A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #3: “Bug” (1975)

by A.J. Hakari

"Bug" poster

 

William Castle flicks have always been sort of the horror genre’s equivalent of community theatre. No one over the age of five was ever truly scared of House on Haunted Hill or 13 Ghosts, but so congenial was Castle as host, his low-budget spook shows had a ragtag charm that made them entertaining anyway. 1975’s Bug, on the other hand, was not made by that William Castle. Although the man didn’t direct Bug himself (passing those duties onto future Supergirl helmsman Jeannot Szwarc), he did produce and co-write it, the final film he was involved with before his death. By all accounts, he saved the trippiest for last, for this thing packs a pretty vicious wallop, a mean streak with no sign of any winks or nudges to take the edge off.

On a day like any other in a small desert town, an unimaginable force is getting ready to strike. An earthquake unleashes from the earth’s mighty bowels a flurry of roach-like bugs, but with a diabolical kick that Mother Nature was kind enough to contribute. These little devils have thick shells, no eyes, and the ability to set things aflame with their backsides. Upon their freedom, the firebugs proceed to blow up any cars, cats, and shrubbery they can get their antennae on, leaving nothing but chaos and confusion in their wake. Local scientist James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman) becomes obsessed with capturing the creatures and figuring out what makes them tick — although his efforts just may end up making the problem worse.

From the start, you can tell that Bug is going to be a lot more grim than your regular killer animal romp. For one, it’s a surprisingly quiet movie, with no other score aside from Charles Fox’s sinister electronic noodling when the roaches come a-calling. Szwarc generates a genuinely haunting atmosphere, letting you know immediately that all characters have the same shot at falling victim to insect-induced combustion. I kept waiting for the flick to break character and throw in shots of terrified townsfolk fleeing in fright from a silly-looking swarm of farting firebugs, but Szwarc keeps the horror at a personal level, thus making everything twice as unsettling. Viewers get a front row seat to numerous characters straight-up going insane, especially Parmiter, who spends most of the third act as a sweating, mumbling wreck.

I can only assume that Castle, having for years been chided as a showman who bilked dimes out of kids instead of directing “real” horror movies, channeled all that frustration into making Bug as apocalyptic as he could. But even with someone else behind the camera, Castle’s cheesy influence is still felt; you can be as serious as you want, but the idea of a roach setting an unwitting woman’s bouffant on fire with its ass will always be kind of hysterical. He also seems to have chickened out in terms of the ending, a finishing touch that threatens to be the cruelest turn yet before Castle guns for a happy note out of nowhere. It’s baffling, to say the least, and yet it’s not totally out of place amongst the 98 unexpectedly dour minutes that preceed it.

As a whole, Bug experiences some tonal issues and a few too many stiff performances for me to say I dug it. But I appreciated more about the film than I expected when I queued it up on Netflix, and just to witness how nutty things get for yourself, it’s worth watching at least once. I wouldn’t have known that William Castle had it in him to pump out a flick with so much legimitate freakiness afoot, but I’m glad Bug proved me mostly wrong.

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