Have you ever picked up a movie and thought “Oh my yes, this movie is speaking directly to my soul!”? You know what I'm talkin' bout, Willis: those rare times when reading the plot synopsis can be likened to reading a singles ad and feeling an instant rapport with the person placing the ad- “What? You enjoy reading and talking? So do I! You also dislike ‘emotional baggage’ and feel one should save the drama for one’s mama? Oh, verily, AngelEyez227, are we not two hearts beating but as one?” I tell you now, it was all fireworks, the laughter of babies, and little birds flying around my head when I read the plot summary for Bug (1975) and learned that it’s about big cockroaches. Big cockroaches that can start fires. I read that and immediately suggested that Bug and I meet up for a grande latte half-caff frappucappamochachaiachino somewhere- and this without asking for a photo first! That's how smitten I was right off the bat. Sadly, my relationship with Bug ended just as most relationships do, whether they begin Desperately Seeking Susan-style or not: with a sad shake of the head and an “Oh. You’re not quite as cool as I thought you were. Well, at least we had some fun, though, eh?”
Like all the best movies, Bug begins with an earthquake. Sure, sleepy little Riverside, California loses their church in the quake, but that’s the least of their problems: all that shaking has created a massive fissure in the earth at the Tacker Farm, and out of this fissure- from the very depths of Hell! (I assume)- come…THE BUGS.
The bugs waste no time in getting down to business. Within moments of their reaching the surface, Farmer Tacker’s truck explodes. The camera slowly pans from the licking flames to a big antenna-wiggling cockroach and from this the audience can only assume that the bug has started the fire, right? Right!
Before long, fires are popping up everywhere as the bugs set everything ablaze- more trucks go up, a cat is set on fire, and in a moment of wicked total, like, symbolism, we see a burning bush. For you religious types, that’s got some meaning- but I think on a deeper level it can also be read as a warning to you skanky types out there to behave, you dig? See? Bug is a movie by the people, for the people!
At this point in the proceedings of virtually every animals run amok movie, it’s time to meet our resident scientist expert, and Bug is no exception- in this case, Professor Jim Parminter (Bradford Dillman). Professor Parminter is a bit of an “unorthodox” teacher- to demonstrate how frogs act when they’re in heat, for example, he hops around the room; to prove his theory that at one time or another man could communicate with all the animals on the planet, he becomes…The Squirrel Whisperer.
Parminter heads to the Tacker Farm to study the bugs and quickly deduces a few facts- the roaches start the fires by rubbing their chitinous rear antennae together. The bugs are nigh indestructible by conventional means, but they’re slowly dying on their own due to the difference in pressure between their underground habitat and the Earth’s surface. According to my science calculator, that’s fascinating!
The professor continues to study the bugs and wait for them to die; sometime during the course of his travels between the University and home, however, some of those rascally roaches hitched a ride in his car’s tailpipe. One bug makes his way into the house and sets Mrs Parminter’s hair on fire- on her birthday, even. How tragic.
While watching poor Mrs Parminter’s hair smoke and burst into flame, I couldn’t help but notice that the kitchen she was frantically running around looked awfully familiar. I eventually placed it, and a little internet research confirmed my suspicions- the set used for the Parminter kitchen is the same set used for the kitchen on The Brady Bunch- the latter having been cancelled about a year before Bug went into production. According to my trivia calculator, that’s fascinating!
With the death of his wife at the…err, flame-shooting rear ends of the roaches, the battle between Parminter and the bugs becomes personal. The grieving biologist goes a little bonkers and holes up in the empty Tacker farmhouse. He stops shaving, stops bathing, and develops a bit of a God complex as he mates a firebug with a regular household cockroach. His experiment pays off and a new super-aggro breed of firebug is born- stronger, faster, better! These six million dollar superroaches not only start fires, but also they have somehow developed a taste for human flesh!
It’s not only the late-night nibbling that makes Parminter think that he’s gone too far in his quest for…whatever he’s questing for, however. It soon becomes apparent that these bugs are operating with a hive mentality- a super smart hive mentality.
When one considers the ‘greatest’ moments in film history, there are some sequences that are universally recognized: Marilyn Monroe’s dress flying up in The Seven Year Itch, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out amongst the waves in From Here to Eternity, the cropduster chasing Cary Grant through the fields in North by Northwest. From Rosebud to “You talkin’ to me?” to “She’s my daughter! (slap) My sister! (slap) My daughter! (slap)” to “We’ll always have Paris”, these moments have made audiences laugh, cry, or simply stare in wide-eyed wonder at the screen. Can we not, then, add this pivotal moment from Bug to the greatest moments roster?
Has there ever been anything in the history of ever that’s better than big fat cockroaches scrambling over a wall and spelling out WE LIVE? I mean, it took Victor Hugo, like, 1500 pages of Les Miserables to say the same thing- those supercockroaches spelled it out in five seconds. Does it not speak to us all? Don’t we ALL live, man and super flesh-eating fire-starting cockroach alike? Yes, we do. We…do.
Anyway, Parminter realizes far too late that he’s become a victim of his own hubris. Yet another generation of cockroaches is born- and this time, they can fly. Yes, there are now flying carnivorous, fire-shooting cockroaches capable of spelling out pithy sayings! Sadly, Bug wraps up quickly and rather unbelievably (I know…even LESS believable than the fact that there are flying, carnivorous, fire-shooting cockroaches) after the advent of this new breed: there’s another earthquake and Parminter and the superbugs get sucked down into the giant crack in the earth- the crack seals, problem solved.
“Parminter and the Superbugs” sounds like something from The World of Sid and Marty Krofft, doesn’t it?
Bug is really unlike any other animals run amok movie I’ve seen. Sure, it starts out with a plague of roaches setting the town afire, but it takes a drastic turn in the last half as Parminter gets his experimentation on. Bradford Dillman does a decent job as the professor- he makes the best of some boring material, anyway. Yeah, as awesome as I’ve made Bug sound, the truth of the matter is that it slows down far too much after Mrs Parminter (Joanna Miles) dies and it only picks up again in the final moments. The lack of thrills is all the more depressing when you consider that Bug was co-written and produced by shockmeister William Castle, the man who brought audiences such gimmick-filled funfests as The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill.
Don’t get me wrong- I found this straying from the typical animals run amok formula refreshing. In the end, however, I wanted more- I wanted the flying, carnivorous, fire-shooting cockroaches to wreak some havoc, dammit! Just when things were really starting to heat up (har), the movie was over. Someone make Bug 2 now! Let them LIVE!