Egged on by those who should know better, I took two nights out of my schedule to tackle the full 156 minute version of Irwin Allen’s The Swarm, and the result has stayed in my system for days. In the midst of a pandemic, there’s something reassuring about watching old disaster movies, since they came up with various ludicrous disasters that didn’t turn out to be major problems after all. In 2020, we see bees as our friends in terms of the environmental balance; in 1978, they were demonised for film like this and 1976 tv movie The Savage Bees. Whoever does PR for the bees obviously managed to re-habilitate their image successfully, but The Swarm’s mix of tv movie hysteria and slumming stars probably didn’t do the best job in terms of sticking the boot in.
Of all Allen’s ideas, The Swarm seemed the best, fusing the disaster movie with some kind of Jaws man vs nature malarkey, but ultimately, there’s a visual problem here. How do you make bees scary? By magnifying them to the size of people and using terrible back projection to suggest that they are bursting, on a huge scale, into our reality? That’s the shock tactic used here, as various characters hallucinate massive bees above their beds, or lurking behind doors. A calming voice comes from super-scientist and bee expert Brad Crane, played with little enthusiasm by Michael Caine. Crane has been staking out the bees for some time, and comes into conflict with General Slater (Richard Widmark) about how to tackle the honey-monsters coming their way.
There are some big set pieces here, notably when the bees attack a model train which tumbles down a ravine, but it’s the soapy elements which truly chill the senses. Will high-school teacher Olivia de Havilland succumb to the romantic advances of Fred McMurray? De Havilland is literally wheeled in on a crane for her opening scene, which seems a little undignified, but so is the dialogue. ‘I know people look at me and think that I’m just the man behind the aspirin counter, but inside I love you,’ says McMurray, to which she answers ‘How lucky I am!’ before they both get stung to death by bees. General Slater also constantly refers to the bees as ‘Africans’ which leads to some pretty offensive chat, although this may be making a point about racism in the military. ‘Houston on fire. Will history blame me, or the bees?,’ he muses. ‘By tomorrow there will be no more Africans…’ he concludes. Everyone from Richard Chamberlain to Henry Fonda to Katherine Ross to Jose Ferrer turn up to deliver some clonkers and then do the chicken dance in slow motion waving their arms around as the bees attack and home in on Texas.
The Swarm has been kicked around as a laughing stock since 1978, and rightly so; it really is a bad movie, which a huge death toll that’s regularly updated on-screen in a distasteful, ghoulish fashion. The lack of a single location stops the kind of tension that worked for Inferno and Poseidon, and the effects are crummy. As a comedy, it just about works, although the drama is like Peyton Place and it’s a relief when the bees put most of the old-timers here out of their misery. There’s a limit to how stupid a movie could be, and The Swarm hits new heights in underestimating the audience’s tolerance for idiocy. But then again, who is the real fool, those who make films like this, or those who, like me, make time to watch them?