A recurring specter in 1970s pop culture dealt with the energy crisis and what that would do to the Earth’s ecosystem. This was the decade of mutant bears (from radiation), giant animals (from scientific meddling), and good old fashioned bug swarms, driven by ecological upheaval and/or man’s indifference. At the time, these movies were written off as alarmist fare, and even considered science fiction, rather than horror. Decades later, we’d all see the film of the polar bear on the flotilla of ice and a lot of people would say, out loud, with no trace of irony, “Why didn’t someone WARN us?”
Few things generate such universal dismay as insects (and spiders, and the rest of their ilk), especially the dirty and/or dangerous kind: ants, flies, wasps, roaches, spiders, scorpions, etc. If it stings, bites or flies, our first reaction is to reach for a shoe, or the can of insect spray that fires pesticide forty feet in a straight line. We’ve all got at least one enlightened friend who lectures us on the value of spiders, which is all well and good, until you walk into a spider web and just for one second, you wonder if the web belonged to a black widow as you flail for your life.
The insect swarms in these films are hordes of regular-sized insects (more or less), as opposed to giant mutated insects, which of course moves them over into the Kaiju class of monsters (and unfortunately, renders them far less scary, with one notable exception: THEM! (1954) manages to embiggen the ants and keep them creepy. None of these movies has aged particularly well, and attempts to replicate the existential dread of the 1970s with 1990s cynicism (such as Eight Legged Freaks) were always played for intentional laughs, rather than the unintentional ones some of the weaker films generated. These are, for their sins, my take on the best of the best, with the usual skew in place, depending on which bugs you like or don’t like.
5. The Nest (1988)
A sheriff in a small island community off the coast of, well, somewhere on the Eastern seaboard, finds that he’s got himself a roach problem—in his home, out amongst the good people of North Port, and even in the wilderness, where no pets are safe from these carnivorous cucarachas. A developer has been buying up land on the island for condos, and also, on the side, trying to invent a species of cockroach that aggressively eats other cockroaches and then dies…what could possibly go wrong with that? Our hero has to navigate small town politics, the safety of the community, and his caught-between-two-women love life, before the cockroaches eat everyone or the INTEC corporation sprays the island with insecticide that will surely kill the bugs, but also all of the people.
This movie takes a couple of big swings, using some familiar plot points in creative ways, to deliver a gross-out fest that is only hampered by its limited special effects budget. Produced by Julie Corman (Roger Corman’s wife), I have no doubt the special effects department was told to squeeze every last drop of fake blood out of the budget as possible. Fortunately, real live cockroaches are their own special effect, and there’s a lot of them in The Nest, along with some hybrid monsters that are more than Cronenberg’s Fly but less than Carpenter’s Thing. Your willing suspension of disbelief will help that along.
Despite a few budget challenges, everyone seems to take the movie seriously, even the kooky comic relief characters. Everyone gets a chance to really do the best with what they are given. A couple of decades later, in the heyday of SciFi’s made-for-tv “films,” that courtesy will not be extended to the viewing public. The Nest is a good, gory warm-up for more serious fare.
4. Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
William Shatner is Rack Hanson, a veterinarian in rural Arizona, dealing with a mysterious cattle death. Unable to figure it out himself, he sends samples to Flagstaff, which gets him a visit from an arachnologist, who tells him the cattle died from spider venom. Their joint investigation reveals that there’s a lot more of them out in the desert, moved from their habitat and off their usual feed thanks to pesticides. The tarantulas converge on the town, swarming and presumably biting and eating their way to the people Shatner cares about. Will this rag-tag group of survivors manage to save the town?
This movie really belongs higher up on the list (meaning, out of the Top 5 but still in the Top 10), but I could not pass up the chance to talk about Dr. “Rack” Shatner and his tarantula problem. The spider sequences are very creepy, unless you recognize that particular species of spider as the ones that don’t bite people. Then the movie just becomes a little silly. If spiders give you the heebie-jeebies, then none of what I said will matter, and the scenes of children surrounded by dozens of spiders, inches away from their feet, will send you scrambling.
The number of practical effects shots in the movie are impressive, as is the glory of William Shatner in full-on science-cowboy mode, navigating a budding romance as well as a big ass spider problem. Apparently, the money was good enough on this film that the actors let the bug wranglers put spiders all over their face. Blargh. I’m not sure what dollar amount you’d need to offer me to get me to do that, but I am positive it’s more than scale, which is undoubtedly what some of these folks were making on this epic film shoot.
