What do you get when you combine a big-name, overpriced cast, an inept screenplay, boring-ass pacing and a bunch of bees that look like raisins and rabbit turds and the immortal disaster film director Irwin Allen?
Yes, in the summer of 1978 the movie industry was abuzz (ha ha) with anticipation of Allen’s latest disaster flick The Swarm (based on the novel by Arthur Herzog from 1974 of the same name) which Warner Bros. Pictures hyped to no end (and to no avail as they would painfully find out at the box office).
I can offer up a cinematic cookbook of failure and here’s the recipe:
1 cup bad script that has more holes than swiss cheese
14 cups of veteran actors giving their absolute worst performances (stir in a whole lot of Michael Caine)
$21 million cups of an insanely high budget for the time
1 Useless and quite terrible love triangle with people in their 90’s
Add in a dash of shitty looking fake bees and you have a recipe of failure!
So, why is The Swarm so terrible? Well, at just under 2 hours it commits a cardinal sin of nature-gone-amok movies-it’s fucking BORING! Even worse, the version on laserdisc and now DVD is a most torturous 156 minutes. There are some gluttons for punishment who find this version better. These people also think Metallica’s St. Anger was artistic genius.
Anyway, the film begins with a group of soldiers investigating a sub-level station in Texas which they suspect was attacked. But, by what? Well, a General who is overacted and played by the late Richard Widmark (he has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame but not for this!) wants to know who drove a van onto the base and why there are so many dead bodies. He gets his answer (and his superior in the overacting department) in Michael Caine! Caine plays a scientist who claims a black mass is actually filled with African killer bees on their way via hurricane and that’s why he’s there in Texas, and of course the military don’t believe him.
Then again, would you? After all, Caine states that he followed swarms of bees to the military silo and opened the gates to follow them in. (Good protection by the military of their base here). When Widmark rightfully asks Caine exactly who he is, Caine states he is an entomologist. This leads to some real crackling dialogue when Widmark blurts out, “Bugs?”. Then Caine gets to ham it up by screaming, “Insects, General!”. Yeah-you tell him buddy! Does this sound stupid to you? I sure hope so.
The plot has so many holes right from the start as these dead bodies have no evidence of being attacked by anything, let alone bees. The fact that Caine walks right in and the bad dialogue begins is comical (and how did he get past the guards who are still alive?). Also, whether it’s orange or white, the cheap-ass outfits/jumpsuits the soldiers wear make little to no sense as the backs of their necks are exposed the whole time.
So, maybe a killer bee could actually find his way onto, oh I don’t know someone’s neck you morons? And why do they have oxygen tanks? Should we even care? I wonder if these ghastly outfits were on Ian Anderson’s mind when Jethro Tull released an album in 1980 called A, but also scared the hell out of their fans by wearing…hideous white jumpsuits! Was this The Swarm tour? Let us compare…
The constant arguments between Caine and Widmark are tiring, but God damn they are also hysterical and at a deafening volume as though chewing up scenery on their own wasn’t enough they had to compete for it when on-screen together. It also makes no sense at all that they don’t agree on one single issue, but who cares?
They scream at each other throughout and it’s priceless. Please watch each scene here ESPECIALLY the ones with Caine and Widmark. Holy shit, is it gold. You almost sense Caine is mad at himself for being in this rotten film so he’ll take it out on anyone nearby with hammy acting and yelling!
The dialogue throughout is so pathetic you get lines such as “Bees, bees, millions of bees” from a helicopter pilot under attack. You read that right-a helicopter flying VERY fast is under attack from a swarm of bees buzzing not so fast. Or, “Who would’ve thought that bees would become the first alien force to invade America?”. Another great one. But that’s not even close to the worst line. The bees are African Bees and at times are referenced as Africans when being talke about. If that’s not bad enough, at one point the General exclaims, “By tomorrow there will be no more Africans!” in talking about a plot to kill the bees. Even for the 70’s are you fucking kidding me with that line? Jesus!
And for some unknown reason the people who didn’t die from being stung hallucinate and see giant fake bees that would only scare an infant at best. The effects are so bad you wonder how this was a big budget film. Yep-this was supposed to scare people.
Caine’s character also decides to play psychologist by repeatedly telling the child in a scene (this is the kid whose parents get killed by the bees at a picnic and then drives off in their car, crashing it in the middle of town naturally-more on the picnic later) that, “There is no bee”. He says this a few times so soothingly as though he knows the hallucination is right behind him. Then he tells the child to reach out and touch the giant bee thus proving “there is no bee”.
If the kid is having a hallucination, how the shit would Caine know where the bee was? And why is a scientist the one doing this? Especially one in a bad leisure suit? Let’s just move on.
“Does anyone else see my career leading to Jaws IV: The Revenge?”.
I should mention that the kid will later escape from the hospital with two loser friends he somehow contacted from the hospital and they decide to firebomb the hive where the bees live that killed his parents. Although within seconds it’s Bee City, the kids have enough time to hide in trash cans and avoid being stung.
