[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
Because it tries to become a new film every 15 or 20 minutes, Bug seems about three times as long as its hour-and-a-half. The effect is, I am sure, the unintended result of both cast’s and crew’s having no idea at all what they wanted to do with the film. It begins as an effort to fuse the horror picture with the disaster epic: in the first reel we have a heat wave, an earthquake, several horrible conflagrations, and the emergence into human affairs of a plague of subterranean beetles capable of starting fires by rubbing together their flinty appendages. The beasties subsist on carbon, which they lap from inside the exhaust systems of automobiles. Bradford Dillman plays Jim Parmiter, a neo–St. Francis of a biology teacher who bemoans humanity’s loss of the primordial power of communication with the animals. He finds his hobbyhorse in the firebugs and in a reversal of the usual invaders-from-beyond formula tries to find a way of keeping the bugs alive when they begin to die from reduced pressure on the earth’s surface. He preserves one female firebug in a diving helmet and mates her with a common cockroach, naming the hybrid species for himself and for the Greek god of fire: Parmitera hephaestus. First the bugs destroy their parent, the last of the firebugs; then they reveal themselves to be carnivores, eating only raw meat, and only as a group; then they show themselves capable of communication with Parmiter by arranging their bodies on the wall so as to spell out words; then they are once again no different in appearance or behavior from their mother, eating carbon and making fire; and finally they prove capable of tactical organization, flight, and divination, luring Parmiter to his Promethean doom in the fault through which their forebugs entered the world. Both they and the good doctor sink into the earth, and the fault seals up again.
One of the big mistakes director Jeannot Szwarc has made is in not directing the film in terms of the high-camp humor implicit in the screenplay (the mordant whimsy of William Castle, ever the pseudo-Hitchcock). Virtually every episode in the film functions as some sort of usual pun on the equivocal word ‘bug,’ although the dialogue never calls attention to this: a car engine with a few bugs in it; bugging a telephone; a bug in her ear; bug-eyed; that bugs the life out of me; sleep tight—don’t let the bedbugs bite; ad inf. Yet Szwarc’s direction and the players’ convictionless acting submerge the film’s satirical possibilities and Bug ends up appearing to take itself seriously as metaphysical allegory, from the pre-earthquake scene in which a preacher tries to decide if God is dead or is alive in the Dollar, to the final, infernal cataclysm. Bradford Dillman doesn’t even seem properly embarrassed in the most asinine role of his career: For a character whose every other line is “Aha! So that’s it!”, Parmiter learns very little. During the few minutes in which the film depicts the bugs as meat-eaters, they climb out of their box and go to work on his steak dinner; he puts them back, but does he lock the box? No—not even after they take a midnight snack out of him. And earlier, when he first handles one of the original bugs from beneath the earth, he gets his hand burnt (“Goddamn!”). The next time, he wears asbestos gloves; but apparently Szwarc has decided that that’s just not theatrical enough, so it’s back to bare hands and “Ouch! Goddamn!” every time this supposedly intelligent man picks up one of the critters.
The film is full of dishonesty of that sort. Its lack of integrity is rivaled only by its technical incompetence. A dearth of establishing shots keeps us always guessing where we are and where the characters are in relation to one another. The nighttime sequences are so poorly lighted that you might as well close your eyes for all the chance you have of figuring out what’s going on. The insect sequences are the work of Ken Middleham, since The Hellstrom Chronicle the dean of insect cinematography; but Bug does not do him proud. In fact, Bug is about the only film I can recall seeing that was not redeemed by a single interesting shot, cut, line, or idea. As my friend remarked when about halfway through, I called the film “pedestrian”—”No, I think even a pedestrian would have got there by now.” Bug is distinctly not among the ambulatory.
Direction: Jeannot Szwarc. Screenplay: William Castle and Thomas Page, after the novel The Hephaestus Plague by Page. Cinematography: Michel Hugo. Insect sequences: Ken Middleham. Editing: Allan Jacobs. Electronic music: Charles Fox. Production: Castle.
The Players: Bradford Dillman, Joanna Miles, Richard Gilliland, Jamie Smith Jackson, Allan Fudge, Jesse Vint, Patty McCormack.
Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow