Out of the Woodwork: Attack of the Big Bug Movies

It’s summertime, when the livin’ is easy; when we drag out the backyard barbecue grills, air out the bathing suits, pack up the picnic baskets, turn off the blackberries and cell phones, and head for the great outdoors, for sun and fun and lots of R&R: swimming and surfing, hiking and camping, baseball and beach volleyball; hotting it up at the ocean or cooling it off in the mountains. Oh, those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, with time for friends and family and moonlight romance and—bugs! You know, those creepy-crawly thingies that come scuttling out from behind the woodwork and into your picnic lunch. Yes, classic movie fans, when the weather gets warm, our six-legged and eight-legged and even non-legged friends come out to play, and woe to the unwary vacationer who’s forgotten to cram the mosquito spray into the suitcase along with the tanning lotion. But not to worry—although ants may join the weenie roast, they’re such little guys that we can brush them away (sometimes literally) with nary a thought. As Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby remarks, when kindly sparing the life of a fly, “Why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”

Or is it?

Mankind is doomed: a frequent theme of Big Bug Movies

Beginning in the 1950s, golden-age Hollywood created a new film genre: the Big Bug Movie, a cross between science fiction, which mixed in pseudo-technical explanations to account for invasions of whatever giant insect happened to be the movie subject (ants, slugs, wasps, grasshoppers), and sheer horror. Although Hollywood had throughout the 1930s and 1940s given us horror and sci-fi flicks, those usually concerned creatures that were not real, such as giant apes or man-made monsters or tuxedo-clad vampires. (OK, raise your hands, everyone who’s met a real, honest-to-god werewolf; and we don’t mean the kind that whistles on sidewalk corners).

But bugs are different. Bugs are real. Bugs are common. Bugs are always with us (ask anyone who lives in a New York City apartment). And bugs are—not pretty. All right, maybe butterflies; we’ll grant you that. And little kids think ladybugs are cute. But what about spiders? Or a big, buzzing, blue-bottle fly? Do you really want those guys hanging around? And, truly, is there anyone who feels the slightest bit of empathy for a roach? No doubt about it—bugs are not warm and cuddly. But, we add with a sigh of relief, at least bugs are small. They may be nasty, but it’s not like dealing with a ravening horde of great, big—oh, say, brontosauruses. No, that’s not right; brontos may be big, but no one thinks they’re scary. All right, at least bugs are not like great, big, ravening hordes of—well, for instance, BIG bugs…

Size does matter: a giant ant from Them! surveys its prey

That, basically, was the concept behind the Hollywood Big Bug Movie: take a bug, make it the size of a brontosaurus, and see what fun results. And the results could be shockingly unpleasant. It’s one thing to pick a slug off a rose leaf; it’s another thing entirely when the slug picks you for breakfast. What was innovative about the Big Bug genre was how it went beyond mere horror; it brought in the Ick Factor. That’s not just the moment when viewers scream with fear. It’s when viewers squeeze their eyes shut and shriek, “Ewwww!” And what could cause an audience to do that? Obviously the sight of something…icky. And what could be ickier than Big Bugs? Bring on something that’s already cringe-inducing, like a tarantula; blow it up to three hundred times its size; let it loose in a populated area; throw in a close-up of slavering, buggy jaws; and what have you got? (All together: Ewwww!)

What a big bug does best: snack time for a slug

But there was also the Horror. In just about every Big Bug Movie, we come to the scene where a white-jacketed scientist explains the Law of the Jungle: bugs live by eating everything in sight, including each other; Big Bugs will do the same, only on a much larger scale; this means that Big Bugs are going to eat—us. That’s right, we, the poor, innocent viewers, sitting passively in the theater, are the prey. To heighten the horror, the scientist often shows a film-within-the-film, of actual bugs actually eating—allowing our already overtaxed sensibilities to imagine that being done to ourselves (Ewwww!). As one cinematic scientist explains, Big Bugs “use their mandibles to hold, rend, and tear their victims,” not a phrase to send us out into the sunshine thinking happy thoughts. The unfortunate reality is that Big Bugs are not our friends. No use protesting that, Uncle-Toby-like, you’ve never done any bug any harm and that you’ll gladly sign the anti-Raid pledge; the bug would merely pause, thoughtfully flick a six-foot long antenna, then scarf you down (and it would only pause because it was mentally calculating whether it could engulf you in one bite or two).

