Strange Cinematic Bugs
I do not like bugs. Insects, spiders, worms, if it’s a little crawling or flying invertibre, I don’t care. Sure, I’ve seen some beautiful butterflies, or been fascinated by snails flooding sidewalks after the rain. But I’ve also seen swarming ants ruin all the food even remotely open in my kitchen, and I’ve seen what termites can do even while you sit twenty feet from where they are eating away. There is something sinister about bugs that gets under my skin. That’s why, to me, they’re perfect horror movie fodder and yet been painfully under-exploited.
I’m not talking about those giant monster movies, where radiation or pollution makes normal bugs grow to enormous size. Ninety-nine percent of those are laughable. It’s easy to look at rubber-suited roaches and brush them off, saying it could never happen. No, bugs can be scary enough in their own tiny form.
Take, for example, The Hellstrom Chronicle from 1971. It was written by David Seltzer (of Omen and Prophecy fame, starring Lawrence Pressman as the titular Dr. Hellstrom. The flick inspired a novel by Frank Herbert, countless pop culture references, and even won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Wait—is it a documentary or horror movie? The answer is both.
There are actually two stories inside Hellstrom. The first is a groundbreaking nature documentary showing insects about their daily routine, using a type of microphotography that had never been seen by audiences before. Imagine Microcosmos done with a sinister bent. The second story is the fictional tale of Dr. Hellstrom. Hellstrom has ruined his career, his marriage, and possibly his sanity because of his obsession with his research. He studies bugs and believes the insect, and not the meek, will really inherit the Earth. Eventually the battle for the planet will come down to insect and human, and the insect will win. He points out that they are unburdened by individuality or conscience. All insects work of a single motivation, a single mind, toward the greater good of their species. This gives them the advantage toward us weak humans.
He makes a good argument, too. We, the viewers, can empathize with Dr. Hellstrom’s fascination with the efficiency of the insect. By the end we’ve seen enough of the insects and their skills to fear them laying claim to their Earth.
Three years later, they did in Phase IV.
Phase IV takes the concept of the insect takeover a few steps further than The Hellstrom Chronicle. This time some unnamed cosmic occurrence leaves everything unaffected…except the ants. They evolve. Not in a monster movie way. They stay the same size, keep the same singular “hive mind” collective. However, the shared intelligence is magnified and they decide to take the world as theirs.
This is what makes the movie work. It makes the idea of bug-induced apocalypse plausible. You don’t have the rubber-suited giant ants, or bad animation. They never lose their core nature. If you’ve ever watched ants swarm a dead worm, then you could see how, with a little cosmic boost, ants very well could defeat us humans.
This movie could have easily become a forgettable monster movie. Instead, director Saul Bass did a masterful job. Normally a designer, this is the only feature Bass directed. That’s a shame, because he put those design skills to work finding the perfect balance of style and storyline to keep Phase IV from falling too far into either art film or popcorn action territory. The miniscule cast was also an important factor. While there were a handful of secondary characters, the movie is seen through the eyes of three. Between their fantastic performances, and the structure that comes with a small cast we can follow the evolution of their awareness. By the time they know to be terrified, we are too.
Between 1974 and 1991 we got our evil bug movies. Arachnophobia, Squirm, and a handful of others. Some had silliness going for them, others didn’t have even that. But in 1991, there came a whole different movie to remind me that bugs can be scary little buggers.
Back in the early nineties, during my William Burroughs phase, I found a VHS movie with him: Wax: Or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees. While he only had a minor role, the flick was a perfect fit for Burroughs. As a movie, Wax is pieced together with 1200 individual clips which tell a rather surrealistic story. Jacob Maker is a bomb designer and part-time beekeeper. Whether driven insane by guilt from his job or whether this is actually happening, he finds the bees are actually souls of the dead. They implant a television inside his brain; show him his past, his future, and the past and future of other people and the bombs he creates. They kill him so he can join them in the realm of the dead. That way, Maker himself can easily travel the globe to kill, for destiny, for the bee’s whims, we can never be sure.
Yes, as realistic as Hellstrom or Phase IV was, Wax goes the polar opposite. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s the nonlinear nature of this movie that drew me in. The flick is what we, the viewers, decide it is. We can take the plot at face value and find a haunting ghost story, or we can try reading into the subtext and take out a different theme, either inner torment, cosmic retribution, or something else entirely.
Wax was never meant to be a passively watched movie. Its creator, David Blair, has tried to keep it expanding as technology grows. In 1993 it was the first feature film to be broadcast over the internet. Two years after that, a hypermedia version was released. In either the online version, or as a CD-Rom, each of the 1200 clips have six or so subsections and accompanying text, with entry points and exit points to the framing story at each of them. Where you start, stop, or venture outward changes what the movie becomes. I’ve played with WaxWeb many times and I still haven’t seen everything there is to see of the story. In fact, I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to investigate all the variables.
Wax, especially in its most recent incarnation, is not for everyone. It is very strange, made even stranger by the hypermedia aspects. But if you’re looking for a story you can be submerged in, Wax allows you to go as deep as you want. Or can handle
It’s been eighteen years since Wax, and I still haven’t seen another bug movie that compares with that, or Phase IV, or even The Hellstrom Chronicle. Hell, it seems bugs have gotten all Disneyed up in the past decade or so. Try as modern Hollywood will, I still don’t trust bugs. And after watching these movies over again, I will stop to think about each bug I step on.
WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES:
The Hellstrom Chronicle has never had an official DVD release. Thankfully, some kind soul was kind enough to upload the entire thing onto YouTube.
Phase IV is in print and readily available at your local video shop or Netflix.
Wax: Or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees can be seen both in its feature version or its hypermedia version at www.waxweb.org