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The Swarm

No Award
1978

‘…it’s the soapy elements which truly chill the senses…’

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?

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    • It was standard practice in the early 80’s to expand the original cut for tv screenings, with up to an hour added to allow for more adverts. So this is the extended cut that came after the theatrical original. If you’re curious to see it, don’t bother, it’s awful!

      • Wasn’t planning to. Was jus curious, that’s all. I know about the longer TV cuts. A, few years back, Warner Archive finally released the extended TV cut of Superman:The Movie. Being the Superman geek that I am, I got my hands on a copy, and while it’s nice to see the extra footage back in, there’s clearly a reason why Donner and Baird decided to cut it out of the movie. There’s supposed to be longer TV cuts of both Superman II and III. Some fans still have their taped-from-TV VHS copies of those special TV airings. Would be nice for Warner Archive to work on those too. But, like you say, not all TV cuts are worth going through.

  1. Movies in the ’70s and VHS’ers in the ’80s were like hard rock albums in the ’70s. The covers always did it for me. And the movie never lived up to the artwork. Went to so many movie and bought so many albums based on the artwork.

  2. There’s a funny little chart under the comments with things/people in tellow circles and underneath you can click on them. SO I did them all and now the bits underneath have gone red. I don’t understand this game, did I win?

  3. But if it has Caine in it, doesn’t it HAVE to be good? I thought movies were judged by their star power, not if it was actually good or not?

    Or am I confused about how movies work? I tried to send this comment in smoke signals, but the rain washed them away, sorry.

    • Oh dear, schoolboy error. Michael Caine, late seventies, The Swarm, The Island, The Hand, good is not the phrase that springs to mind…

  4. “Egged on by those who should know better”…don’t you just hate people like that? 🤔🤔 Just the other day I got asked by this guy to write a post about death metal music. I’ve written it too…jeezz the nerve of some people! 😂😂
    Seriously though, I guess this is one of those films that for me is this kind of guilty pleasure. I have it on dvd, but admittedly I’ve seen it years ago. I guess it’s time for a rewatch and also join the ranks of fools😂😂 I did enjoy this review a lot: it was worth the wait!😀

  5. The talk in these all-star disaster epics really was awful. This should have been better, but as I remember it the effects were bad too. They’d do a CGI swarm today, but CGI actually does things like clouds of flies and locusts really poorly so I hope nobody does a remake.

  6. I think your review is funnier than the movie, made me laugh anyway, I’ll give the movie a nope though, luckily I missed it when it was new. Did you see someone took your picture and stuck it on the cover of a horror novel BTW? 🤣🤣🤣

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