Interesting that Paul, our hallucinating child was stung before when he was in the car watching his parents turn into a picnic for the bees, but does not get stung in a mighty trash can! And, as Caine furiously looks for evidence (with military assistance) of the bees having been in these areas that have been attacked but keeps coming up empty, the three ingenious kids have somehow found it all on their own exactly where the swarm was-and without military assistance!
“I was told this was a film about ants!”.
On their bikes no frickin’ less! Oh yeah-the kids have also pissed off the bees enough that now they’re headed for small town Maryville, Texas where you just know everyone is gonna get it!
“Ain’t no bees buzzin’ in here! They couldn’t possibly sting the rest of our body parts that are exposed hiding in these awesome trash cans!”.
One of the more famous scenes is a truly lame attack by the bees on a train which is so unintentionally hilarious I can’t do it justice. The best parts? Gotta go with the fat conductor spitting out his half chewed apple and somehow starting the attack by swatting a bee on his hand who flew in (just one mind you).
Of course anyone should know bees will force the derailment of a train if an obese conductor spits out his apple and swats one of their brethren with his cheesy Conjunction Junction hat. Also, I think I had a more realistic-looking train set in my basement than this lame-ass model when I was 12.
What is especially stupid here (aside from all of it) is the fact that the train is leaving town because of the BEE ATTACK, so by all means let’s drive the train with the WINDOWS OPEN! Once our friends swarm on in, the train dudes die and one of them falls against a lever sending the train to its doom off the mountain. You know-one of Houston’s more famous mountains! (Since when the fuck did Houston relocate to Wyoming?).
Another attack sees a family of three wasted by the bees except the young boy (our pal Paul) who runs into his parents’ car as they get their just desserts (as do the bees on the picnic table) after foolishly spraying a can of bug spray at the first sign of the visitors. At least real bees (minus their stingers-and how is that not cruel by the way?) were used on the actors, but the initial swarm that attacks from a tree really does look like boxes of Raisin Bran shot out with a fan. There’s also a beyond-cheesy bee’s-eye view before the attack. (Did the bee also see that really bad hat this chick has on?).
Well, you mess with nature, you lose the hat and beecome dead (get it? I said beecome!). That’s better writing than The Swarm got from screenwriter Stirlling Silliphant which just sounds like a fake name although he did write Allen’s hugely successful and quite good disaster flicks The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. I can only assume he wrote The Swarm on Mad Dog and weed.
Absolutely no scene can be worse than the aged Olivia de Havilland’s reaction to seeing the aftermath of schoolchildren being attacked by the killer bees. I have no idea what she was doing, but it has become rather infamous as one of the more pitiful scenes in movie history only because her acting is so over-the-top wretched it’s creepy.
Was she crying? Screaming? Belching? Having an accident? Thinking of Fred MacMurray in the nude? (That’s my guess). I can’t tell you, but I’d like you to see it for yourselves. It’s around the 3:12 mark of this clip from You Tube. Here she is about to do whatever the hell it was she did. Channeling her inner-Michael Caine perhaps?
There’s also one of those classic “oh, the irony!” moments when we see bees going to town on a lollipop in a dead kid’s hand. Another of many schlocky moments in this truly stupid film. By the way, plenty of kids die from the bee attack usually a no-no in films. My friends and I were also in a bee attack when I was about 8 0r 9 years old (ironically around the time this came out) so this scene did weird me out. It was yellow jackets that got us and the fuckers stung me around 12 times. That was not a good day, but we did piss them off by accident. I didn’t get a lollipop though!
One of the hallmarks of disaster and creatures on the loose films is padding. Since you can’t just constantly show footage of the critters (usually because you don’t want the audience to see how bad the effects really are), what do you do to kill time? Well, you usually set up idiotic characters nobody in their right mind would give two shits about and add plenty of forced dialogue to bore everyone to tears.
And there’s always the sickening love subplot. In The Swarm we get perhaps the single-worst love story ever with a geriatric love triangle involving MacMurray, deHavilland and Ben Johnson. Not only is it disturbing and rather creepy (sorry smelly old people-it’s just gross watching you in love), but it leads absolutely nowhere. Thankfully, all three of them are offed in the train crash probably at the request of their agents. More of consideration is no nude scenes from any of the elderly actors.
Sadly, Henry Fonda joins the film as a wheelchair-bound immunologist Caine is old pals with. The pressure is on to find an antidote to save victims of the bee stings (for some bizarre reason it takes 4 stings to perish which is convenient for the stars who only get stung 1-3 times).
Henry Fonda’s reaction to realizing that he is actually in The Swarm.
But Fonda is losing the race against time (and the bees are now heading for Houston perhaps to catch an Astros game), so he secretly tries the antidote on himself and injects the venom to quote AC/DC (yeah, that’s one of their song titles). So selfless, this wonderful doctor! Things look promising at first, but Mr. Fonda finds a way out of the film by dying from sort of heart attack. When Caine finds him dead it’s in time for some serious overacting once again!
Other silly moments include TV cameramen filming on top of a van OUTSIDE as the bees attack and gee, wouldn’t you know…they die! And of course as the town gets attacked, people randomly jump through glass windows because that’s what you do when you’re stung by a shitload of bees. (Actually, that’s not what I did-I screamed alot until someone heard me).
