Big Bug movies. How can one not love them? They have bugs. They’re big. What else do you need to know before you hand out the Oscars?
They heyday of the Big Bug flick was, of course, the 1950’s, the era of the great SF boom in the cinema. The first, and best, of these films was Them! (1954). The title is deliberately coy about what the threat is, playing very consciously on Cold War paranoia (after all, who is responsible for everything going on in the world if not the mysterious “them”). Some initia… viewers, it seems, didn’t even know the movie was going to be about giant ants. The film was originally intended to be in 3D and colour, but budget cuts nixed that idea, which is actually for the best. The black-and-white photography varies from moody low key to a flat, semidocumentary look, serving up the perfect mix of atmospheric, almost noir-like mystery in the early goings and the climax, and a nice patina of realism elsewhere. The ants were full-sized mechanical models, and still make quite the impression. The disc from Warner is pretty short on extras, but the print is in nice shape.
Tarantula (1955) was, until just recently, unavailable on DVD. It now appears in a box set called “The Classic Sci-fi Ultimate Collection,” which is apparently a Best Buy exclusive, but is available from some sellers through Amazon. This is almost as good as Them! (though with less subtext), with special effects that are arguable even better, and features the voice of a young Clint Eastwood as the air force leads the charge on the giant spider. Like Them!, the setting is a small desert community, but unlike the earlier film, the action doesn’t shift to a major metropolis for the climax.
The Deadly Mantis (1957) is the weakest of the major studio Bug films, and is still waiting for DVD release. But should you track down the VHS, be prepared for much dull stock footage of planes and Inuit kayakers (?!), though there are a couple of nice attack sequences, most notably when the mantis overturns a bus.
The effects in The Black Scorpion (1959) vary from the mediocre to the superb (the legendary Willis O’Brien was partly responsible for them), and when they’re good, they’re very, very good. The scenes of the scorpions picking their victims from the derailed train are perhaps the most brutal in the Big Bug canon. This one is out from Warner, and the DVD has a couple of nice features showing rare test footage of stop-motion animation.
The Monsters That Challenged The World (1957) is a bunch of giant molluscs, so not really bugs, but hey, close enough. Hard as it may be to believe, the creatures here generate some real suspense as they anticipate Jaws and munch on bathers in the region of the Saltono Sea, and there’s one sequence that still makes this viewer jump.
And then there’s The Monster from Green Hell (1958). Giant, mutated wasps hover clumsily over stock-footage from Stanley and Livingston, and the result is, granted, quite risible. And yet. And yet. I can’t help but love this odd mix of jungle adventure and Big Bug movie, and silly though the monsters are, they do still come across as being really big. This oddity exists on a number of DVD releases, the best being the one from Image, but none, sadly, reproduce the green tinting of the climax.
There have, of course, been some recent revivals of the genre, ranging from the excellent (the first and third Mimic movies) to the silly but fun Eight Legged Freaks to the awful DTV releases. Perhaps more about them another time. Meanwhile, nostalgia fans, scratch that itch, why don’t you?