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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

a brief history of the insect movie

It’s a joke, see the title of Bee Movie, opening this weekend, because, insect movies have historically been the B-movies, the cheapie monster movies, the second-billed flicks there just to fill up the schedule. You know, back in the day when going to the movies meant taking in an afternoon-long program of cartoons and newsreels and two or three films.
Today, when every movie thinks it’s the A-movie, some of these old bug-monster movies are still worth catching up with on DVD. The giant rampaging ants of 1954’s Them [buy at Amazon] are still pretty scary, even if the FX that created them are less than convincing. The Japanese flying-insect horror of 1961’s Mothra is as funny as it is scary, but that’s fine. The Fly, from 1958 [buy at Amazon], never fails to creep me out with that famous final line: “Help me!”

The 1986 remake of The Fly [buy at Amazon], starring Jeff Goldblum as a scientist who experiments on himself to terrible results, is still, in our era of ever-escalating horror explicitness, one of the most disgusting and most disturbing movies ever made. Fifties-style B-movies came back around again, with spiders on the rampage in both, with Arachnophobia (1990) [buy at Amazon] and Eight Legged Freaks (2002) [buy at Amazon], both of which deployed lots of yucks with the icks.

Comedy combined with horror has been the hallmark of most of the recent flicks featuring insects: Joe’s Apartment (1996) [buy at Amazon] pits a hapless Jerry O’Connell against thousands of singing and dancing cockroaches in his rundown tenement apartment; Men in Black (1997) [buy at Amazon] features, among its many alien critters, an evil ET bug that looks a lot like Vincent D’Onofrio. The comedy was of the less obvious satiric kind that same year in Starship Troopers [buy at Amazon], in which human troops battle giant insects on a distant planet. The best alien bug hunt remains, of course, 1986’s Aliens [buy at Amazon], one of the greatest science fiction action movies ever.

Insects that get under your skin — or even deeper inside — make for itchy viewing with 1997’s Mimic [buy at Amazon], Guillermo del Toro’s horror about intelligent, humanoid creepy-crawlies about to out-evolve humanity; and in this year’s Bug [buy at Amazon], the insects may not even exist, except as a delusion in the mind of Ashley Judd.

Lately, though, as with Bee Movie, bugs are benign beings. In 1998’s A Bug’s Life [buy at Amazon], they’re colorful creatures with funny accents who live mostly peaceful lives; ditto in last year’s The Ant Bully [buy at Amazon], which goes so far as to posit a gentle, earth-loving religion for the bugs. Last year’s Charlotte’s Web [buy at Amazon] is the ultimate rejoinder to the scary-spider movies of past decades: Charlotte, voiced by Julia Roberts in what might be her best performance ever, is a wise and placid leader, a voice of reason and feeling in a larger, wider world that’s far scarier than any mere bug could ever be.

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  • Chris ‘Paperbag’ Beaubien

    Great round-up of bug movies, Maryann.

    There are two more that deserve mention.

    George A. Romero’s “Creepshow” featured an
    episode called “They’re Crawling Up On You!”.
    E.G. Marshall camps it up as a greedy corporate
    millionaire who’s sterile apartment is supposedly
    germ-proof. Hundreds of cockroaches embrace
    Marshall in this cringe-inducing black comedy.

    In 1998, the same year Disney’s “A Bug’s Life”, hit,
    Dreamworks released “Antz” staring Woody Allen
    and Sharon Stone. “Antz”, hands-down, shames
    “A Bug’s Life” and “Bee Movie” in terms of
    comedy and compelling drama.

  • Man oh man, I loves me some “THEM!” That and “The Thing From Another World” are mostly what started my hangup with defending old 50s SF flicks, which oh-so-sophisticated modern types like to deride sight unseen as being dopey and cheesy. And yeah, sometimes you have to make allowances for fake-looking monsters, but those are both brilliantly written and directed monster movies. You could make shot-for-shot remakes in the present day, just with better special effects, and everyone would love them.

    I’m not sure I’d describe Arachnophobia as a 50s style bug movie. It’s more like a 70s nature-run-amok movie.

    “A Bug’s Life” is more kid-oriented than “Antz”, but it’s a better movie. I will never relent on this point.

  • MaryAnn

    I forgot the *Creepshow* entry: yeah, I still have nightmares about that one.

    I didn’t forget *Antz* — I just don’t like it. :->

  • No one mentioned Saul Bass’ very creepy Phase IV, from 1971 or so, where an astronomical event causes ordinary ants to suddenly acquire advanced intelligence… a scientist (Nigel Davenport) goes into the desert to study the new behavior of the ants and learns the hard way that they are not to be underestimated.

  • Papone

    The Fly remake ranks the best bug movie ever. Cronenberg knows how to use bugs.In King Kong there was that scene.Where they were trapped in that bug pit.
    They ares a few bug scenes in Honey I shrunk the kids. Then of course theres the Ultra B badness of Squirm (worms) and slugs. And last but not least Phenomena aka its u.s title Creepers . Featuring a young Jennifer Connelly

  • MaryAnn

    I’ve never heard of *Phase IV* — I’ll have to try to find it.

  • MaryAnn, I’m pretty sure that Phase IV is not on DVD… I don’t have a copy (and it’s a movie I had on LD, so I know I would have it on DVD) and Best Buy/Amazon.com don’t list it, as far as I can tell. It’s still out there on LD and VHS (shudder).

  • al

    Do you guys remember an a movie that about this half human half human and half pray mantis family ?

  • MaryAnn, I’m pretty sure that Phase IV is not on DVD.

    It is now. I believe it came out about a year after the original start of this thread.

    Do you guys remember an a movie that about this half human half human and half pray mantis family ?

    Apparently no one didn’t.

    I do believe that at least one episode of Buffy and The X-Files had a similar concept.

    So apparently someone in Hollywood remembers–unless they’re remembering a movie that doesn’t exist…

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