The title says it all: it’s quite clear what this bug film is about

Why, though, did the Big Bug genre come of age in the 1950s? One reason, of course, was the Big Bomb. After the testing and use of the atomic bomb during World War Two, America became bomb-conscious. “When man entered the atomic age,” says one movie scientist, “he opened the door into a new world”—though he probably wasn’t thinking of giant grasshoppers being part of it. The development of the A-Bomb, and then the H-Bomb, as well as nuclear testing in the New Mexico desert, made Americans acutely aware of radiation and its effects. So many of the big bugs in Big Bug Movies become big due to mutations caused by radiation exposure. Giant insects can easily be interpreted as a metaphor of post-war nuclear anxiety: This is what happens when science goes too far. Although the irradiated Big Bug is always defeated by movie’s end, we’re still left with the uneasy feeling that, as many a bug-filled film darkly hints, who knows what may still lurk Out There, in the radiation-soaked Unknown.

Roof with a view: big bugs atop big building

But another reason for Big Bugs, however, may have been the 1950s emphasis on bigness itself. As a victorious military power enjoying a post-war economic boom, America seemed obsessed with Big Things: big business, machines, cars, houses, highways, movies (this, after all, was the age of Cinemascope)—even, ah, ladies (Mamie van Doren, Alison Hayes, Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield, on an ascending scale …). So why not Big Bugs? After all, 1950s Hollywood was already giving us other big creatures, such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Giant Behemoth, The Amazing Colossal Man, and Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman. So why not bring some of those scurrying critters from out under the sink and into the imaginative landscape of cinema, where even the lowly ant can conquer the world, at least temporarily. If golden-age Hollywood was the dream factory, then Big Bugs can be seen as one of its nightmares. And an icky nightmare, at that.

Herewith is a look at some of our favorite Big Bug Movies for summer viewing:

1) Them! (1954, Warner Bros.)

Probably the first and the most serious of the Big Bug flicks, and also one of the best, highlighted by a good script, superb cinematography by Sid Hickox, and a fine performance by James Whitmore as a heroic cop. Its opening scene is famous: A tiny girl, clad in pajamas and a bathrobe, is walking slowly across the New Mexico desert, her eyes widened in a state of catatonic shock. The two policemen who find her are unable to rouse a response; nor does she react to any stimuli. Only when a scientist lifts a glass of formic acid to the child’s nose does she suddenly snap out of her trance, screaming “Them! Them!”

Out for a stroll: a shocked Sandy Descher after encountering Them!

The Them! of the title are what intrepid myrmecologist Edmund Gwenn calls “camponotus vicinus, one of the family of formicidae”—ants to the rest of us. However, these are not your ordinary, garden-variety ants. They’re over fifteen feet long and devastate anything that gets in their way, including human beings. Early in the film the police discover a camper ripped apart and a store in shambles, its dead owner’s body filled with formic acid (produced by ants). The FBI, in the strapping form of James Arness, becomes involved, as well as Gwenn and his scientist daughter, Joan Weldon. Although the first, gigantic nest in the New Mexico desert is destroyed, the investigators discover that two huge ant ‘queens’ have hatched and escaped. The danger is that the queens can start new nests and produce more big ants, which will then produce further havoc—which means, Gwenn warns ominously, “Man as the dominant species of life on earth will probably be extinct.” And, indeed, one queen manages to make her way inside the Los Angeles storm drain system, where she hatches a new brood, ready to assert itself. The film climaxes with a battle between, on one side, the L.A. Police and the U.S. Army, and, on the other—the Ants.

Science to the rescue: Gwenn and Weldon assess the situation

In its narrative structure, Them! sets the prototype for the Big Bug genre. It begins with a mystery: A shocking crime has been committed (here, the camper’s destruction and the disappearance of the child’s family). Local law enforcement, first on the scene, finds something inexplicable (the theft of massive amounts of sugar) and appeals to the higher-ups; experts, usually specialized scientists, arrive and propose a fantastic discovery (big ants) that turns out to be true; a solution is frantically sought; then the action-filled climax, in which the big guns (often literally) are brought in.

But the film also sets the themes that most other 1950s Big Bug films emulate. Most prominent is the reason why the big insects have come into being—from the effects of atomic radiation. The ants of Them!, for example, are discovered near the White Sands test site. “A fantastic mutation,” muses Gwenn, “Probably caused by lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb.” The possible total destruction of mankind heralded by the splitting of the atom is displaced onto the Big Bug menace; the coming of the ants, says Gwenn, could fulfill a Biblical prophecy: “And the beasts shall reign over the earth.” Oddly, although science is responsible for the creation of Big Bugs, it’s also looked to for the answer. Gwenn and Weldon essentially oversee efforts to combat the oversized pismires, advising the military on its plan of attack. And the military is always called in. Sooner or later, “Washington” must be informed of the danger; defeating the Big Bug is not to be left to plucky individual initiative, but requires a full-scale operation comparable to the Siege of Normandy. A dose of Flit will no longer do.

