Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Swarm

TCM is giving us a night of insect-based horror/disaster movies this evening. A movie that's highly entertaining, if not particularly good, is The Swarm, airing overnight at 2:45 AM (or still late this evening out on the west coast).

The movie begins with Brad Crane (Michael Caine) driving up to an isolated military base somewhere in Texas. Not only is it isolated, it seems as if there's very little activity going on, and much of what does go on takes place underground. Brad investigates, and indeed, there's next to no sign of life. Eventually, it turns out that there's still a sign of life in the escape areas. Meanwhile, General Slater (Richard Widmark) has also arrived at the facility, wondering what this Brad guy is doing there. Everything is explained pretty quickly. Brad is an entomologist, and what happened at this military installation has the hallmarks of an attack by killer bees. Except that the killer bees are supposed to be a tropical phenomenon, and shouldn't be appearing this far nother. They are, of course, and that presents a huge problem not just for Brad, but for everybody in America!

Brad and the general are obviously going to be battling each other throughout the movie; that much is foreshadowed fairly early in the film. But Brad wins, at least in the sense that Washington authorizes him to investigate the phenomenon and set up a research station at the military base and assemble anybody he wants. Among the assembled are wheelchair-bound Dr. Krim (Henry Fonda), and reluctant researcher Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain).

I said earlier that those bees could become a problem for all of America, and we wouldn't have much of a film if they didn't start attacking good old average Americans. Marysville is a town not far from the military base, and they're about to have a civic pride festival. Little do they know the whole apple cart is about to be upset. A family goes out for a picnic at a state park not too far out of town, which just happens to be not too far from where the bees are massing to go swarm. So they swarm this family, killing Mom and Dad and making the kid drive away in fear of his life, not that he can drive very well either. He winds up in Marysville, which is how the town is made aware of the impending doom. To make matters worse, these bees aren't just swarming; they're even more venomous than previous killer bee strains. People can get killed by being stung only once.

There's a lot of formula in The Swarm is the civilian scientists fight the military over how to solve the problem. It's a theme that gets visited in a lot of horror movies, but here it's set against the backdrop of an all-star disaster movie. Katharine Ross plays Helena, the woman who ends up assisting Brad; there's a love triangle in Marysville involving schoolteacher Maureen (Olivia de Havilland) being pursued by two lovers (Fred MacMurray and Ben Johnson). That, and there are all sorts of over-the-top set pieces involving Marysville, a train, a nuclear power plant, and Houston. The result is a movie that should be terrible on so many levels. You have to feel bad for this cast of stars (I believe seven of them won an Oscar at some point in their careers) having to utter such horrendous dialog. The scenes of people dying during the bee swarms are some of the more hilariously bad death scenes you'll ever see. And some of those set pieces will make you laugh, even though that wasn't the intention.

That's all down to Irwin Allen, who produced and directed this movie. He had been successful at the beginning of the 1970s with The Poseiden Adventure, and seemingly tried to replicate such an all-star disaster film on an ever grander scale. The Swarm is near the end of that cycle, and it's clear that Allen had run out of steam. But while the movie is nearly bereft of ideas, it redeems itself by so unrelentingly missing the mark at every turn. Allen never intended movies like The Swarm to be comedies, but you'll probably be laughing a lot at the ludicrousness of all this. Ultimately, it's one of those movies that bombed but wound up being fun by so doing.

The Swarm is one of those movies that did get a DVD release at some point in the past, but is out of print. The TCM Shop doesn't list it as available for purchase, while Amazon has the sort of entries that strongly imply an out of print DVD.

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