The Beginning of the End (1957) -***Ĺ
I have a retraction to make. Back in my review of The Amazing Colossal Man, I said that ďevery Bert I. Gordon movie that I know of involves the creation and subsequent rampage of a gigantic monster, transformed by radioactive fallout from an ordinary inhabitant of the American Southwest.Ē When I wrote that, I had forgotten about The Beginning of the End, which involves the creation and subsequent rampage of several thousand gigantic monsters, transformed by radioactive fallout from ordinary inhabitants of the American Midwest-- locusts from Illinois, to be exact. I donít know how I could have made that mistake, seeing as it would seem to require me to forget about a film that I regard as the very pinnacle of Gordonís career. Could be the mask is squeezing my brain too hard.
We have some first-rate atomic bug hijinks here, with some first-rate budget-conscious corner-cutting into the bargain. The Beginning of the End is also a movie that wastes no time getting started (a good thing too, considering the fact that itís not a whole lot more than an hour long). The very first scene has a teenage couple making out in their parked car and being interrupted by something big, scary, and offscreen after-- what?-- maybe fifteen seconds? After the opening credits, the Illinois State Police find the kidsí car. Itís barely recognizable as an automobile, and the only sign of the two kids is a little shred of the girlís sweater. The cops call back to the station for some detectives, and then continue making their rounds, heading out to nearby Ludlow. They never get there, not because anything happens to them, but rather because the town of Ludlow has ceased to exist!
Now, thatís the kind of thing that attracts attention. The next day, a reporter from New York, by the name of Audrey Aimes (Invasion U.S.A.ís Peggy Castle) is driving out Ludlow-ward to cover the unveiling of some hot-shit new military plane at the nearby base, when she finds her progress halted by an Illinois National Guard roadblock. When the soldiers manning the barricade prove uncooperative, Aimes sneaks around them to a hill overlooking the town. Well, it used to overlook the town. We donít get to see just what it overlooks now, because that would have cost way too fucking much money, so we have to content ourselves with a reaction shot from Aimes, who gasps and then whips out her camera. Just then, one of the soldiers appears behind her, grabs her camera away from her, and rips out its film cartridge. Aimes understandably decides to pay a visit to the manís commanding officer in Paxton.
Colonel Sturgeon (Thomas Browne Henry, from Blood of Dracula and 20 Million Miles to Earth) is initially less than perfectly helpful, but he opens up a bit after Aimes promises to hold off on having the story printed until he says itís okay. Not that he has a whole lot to say; nobody has any idea what happened to Ludlow, only that the town was destroyed and that all 150 or so of its inhabitants are gone without a trace. But Aimes is a pretty smart woman, and apparently sheís seen some of Gordonís earlier movies, because she immediately begins thinking in terms of radiation or nuclear weapons. When her first lead turns up nothing (the plane that flew over the town at midnight turns out to have been a perfectly ordinary airliner), she snoops around until she learns that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has an installation in the area, and that, for some reason, that installation contains radioactive material. When she goes to check it out, she meets entomologist Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves, from Red Planet Mars and It Conquered the World) and botanist Frank Johnson (Than Wyenn from The Invisible Boy), whose work involves the use of radioisotopes to greatly accelerate the growth of plants, with the ultimate aim of-- you guessed it-- producing fruits and vegetables the size of 50ís-vintage TV sets, and solving thereby the problem of world hunger. Aimes convinces the two scientists to accompany her to a nearby D. of A. warehouse that was recently destroyed under circumstances that suspiciously resemble the fate of Ludlow, and the mystery is solved in short order. While the three of them poke around in the wreckage, a locust the size of a Buick Roadmaster crawls out from behind a heap of junk and eats Johnson.
Aimes and Wainwright do the sensible thing and go talk to Colonel Sturgeon again. He doesnít believe them at first (cops and military men never want to listen to stories about bugs eating irradiated grain and growing to prodigious size as a result), but he is eventually convinced to come out and take a look, and to bring a detail of ten armed men with him when he does it. It turns out to be a pretty productive trip, as far as alerting the authorities to the existence of a problem that merits their attention is concerned. Not only does the colonel get to see a giant locust with his own eyes, his squad is absolutely routed when hundreds of the things come stampeding out of the woods to eat them.
The scene is repeated on a larger scale some time later, when the Paxton N.G. garrison (and, for that matter, the entire town of Paxton) is destroyed by the bugs (mostly offscreen of course-- what do you think this is, Independence Day?). Then the regular army gets involved, and itís just the same old story on a larger scale still, as the locusts advance on Chicago itself. Finally, humanity is left with just two options. Either Wainwright finishes working on the obligatory high-tech gadget to defeat the bugs by dawn on the morning after the locusts reach the outskirts of the now-evacuated city, or the B-52 circling overhead (they say itís a B-52, anyway; actually, itís a B-36C) is going to have to nuke Chicago. You get one guess which it ends up being, and if youíre wrong, Iím going to kick you in the fucking nuts.
Now, letís talk giant bugs for a moment. The special effects techniques employed here are exactly the same as those in every other Bert I. Gordon movie-- no models, puppets, or animatronics; footage of live locusts is matted in a variety of ways to make it seem, in theory at least, like the locusts are a part of the same action as the human characters. To be fair, Gordon did a much better job of it this time than he did in The Amazing Colossal Man, and the ways in which the bugs are made to interact with the rest of the movie are certainly far more ambitious than anything Gordon had attempted before. But keep your eyes open, especially during the climactic siege of Chicago. In particular, watch closely when the locusts are seen climbing up the side of the building in which Wainwrightís laboratory is located. Note the jarring difference in dimensionality between the quite substantial locusts and the curiously flat-looking building. Thatís right, this amazing shot was created by having the bugs crawl around on a photograph of the building! Even better, in most prints of The Beginning of the End, a split-second shot appears in which one of the locusts actually crawls off of the building and into the fucking sky!!!! At least one distributor seems to have noticed this screw up, which Gordon either failed to spot or failed to care enough to correct, and had it excised from their prints of the film, because I have on occasion seen the movie and been surprised by the shotís absence. Itís a shame, too, because this is by far my favorite moment in the whole damn flick.