An ‘Ewwww!’ moment: Whitmore about to become lunch

Although viewers might feel uneasy at the Big Bug film’s implied submission to authority (whose representative, in the form of military/science, caused the whole messy infestation in the first place), a surprising aspect of these films is an incipient feminism, which, in hindsight, seems unusual both for the era and for the science fiction film genre (in which women mainly posed prettily, screamed loudly, and did not do much else). The lead female characters of both Them! and Tarantula are scientists, possessing brains as well as beauty (and, in the case of Tarantula’s Mara Corday, a snazzy wardrobe); the heroines of The Deadly Mantis and Beginning of the End are reporters who think getting the scoop is more important than getting romance. Equal treatment is emphasized: Weldon insists on going down into the ants’ nest with the guys because they need her expertise; the female lead in The Black Scorpion insists on joining in the mayhem since she’s a crack shot. That’s not to say that these films give us full-blown equality. Weldon may search for ants in the desert, but she doesn’t get far in her high heels and hobble skirt. 1950s fashions were just not practical for Big Bug hunting.

2) Tarantula (1956, Universal)

Big Bug movies usually start with a mystery (something horrible has happened; what is the cause?), but the beginning of Tarantula is more mystifying than most. We open in the Arizona desert landscape, through which a grossly deformed man staggers and then collapses. Is this the aftereffect of a spider bite? As it turns out, the dead man’s appearance has nothing to do with tarantula venom. The deceased was the scientific partner of Dr. Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), who, in another filmic fable of science gone wrong, has developed a serum using radioactive isotopes, which increases the nutritional power of food. His partner’s death, we later learn, was due to his being injected with the serum, giving him a freak case of acromegalia. A peek inside Deemer’s lab reveals cages containing oversize animals that have also been injected with mixture: A rat the size of a beagle, a guinea pig the size of a German shepherd—and a tarantula the size of a Labrador, only not so friendly. When a fire breaks out in Deemer’s lab, the tarantula escapes quietly into the desert. It will be the last quiet action it performs in the film.

Leo and Pet: an expanded Tarantula about to break loose from its cage

Unlike many Big Bug films, Tarantula is not about a team invasion, but instead is a solo effort. The title character rampages through the beautiful desert scenery, eating cattle, sheep, horses, and finally humans, while growing to the size of the NASA space shuttle. Yet, astonishingly, the main  human characters just keep missing a view of it. In one scene, the film’s hero (John Agar) takes Deemer’s comely new assistant (Mara Corday) out for a drive. The shot is staged so that as the car pulls out scene left, the gigantic tarantula enters a second later from scene right, obviously hunting its prey. Wouldn’t Agar at least have seen it in the rear view mirror? (This bug is hard to miss.)

However, the story’s inconsistencies don’t detract from the fun. Optical process shots of the tarantula gliding with a weirdly weightless motion over desert landscapes are quite effective, as are close-up scenes of a giant tarantula mouth opening and diving in on its chosen meal. Midway through, we get the film-within-the-film depicting the rather unnerving dietary habits of real tarantulas, amply demonstrating what Edmund Gwenn in Them! called an insect’s natural “sa-va-je-ree.” And, of course, we get the warning. “But,” Agar asks, “what if circumstances magnified [a tarantula] in size and strength, took it out of its primitive world, and turned it loose in ours?” “Then,” the local spider expert replies ominously, “expect something that’s fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked the earth.” Cut to a shot of a now really big tarantula crossing the road, getting to the other side in one stride. Humanity just might be doomed.

Why does a Tarantula cross the road? (Answer: To get its dinner)

Tarantula was directed by horror maven Jack Arnold, best known for directing The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequel, Revenge of the Creature, also from Universal. (The three-note musical theme that heralds the tarantula’s arrival sounds suspiciously like the three-note theme that accompanies the Creature’s appearances.) And these films do share a similar narrative trajectory, that of a threat to the dominant (i.e., human) order by Mother Nature Gone Wild, until an authority figure (such as the U.S. air force dropping missiles on the tarantula) restores the status quo.

