The Swarm

This isn't just your average story about a family killed by bees.
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1978
Director: 
Irwin Allen
Starring: 
Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland
The Setup: 
Deadly killer bees rampage across the heartland.
Discussion: 

From the golden mind of Irwin Allen comes this exploitation of the brief period where people were afraid that killer bees might fly up to America and rampage. The first thing we notice is the typical star-studded cast: Michael Caine! Katharine Ross! Richard Widmark! Richard Chamberlin! Olivia De Havilland! Lee Grant! Jose Ferrer! Patty Duke! Slim Pickens! It’s a veritable golden cavalcade of stars. While we’re being dazzled by the cast we’re watching these guys in some sort of biohazard suit enter this top-secret facility, and, knowing what we do about Irwin Allen movies from watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and suchlike, it’s no surprise when we see them move about the base, enter, walk down this corridor, walk down that corridor, walk down this other corridor, go down in the elevator, walk down more corridors… the man loves to extend everything as long as possible, and does not know the meaning of brevity. Besides, if this were under two hours, how would we know it’s an epic?

Anyway, so they find a bunch of dead guys inside, and then Richard Widmark as General Slater lands, accompanied by much time-wasting helicopter footage as the overreacting score goes “Dun! Dun-dun! Dun-dun-dun!” I guess just the mere presence of helicopters was pretty exciting back in the day. They soon find Michael Caine as Dr. Bradford Crane hanging around. He says he’s an entomologist, but they think he’s some sort of terrorist. We also meet the lovely Katharine Ross as Dr. Anderson.

So they have these helicopter go look at this flying target, and find that it’s bees, or, in the words of the helicopter pilot: “Oh my God! Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!” This pilot has a lot of good, declarative lines. But soon enough both choppers hurtle to the ground in relatively good crashes.

Meanwhile, a mom and dad with their little son Paul [listen to how many times they say his name] are about to enjoy a peaceful picnic. Mom sees bees on the food and sprays insecticide right over their food. Ummmm! Then they’re attacked by the swarm. One interesting thing I learned from the little “making-of” on the DVD is that they filled the air with a real swarm of bees for these scenes! Wow, that’s kind of cool. Paul lives by getting in the car and driving off, having watched his parents die horrible deaths just a few feet away. Where to, Paul? Sounds like Vegas might be next on the agenda.

But no, Paul is headed to boring old Maryville for the annual flower festival. Teens of yesteryear had no priorities. And what do you think the odds are of the bees being drawn to the FLOWER festival? Pretty good, methinks. But first we must endure the rivalry of some minor star and Fred MacMurray [My Three Sons] for the affection of Olivia De Havilland. It’s pretty clear from the men’s dress and the flowers they later bring that the other guy represents a hot sex life and MacMurray represents warm affection. Olivia just can’t make up her mind. This is part of the “human drama” portion of our proceedings.

So, back at the base, Caine’s credentials are recognized and he is placed in command, which steams Widmark, who still doesn’t trust him. They go visit Paul, who is psychotic and having visions of a giant bee hovering over his bed. Caine calms him, and this wins the affection of Katharine, who just adores sensitive scientists. Then Slim Pickens is outside demanding to see his son, and gets to throw a huge mourning scene when he breaks down and hugs the body bag. The tragic human cost of killer bees! The one thing this movie is missing is a man-caused reason the bees came. But no, here they just came, it’s no one’s fault, and we just have to deal with it.

So Caine calls in all his scientist buddies, including Peter Fonda in a wheelchair and Richard Chamberlin. They bicker over what’s really going on, but agree to develop various countermeasures. Widmark wants to poison the bees, but Caine makes several impassioned speeches on behalf of nature, saying “The honeybee is vital to the environment!”

