The Deadly Bees

When Buckets Kill
Freddie Francis
Suzanna Leigh, Frank Finlay, Guy Doleman, Catherine Finn
The Setup: 
Pop songstress sent to recuperation island finds herself at center of apiary homicide scheme.

Not to be confused with the “killer bee” films of the 70s, this little job from 1966 doesn’t really involve Africanized bees, it’s more about, you know, bees that have been trained to kill. It’s just the sort of thing that happens all the time, and I’m sure we’ve all had some cousin or friend of a friend who has encountered some form of bee-based homicide. This film is co-written by Robert Bloch, writer of Psycho, and is adapted from a novel, which becomes rather incredible as the thing goes on, and is directed by Freddie Francis, mostly-cinematographer who also directed numerous horror movies including Trog with Joan Crawford and The Creeping Flesh. It is also edited by Oswald Hafenrichter, which I just thought was a fabulous name… and who turns out to have edited The Third Man and The Fallen Idol. Okay, can we finally get started?

We open with two police detectives in a dull office, no idea what that scene’s about, then abruptly cut to a screaming shaggy British 60s mod group being filmed for television. Off to the side is Vicki Robbins, pop star, platinum blonde in a full-length fur with pink lipstick and red nails. She complains to her assistant of being “so tired,” but has to go on and sing her song “Stop the Music,” which also doubles as her heartfelt plea, as soon, she is collapsing in exhaustion on camera. It’s hard to put a finger on precisely why, but the entire thing is just subtly ridiculous, which is not helped by the performance of Suzanna Leigh, who brings the full force of her three expressions to every scene throughout the film. But we’ll get back to that.

Her doctor decides that she’s exhausted and prescribes rest, and calls up his friend the farmer on an unidentified British island and arranges for her to stay there and recuperate. Okay, so… you know, I think in 1966 they already had luxury spas and suchlike places where famous pop stars might go to recuperate. And then, the doctor just calls his buddy… what makes him think that this glamorous pop star in the Petula Clark vein is going to want to go to some manurey farm? It’s obviously just to get the story going, and… well, it’s pretty clumsy. Not to mention that we find out immediately that the farmer, Mr. Hargrove, has a vaguely insane, embittered wife who refuses to answer the phone, even as it sits a few feet from her, and now reserved all of her affections for her beloved dog. Sounds like a great place to relax and unwind!

So Hargrove goes to the local pub, where he enlists the help of the owner’s daughter, Doris, to come help around the house while Vicki is there, since his wife is so useless. She, whose hair is swept up onto her head in a curl resembling a breakfast bakery item, may or may not have a crush on Hargrove, but regardless is only too delighted to help. Anyway, Vicki soon arrives, and is delivered to Hargrove’s farm, which she seems delightfully comfortable in, despite supposedly being a glamorous pop star. Maybe she grew up on a farm—who knows. We’ll never know. We also soon note that she, despite being an adult, has also brought along her bizarre quilt-patterned stuffed dog, which she later caresses for comfort. She also gets along well with Mary, the crazy wife, who doesn’t seem to mind that Vicki immediately starts competing for her beloved dog’s affections. Nor does she, in any way, seem exhausted or troubled, or in need of rest and recuperation in any way, although these may all be running like silent rivers of emotion beneath the placid exterior of Ms. Leigh’s Sphynx-like face.

Vicki takes the dog for a walk on the relatively desolate isle, where the pooch soon takes off after a cat and runs directly into the home of the mild-mannered Mr. Manfred, who, turns out, raises bees of his own. In fact, he has a hive behind glass in his living room, and we learn that his bees are different, somehow, than the ones Hargrove has. Back at the farm, the nasty, taciturn Hargrove tells Vicki that she’d better stay away from Manfred, because it’s “dangerous to involve yourself in matters you don’t understand—like bees.” Suspicious, huh? Hargrove gets even more suspicious as Vicki wakes in the night and sees him preparing a giant-ass hypodermic needle and going out, followed by screams of pain from the farm’s horse. In the morning, the hypodermic is full of blood, the horse has huge welts, and there’s something weird about a bucket—yes, a bucket—of which we get several significant shots. When Vicki asks to use the phone, to call her manager, who we saw once and who will abruptly appear once more in the middle of the film, then vanish, the farmer’s wife says the phone is out. By the way, marital relations between Mary and Hargrove are not at their peak, and we can only suspect that their sex life is suffering to nonexistent as well. Soon, after we start to notice the two-note suspense music cue that repeats endlessly, bitter wife Mary’s beloved pooch gets it the bee way, which means barking while superimposed bees fly around aimlessly.

Well, wife Mary assumes that her husband’s bees killed the beloved pooch, so she takes some kerosene and sets fire to the hives, which are now conspicuously bee-free. Hargrove gets back in time to save most of the hives, but frankly, I think the glory days of their marriage may be firmly in the past. Still… I believe in love. There may yet be hope for these once-charmed lovers. By the way, you’ll notice that Doris is notably upset about the calamity. In here, Manfred tells Vicki that Hargrove is raising killer bees, and in response, she tells him that he’s crazy. You’ll notice that Vicki has been rather blatantly ignoring Hargrove’s advice about not fraternizing with Manfred. Anyway, soon Mary is handling the deadly bucket, and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail she’s being swarmed by superimposed bees that were filmed miles away. Although this time, they do cut back to Mary after a few fake bees have been pasted to her face. Thanks for throwing us a bone, fellas. And that stuff about their marriage finally working out? Shows what I know.