This eventually leads to more inane dialogue between Caine (always chewing sunflower seeds from his pocket like a douchebag) and Widmark as the General states they should’ve just blasted the bees in the beginning and none of this would’ve happened (Caine’s character has of course been touting the environmental angle stating that killing the bees will harm us because of all the good they do for the ecology which actually somewhat makes sense but not to the hard-nosed General!). 216 people died in Maryville and 33 were stung thanks to the dumb-ass kids by the way-oh, the carnage!
Eventually Caine agrees to a plan of dropping poison pellets on the bees but it fails. What a stunner. I could go on, but let’s bee real (ha ha) who cares? I mean, do you care about the bees somehow being inside a nuclear power plant and blowing it up killing 36,000 (I guess that includes the suburbs or that’s a whole lot of employees). The scene is so asinine. And how or why did the bees get in there? And are their stingers suddenly nuclear? Nice $2.50 effects for the blow-up scene too.
This is enough for The President to finally tell Caine and his sunflower seeds it’s time to let Widmark and his military buddies go to town on the bees with all they’ve got. (Well, I guess it was time seeing as Caine’s pacifist ways only killed 40,000 or so people-glad The President was on top of things by the way). Of course, Caine goes along for the ride to Houston (why is he still part of this?) with Widmark and his cronies to Houston for the showdown.
“Does this thing have Pong on it?”.
We see what are supposed to be top-notch computers but look more like Lite Brites from the 70’s in the building the hole up in (remember Lite Brites? No? Well, here’s one that looks more advanced than what is in The Swarm. By the way the ones I made as a child were terrible).
Now tell me if the “high-tech” computers the military used in The Swarm were any better than a Lite Brite! I’d say it’s a draw.
After deciding to zap the bees with some sort of concoction that fails everyone realizes that somehow these bees are now Superbees and have become immune to all pesticides. Why? Who knows? Not the viewer that’s for damn sure. No explanation is offered. Naturally, the next decision is to have boobs in cheap-ass white jump suits (again) flame-throwing Houston. Yep-burning the city to the ground to kill some bees. Where did they come up with this as a solution?
At least they were kind enough to evacuate people and blare air-raid sirens. There’s such an amazing amount of stupidity during this sequence it’s staggering. You only see about 10 of these idiots (I guess that was enough to cover fucking Houston!) and they’re supposed to be burning down one of the biggest cities in the U.S.!
And we get an ambulance driving by for no reason (wasn’t there an evacuation?) and of course bees attack it and it crashes through a window and explodes (and some bad stock footage is used as well). Should I mention that it’s nighttime, but the crash takes place in broad daylight and then it’s night again? I should! One of the flamethrower dolts loses his signal on his radio because…there’s interference from the bees! Of course there is! Makes perfect sense.
There’s more bullshit with everyone basically getting killed by the bees in the high-rise building they were in (except Caine somehow runs through with nary a sting). Most of them die in ridiculous ways including the General who has now become a pal with Caine-they even ate sunflower seeds together in what was meant to be a touching moment I guess.
It’s a Disco Inferno! Burn bees, burn!
Also, we get some nonsense about the sounds from the air-raid siren sounding like the bees mating call and that’s what we are to infer drove them into a sexual frenzy and start attacking or something. I don’t know how else to explain it. Once the building is under attack we do get to see more people acting like idiots and setting themselves on fire or allowing themselves to get stung a few hundred times.
In the end, Caine’s grand idea is to let loose oil from Air Force ships in the Gulf Of Mexico and set the bees on fire after luring them there with those sexy sounds of the 70’s for the bees (perhaps an 8-track of the Soft Rock sounds of Dr. Hook, Bread or Firefall did it). Let’s note that Caine who was so conscious of the environmental benefits of the bees yet he now decides the best way is to IGNITE TONS OF OIL SLICKS IN THE OCEAN! Are you kidding me? That’s mighty eco-friendly of you jackass! Well, it does the trick if only because the damn film had to end at some point.
I’ve wasted too much of your time and mine on this crapfest. Let’s get to the point-The Swarm really, really sucks. Does it provide a few laughs? Yeah, but it’s also just bad and boring (and I can’t imagine sitting through the longer version on DVD).
Despite the huge budget and all the stars (others who humiliate themselves for a paycheck include Richard Chamberlain, Slim Pickens, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke, Lee Grant, Bradford Dillman and Katherine Ross among others) it’s not even good enough to be a bee-movie (get it? B-movie? No? Well, if you read this far, it’s your fault). How did an Oscar nomination happen for Best Costume Design happen? Must’ve been those jumpsuits!
1. Nobody swarmed to go see The Swarm as it only grossed $10 million-bad even for 1978.
2. Also, Caine thought that that the little yellow spots on his clothes from the real bees was honey and began eating it until he was told it was actually bee poop. How very appropriate.
3. Caine also claimed this was the worst film he’s ever done and won’t talk about it much. Um, Mikey-you were in Jaws IV: The Revenge! Much worse my friend!
The Swarm (1978) ranking- 4 beagles out of 4 for awfulness
Q: Should you see it?
A: Buzz far the hell away from this one!