Unlike the Creature features, however (or even Big Ape movies, such as King Kong), the sex element between female and monster in Big Bug films is notably missing. True, we have lovely Corday sashaying through Tarantula as Agar’s requisite romantic interest, but the arachnid’s own attraction towards her is alimentary, not amorous. Such buggy concerns, though, never discouraged Hollywood advertisers. As the posters included in this post show, Big Bugs seem to like nothing better than to chew on the nearest starlet in sight, filling their mandibles with heaps of feminine pulchritude. No doubt such images were meant to send an anticipatory thrill through the minds of fourteen-year-old males of all ages. If there’s a way to lure ‘em into the theater, the Hollywood press agent is gonna find it.

3) Beginning of the End (1957, AB-PT Pictures Corp.)

One of schlockmeister director Bert I. Gordon’s (Mr. B.I.G. to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans) do-it-yourself-special-effects extravaganzas that must be seen to be believed. A small Mid-western town has been wiped off the map—literally, the town being utterly destroyed, with no indication as to the cause. An investigative reporter (Peggy Castle) encounters scientist Peter Graves, who’s using radiation to grow giant vegetables out on his ranch, as an experiment in food production (what, again?). Unfortunately, he’s forgotten that when you have a veggie patch, you also have bugs. The couple follow a trail of devastation to a warehouse, where we first see the Jolly Green Giants—no, really, it’s giant grasshoppers, not that guy on the can of corn. On they come, grabbing Peter’s poor partner for a light snack, while Peter and Peggy rush back to inform the powers-that-be of the looming threat. “Where would I get off calling for the regular army to handle some oversize grasshoppers,” grumbles an officer.

However, the threat is real—cue the film that shows us what sorts of nasty things grasshoppers can do when they roll up their sleeves and spit on their hands, metaphorically speaking—and now the military and science must work together to find an answer (actually, it’s just a few actors plus a lot of stock army footage—Mr. B.I.G. was never big on budget). Once again, humanity is threatened by oversized rapacious insects! That’s right, it’s—the Beginning of the End! Or at least it is for Chicago, which is where the Big Bugs are headed. (Cue the Chicago jokes.) This may be the only movie where you will hear a line like: “The giant locusts have reached the Chicago south side and nearby suburbs.” So it’s gonna be a fight to the finish the Chicago way: if they bring a knife, then you bring…a big cricket…

Hoppity Goes to Town: Grasshoppers tour Chicago

As you may have guessed, the grasshoppers ate the giant veggies, and, absorbing the radiation, became giants themselves. “In this day, they blame the atom for everything,“ says a philosophical soldier, “bad health, bad crops, bad weather—now it’s grasshoppers.” Moreover, an army bigwig wants to use more radiation to destroy the enemy, by dropping an atom bomb. Isn’t that what caused big insects to develop in the first place? But wait! Our scientist has a better plan! Seems the thing to do is to discover the distress signal that will attract the big greenies, and then broadcast it from a central site, to draw the hoppers to their doom. So Pete and his friends capture a grasshopper—not easy to do when it’s about twenty-five feet long—and keep it in a big, big room, where it makes one helluva racket. The humans record the signals and then blast them over loudspeakers from a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan (honest, we’re not making this up). The hoppers, hearing the noise, come a-rushin’ from the south side and nearby suburbs, like maddened shoppers responding to the K-Mart Blue-Light Special, and drown in the lake. What a mess! And no mention of who’s gonna clean it up. But at least Humanity, and Chicago, are saved—until, that is, the next Mr. B.I.G. opus comes along…

Is this the way to Chicago? Hopper meets humans

The behind-the-scenes making of BOTE was itself infected by a real-life horror. Grasshoppers under stress will turn cannibalistic, and what can be more stressful than movie-making? By the end of filming, Mr. B.I.G.’s 200-plus supply of hoppers had dwindled down to a mere dozen or so—victims of insectile anthropophagy. (EWWWW!) On a more enterprising note, we wonder if, as an example of life imitating art, this film might have been the inspiration for those real-life bug-repellent machines—you know, those doo-hickeys which claim to play a high-pitched sound that will drive bugs away from your house and out into the great world (or at least as far as Chicago). We’ve no idea if that’s the case, but we thought we might mention it.

“You can’t drop an atom bomb on Chicago!” Here’s the BOTE trailer:

4) The Monster That Challenged the World (1957, United Artists)

A movie that’s very strong in the Ick Department, and therefore one of our favorites. It’s about water mollusks—a fancy name for slugs. One of the things about bugs that makes them less than endearing to us is that they’re squishy. If you don’t believe us, just step on one and then try wiping off your shoe (we definitely recommend wearing shoes for any stepping-on action). And slugs—soft, round, fat—are about the squishiest bugs there are. Now take a slug and stretch it out to, say, twenty feet long. That’s a lot of squish to deal with. Now take a lot of slugs and stretch them out the same way. Have you stretched them? Folks, there are times when only the strongest language will do, and this is one of those times—Yuck!

