stars splayed across the bottom!

Headlining this disaster of a movie was Michael Caine. Caine frequently cites this and Ashanti as the worst of his screen repertoire, though the 70s were not a good time for him in a variety of ways including The Hand, The Island and the aforementioned Beyond… Poseidon. He plays a noted scientist who comes upon a US Air Force base in which most of the soldiers are dead from a surprise bee attack. Alternately wooden and over-the-top, he sports a wavy crown of hair that is at once pressed down and unruly and is bedecked in a series of tacky leisure suits.

He’s immediately set upon by a curmudgeonly General played by Richard Widmark who wants to take a direct approach and poison or otherwise destroy all the bees while Caine seeks more sensible means of problem-solving because “the American honey bee is our friend!” Also on board is Katharine Ross as a doctor who inexplicably keeps dressing up, despite all the harrowing goings on, and coming up with elaborate up-dos for her near Crystal Gayle-length hair. In the course of the film, she fails to save so many as one patient!

It was in this film that I realized the fact that Ross needs a very, VERY strong director in order to register even the slightest amount of expression, variety or emphasis in her performance. Needless to say she doesn’t have that in Mr. Allen. Courtesy of (sleep-walking?) screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, she gets to deliver the howler of a line, “The entire Durant family has been killed besides Paul!” when the family consists of Paul and his parents…

While Widmark provides the rare apportion of screen charisma and acting interest in the film, Miss Olivia de Havilland supplies entertainment for a whole other reason. As the principal of a nearby school, she finds herself caught in a love triangle with senior citizen lotharios Fred MacMurray and Ben Johnson. She’s also outfitted in a putrescent series of bland but gaudily colored dresses that do nothing for her by now questionable physique. She gets the screaming, howling highlight of the film when she gets on the public address system and announces that “a swahm of killah bees” is heading towards the school when, even as she’s speaking, the bees are offing children on the playground, offended as they are by the 70s clothing and oversized lollipop that one child carries everywhere! As she discovers this massacre, she galumphs through the classroom, peers out the window and releases a guttural, slow motion groan. This classic bad movie moment must be seen to be believed!

Many other stars appear for seemingly no other reason than the fact that they were free that day and/or needed a quick buck or two. Jose Ferrer filmed all of his few moments in one day by merely crossing the studio lot where he had already been positioned in an Irwin Allen produced TV movie! Chamberlain, looking scruffy and having no purpose other than to grouse at a few people, is thoroughly wasted. Worst of all is Lee Grant. Not an actress who could often be accused of under-acting, she plays a field reporter and delivers all of her lines in a somnambulistic drone for the scant time she appears.

Patty Duke plays a pregnant coffee shop waitress whose husband was one of the soldiers killed in the initial assault. If you think she makes it through the film without going into labor, you’ve never seen a movie or a TV show. Despite the fact that he husband’s barely cold, her doctor Alejandro Rey seems to like what he sees.

Henry Fonda has a reasonably substantial role as a fellow scientist, desperate to concoct a vaccine before the bees to everyone in. Oddly enough, Caine seems more interested in Fonda at times than he does in Ross.

Bradford Dillman seems to be onhand solely smart off or to take abuse from Caine or Widmark, whoever’s handy.

Slim Pickens has a vignette as the country-fried father of one of the fallen soldiers and manages to dredge up some genuine emotion. Sadly, such talent is wasted in dreck like this.

One hysterical aspect of the movie is the conceit that whenever a person is stung by fewer bees than it normally takes to kill a human, he or she begins to hallucinate that a massive, buzzing bee is hovering before them in their hospital room! Caine gets one of his more lunatic moments as he emphatically barks, “There is NO bee in THIS room!”

Anyone who happened to be slightly interested in the ridiculous triangular love story of de Havilland and her men will be sorely let down by its resolution.

The film was released to theaters in a 116 minute cut. If people hated that (and they did. The movie barely lasted two weeks before being pulled!), just imagine if the extended 156 minute version had been put before them! That version is the one on DVD and it’s hard to know what is extra and what is original because the original version hasn’t really been seen since it premiered. It’s safe to say that the many scenes of Ross and Caine driving and chatting and the lengthy (and fiery) climax were shortened in that first cut. Whose idea was it to give people more of something they never liked to begin with?!

Naturally, in the Underworld the whole lengthy mess is revered. Poseidon loves few things more than all-star casts floundering through a tacky, cheesy, idiotic epic. The pounding Jerry Goldsmith score tries in vain to pump an ounce of excitement into the DOA proceedings. Amazingly, the film received an Oscar nomination for its mostly deplorable costumes. The DVD contains a featurette in which some of the stars express concern for the real life oncoming mass of killer bees and this is sort of sad. Even sadder is the fact that one of the menu selections shows a picture of Laurence Olivier (!), some poor sap with the manufacturer apparently not even able to realize that he isn’t in this movie!


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