Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Bees (1978)

Written by: Alfredo Zacharias
Directed by: Alfredo Zacharias
John Saxon as John Norman (no, not the guy who wrote the Gor novels)
Angel Tompkins as Sandra Miller
John Carradine as Dr. Sigmund Hummel
Claudio Brook as Dr. Miller

In the early 1950s, a biologist named Warwick Kerr crossbred several species of European honey bee with the African honey bee in an attempt to create a new species of bee more suited to the hot climates of South and Central America than the various European varieties then being used across the Americas. Tropical environments tended to slow down the European bees – being accustomed to more temperate conditions – and restricted their productivity. The experiment worked. Kerr's Africanised honey bee hybrids could function perfectly well in conditions that would keep European species huddled in their hives, and produced a significantly larger amount of honey as a result.

In October of 1957, a visiting beekeeper removed the queen excluder screens from the Apis mellifera hives because he thought they were interfering with the workers' ability to move around and do their work. 26 queens escaped quarantine with swarms, and the Africanised bees quickly spread across South and Central America. Because the hybrids were able to breed with any European variety of bee, many hives were taken over either by a forced invasion where Apis mellifera swarms entered European hives and killed the queens, or by drones joining mating flights and impregnating European queens, the result of which is almost always Africainsed offspring.

For the next twenty years, Apis mellifera spread across South and Central America, earning a reputation for ferocity that far outstripped its reputation for making shitloads of honey. Africanised bees guard their hives much more aggressively, and in a much wider defensive zone, than other kinds of bees. They also designate a greater number of guard bees than other species. They are easily agitated and react poorly to even small amounts of stress, abandoning their hives to swarm and find a quieter place to live. They also have a nasty habit of chasing perceived threats up to half a mile from their hive before they'll give up the chase and go home. They attack and sting in such great numbers that even people who are not prone to allergic reactions from stings can suffer from hypertension, and even respiratory and renal failure, resulting in death. Yes, a killer bee attack can pump you so full of venom it actually overloads your kidneys.

It's understandable, then, that there would be a bit of a scare as the swarms kept creeping closer and closer to the southern border of the United States. Despite the fact that deaths from killer bee attacks number in the high ones or twos per year, they're pretty scary deaths and the public love a good panic. Hollywood is not known for sitting back and waiting to see what will happen when there's a good scare going on, so inevitably there were killer bee movies thrown into production as soon as the topic made the news. There weren't as many of them as you'd think, probably because the most high-profile one of the bunch was a tremendous flop.

As far as I know, the earliest killer bee movie was 1966's The Deadly Bees, from England. It's best known for being featured on MST3K, and it's generally pretty stodgy and boring. There was at least one TV movie about killer bees, the cleverly titled The Killer Bees from 1974. But by far the most famous killer bee movie is Irwin Allen's The Swarm from 1978. Tonight's movie was actually going to beat Allen's megabudget opus to the screen, but Warner Brothers paid the filmmakers a substantial amount of money to postpone the release of The Bees and prevent competition between the two. Turns out Warner Brothers should have hung on to that money, because it might have represented a considerable amount of their profits.

The Bees was originally supposed to be a Jack Hill movie, but the producers decided to go with Alfredo Zacharias presumably because he came a good deal cheaper. He got the inspiration for his version of the movie after his son gave him a jar of Africanised bee honey as a gift. Zacharias made the film with a largely Mexican crew and supporting cast, shooting an English and Spanish version simultaneously for a more successful international release because he believed poor dubbing work would keep audiences from taking the movie seriously. This would be an obvious place to make a joke about how the dubbing would be the last thing he needed to worry about having that effect, but you know what? I'm not going to do that because I believe to do so would be entirely missing the point in this case. Despite the main theme of environmentalism being completely sincere, it's obvious the main cast had an absolute blast making this movie and it translates to an incredibly fun viewing experience.

John Saxon, Sandra Miller, and John Carradine have an easygoing and natural chemistry that you don't see too often in movies. Sure they're all capable of good, and even great performances, but there are plenty of great performances that feel like nothing more than that: performances. Here, the three leads have such an unaffected affection for each other that you can't help but smile whenever they're on screen together.

I'm a huge John Carradine fan. I'll happily watch anything he's in, even if it's just a cameo like Night Train to Mundo Fine. The man never fails to entertain me. As much as I love the work of Saxon and Miller in this, Carradine is the shining star here. Even so near the end of his life, in one of his last major roles (by this point Carradine was mostly appearing in bit parts for a day's work, but he features heavily in The Bees, to the movie's great benefit), crippled by arthritis and in constant pain, his portrayal of Dr. Sigmund Hummel glows with life and the energy of a much younger man. His eyes always have a twinkle in them, there's always a spring in his step, and he revels in delivering his absurd dialog with a cartoonish German accent.

