Bugs at the Picnic: Horror’s Love Affair with the Insect
Horror Films have long had a love affair with the lowly insect, from the fly-eating Renfield in 1931’s Dracula to the computer-generated hordes of scarabs in the Stephen Sommers’ Mummy films. Man has done battle with giant bugs, mutated bugs, armies of bugs—bugs have scaled the Washington Monument, set housewives on fire, and cocooned an entire southwestern town. We have had giant ants rampaging across the New Mexico desert and through the Los Angeles sewer system, and thousands of cockroaches invading E. G. Marshall’s penthouse apartment. Man has an instinctive revulsion towards the bug, and filmmakers long ago learned to prey on that instinct. And never have they had as much success doing so than with the Giant Bug films of the 1950s.
One of the first instances of making significant use of giant insects in Horror was sadly never seen by general audiences. I’m referring of course to the lost “Spider Pit” sequence from 1933’s King Kong. This sequence, showing what happened to the crew of the Venture after Kong dumped them into the chasm below the log-bridge, was removed by director Merian C. Cooper following a poor response to it from a test audience.
It was the 1950’s that brought the Giant Bug into its own in the genre, as Science-Fiction and Horror combined to inflict all manner of monstrous insects on mankind. The beginning of the Giant Bug craze was the 1954 Warner Brothers hit Them!, directed by Gordon Douglas. This story of mutated ants loose, first in the desert of New Mexico and then the sewers of Los Angeles, is one of the best and most enduring films of the 1950’s. Starring James Arness, James Whitmore, and Joan Weldon, it took the by-then standard plot of the Sci-Fi/Horrors, the threat to humanity from something outside, the “Us vs. Them” equation, and made it literal. The premise was a timely one—nine years after the first atomic bomb detonation, in the deserts near Alamogordo, New Mexico, successive generations of ant have mutated, growing to the size of pick-up trucks, with a ravenous appetite for meat. That appetite soon comes to include humans, as the ants spread beyond the sparsely populated Southwestern desert, into the teeming metropolis of Los Angeles. The climactic battle between ant and human in the underground storm sewers remains one of the most iconic scenes of ‘50s Sci-Fi/Horror.
Ants were simply the beginning of the infestation of monstrous insects that terrorized moviegoers in the 1950s. Soon, Main Street theaters and Drive-Ins alike were overrun by enormous spiders, grasshoppers, and praying mantis. Universal-International led the way with two of the best, 1955’s Tarantula and 1957’s The Deadly Mantis. Tarantula, directed by Jack Arnold, and starring John Agar, Leo G. Carroll, and Mara Corday, was an inferior film to Them! in every objective measure—in terms of script, acting, special effects, even direction. Subjectively however, it is a tremendously enjoyable movie, with a decent-enough script, special effects that were passable, and enough action to overcome the uncharacteristically weak acting from an otherwise capable cast.
The Unimonster’s personal favorite Giant Bug movie, however, is Nathan Juran’s 1957 classic, The Deadly Mantis. Starring William Hopper, Craig Stevens, and Alix Talton, the story of a gigantic praying mantis, released from a prehistoric glacier and restored to life is far less a sound premise than those of the preceding pair of films. However, this movie is blessed with superior effects work, along with as much stock footage as could be brought to bear. The result is a pleasantly surprising movie with several noteworthy scenes, including the Mantis attacking an Inuit village, toppling a transit bus, and in the film’s most iconic shot, scaling the Washington Monument.
There were other examples of the Giant Bug genre, of course. The genre was too successful, too profitable, to be ignored by the exploiteers such as AIP and Allied Artists. The best of these “second-tier” efforts would have to be Bert I. Gordon’s Earth vs. the Spider, released by American International Pictures in 1958. Following the completion of production, the title was shortened to The Spider on the advertising materials, in response to the success enjoyed by another 1958 release, The Fly. However, it was too late to alter the titles on the film prints, already prepared for distribution. Coincidentally, Bert I. Gordon is also known for what may be the worst example of the Giant Bug genre of the 1950s—1957’s hilariously awful Beginning of the End.
Starring Peter Graves, Peggie Castle, and Morris Ankrum, this tale of giant radioactive locusts rampaging across northern Illinois towards Chicago might have been a good movie—except for Gordon’s notoriously cheap special effects. Eschewing such proven techniques as functional marionettes, stop-motion animation, or even photographing live insects on miniature sets, Gordon went back to a method he first used during the production of his film King Dinosaur—placing still photos of the scene’s location on a board, letting the bugs crawl all over the photographs, and using jets of compressed air to control their movement. The effect is completely ridiculous, and laughably comical—as demonstrated by the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Bugs have always crawled through the annals of the Horror film, from Renfield’s flies to Imhotep’s carnivorous scarabs. Few things inspire so much revulsion in the average person as a swarm of insects, something horror filmmakers discovered early on. In the ‘50s, they discovered just how much more effective those bugs could be when magnified a few hundred, or a few thousand, times. Speaking for myself, they made growing up the Unimonster much more enjoyable!
Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2020
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor