The Swarm (1978) -***
Way back in 1956, some commercial honey producers in Brazil noticed that the African subspecies of honeybee typically generated significantly more honey per worker bee than the European subspecies which had been employed by apiaries for thousands of years. It also occurred to these Brazilian honey magnates that the African bees would probably be happier in Brazil’s tropical climate than the more familiar strain bred in the relatively chilly lands above the Mediterranean Sea. With that in mind, they began importing African queens for a program of experimental apiaries, in which the foreign queens would take over hives of European workers and drones and, it was hoped, eventually create a hybrid strain that would combine the high honey yields of the African subspecies with the comparative domestication of the European— it seemed like a good idea at the time. Only a year later, though, 26 of the imported queens escaped from a hive 100 miles or so south of Săo Paolo, taking with them large swarms of European worker bees. Over the following years, the two strains did indeed hybridize, but the result was not quite what had been intended originally. The African bees conferred upon their hybrid descendants not their Stakhanovite capacity for making honey (in fact, the hybrids produce only about one fifth as much honey per worker as European bees) but their restlessness, long radius of operation, and vicious disposition. How vicious are we taking about here? Well, for starters, the hybrid bees’ speed of reaction against a potential threat and the determination with which they press their attacks are both estimated to exceed that of the European honeybee by a factor of ten, and once aroused to violence, the hive can remain on a hair-trigger for days at a stretch. Africanized honeybees swarm much more cohesively and in far greater numbers than the common breed, and they have been known to pursue an intruder upon their territory for as much as a quarter of a mile. In Brazil, the total human death-toll from Africanized honeybee attack since 1957 stands at somewhere around 1000. The European strain, meanwhile, contributed to the hybrid subspecies a significantly increased resistance to cold winters as compared to the African side of the family (though not nearly as great as that of purebred European bees), which, in combination with the nomadic tendencies of the Africans, meant that the deadly hybrid bees would not long remain a problem for Brazil alone. The hybrid bees spread northward at a shocking rate— anywhere from 100 to 200 miles per year— and by the 1970’s, the North American press was, well, buzzing with alarm over the impending invasion of “killer bees” from the Latin south.
You know what had to happen next. Whenever a new scourge shows up in the newspapers, it’s only a matter of time before exploitation movies on the subject begin cropping up, and one of the more unusual mini-crazes of the 70’s was the short-lived eruption of trashy little films about killer bees. There was one 70’s killer bee flick that, while certainly trashy, was by no means little, however. The Swarm was Irwin Allen’s contribution to the bee-picture movement, and he brought to it all the production-value overkill that made his earlier disaster movies so distinctive. In fact, Allen pretty much treated The Swarm as just another entry in his ongoing disaster cycle, with the millions of Africanized honeybees taking over for the shipwreck or the impending plane crash or the flaming high-rise.
Oh— and it starts at a nuclear missile silo somewhere in Texas, just so we can cram in a little bit of “Oh, shit— I bet the Russians are behind this” before getting down to business. All contact has been lost with the missile base in question, and a team of flamethrower-armed (no, really) Air Force MPs under the command of Major Baker (Monstrosity’s Bradford Dillman, who got lots of practice in dealing with entomological menaces in Bug) has been sent in to see what’s what. Baker and his men find the silo filled with corpses, but there’s no sign of damage from explosives or firearms, nor is their any trace of chemical or biological contaminants in the air. Baker is stumped, and he doesn’t have much of a report to give when his superior, Major General Slater (Richard Widmark, from To the Devil... a Daughter and Coma), arrives by helicopter a short while later. That’s when a few survivors are discovered in a sealed room hidden deep in the silo, together with a man who is not supposed to be in the base at all. The latter is rogue entomologist Brad Crane (Michael Caine, of Dressed to Kill and The Hand), who claims to have let himself into the missile complex through the open front gate after everyone inside (or at least everyone he initially saw inside) was already dead. Crane contends that the culprit behind the mysterious mishap is a huge swarm of Africanized honeybees, which flew in through the missile base’s ventilation system, stung the garrison to death, and then exited the way they came. Baker and Slater both scoff, but the one survivor who is in any condition to talk— staff physician Captain Helena Anderson (Katharine Ross, from The Stepford Wives and Donnie Darko)— corroborates Crane’s story. Then the two helicopters that were sent to patrol the area for escaping Soviet spies encounter the swarm in flight, and are destroyed when they suck too many bees into their air intakes, gumming up the engines. Slater’s own commanding officer, General Thomson (Cameron Mitchell, of Flight to Mars and Slaughter), calls in at that point with orders from the White House itself, putting Dr. Crane in untrammeled authority over the upcoming campaign to find the killer bee swarm and destroy it before it can reach a populated area. Slater likes the idea of taking orders from Crane so much that he surreptitiously assigns Baker to watch him and the team of scientists he assembles for any sign that they’re secretly on the Kremlin’s payroll.
Pride of place among Crane’s dream team goes to the wheelchair-bound Dr. Walter Krim (Henry Fonda, from The Boston Strangler and Tentacles). Krim’s appointed task is to find an antidote for the immensely powerful (and, as we shall see later, strongly psychedelic) venom produced by the killer bees. In one of The Swarm’s more drastic departures from reality, the Africanized bees are so poisonous that only a few stings are enough to kill a healthy adult, and sub-lethal doses of their venom can trigger vivid hallucinations. Meanwhile, a few other scientists led by Crane’s sometime-colleague, sometime-rival, Dr. Hubbard (“prestige” TV regular Richard Chamberlain, whose less prestigious engagements include the Golan-Globus King Solomon’s Mines and the made-for-cable remake of Night of the Hunter), will address the question of how to defeat the insects themselves.
To say that Crane’s efforts to protect the people of Texas from the lethal bees meet with limited success would be putting it mildly. Soon after downing the two helicopters, the bees swoop down on a family having a picnic in the countryside, and only the thirteen-ish Paul Durant (Christian Juttner) makes it to safety in the station wagon parked nearby. Deep in shock, Paul drives the car (not very well, as you might imagine) to the sleepy little town of Marysville, where he is taken under the care of the town doctor, who seems not to know quite what to do with him. Paul’s arrival causes a big enough scene to attract the attention of TV news reporter Anne MacGregor (Lee Grant, from Valley of the Dolls and Visiting Hours), and soon enough, Crane and Captain Anderson (the two of whom will somehow find time to conduct a rather baffling romance amid all the killer bee action, by the way) are on the scene to talk the boy down from his venom-induced bad trip. In point of fact, however, Crane’s cause would have been much better served by leaving Paul to scream his addled brains out, because the first thing he does after making his recovery is to get some friends together and sneak out to the hollow log where the killer bees are staying to attack the insects with Molotov cocktails. The kids are smart enough to bring along some galvanized steel trash cans to protect them from the inevitable counterattack, but there isn’t a trash can big enough to save Marysville when the bees come calling there. They pretty much wipe out the entire town, yet Paul and his friends incur no repercussions of any kind for provoking the slaughter.
Nor do the bees content themselves with depopulating Marysville. Their next stop is the nuclear power plant directed by Dr. Andrews (Jose Ferrer, from Dune and The Being), where they manage to trigger a catastrophic meltdown of the main reactor core. Then they hit downtown Houston, which has to be first evacuated and then burned down in order to dislodge the bees from the area. (Evidently the chain of military command here runs from Slater through Thompson and then up to William C. Westmoreland…) Krim’s endeavors to perfect an antivenin come to naught (although Dr. Dumbass does manage to kill himself in a rather poorly designed test of his formula), and in the end, there’s nothing for it but to rip off The Beginning of the End by drawing the bees out into the Gulf of Mexico with a recording of their mating call, and then napalm the whole swarm when it lands on the floating loudspeaker. Do you want to tell screenwriter Sterling Silliphant that worker bees, being congenitally sterile, would have no interest in a recorded mating call, or should I?
As usual, the potential dual meaning of the term “disaster movie” turns around and sinks its fangs gumline-deep into Irwin Allen’s ass. The Swarm was the first theatrical feature Allen had directed himself since the early 1960’s, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was also the last movie he made that achieved even moderate success at the box office. The Swarm combines all of the usual Allen foolishness with an amateurish incompetence in overall handling that goes well beyond anything to be seen in The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. To begin with, it was among the most expensive movies to be released in 1978, but you’d never guess from looking at it, because the bulk of that money went straight into the pockets of the “all-star” cast. True, Allen’s 70’s disaster flicks had always featured as many washed-up major names as could be squeezed onto a single one-sheet, but The Swarm raised this misguided practice to hitherto unimagined heights. Most of the former heavy hitters who got their mug shots lined up across the bottom of the movie posters have almost nothing to do, and a fair proportion of them appear as characters who have no impact whatever on the story. Slim Pickens fairs almost as badly as he did in The Howling or The White Buffalo, turning up briefly for an unintentionally hilarious tearful reunion with the body bag containing his bee-stung son before vanishing without a trace. Olivia De Haviland (from Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and The Screaming Woman) serves as the center of a geriatric love triangle that exists only to mark time before perishing when the train carrying all three of its participants is derailed in a killer bee attack. Patty Duke (whose comparably regrettable credits include 4D Man and Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby) is so completely superfluous that I honestly can’t remember what excuse her short-lived bee-fodder character had for being in the movie in the first place. With all those slumming stars gobbling up the budget, it’s no wonder that so little was left over for important things like the burning of Houston, or the sets for such high-tech locales as the missile base and power plant control rooms, the latter of which were simply recycled from Allen’s mid-60’s sci-fi TV series, “The Time Tunnel.” The rest of the 1970’s killer bee films cost a fraction of what Allen spent on The Swarm, but even the made-for-TV Terror Out of the Skies looks only slightly chintzier.
Beyond the matter of Allen’s poor spending decisions, The Swarm suffers from some really strange directorial quirks. That so many respected actors turn in risibly awful performances here— and do so with exactly the same curious combination of stiffness and bluster— suggests that Caine, Fonda, and company were simply giving Allen what he wanted. Meanwhile, Allen does some very silly things with the camera, like sending it into orbit around a pair of arguing characters, apparently in an ill-considered gambit to turn a pedestrian bout of bickering into an occasion for nail-biting suspense. And the numerous occasions on which characters who have survived bee attacks are tormented by visions of Buick-sized honeybees hovering above their sickbeds or (in one awesomely retarded sequence) emerging from the pupil of Michael Caine’s eye will surely come as cause for celebration to any dedicated lover of crap cinema. It’s hard to say which is a more impressive miscalculation of scare power, that giant double-exposure bee or the masses of little, brown specks that we’re supposed to be afraid of throughout the rest of the film. The best possible summation of The Swarm, however, comes in the form of a single line of dialogue, uttered in what I imagine was supposed to be a spirit of wistful introspection by Michael Caine: “We’ve been fighting a losing battle against the insects for fifteen years, but I never thought I’d see the final face-off in my lifetime. And I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees— they’ve always been our friends!”