The budget was obviously nothing like what Irwin Allen had to work with, and yet the special effects mostly come off looking as good as anything in The Swarm (with the notable exception of when the bees are represented by fans blowing flurries of what looks like crumbled up cork at the enthusiastically flailing actors).

Out story begins as a father and son break into an apiary. The father explains that when one is poor and has many children, one must bring home much honey to feed them (apparently he's raising a family of bears). Dear ol' dad has heard that the Americans keep their best honey locked up, but he and his son quickly learn the real reason for the extra security on these hives. They are, of course, occupied by killer bees which make short work of the intruders.

The next morning, Dr. Miller's breakfast is interrupted by an angry mob of torch bearing villagers who demand an explanation for the attack on the two honey thieves. The fact that Claudio Brook was a highly respected Mexican actor capable of speaking flawless English makes the fact that he talks to the villagers by shouting at them very slowly in heavily accented pidgin English even funnier. He almost has them convinced that he needs more time to turn the “devil bee” into a good bee, when poor old dad, still lumpy from all his stings, dumps his dead son on the ground for all to see. A riot ensues, the compound is destroyed, and Dr. Miller is stung to death by the bees while trying to rescue his notes from the fire.

We now meet Dr. John Norman, trying to convince a conference of United Nations officials that their countries should be joining in the effort to stop the advance of killer bees because some day they could all be affected. They all dismiss his claims and act tough until Dr. Sigmund Hummel knocks a jar full of bees onto the floor to make a point. The officials all have a fit when they think they're under attack by killer bees. There aren't nearly enough bees in the jar to be dangerous, but they cut the legs out from under the various delegates' tough talk well enough.

Later that night, Sandra Miller arrives at Dr. Norman's apartment building. A couple of thugs try to mug her in the elevator, but get an unpleasant surprise when they find out the hard way the strange looking case she's carrying contains not valuables but the last captive members of Dr. Miller's killer bee hives (side note – Is there a single 70's movie featuring street toughs where at least one of them isn't wearing a stocking cap placed jauntily atop his head without covering his ears at all? And does that drive anyone else as crazy as it does me?).

She ends up spending the night since she's been traveling nonstop from Mexico after witnessing her husband killed and her home burned to the ground, and is completely exhausted. Dr. Hummel arrives in the morning, and we come to discover he's her uncle. The trio bond over breakfast, and begin working together to solve the killer bee problem.

Meanwhile, ConHugeCo Honey International Enterprises Holdings Limited is scheming to smuggle some of the escaped bees into the United States since John, Sandra, and Sigmund refused their offer to work with them in domesticating the bees. They send an agent to bribe one of their under-the-table business contacts into smuggling bees in some kind of ridiculous belt contraption. This part of the movie is actually really poorly put together and it's a little difficult to figure out what's going on unless you're paying close attention, but basically the belt failed and the bees got loose on the plane, which made an emergency landing. The bees escape, and in an undefined but obviously very short amount of time, there's a swarm big enough to blot out the sun over a beach, which results in some of the most delightfully hammy reaction shots ever committed to film.

The massive swarm takes up residence in a cave somewhere, and again, it's a little difficult to figure out what's going on, but from what I pieced together, the cave is very near a gigantic radio telescope that gives off tremendous amounts of radiation which could potentially alter the bees' genetic makeup in unforeseen ways. Or something science-y like that. I won't spoil any more for you. Just go bask in all the cheesy, ridiculous glory of The Bees.

I'm so, so glad I finally bought this. When Vinegar Syndrome release the Blu ray a few months ago, I passed. And I kept seeing it, and I kept passing. I love a good Nature Run Amok movie, but how many different ways can you do the killer bee formula? The Swarm can be fun, but it's way too long. The Deadly Bees is a great MST3K episode but it's a goddamn boring piece of crap on its own. Did the world really need yet another killer bee movie? Actually, yes. This one, and only this one.

Killer bees finally arrived in the United States in 1985, in the San Joaquin Valley in California. It's suspected they arrived hidden in a shipment of oil drilling pipe. I remember as a kid seeing the occasional killer bee scare piece on the news, and checking out “scary animal” books from the school library that made me terrified of killer bees and various other creatures that nature was clearly sending to kill us all. Of course, anything much north of the Arkansas/Missouri border was too cold for the little fuckers, and living in Iowa I had nothing at all to worry about, but when you're six or seven years old, you don't think of things like that. You'd have had no better luck convincing me that killer bees weren't mere minutes away than you would have had convincing me that I didn't see a hodag in the grove behind my house one rainy night (I totally did).

The panic eventually subsided, although for some reason in recent years there have been a spate of new and presumably terrible killer bee movies. I feel safe in saying you can probably skip all of them. I know I have. For that matter, you can keep your Michael Caine and his marvelous Eye Bee, and no, I haven't seen the dog's meat. There's only one killer bee movie that has my heart, and if you give it a chance, it just might capture yours too.

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