The Swarm, 1978. 6.5/10

Yes, killer bees. I’d love to make light of the invading, dangerous pests-from-elsewhere premise–except, since locusts are currently swarming over a huge area of Africa–it’s not a funny idea. Maybe, though, that backdrop will jack up this viewer’s perspective enough to take this movie with less disdain.

I think I’m going to need such a boost to avoid the sting (actually) of an incredibly low IMDb rating (4.5). For some reason, this movie suffers from a literal swarm of older actors, hovering about, presumably, for some loose-change. Michael Caine and Katherine Ross weren’t about to hang it up, of course, so at least the two leads still had their careers to think about.

But: Olivia DeHavilland, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke (!), Fred McMurray, and Henry Fonda?! Let that hive of Hollywood sink in. And, with all those folks out for the filthy lucre, err, nectar, where’s Ernest Borgnine? Isn’t he supposed to be in all disaster-themed movies, if only to rescue a kid or teddy bear or something? Well, as a consolation, we do get Slim Pickens (really, the guy and, you know, ‘slim pickins’).

My other bit of curiosity, since this effort comes a good generation after the first wave of sci-fi bug invasion movies (think about villains such as Gila monsters, scorpions, ants, tarantulas, etc., from the ’50s and ’60s), are we going to see something more sophisticated than a bunch of locals getting thrashed in the desert?

No. We’re going to see locals getting it in the desert; but, like Them! (1953), this swarm heads for the big city to make its mark. IMDb reviewer Libretto, and likely many others, thinks this tribute to the golden age of sci-fi must also be a lampoon, as the haphazard dialogue and tons of characters just doesn’t add up any other way.

We first see a team of hazmat-suited guys–headed by Major Baker (Bradford Dillman)–debark from an APC at a military base. They go into a HQ building, up to the Communications Center. Check the cool array of gigantic computers, with a bunch of dead operators. General Slater (Widmark), who’s in a chopper, gets the info from the team at the site. Already, the music is pretty cool–thumping away. A civilian scientist, Brad Crane (Caine), appears from the Communications room.

Meanwhile, according to the radar there’s something big approaching, at 7mph, no less. There it is: “a moving black mass” (no, not devil-worship stuff). The two intercepting choppers spin out of control and crash. The General bugs Crane when the civilian says “I’m an etymologist.” Nobody cares about his credentials; but he gets the General’s attention when he starts talking about the African killer bees.

Dr. Helena Anderson (Katherine Ross) pops in to demand the supreme immunologist, who might know what anti-toxins will be needed to save people. Strangely, the General’s more than willing to listen to her, right after he’s had the yelling match with Crane (okay, I’d be more comfy with Katherine Ross than Michael Caine too).

Ah, now the innocent family picnicking in the country. We get the bee eye’s perspective as mom starts to hit them with pest spray. They go on the offensive though, literally poring out of a tree. The kid proves smarter than his parents, and, despite being about nine, he gets in the car and drives off.

Back at the base, there’s a hi-tech video conference (really, in 1978?!) between Generals Slater and Hubbard (Chamberlain), who’s from the Pentagon. Now, in town, we get Maureen (DeHavilland) shooting the breeze with locals Mayor Clarence (McMurray) and Felix (Ben Johnson).

They’re yakking about the upcoming parade. Just then, junior comes swerving in, the yellow Mustang slamming into a bunch of vendors’ carts. At HQ, Hubbard tells them that Crane is not only ok, but he’s been put in complete control of the situation by the President. At least we know why he’ll be calling the shots; the on-the-scene expert dude always seems to wear the big-boy pants in this sort of movie.

Crane starts right in, giving instructions to the Major and General Slater “We’re setting up headquarters (pronounced British-style ‘head-QUART-ters’) here.” As you might expect, the General details the Major to keep an eye on Crane–is he a Commie? A renegade scientist?

Anyway, Anderson and Crane get the news from the town, and hustle over there to see the boy who survived the attack on his family. In a scene reminiscent of the shocked girl from Them!, who also survived a deadly insect (giant ant) attack, the boy wakes up screaming, hallucinating a giant bee hovering over him. Weirdly, he’s in a sort of twilight zone where he sees the people and the giant bee simultaneously.

“He’s delerious!” Really? His parents just got swarmed to death, what’s he supposed to do, collect his allowance? Anyway, Dr. Walter Krim (Fonda) has been flown in to assist Crane. Why Walter has to be handicapped is inexplicable, but it doesn’t matter.

He does get a rise out of Crane: Walter: “are you still writing dirty books?” Crane: “Not this year.” The Major suspects something about Walter; well, they’re in the morgue, doesn’t it just bring out the best in people?

Now we get Hawkins (Pickens), who threatens to shut off the base’s water supply. Since he’s the County Engineer, he can blackmail the General: he wants to see if his son, who’s serving on the base, is ok. The General has to agree or they won’t have “enough water to flush your toilets!”

The General escorts Hawkins to the morgue; well? Yeah, son-of-Slim is a victim of them varmint bees. Incredibly, they let pops take the corpse. Is this going to lead to something, or was that whole bit just contrived to get Pickens some screen time? Yes, but, that’s cool.

More nerd scientists show up: Dr. Newman (Morgan Paull) and Dr. Martinez (Alejandro Rey). Now Crane wants to hear the tapes of the initial attack on the base. Actually, they’re pretty alarming. Paul (the kid) is itching to split from the hospital; no security there, so he high-tails it out with two friends. Hmm, so what?

Well we see Felix in the diner; Rita (Duke), the waitress, had a boyfriend go missing at the base. The guy’s talk about how Felix has taken a shine to Maureen…bringing her flowers, he, uhm, mumbles to her. Could do without both Felix and Maureen, forget Rita while we’re at it.

Oh, cool, at the base, they’ve picked up another swarm on radar. Now we’re talking “airborn chemical agents.” We pick up the thread with the kids; they’re clever. They Molotov-cocktail the tree with the swarms, then hide under garbage cans for protection. It makes a crude bit of sense, and it works.

Problem is, that just sends the bees to Marysville. I don’t want to go on about Clarence sweet-talking Maureen (another guy that doesn’t need to be here). Dude, forget the flowers, there’s a dang swarm on the way! Anyway, with that other romance–Helena Anderson and Crane–interuppted by more urgent stuff, the town is now fully alerted.

“The Killer Bees Are Coming!” At the school, of course, there’s mayhem; not all the kids make it safely inside. This is horrific stuff. Same thing on the streets. A tense moment at the diner, as a guy crashes through the picture window; Helena and Crane have to find shelter in the refrigerated room. Time for some necking? But in his eyes she sees (imagines) bees; she passes out.

Back at the base, in the Communications Room, we see (via video monitor), a national broadcaster underplay the threat. The Major fetches Crane from Helena’s side. The General wants to “spray the hell” out of the bees before things get worse. This leads to the dumbest bit of dialogue, as the Gereral thinks the bees are fixing to avenge their losses: “I always credit my enemy…with equal intelligence.” C’mon!

Crane “wants action” too, but doesn’t want to indescriminantly spray all creation. Paul’s telling everyone he can find that it’s all his fault; ok, but who cares? This isn’t one person’s story. Finally, some real scientific stuff in a pretty cool lab. They’re testing electrocution as a killing method.

You’d think that would work, but it doesn’t. They discuss “poison pellets.” Now the Major upbraids Helena for the inadvisable relationship she’s having with Crane. She tells him to go fly a paper device. All this Marysville stuff should be long gone by now.

Fortunately, we get one of those monster/creature movie devices–the attack on a train–to move things along. Yeah, it’s a model train, but the wreck is fairly well done, tumbling down a cliff, flames and cars everywhere–and, hopefully, it finishes off McMurray.

Next thing: the poison pellets. But the bees, smart critters that they are, avoid them. What now? Swarms are closing in on Houston; nuclear power plant, sugar refineries and all. Walter has an immunization thing in the works…he absorbs the responsibility of infecting himself with the bee toxin, and then trying the new antidote.

