OK, we’ll admit it. We dig Hollywood schadenfreude as much, maybe more, than the next guy. But jeez Louise, what was up with ‘70s and ‘80s ticket-buyers who salivated over seeing old-time movie royalty falling on their famous lifted faces in disaster movie after disaster movie? Were monumentally successful Airport producer Ross Hunter and producer-director Irwin Allen of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno closet Hollywood-bashers or were they geniuses for catering to the public’s love/hate for movie icons?
Any way you slice it, it’s impossible to imagine any self-respecting disaster flick without old-time Big Name Stars wearing disfiguring wigs and godawful ‘70s togs, reciting rotten dialogue and over-acting like crazy before getting bumped-off in particularly humiliating ways. Revisit, for a kick, one that didn’t click with audiences, The Swarm, Irwin Allen’s 1978 killer bees vs. the movie stars epic. Even at a mind-and-behind-numbing 156 minutes, the movie is not only a hoot of a box-office bomb but also encyclopedic on the ways and means of embarrassing film stars.
It’s pretty much a movie in which dull, progressive-leaning scientists in white lab coats and dull conservative-leaning military types debate endlessly about what to do while a massive pack of Africanized bees pull apocalyptic hijinks like zapping the population of an ICBM site, attacking flailing, scene-hogging extras in slow motion during a flower festival and causing the fatal crash of a train carrying several of the stars.
The movie may have sported an A budget but it’s every bit as demented and lovable as a ‘50s grade Z creature feature. Want proof? While we view a sky with “bees” animated by, we’d guess, Etch-a-Sketch, a helicopter pilot screams on his way to kingdom come, “Oh, my god! Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!” Doomsday seems nigh, all right, according to entomologist Michael Caine, delivering straight-faced, either in monotone or at the top of his lungs, dialogue credited to Oscar winner Stirling Silliphant. He says, “We’ve been fighting a losing battle against the insects for fifteen years but I never thought I’d see the final face-off in my lifetime. And I never dreamed it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friends.”
Like hell, snarls paranoid, Red-under-every-bed military general Richard Widmark, who thunders themes and variations on “Attack and eliminate!,” and “Better a few bees than a lot of American people!” “Can we trust a scientist who prays?,” asks Widmark’s aide, Bradford Dillman, to which Widmark responds, “I wouldn’t count on one that didn’t.”
Into the mix wanders emotion-challenged Katherine Ross, a military nurse required by the script to fall almost immediately for Caine, who muses in the midst of calamity, “You’re the one positive thing that’s happened to me,” prompting Ross to robotically utter: “I like that. I really do.” Lovely Ross spends most of her screen time looking pissed that starring roles in The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid only dead-ended her in Irwin Allen-land.
There’s also a don’t-miss, achingly artificial performance by Olivia de Havilland – still channeling saccharine sweet Melanie in Gone With The Wind -- as a teacher being courted by lovestruck rivals Mayor Fred MacMurray and Folksy Guy Ben Johnson. Don’t dare nod out before catching Olivia manning the school intercom to announce, “Attention! Attention! This is Miss Schuster. Please listen very carefully. A swarm of killer bees is coming this way.” Even loonier is her funny reaction to seeing the school courtyard littered with bee-stung kids while the insects mass on the windows; de Havilland flashes her eyes, winces, moans and twists, practically announcing, “Oscar nomination #6, here I come!”
The entire movie is one big, fat feast for aficionados of awful, as witness the screen reunion of fellow Oscar winners and Valley of the Dolls survivors Patty Duke (as a newly-widowed pregnant waitress) and Lee Grant (as a relentless TV reporter who during the bee attack growls, “Get it all on tape!”). And what about the cheesy, trippy super-sized bees hallucinated by the victims of the attacks – like the one Ross sees coming out of Caine’s eye! -- or the moment when Widmark orders guys with flame-throwers to torch the city of Houston and muses, “Houston on fire. Will history blame me or the bees?” And watch for the sequence when the bumble bees are headed straight for a nuclear reactor and Oscar winner Jose Ferrer assures doctor Richard Chamberlain that billions have been spent to make the reactor fail-safe. Replies Chamberlain, “In all your fail-safe techniques, is there a provision for an attack by killer bees?” Oh, snap. Do yourself a favor. See this supremely silly disaster dilly – The Birds for birdbrains -- before the announced remake hits theaters. Sure, contemporary Hollywood could make the bee attacks look more realistic but they couldn’t make The Swarm any funnier if they tried.