Meanwhile Paul has broken out of the hospital and his first destination is right back at the bee's hive. Seems like someone who was just traumatized for life and recently recovered from bee-based hallucinations would avoid the source of his troubles, but not Paul. He and his pals throw Molotov cocktails at the hive, which only enrages the bees. The kids hide under metal garbage cans—which I have a hint of a memory of thinking was super-cool when I was 14—and survive. I was rather hoping the bees would eat through the aluminum [we have earlier heard how they get off on shredding plastic], but no dice. So the bees hot-foot it into town to wreak some damage to the flower festival. There De Havilland is fighting off her two suitors again, and Lee Grant is on hand as a kind reporter who says to her cameraman "This isn't just your average news story about a family killed by bees." Oh yeah, 'cause I get so tired of THOSE. You'll notice that she happily leaves the cameramen outside with strict instructions to get bee apocalypse footage—resulting in their deaths—while she reclines comfortably inside. Soon there are kids dying on the steps of their school, and the town is attacked. PLEASE take note of De Havilland's extended scream / moan / whimper of terror at 1:10:39 [pictured below]. Caine and Ross just happen to be on hand, and Ross gets one sting. Just four stings can kill a person. By the way, I'll tell you right now that this film is woefully deficient in showing shots of swollen, pock-marked corpses. I think because we're supposed to be focusing on the human tragedy, not how fuckin' sweet this all is.

SPOILERS > > >
Meanwhile Peter Fonda and friends are milking the bees of venom in order to make an antidote, the town is being evacuated, and Caine and Ross have embarked on a romance despite their complete dearth of chemistry, and Katharine reminisces on the loss of the town she grew up in, and all those flower festivals past. Meanwhile, De Havilland and her two suitors are all bickering on the train when it's attacked, derails, and explodes! They're all dead! Good, because I was getting sick of this smarmy attempt to pull at our heartstrings with romance amongst the geriatric, but I think we're supposed to reflect on hopes lost and dreams dashed. Or something. Who cares, train derailments are awesome, and these ones explode, too! Little Paul dies, too, not on the train, but because people who recover from the venom relapse a few days later and die.

So then Caine drops a bunch of poison pellets on the bees, which I mention only because of the ludicrous close-up shots of the bees that he is supposedly seeing through his binoculars from the high-up helicopter. He can even tell that the bees aren't touching the pellets, Maybe he's got bionic eyes, too. So that didn't work, so the pressure's on Henry Fonda to come up with an antidote. He experiments on himself—and dies. Oh thanks, now your antidote doesn't work—and we have no scientist to continue working on one! Good thinking, Henry. Lotta help that is. Then Richard Chamberlin goes down to this nuclear power plant to shut it down due to potential killer bee interference, saying he's the right guy, because he's already been pestering them with anti-nuclear protest so much that they've stopped listening to him. I don't get it, either. Anyway, the bees attack the plant—for some reason—getting inside [they love control rooms] and this causes the whole plant to blow up, killing 36,400 people! That's some collateral damage, right there. However, I suspect that this was shoehorned in there in order to deliver a searing anti-nuclear message! Sure worked on me—you don't see any killer bees attacking coal-fired power plants, do you?

Okay, so it's really getting boring. They try to poison the bees. Doesn't work. They try to burn the bees. Doesn't work. Meanwhile Katharine relapses, and starts having bee hallucinations. She also has a De Havilland-style extended scream at 2:20:20 that is amusing. Anyway, finally Caine has figured out that the siren from the lab at the beginning is the SAME sound as the bees' mating call, so they make up a bunch of floats with loudspeakers, attract the bees to the ocean, then blow the shit out of them! We're safe—for now! Oh, but alas, Katharine lived.
< < < SPOILERS END

Could have been worse, I suppose. Though I don't exactly see how. By this time Irwin Allen disaster films had become a parody of themselves, so there are no real surprises and everything hits the expected marks, redeemed only by the fact that swarms of killer bees are undeniably awesome. But it's long, there is drama—there is so much drama—there is too much drama—and it makes about as much sense as a zombie chimp with a chainsaw. Allen was on his way down with this movie—it cost $21 million and only made $10M—and his next movie was the execrable Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. This was pretty fun and is even better if you aren't afraid to help ol' Irwin out in the editing department with a little judicious fast-forwarding. And what happened to the real killer bees? Where did they end up going? That's what I want to know.

Should you watch it: 

If you want, it's not great, but it's amusing enough.