Kingdom of the Spiders ends on a real down note, which actually helps nudge the film far enough out of the “camp” category to try and take it seriously, even if it’s after the fact. My suggestion is this: put on your skinny jeans and your lumberjack shirts and watch the movie whilst drinking locally-brewed craft beer (or the cheap local swill, depending on your hipster polarity setting) and have a meta-discussion about Shatner’s career. Be sure to mention Esperanto for the win.
3. Phenomena (1985)
The daughter of a famous, unnamed American actor arrives at a Swiss boarding school for the performing arts in the middle of a serial killer crime spree. She has a way with insects, and also a problem with sleepwalking, which puts her in the wrong place at the wrong time, at the scene of a new murder. She befriends a forensic specialist who loves bugs and also has a trained monkey. He figures out that she’s got psychic powers, and this puts her into the driver’s seat, trying to catch the serial killer with the help of her insect friends even with the bodies piling up all around her.
How nutty does that sound? Would it sound more or less nutty if I told you the director and writer of the film was Dario Argento? And that it stars, inexplicably, Donald Pleasance, a very young Jennifer Connelly, and a real chimp? I can promise you this is not one of Argento’s best movies, but it’s a jaw-dropper, all the same. The film is an ad-hoc blend of two or three horror genres, all of which he’s used to great effect in prior films, so the temptation is to see this as Argento’s attempt at a Greatest Hits movie, but it’s overall a swing and a miss insofar as that’s concerned. Instead, just watch this movie and be creeped out by all of the things crawling around on people and the ridiculousness of an Etymological Aquaman solving crimes.
Phenomena was edited down from almost two hours to just under 90 minutes and renamed Creepers for the American market. If you’re going to watch this movie, find the original cut—this film needs all the help it can get, and you won’t want to miss Argento’s, um, vision on display. You will never ever look at a straight razor wielding chimpanzee the same way ever again.
2. Phase IV (1974)
The Earth is part of a solar-lunar-confluence-eclipse event that brings about a weird change in the ant populations of the world. Two scientists set up a research lab in Arizona to study their radical new behaviors. They soon find themselves in a losing battle with the uplifted insects.
That’s a really short description and I must beg your pardon, but I dare not type anything else, because I don’t want to spoil some of the mind-altering implications in the movie. This is easily the most cerebral film on this list, drifting squarely into the science fiction lane, as the ants acquire a hive-mind intelligence and, dare I say it, a certain low cunning as we are brought into their world, thanks to some incredible camera work by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham.
The director for this cult odyssey is none other than legendary artist and designer Saul Bass—his only feature length film, due to the fact that it tanked when it was first released. That alone makes this film a cultural curiosity, but then there’s the weird synth music, the attempts to get the ant’s point of view on screen, and other weird and arresting visuals and in frame compositions. Phase IV is a think piece; the implications of the story are unsettling as opposed to seeing people covered in bugs, but there’s plenty of weird suspense and unease to go around, as well.
1. Mimic (1997)
When a plague of cockroaches is spreading a disease that is killing children in New York City, the CDC puts an entomologist (Mira Sorvino) on the case. Her solution? Genetically modify two species of insects that carries an enzyme designed to boost the roaches metabolism and starve them to death. This “Judas breed” bug was likewise supposed to die out. Only, it didn’t, and what the characters now have to deal with is an insect that has evolved the equivalent of ten thousand years in just a few.
Is there anything creepier than a cockroach? Yes, in fact there is. Cockroaches that are supersized and can contort their bodies to take on the vague shape of a human wearing a long coat that live in the New York subway tunnels and eat people. Exponentially more creepy by a factor of ten. Who’s to blame for that waking nightmare? My old friend Guillermo Del Toro, of course. There’s not many directors working that I like all of their films. Del Toro is one of those guys. It’s not an exaggeration to call him a modern master of horror.
There are a lot of twists and turns in this creep-fest, all of which could have been avoided by having someone watch Jurassic Park in order to get that message Ian Malcolm delivers: “Life finds a way.” The insects are handled like a real species that has run amok. There’s a lot of movie science being thrown about, stuff that may seem old hat now, but was pretty innovative in the late 90s, when there wasn’t a lot of smart thinking being applied to horror films. If you ever ran out of the room after seeing a bug on the floor, Mimic will send you into system shock. Just be sure to watch the director’s cut, with several more minutes of usable footage that helps ties things together.