Nice Day for a Boat Ride: a slug greets its potential meal

A startling opening credit sequence—a large white light rises from the ocean and heads straight toward the camera, to explode into the movie title—brings us to Southern California’s salt-filled Salton Sea, where a voice-over informs us that “top-secret atomic experiments are being carried out.” Time to round up the usual suspects, especially when people start dying in horrible ways—first sailors patrolling the Sea, then a young couple on the beach. Bodies are found sucked dry of…well, we won’t go into it, but we’ll just say it’s extremely unpleasant. “Sometimes sea water does strange things to human flesh,” the area scientist (Hans Conried) laconically remarks.

However, the spit-and-polish Navy commander (Tim Holt) suspects that radiation is doing these strange things. Soon we find out how strange. While a scuba-diving expedition searches the Sea, up pops a giant slug, mandibles agape, looking for lunch. (No one would ever accuse a Big Bug of shyness.) Then we get the F-W-T-F, showing us slugs as they dine (you don’t know the meaning of “gusto” until you’ve watched a slug eat). “The larger it is, the larger its appetite,” says the laconic scientist, adding that “the species could threaten the entire world,” just to clear up any doubts. Now the navy and the scientists, as well as “Washington,” must race against time to destroy what slugs remain, before they crawl into the main water supply. And then there’s that Big Bug Egg, recovered by the scuba expedition, about to hatch in the lab, in time to trap a pretty young secretary (Audrey Dalton) and her small daughter. Never get between a Big Bug and its dinner.

Hey, it’s a living: Holt versus Slug

TMTCTW highlights for us a fascinating aspect of Big Bug films: the casting of well-known actors past their prime. Actors like James Arness in Them!, John Agar in Tarantula, and Peter Graves in BOTE were old hands at B-horror: Arness was the malevolent title vegetable in Howard Hawks’ sci-fi classic, The Thing; and both Agar and Graves performed in many other sci-fi and horror cheapies (The Brain from Planet Arous, Killers From Space, The Mole People, It Conquered the World—what nostalgia those titles contain…). But Edmund Gwenn, as we all know, was Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street; what’s Kris Kringle doing with these big ants? And wasn’t Leo G. Carroll in several Hitchcock films? Similarly, TMTCTW’s Tim Holt, who starred in many B-Westerns, also starred in two acknowledged classics: The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston), in which he co-starred with the likes of Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, Humphrey Bogart, and Walter Huston. Seems a bit of a come-down to share screen space with slugs (but if bugs must eat, then so must actors). As for Hans Conried, we all know he played the sadistic piano teacher Dr. Terwilliker in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, a film that stands in a class by itself. No doubt, any other film would seem a comedown after that. On the other hand, perhaps only Dr. T would know just how to deal with those Big Bugs…

The Naked Lunch: Barbara Darrow and Friend

Other Big Bug recommendations from the golden-age Hollywood era:

The Deadly Mantis (1957, Universal): In case the title isn’t clear, this is the one about the giant praying mantis. The climax is a stand-off between Mantis and Man in, of all places, the Lincoln Tunnel. If you thought the mess in Lake Michigan was bad…

The Black Scorpion (1957, Amex Productions): We don’t know if a scorpion qualifies as a bug, but it sure is icky. Unlike other Big Bug films, which either use mechanical puppets (Them!, The Monster That Challenged the World) or process shots (Tarantula, Beginning of the End) to convey Big-Bugness, TBS animates its bug with superb stop-motion photography by the great Willis O’Brien, the master behind King Kong.

The Fly (1958, 20th-Century Fox) Not an ‘Invasion of the Big Bugs’ flick, this is about the scientist who, while working on a molecular transporter machine, switches his head with that of a fly accidentally transported with him. One of the great shock moments in cinema comes when his wife sees the scientist’s altered state for the first time.

Monster From Green Hell (1958, DCA ) A cheapo production about giant wasps in Africa produced by, what else, radiation.

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959, AIP) Roger Corman’s opus about giant underwater leeches that attack members of a small Southern community. Lots of icky special effects. That’s meant as a recommendation.

BONUS CLIP: “Where are the bodies?” Here’s the trailer from The Deadly Mantis. Note how the Mantis is a bug of very few words:

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