This is a pretty gruesome bit; Helena pops in, she’s worried. The antidote works! But, now the monitors are “at spooky levels”. He’s done. Need an anti-anti-dote. Quick cut to the nuclear power plant. Things are going nuts–bees! Now what, geniuses? Maybe bargain with the queen bee: leave us alone, and you can have Oklahoma.

Guess not. Great, stuff blows up, thirty-six thousand dead. Oh, and the President shuts down Crane, handing control to the military, that is, to the General. This is another stock device for diaster/monster movies. Well now that Houston is endangered, Crane, now on a private mission, arrives there, with Helena, to “see if there’s anything I can do to help.”

Crane’s still respected, so he’s let in on the pesticide plan. Well, no dice. The bees have become immune to pesticides. So, the General has to admit that he’s “the first general in military history to get his butt kicked by some bugs.” The alarms go off all over Houston.

Great new plan: burn down the city. Didn’t those three kids already try that method? Anyway, pretty spectacular scenes. “Will history blame me, or the bees” muses the general, very ironically. What! Crane has yet another idea. He huddles with the other nerds.

What they’ve got is a way to simulate the bees mating sound; this is not only a solid way to lure them, but it fits in nicely with the initial attack at the base. The alarm system there had the same sound, which attracted them. The good guys have to escape an inferno, however, as the bees and flamethrowers unfortunately combine to force the issue.

So with planes flying over the gulf to drop oil, while choppers rigged to send the attractant sound to bait the bees… we’re set. The bees zip right into the ocean. Firing rockets into the oil-slickened bees, the whole swarm is cooked. At last, the end.

The first and last parts are quite good–quick, full of action, and with a good interplay of the main characters. The horribly long middle part of Swarm is infested with far too many characters, adding up to far too many superfluous scenes, making the movie a swollen mess. That’s not counting scenes with the major characters that mash into each other; notably, the Ross/Caine romance, a slow train wreck in itself.

What does work: the immersion in the crisis from the very beginning; we don’t have to wait and wait for this guy or that truck/barbeque/tree to get attacked before the plot really begins. In fact, when we start, the first attack has already happened. It’s a great device having it happen on a military base; again, we don’t have to wait until the military gets involved. They are involved.

Swarm has what I’d like to call the Complete Creature Cycle: We have a creature(s) who shows up, creating some mayhem; authorities and experts put their heads together to deal with it. Then a larger attack–here at Marysville–with mostly ineffective countermeasures; eventually, the menace moves on, climaxing in an attack on a major city (Houston), as more attempts are made to destroy it. Finally, the denouement, as a successful weapon eliminates the thing (the sound waves and fire in the Gulf). Sometimes, it merely leaves, we can’t kill it, but get a reprieve.

Not all sci-fi creature movies complete this cycle; it’s a hard thing to pull off, as we need a lot of plot, and multiple settings (even if some of this is modelled). Many of the classic Japanese sci-fi monster movies follow this pattern.

I would almost say that Swarm is a bit too ambitious. The computer sets are really something, the actual swarms look about right, there’s tons of panic, destruction, chaos, and the ‘trick weapons’ keep coming. In short, if we dumped a good half-hour of Swarm, we wouldn’t miss it. I mean specifically: do this without DeHavilland, McMurray, Duke, Johnson and a few others, then we’ve really got something.

As is, though, this isn’t so bad. Widmark’s performance is particularly strong. He goes way beyond a by-the-book military type, showing a considerable amount of nuance and common sense, while not abandoning his authoritive demeanor. Pickens’ role is admittedly an afterthought, but he’s so good that it’s worth watching his bit.

As I’ve pointed out, there’s good use of the genre’s stock devices. Paul’s role is another that’s probably too big, but the attack on his family is one of the better scenes in the movie. The quick-and-dirty way that the swarm attacks occur eliminate the device that’s often overdone–convincing the characters that there really is a fantastic creature(s) which is really dangerous. No one plays dumb here; even the dumb people get it.

Well, you know Farmermouse, he likes some nice honeybees to keep his apple trees in gear…but, these weren’t exactly nice bees. 6.5 out of 10 honeycombs.


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