Bug (1975)

A very Brady immolation, or, Happy Birthday to—AAAUUUGGGHHHH!
Jeannot Swarc
Bradford Dillman, Joanna Miles, Richard Gilliland, Patty McCormack
The Setup: 
Large fire-causing bugs issue from the Earth.

I found myself in the envious position of having a delicious troika of movies waiting at home for me: Bug, Foxes, and The Temp. I was SOOOO looking forward to watching The Temp [one of those post Fatal Attraction [blank]-from-hell movies], but alas it didn’t arrive in the mail as promised, so it was on to Bug, a TV classic from my youth in the 70s.

This [along with Phase IV and Sssssss] was one of those things that I was ALWAYS pleased to see when it showed up on TV. Revisiting it now I see that it was William Castle’s last film, and features Patty MacCormack, the little girl from The Bad Seed.

The first thing is that our main character Jim drops his wife off at church. Jim mocks religion—and you know what that spells for Jim. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. His wife, Carrie, goes into church, where we hear a sermon for a while. When the camera angle suddenly switches to the ceiling, we know something is about to happen. It’s an earthquake! It’s a reasonably effective earthquake, too, with cracking walls and waves running through the floor of the church. That’s one of the few details I recall from watching it on TV, as I though NO WAY are there ever ripples in the earth like that during an earthquake.

Then we see this girl Norma [I believe this is Patty MacCormack] as she looks at this giant crevice that has opened up in the ground. They keep talking about how deep it is, but it never seems more than 5 feet deep. She is wondering when her daddy and brother Kenny are going to get back—but there they are, driving toward her in the white pickup just out of sight. But I’m afraid she only turns around and sees them once the truck explodes and daddy and Kenny are incinerated. Then it seems that poor Norma endures a serious mental fracture. Poor dear.

That night Norma’s brother goes outside and sees all these big roaches lying around. For a while I thought that these were regular bugs with false backs glued onto them, but really I don’t know, maybe they’re real bugs from South America or wherever. The brother picks one up and gets burned, then watches as the bugs attack his kitty, finally killing it. We have a shot where we see that the bugs have apparently eaten the cat’s eye. Then fires start all around him, and I was like “Sweet! Are the bugs going to take out this entire family?” But no, he survives to tell Jim, who is some kind of all-purpose scientist / professor, about them.

We join Jim teaching a class of endearingly 70s-looking students. It seems that a squirrel has come into his classroom [I could never get a fix on where all of this is taking place], and he decides to demonstrate how he can talk to the animals, walk with the animals, run and squeak and squalk with the animals by making squirrel noises at the intrusive animal. It’s too bad my computer knowledge is not further along, because to take the footage of this guy staring out of frame and going “pr-der-der-der-der” out of context would be hilarious. Anyway, the little critter thinks Jim is his big ol’ hairless Daddy and hops up on his shoulder, proof to Jim that “man used to be able to talk to the Earth. And all the creatures on it.” Seems like pretty flimsy evidence to me, but we’ll not quibble.

Then the brother who watched as his cat was fried a golden brown takes the charred beast to show the professor, and soon they go out to the site and start collecting samples. We learn that the bugs do not move [except, of course, when the script requires that they move] and have these two spark-plug-type leads that they can start a fire with to defend themselves [except in cases where the script requires them NOT to defend themselves]. We also learn that they are very hard to kill.

So now comes a potent source of unexpected delight. It seems that the Brady Bunch wasn’t that much of a hit when it was on [it only became legendary during later syndication], and was cancelled in 1974. So when this movie started shooting, they used the set of the house interior—so Jim lives in the Brady’s house!!! The kitchen is exactly the same, but the rest of it has been reconfigured, so that you exit the kitchen into the garage instead of that other den, and there’s a big wall where the stairs used to be… but it’s obviously the same elements just rearranged. And for a certain generation, I swear it’s like coming home. There is also a NOTABLE scene in the Brady kitchen coming up. Anyway, Jim’s hangin’ at home when he sees that the bugs are in his car and are starting fire to his engine… so he just shuts the hood and orders the handyman [who happens to be there] out. I thought he was doing this because it’s obvious that his car is about to explode, but it never does… part of my pet peeve that the bugs only spark when the script requires them to. Anyway, Jim figures out that the bugs travel around in cars’ tail pipes… although it never explains how the wingless bugs that barely move otherwise get up into the tailpipes.

Anyway Norma, who it seems the sight of her father and brother being incinerated alive has caused to mentally crack, suddenly snaps into mental shape and is all joking and laughing, which can only mean one thing: she is next to die. Sure enough, she gets a bug in her ear which causes her to run around shrieking and throwing her arms about, but never actually trying to pull the bug out of her ear. She gets carted off, and I don’t think we ever find out whether she lives or dies.

Now the infamous scene that TOTALLY imprinted itself on my consciousness [and I’m sure that of others] when I was but a tender young boy yearning to be inappropriately touched. Jim’s wife Carrie is in the Brady kitchen when the phone rings. She answers it: it’s someone calling to wish her happy birthday, telling her that they left her a cake in the garage. Now, most of the birthday presents I get do not involve breaking and entering, and I personally would prefer it if my friends would not in fact invade my home in order to drop off presents, but apparently this does not phase Carrie. What’s GOING to phase her in just a moment is the giant bug on the bottom of her cake box. After her call she opens her cookbook and browses MANY chicken recipes [including the DISTURBING concept of CHICKEN MOUSSE! WTF?!?!?!?] So Carrie reads the recipe aloud in order to give her something to do during the scene… as a bug crawls up her back and IGNITES HER HAIR! We see her as smoke starts rising from the back of her head, then she, like everyone, just flails her arms in such a way that will NOT remove the bug, then her head sparks and before you know it the entire woman is afire and flailing all around the Brady living room. She must use gasoline as a crème rinse because she GOES UP like a 3-week old Christmas tree.

