In recent years, bees have been cause for a media buzz, the discussion centered on the rapid rate at which honeybees have been dying off. The uncertain, quick deaths have caused a panic about the future state of pollination. But, it wasn’t too long ago that the media frenzy around bees was of an entirely different angle. In the early 1970s, one of the most hyped media-perpetuated panics centered on the African honeybee, known to most as the infamous “killer bee.” Despite not actually being more dangerous than the average bee, the stories of the African bee’s tendency to be more aggressive when disturbed quickly grew and grew and, not before too long, the killer bee took on a life of its own.
By 1978, Hollywood caught on to the hysteria and did what they do best: they turned it into a movie. In fact, two films set off that year focusing on the issue: Warner Bros.’ THE SWARM and New World Pictures’ THE BEES. Ensuring they’d be first to see release, Warner Bros. paid Roger Corman’s New World Pictures a purported large sum of money to delay production. The decision turned out not to work in Warner’s favor, as THE SWARM was an abject failure upon release.
The second of the two films, THE BEES, creeped out later in the year and despite not being as flashy or big a film (or perhaps because of that), it remains an extremely earnest and enjoyable work today.
THE BEES was the first horror film by the Mexican writer/director Alfredo Zacharías, following a hefty run of Westerns and Comedies produced primarily for the Spanish-speaking world. It was also the first time the director would work in English, although his transition is quite smooth despite what some critics may say. The film opens in South America at the research site of an American scientist, Dr. Miller (Claudio Brook), who is working to understand and solve the potential killer bee crisis. When a father and son break into his quarantined zone one night and let loose a swarm of bees that kills the young boy, the scientist’s presence among the town’s natives grows sour. A rebellion against Dr. Miller and his men breaks out and, among the chaos, Dr. Miller is killed by a swarm of bees.
Following her husband’s death, Sandra Miller (Angel Tompkins) relocates to California and joins forces with a worldly, handsome scientist named John Norman (John Saxon) and her uncle, a German scientist named Dr. Sigmund Hummel (John Carradine). Despite their best efforts at containing the spread, a group of greedy businessmen hatch a plan to smuggle the hybridized African bees from South America in order to turn a profit. Of course, their plans go awry and THE BEES are introduced into the American population, where they quickly spread and grow increasingly violent.
Zacharías’s film borrows perfectly from the kinds of creature features and disaster films that dominated the two proceeding decades’ genre output. Taking as its subject matter the real-to-life ecological concern, THE BEES preys on genuine anxiety in order to weave a fantastical tale and comes out packing a decent message – albeit a bit ham-fisted. Produced in the late 70s, THE BEES could be criticized for being somewhat too much of a throwback but Zacharías’s astute awareness keeps the film from feeling outdated or dull. Rather, THE BEES is a terrific and campy jaunt, and one that makes perfect sense in Corman’s filmography; and, given the director’s inexperience within the genre, one can imagine that the producer had a good deal of say as to what would and would not work.
As far as the script is concerned, THE BEES is about as convoluted as it gets. It’s a bit silly but, because it never takes itself that seriously, the sillier the film gets, the more fun it becomes. It is certainly helped by the casting. John Saxon is surprisingly sincere in the lead role, and his charming attitude and stoic good looks gives his character the perfect semblance of plausibility and charm to drive the film home. Playing against Saxon, Angel Tompkins is strong enough to keep the film from feeling stale, but the two actors also don’t have the best chemistry. In the film’s least plausible role — although perhaps its finest hour — John Carradine completely hams it up as the German scientist Dr. Hummel. He lays on one of the thickest and most exaggerated accents in cinema history, but it only adds to overall entertainment value of the film. At this point in time, Carradine was suffering from crippling arthritis and, as a result, was struggling to find work. Zacharías took a chance casting him and that chance paid off — it’s hard to imagine the film without him. You can see evidence of Carradine’s physical ailment on screen but the veteran character actor never lets it come in the way of his performance. So while he may chew every bit of scenery that he came in contact with, he was still a consummate professional and a damn fine actor.
Stylistically speaking, THE BEES — much like Zacharías’s following effort DEMONOID — is a well-crafted picture. Shot by León Sánchez, the film has a nice visual style that is neither too flashy nor too stripped down. The special effects work is also quite tasteful, with really only the shots of mounting swarms overhead looking really dated (but even those have their charm). Zacharías’s does use a bit of stock footage to supplement for budgetary constraints but they are well utilized and add to the overall appeal.
THE BEES is late-era relic of the creature-feature, disaster movie craze that swept American genre cinema for the better part of two decades. It’s an extremely fun romp and one that has been given new life thanks to a loving representation on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome. If nothing else, THE BEES has just about one of the finest and absurd conclusions, one that more than justifies a viewing just to be experienced. While some will certainly rush to claim it, THE BEES isn’t even classifiable under that ‘so bad its good’ mantra, but rather is a sincere and respectable effort by Zacharías and Corman. If you are already an avid supporter of Vinegar Syndrome, this release will sure to please, but for those who haven’t quite dove into the boutique label,THE BEES makes a fine jumping off point. Bottom line, join THE BEES or get stung.
This article was written by Joe Yanick for Shock Till You Drop
Make sure you check out more of his work and don't forget to check out the BEES!