Insects in Cinema

Having been fixated all his life with both movies and insects, Mimic director Guillermo Del Toro recently offered his expert opinion on the subject of bugs, especially huge bugs, in the movies.

"There are only two giant-insect movies that are really good," he said, modestly excepting Mimic, of course. "Them! is one, and the other is The Deadly Mantis. And even Deadly Mantis isn't a good movie, but the mantis itself is excellent."

From a strict entomological purist's point of view, he's probably right. Those two films are probably the best to feature giant insects--creatures with six legs, an exoskeleton, and a body articulated into head, thorax and abdomen. But if we broaden the phylum to Arthropoda in general, we can take in such eight-legged crawlies as spiders, scorpions, lobsters and so forth. Innumerable examples of all of the above, some good, some wonderfully awful, are available on video. Here are a few:

Them!--(Warner Home Video, 1954) Del Toro's first pick is inarguable. Despite dated special effects, this Gordon Douglas-directed shocker about giant ants from Alamogordo taking over the L.A. sewers is one of the true classics of '50s cinema, full of suspense, atmospheric imagery and sharp character turns. The climax, with James Whitmore struggling to rescue two boys trapped by the ants, can still raise goosebumps, as can the scene of the hysterical little girl (Sandy Descher) from which the title is derived. Leonard Nimoy, Fess Parker and William Schallert can be spotted in small roles. In the unlikely event that you've never seen this one, rent it tonight. And if you ever find yourself shooting at a giant ant, remember the sage counsel of scientist Edmund Gwenn: "Get the antennae! It's helpless without them!"

Tarantula--(MCA/Universal Home Video, 1955) Leo G. Carroll is a well-meaning scientist who creates, among horrors, a giant arachnid that menaces a small Arizona town until bomber pilot Clint Eastwood flies in--from Luke AFB?--and napalms the crap out of it. Not on the level of Them!, this programmer from director Jack Arnold (later, sadly, of numerous Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch episodes) is quite respectable, and the special effects are still convincing.

The Deadly Mantis--(MCA/Universal Home Video, 1957) Del Toro's second favorite is questionable. He's right that the scenes of the mantis climbing up the Washington Monument or wreaking havoc in the Holland Tunnel are pretty well-done, but they're also few and far between, and everything else in the film is so utterly dull that a strong fast-forwarding thumb is required to watch it. Alix Talton is rather fetching as the heroine, however.

The Black Scorpion--(Warner Home Video, 1957) This one is dull between the bug scenes, too, but the animations by the great Willis O'Brien of giant scorpions running amok south of the border--the extra-big title beast attacks Mexico City--are so good that the film definitely rates a look.

Mysterious Island--(Columbia Home Video, 1961) Among other monstrosities from animator Ray Harryhausen, the castaways on this Jules Verne-inspired island encounter giant bees. In one marvelously whimsical scene, the male and female ingenues are sealed into a giant honeycomb.

The Hellstrom Chronicle--(Cinema V, 1971) This David L. Wolper production won the Oscar for best documentary--beating The Sorrow and the Pity!--even though narrator Dr. Nils Hellstrom, who spends the film insisting that humanity will be overrun one day soon by the insects, is actually a fictional character played by actor Lawrence Pressman (later of Doogie Howser, M.D.). As in the more recent MicroCosmos, the insects are only made "giant" via special close-up photography, much of which is spectacular, especially a dazzling scene of butterflies on the wing and a horrifying march of African driver ants toward the end.

Food of the Gods--(AIP, 1976) This '70s laugh riot from director Bert I. Gordon, who specialized in cinematic gigantism (check out his initials), focuses on Marjoe Gortner battling giant mutant rats. But there are also giant wasps in it, and early on, Ida Lupino is attacked in her kitchen by giant tomato worms.

Empire of the Ants--(AIP, 1977) B.I.G. strikes again. This time he had giant mutant ants menacing a pre-Dynasty Joan Collins, then hypnotizing her and some of her castmates and forcing them to work in a sugar mill. I'm not putting you on. Them! it certainly ain't, but it's good for yuks.

Naked Lunch--(Fox Home Video, 1991) David Cronenberg directed this surreal drama, sort of based on what Allen Ginsberg called the "endless novel that will drive everybody mad" by the late, lamented William Seward Burroughs. It features typewriters that turn into giant bugs, and other hallucinatory bug visions. There's another giant-bug movie for the art-house crowd--an obscure 1990 Romanian version of Kafka's Metamorphosis--but I've been unable to locate it on video.

This brief run-down suggests that the bug world may hold terrible animosity toward the humans. Del Toro tried to get at the root of the conflict in his title sequence for Mimic, in which insect specimens skewered on pins appear under the credits. Del Toro, who claims to own such a collection himself, says, "I wanted to show that this is why they hate us so much.

 
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