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rare female film critic | 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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