Anyway, soon the local authorities convene a special hearing in the local pub, where they take testimony from everyone, including Vicki. Perhaps my favorite moment of the movie is when they ask Vicki if she noticed anything unusual in the days leading up to Mary’s death, and she gives her [or rather, continues her] blank look and says NO. I mean, a woman going nuts and setting fire to her husband’s beehives in retaliation for alleged bee-committed canicide… that shit just happens every day. Nothing special to mention there. Given the lack of evidence… and justice, and concern, and process… the special consulate has “no course but to declare a verdict of death by misadventure.” Ah, I see. Personally, I thought a “misadventure” was when your mom sends you next door to borrow a dozen eggs and you trip and drop them on the way home, but again… this movie is exposing my ignorance on nearly every front.

So Vicki naturally turns to Manfred for comfort, and he tells her that Hargrove has distilled the “scent of fear” and that shit just makes bees go cray-cray. Vicki sneaks into Hargrove’s study and photographs his papers so that Manfred can see what he’s up to, but Hargrove sees and… soon after Vicki goes home, she’s trapped in the bathroom while her bedroom fills up with bees! She sets something on fire to create smoke, and I’m like: Wait a minute—did she just do something SMART?!?!? I think she did. That Vicki is a canny customer. I guess you don’t rise to the top of the pop charts on inexpressive looks alone. Still… she has set herself up for a serious case of smoke inhalation, from which she passes out, but is luckily rescued just in time by Doris. We also notice that every single bee has now vacated Vicki’s bedroom. By the way, Vicki hasn’t once simply picked up the phone herself to see if it’s working. She’s very trusting, as we shall see.

While asleep/recovering, Vicki has a bee dream [not interesting], and upon waking, is NOT going to stay in that house of apiary death anymore, and steals the car to go to Manfred’s! Then follows a rather unexciting car chase as Hargrove follows her, but she makes to Manfred’s unscathed [except for Hargrove’s car, which she totals]. Meanwhile, Doris is attacked, but lives. Manfred offers to go to Hargrove’s to pick up Vicki’s bags, and also to borrow a specific bee book, the “Simmons book,” which will blow the whole shit wide open. Or something. Thing is—Vicki finds the Simmons book, sitting right there, on Manfred’s shelf! Quite suspicious. Only… you’ll just have to take their word for it, as they keep showing a book by someone named Sturges. And now, ladies and gentlemen, the shocking conclusion.

It turns out that Manfred IS the killer bee murderer. Everything else? All that suspicious, evil and bad-tempered stuff Hargrove did? Just a simple case of misunderstood circumstances. And a poor disposition, I guess. Anyway, the killer bucket, the bucket full o’ death, was intended for Hargrove, and was swabbed, as I’m sure you can guess, with Eau de Fear. First the dog messed with it, then Mary grabbed it, and both met their buzzing doom. Once Vicki photographed Hargrove’s papers, he no longer needed her, so he smeared some fear spooge on her jacket, which is why she was attacked in her bedroom, and Doris was attacked when she took the jacket to the cleaners [but survived, because she dropped it]. And now? “You see,” Hargrove says, “I have to kill you.”

I have to admit that the sudden reversal and being in the clutches of someone calmly and methodically planning her death was slightly effective. I should also let you know that Manfred has, while he was making the book switcheroo, spurted some Axe Fear body lotion on Hargrove’s tweed jacket, but Hargrove survived. He, now being the good guy, is on his way over to Manfred’s to save Vicki from the thousand pricks of angry stingers. Meanwhile, Manfred is advancing toward her with a special vial of the fear water… pretty scary, but a danger easily deferred by simply whipping a figurine at Manfred, causing him to spill the shit all over himself! I was like: Wow, that was simple! It was the perfect murder… except it could all unravel if someone thew a figurine at him. That’s where his plan fell down. Anyway, Vicki is somehow trapped in the burning house [those things always just start on fire at the wrong time], Hargrove rescues her, and Manfred [and presumably the bees] perish in the flames. A few days later, Vicki leaves Hargrove’s farm, he bidding her a congenial “Bye, now!” and her responding with a breezy “Bye!” while you’re like… WERE YOU NOT HORRIFICALLY TRAUMATIZED LIKE A DAY AGO!??!??!?! This girl REALLY bounces back.

It was agreeably idiotic, and does not outstay its welcome at a brisk 86 minutes. If only more movies would realize that they don’t HAVE to be 90 minutes if they really have no content. You get the world of pop music, which always ups the fun quotient 10%, and specifically mid-60s Petula Clark-esque music, which unfortunately proves to have virtually no bearing on the story. If only we’d seen Vicki pen a pop song about her experience [“Your Love Sting (Swarmed My Heart)”] and then the film could end with her singing it to enraptured audiences back in London… but that’s why I’m not in Hollywood: I’m TOO brilliant. Anyway, you get a few mildly fun bee attacks, a crazy eccentric British wife, some amusing British characters on a tiny isolated island, general insanity, a complete lack of sense-making, and a pretty, blank main character.

I will also say that the main twist is, if not completely clever (at this point… I suspect it was in its day), the final reveal and the calm, straightforward menace of the villain is genuinely a bit chilling. And it’s fun enough, which is the main thing. It all depends on whether you have anything better to do, and you know, you ARE on this site, right? I’m just saying.

Should you watch it: 

If it’s dishes or this, I’d pick this.