Anyway, we skip past the scene [that I wanted to SEE] of Jim finding his wife’s charred body and cradling it as he screams “NOOOOOOO! NOOOOOO!” and her head slowly falls off the seared flesh of her body with a bunch of uncomfortable snaps and crinkling sounds. Yeah, we don’t see that. Instead we see that he has MENTALLY SNAPPED and is holed up in his lab at school—which he has trashed! Not quite as good, but it’s what we got.

Jim has previously intuited that the bugs are so sluggish because they are not used to the relatively low pressure of the surface, having come from deep in the Earth, and I forgot to mention the stunning scene where he pierces a bug’s abdomen and it EXPLODES, spewing guts upward into the air for what I recall as being like three minutes, but was actually just five seconds. Anyway, Jim—who was already pretty darn nuts before his wife was charred, but I couldn’t tell you that before we were in the spoiler zone—is obsessed for some reason with getting the bugs to mate. Why? Fuck if I know. But the whole last third of the movie is Jim performing his weird-ass breeding experiments with the bugs. Most of the bugs have died from the pressure change, by the way, but Jim is keeping some of them alive.

He has procured an old diving helmet as a portable pressure chamber, and pressurizes a bug until it feels comfortable and in the mood, then he supplies a regular cockroach [which is comparatively quite small—talk about “is it in?”] and they take to it like horny teens in a Porky’s movie. You’d think they’d have other things to worry about… anyway, before you can say “bug fucker” they have a bouncing baby pupa.

The new roaches hatch and are now two-colored, more aggressive than the others, are completely adjusted to the atmospheric pressure, and have now become carnivorous! All in just ONE generation! There is, I believe, some dubious science going on here. Now, I know that Jim is mentally unstable, but you’d think he’d remember to latch up the cage where he keeps his AGGRESSIVE FLESH-EATING BEETLES, but no, and they get out and start to devour his chest. Well, I’ll bet he’s sure learned his lesson after THAT, no? Well, I guess not, I guess he just thought “Oh, that was just a fluke, they won’t do that again,” because a few seconds later the same simple latch is unlatched again and the same aggressive flesh-eating beetles come out looking for human prey. By the way, they’re also spelling out Jim’s name and saying “we live” and shit like that because they’ve melded with his mind or something. This whole angle goes nowhere, although you can see that the effect was accomplished by putting the bugs into word configuration and letting them walk off, then running the footage backward.

Then some woman stops by to check on Jim [maybe THIS is Patty McCormack?]. She arrives in a cab which she asks to wait, then pops her head into Jim’s house—and sees that the place is full of smoke and more than likely on fire—so she turns to the cab and says “My friend’s home, you can go!” She’s soon got a bug in her eye, and also seems to think that the most prudent course of action is just to run around screaming but not to try to remove the bug in any way. I guess that’s right—just accept it. I mean if you’ve lost sight in one eye you might as well be dead anyway, right?

So it seems that these new bugs have fucked and made an even bigger pupa, which hatches and—now they have wings! Evolution sure is amazing, no? Plus they’re about as big as pigeons now. They attack Jim when he gets home [and at this point you literally ARE watching rubber bugs on QUITE visible strings]. He falls into the crevice in the Earth which IMMEDIATELY closes up once he’s inside, and conveniently enough, ALL the bugs fly into the crevice just before it closes, leaving the surface once more innocent and danger-free! Amazing how that works!

Actually, the way the ground closes up the INSTANT Jim goes into the crevice, and the bugs follow after him, lends the impression that a great deal of this happened JUST to get Jim into that crevice. And then there’s the red fiery glow emanating up from within the ground—and then you recall that Jim wouldn’t go into church in the first scene and actually mocked religion in the first scene, right before the pestilence spilled out onto the Earth. Then he wanted to be the equal of the animals, and to play God and create new creatures… so yeah, I think hell [yes, THAT hell] wanted him by the end. I’ll bet you $10 that the novel this was based in part on was ALL about that. Holy shit, I’d better get to church right now and repent—I don’t want any giant firebugs pulling me into hell! Besides, I know that the big red robot from The Black Hole rules the roost there, and he is one bad motherfucker.

There were moments toward the beginning of this where I thought it might actually be pretty good. The earthquake was pretty good, and some of the bug scenes and attacks are fairly good and intense. There’s always a lot of tension when you’re waiting for some animal to just go nuts and attack. But eventually it just goes off the rails—while remaining enjoyable, for the most part. But in time all the silliness of the script and stupidity of the characters and situations just squanders all the promise and makes this a load of crap—albeit a pretty fun one. There are also INTERMINABLE scenes of Jim slllllllooooowwwwwwllllyyy walking across various rooms as he stares offscreen in horror. Please help.

The director of this movie is still working in TV, and directed Jaws 2, Somewhere in Time [!], the horrific Supergirl, and Santa Claus: The Movie [which I totally want to see but is out of print]. The guy who plays Jim was also in Piranha and The Swarm.

Anyway, definitely a good idea if you like monster movies, and certainly worth revisiting if you remember seeing it on TV back in the day. Just remember to get yourself to the church on time lest you be pulled into hell by devil bugs, and please be sure to inspect any birthday packages left during a friendly B&E for errant insects from, well, Hell. And kindly refrain from rinsing your hair with gasoline. I thank you in advance for your compliance.

Should you watch it: 

Sure! It’s pretty fun and quite ridiculous… until the last 30 minutes, when it becomes less fun, but even more ridiculous.