One lazy, hot Sunday morning Carrie Parmiter (Joanna Miles) is dropped off by biologist husband James (Bradford Dillman) at the local church just outside of their little, half-horse town. While listening to the Reverend Kern (James Greene) give his usual impassioned homily, the ground begins to tremble. An earthquake tears up the small chapel and sends the parishioners scurrying outside. Henry and Kenny Tacker (Frederic Downs and Jim Poyner, respectively) take off back to their ranch to check on their family and any property damage. But as they approach, their pickup is suddenly engulfed in flames, killing the two right in front of son Tom (Jesse Vint), daughter Norma (Jamie Smith-Jackson), and her beau Gerry (Richard Gilliland). While inspecting the large fissure which the tremors opened up on the Tackers’ land, Gerry discovers some very large, sluggish cockroaches. Picking one up, he’s burned by heat from two abdominal antennae on the insect. Taking the animal to James, the older man becomes fascinated with the creatures, while the surrounding area threatens to burn to the ground from the little critters.
Jeannot Szwarc’s Bug (aka Invasion Infernal and based off the Thomas Page novel The Hephaestus Plague, a title I personally love) is the last film which legendary mogul William Castle had a hand in producing before his death in 1977. To call the results a mixed bag would be, I think, an accurate description. The very first thing you notice about the film is its eerie sense of calm. The look of the surroundings always appears as if a massive storm is about to break out at any second, but the area is in the midst of a massive heat wave with no relief in sight. The filmmakers allow the story to build on its own, and there’s never any overt feeling that the audience is being set up for some massive, loud, explosive finale. This is a film intended to get under your skin and give you chills. It half-succeeds. The idea of the bugs is intriguing, and as each new aspect of them is discovered, we’re compelled to want to learn more. Unfortunately, the same serene development of the story also makes the film’s pace drag.
The characters are odd, too. They don’t really behave like people in their situation likely would, and most of them seem to have an almost laissez faire attitude to these potentially world-threatening animals. Plus, the way they interact with each other, in spite of what we are shown about their relationships, comes off as aloof much of the time. The friendships feel scripted, and I’m not fully certain that the actors were instructed to bring anything to the table other than a decent knack for memorization. So, despite the good things in the film (and the more thought-provoking revelations are fascinating to some degree), the film itself stays in first gear up until about the last five or ten minutes. But personally I like the payoff, so I can be counted as a fan of the movie.
The film evokes a sense of isolation, and it’s an aspect which is consistent throughout. Szwarc composes much of the film in long shots, and oftentimes the actors are filmed very small within the frame. They are tiny, insignificant, almost like how the audience might look at a bug right before stepping on it. They are motes of dust in an incomprehensibly nigh-infinite universe. But more than that, this approach emphasizes how alone these characters are, even those in relationships. When Szwarc does move the camera (and he does it quite fluidly, I must say), it is usually to heighten the space around which a character is surrounded. It’s sort of the cinematic equivalent of an ant farm (but I guess that argument could probably be made for every film in existence, couldn’t it?). The relationships are as frosty as the dispassionate compositions, as well. James keeps up a pleasant demeanor with friends and co-workers, but he shares very little screentime with his wife, and what scenes he does have with her generally consist of him dropping her off somewhere and then speeding away to go back to work. Carrie is essentially a neglected wife, and this element culminates in the scene where she’s thinking about what to make for dinner (while meandering about in what I would swear was a slightly modified house set from The Brady Bunch). Not only does Carrie talk to herself (we all do it sometimes, admit it), but she answers herself, to boot. Miles’s performance in this sequence is just slightly unhinged. It’s as if the reclusiveness this woman has been subjected to both in her marriage and in her contact (or lack thereof) with her community has finally made her snap a band, to use a medical term. Her eyes squint and widen as she goes through the options available to her, and we in the audience wouldn’t be shocked if the next scene had James signing the papers to have her committed. Of course, this theme of isolation continues right to the very end of the film, though it also takes on a decidedly more macabre timbre.
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD** Bug is also, from my point of view, a kind of meditative apocalyptic (if we wish to look at the film in a theological sense, and I do, so we are) film. Carrie believes in God. James doesn’t. The earthquake hits just as Kern hits his stride in a fire-and-brimstone sermon. The omnipresent heat of the film conjures thoughts of roasting in hell. The pit the cockroaches emanate from of is indicative of a gateway to Hell, replete with literally smoking denizens (the hole even glows red at one point). The town is turned into a virtual conflagration as the bugs go about their business. Yet, when everything starts to calm down a bit, it is James who is pushed past the breaking point, and it is through James’s defiance of the laws of Nature (and, by extension, God) that he will be pushed further still. Conversely, it can be argued that James is not at fault for his actions. In effect, he is acting in accordance with Nature’s (and, by extension, God’s) “wishes.” He is the catalyst for the bugs’ evolution. He is pushing the insects beyond their limits, and it is this scientific quest which will aid them in reaching their ultimate form, a quasi legion of angels/devils who eventually achieve the goal it is faintly hinted was their absolute purpose from the very start.
Make Or Break: I love the very first shot of this film. As the credits fade in and out, Szwarc gives us a long shot of the lone church sitting at, what appears to be, the end of a dirt road far outside of the town proper (another indication of the community’s general dismissal of religion and what that brings down upon them). The wind whistles over the music-less soundtrack, and the camera slowly cranes up to take in the full expanse of the big empty which makes up the majority of this area. It evinces a godforsaken texture that lasts the whole film, and it’s also some damn good-quality filmmaking.
MVT: With that in mind, it’s this bleak, almost hopeless, purgatorial ambience first depicted in the film’s opening that attracts me to the film. It’s the same sort of tone you get from end-of-the-world films, when you know there is no hope for salvation, there isn’t going to be some last minute miracle save, but you feel somehow obliged to witness the characters’ end, because in some bizarre way, it’s the honorable thing to do.