September 19, 2018

THE SWARM is Here! (to coin a tagline)
Starring Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke, Brasdford Dillman, Fred MacMurray, Cameron Mitchell, Alejandro Rey. Directed by Irwin Allen. (1978/156 min).


Review by Mr. Paws😼

Forty years later, The Swarm continues to fascinate me...

In the 1970s, impressionable kids like me were conditioned to fear a plethora of things...the Bermuda Triangle, the Amityville house, Great White sharks, kids named Damien, spider eggs in Bubble Yum, exploding Pintos and Oakland Raiders fans, just to name a few. Of course, those fears were mostly fueled by sensationalistic media that tended to be embellished or reinterpreted once the news made its rounds on the playground. 

Then there were the dreaded African killer bees, buzzing our way from South America with a singular purpose: to kill us all.

Legendary "Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen, still flying high from the one-two punch of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, knew a good concept when he stumbled onto one: Killer bees! So deadly they can cause people to hallucinate, passenger trains to crash and nuclear power plants to meltdown! Running Arthur Herzog's more scientifically plausible novel through the reliable Sterling Silliphant machine, Allen had his latest all-star catastrofest. Trumpeted by a masterfully histrionic ad campaign that touted, "Not just speculation...a prediction," the film was destined to be his magnum opus.

Scooby and the gang make a U-turn.
It didn't turn out that way, of course. Not only did The Swarm completely tank at the box office, it's often cited as one of the worst big-budget movies of all time. Even at my young age, sitting in a nearly empty theater during the summer of 1978, I knew I was witnessing the nadir of the disaster genre's glorious reign.

Is The Swarm that bad? Well, yes...and no.

Despite costing more to produce than The Towering Inferno, The Swarm looks cheap, rushed and slapped together, as if each scene was being made up on the spot. The dialogue isn't just often makes Twilight sound like the prose of Tennessee Williams. And in an era when melodramatic epics with "all-star casts" were fast-growing passé, this one is overstuffed with so many past-their-prime celebrities that half of them are regulated to glorified cameos. With the possible exception of Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, everyone either sleepwalks through their roles or overacts horrendously. It was clearly obvious that a producer as woefully out-of-touch as Irwin Allen had no business directing it himself.

"Say hello to my little friend."
Still,The Swarm is far from the worst disaster movie ever made (Airport '79 gets that dubious honor). Sure, it's often unintentionally funny and no one has ever been able to effectively explain how a bunch of insects can cause a nuclear reactor to explode, but the film is loads of fun. Often at its own expense, but fun nonetheless. It was fun in '78, it's fun now, and I must confess I still watch The Swarm at least once a year without ever getting bored. Furthermore, the film isn't without its truly great qualities. Consider this:
  • The Swarm wastes no time killing people. The first scene is of the aftermath of a bee attack, and within the first ten minutes, two choppers meet a fiery demise. In fact, the film's total body count might be higher than every other disaster movie of the 70s...combined.
  • The scene where Dr. Krim (Henry Fonda) tests his anti-venom on himself is genuinely gripping.
  • Even though he's saddled with some of the worst lines, the late, great Richard Widmark rises above the material with a truly sincere performance. He's often the only one who appears to be trying. A true professional.
  • That's a shitload of real bees buzzing around these famous actors.
  • You know the perky, obnoxious kid who pops up in all these movies, the one you wished would die but never does? That kid bites the dust here. And the little bastard deserves it because he just had to taunt the bees, causing the deaths of hundreds. Actually, lots of little kids die in this movie.
  • Train crash! YEAH!
  • And let's not forget Patti Duke as Rita, a pregnant woman who falls in love with her doctor during labor, even though her husband just died from a bee attack! Nice to see someone can bounce back from tragedy so quickly.
  • Olivia de Havilland gets to resurrect her Melanie Hamilton character from Gone with the Wind. I didn't know there were any southern belles living in the Southwest in 1978.
  • On a related note, who doesn't love de Havilland's slow-motion, meme-worthy reaction to the dead children in the playground?
  • Slim Pickens is essentially playing the same character for the 146th time (really...I checked!).
  • Michael Caine has always looked like killer bees would shoot from his eye if he stared at you long enough.
  • My favorite scene: During the climax, the man flees in panic from one room, trots down the hall, then darts through the next door...hands above his head and on fire.
  • In the long, dubious history of killer bee movies, you still have to admit this is the best one.
  • The Swarm is Irwin Allen's last watchable film, and Citizen Kane compared to his next, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.
"F**k you, Olivia."
But, alas, I suspect even if The Swarm ended up being a masterpiece, it never stood chance in the wake of modern blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. In many ways, the film was the last of its kind. The reign of the star-studded disaster movie was already over and nobody ever bothered to inform Irwin Allen. But you know what? Misdirected as it may be, the unabashed, infectious enthusiasm he brought to The Towering Inferno is still evident throughout this film. And though The Swarm is ultimately a scattershot ensemble of the same disaster trappings he had a hand in creating, he never lost his sense of fun, something we couldn't say about some of his imitators. 

Those damned killer bees never did make it to my neck of the woods, but The Swarm is finally on Blu-ray in all its kitschy glory. While it may have been one of the nails in the 70s' disaster coffin, this beautiful trainwreck is a treasure trove of massive destruction, whacked-out ideas and daffy dialogue. Worth watching again and again.

"INSIDE THE SWARM" - An archival documentary, originally airing as a TV special. It maybe old, but it's full of great behind-the-scenes footage.

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