Bug (1975, DVD)

Starring Bradford Dillman, Joanna Miles, Richard Gilliland, Jamie Smith-Jackson, Alan Fudge

Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Distributed by Paramount Home Video

Bug, the last film credited to impresario William Castle (he served as writer and producer only, handing over the directorial reins to Jeannot Szwarc), could easily be overlooked and dismissed as just another silly nature-run-amok film. But that would be a serious disservice to the film and an even more serious loss for horror fans. Bug is anything but typical of its subgenre.

The film opens by introducing us to Jim and Carrie Parmiter (Bradford Dillman and Joanna Miles), a seemingly happy, normal couple who live in a small town out in the California desert. But trouble starts right away. A massive earthquake hits the area and opens up a large section of the Tacker family’s farmland. Some very unusual looking cockroaches come crawling out of the fissure in the earth, and it isn’t long before we see just how unusual they are: These bugs are able to set things on fire. The body count (both animal and human) starts rising, and Gerald (Richard Gilliland), Norma Tacker’s boy friend, turns to Jim for help. As luck would have it, Jim is a scientist who teaches at one of the local schools (and happens to sweat more than just about anybody seen on screen), and soon he’s hard at work trying to figure out what makes these particular bugs tick. At first, the biggest mystery is how they get from one place to another so quickly since they are unable to fly, but once Jim starts putting the pieces together, all hell breaks loose. Disaster follows disaster, and then Bug switches gears completely. At a few points I was wondering why no authority type figures (the military, agricultural agencies, other scientists, etc.) were arriving on the scene. Luckily for us, this film isn’t about that kind of reaction to the bug infestation. Bug avoids the usual overblown macho scenario, and I couldn’t be more appreciative. There is to be no “us versus them.” Instead, the focus becomes Jim’s descent into madness and the part the bugs play in it. It is one man’s story of revenge and obsession that ultimately affects us all.

Opting to shoot Bug as a straightforward, take itself seriously horror film instead of a slightly goofy or cheesy “bug flick” pays off in spades for the filmmakers. Anyone who thinks of William Castle strictly in terms of his gimmicky films like The Tingler and 13 Ghosts will be shocked by how deep and thought-provoking Bug is. It stands alongside Shanks and Macabre as yet another example of Castle’s genius – and willingness to challenge his audience without flinching. There’s nothing in Bug that’s even slightly cutesy or funny (except for a bit of unintentionally melodramatic acting). It’s to the studio heads’ shame that Castle wasn’t taken more seriously during his lifetime.

The film contains no music – just weird electronic sounds that represent the bugs and are only heard when they are onscreen. As a result, there are times when the tension is almost unbearable. The FX and pyrotechnic teams deserve a special mention – some of the fire scenes are pretty crazy even by today’s standards. Typical of its time, a few of the effects in Bug are amateurish and obvious, but I’ll take that over excessive CGI any day. Szwarc provides some very nice angles and viewpoints throughout. The man obviously knows a lot about tone and mood as well, not surprising considering his previous experience working with Rod Serling on TV’s Night Gallery. Bug is about as grim a film as you can find.

Dillman and Miles were ubiquitous in the ‘70s; between the two of them, they appeared on just about every TV drama of the day. Even so, their performances are adequate at best; however, Dillman’s transformation from a slightly scattered nutty professor to a completely deranged bug-breeding pimp is a sight to see. As a bit of ‘70s trivia, Jamie Smith-Jackson, who plays Norma, first achieved fame in the made-for-TV movie Go Ask Alice, one of this writer’s personal favorites from the era.

As for the DVD itself, it is total bare bones. There are subtitles (which comes in handy when Dillman occasionally mumbles his lines), but there’s not even a trailer much less any interviews, featurettes, or commentaries, which is a disappointment because Bug is worthy of much better treatment. I would have loved to hear from anyone involved about working with the roaches, but regardless of Paramount’s lack of love for the film, the creeps and heebie-jeebies it provides stand up to just about anything else I’ve seen in this segment of the genre. The bugs themselves are beyond scary. Bug is the stuff of nightmares indeed, but isn’t that why we all watch horror movies in the first place?

Special Features
Sadly, there are none

3 1/2 out of 5

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Debi Moore

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