“It’s long been Hollywood’s contention that the mere threat of having an insect crawl upon your face is enough to make a grown man beg for mercy and tell every secret he ever knew.” – Lawrence Pressman, The Hellstrom Chronicle

Whether you’re terrified of insects or merely tolerant of them, there’s no denying that movies have the power to make crawlies creepy. In the 1950s atomic era, a whole bumper crop of giant insects menaced drive-in screens in B-pictures like The Black Scorpion, The Deadly Mantis, Them!, The Fly, Tarantula, Monster From Green Hell, Attack of the Giant Leeches, and The Strange World of Planet X. Heck, director Bert I. Gordon never met a bug he couldn’t turn into a major menace with films like Earth vs. the Spider and Beginning of the End. This style was later parodied to perfection as Mant!, the movie-within-a-movie in Joe Dante’s 1993 cult classic Matinee. Eventually, the big bug trend died down until the 1970s, when a groundswell of films sought to wring fear from the audience’s innate phobias of all things with more than two legs.

This renewed interest in the insect attack sub-sub-genre may have been born out of the animal attack films that came in droves after Steven Spielberg’s Jaws’ record-breaking box office success. While some were blatant sea-based rip-offs like Orca, Piranha, or The Last Shark, others applied the same formula to land-based mammals such as Grizzly or The Pack. It didn’t take long for filmmakers to figure out they could do the same thing with ants, bees, spiders, and anything else that didn’t require an agent or percentage of first-dollar gross.

The Hellstrom Chronicle - 1

Another possible catalyst could have been the 1971 pseudo-documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle, directed by The Wild Bunch screenwriter Walon Green from a script by The Omen writer David Seltzer. Utilizing real (and really impressive) macrophotography documentary footage of various insect orders -from locusts to termites- combined with pure bulls**t sci-fi theories about eventual insect dominance of the Earth espoused by fake titular doctor Nils Hellstrom (played by Doogie Howser, M.D. actor Lawrence Pressman), the movie not only hornswoggled the public but somehow won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Only a year earlier, the similarly scammy ancient aliens doc Chariots of the Gods also earned an Oscar nod and got the public into a frenzy over UFOs. The Hellstrom Chronicle may have created a similar “buzz” over insects, even though Green later admitted that the film was “almost yellow-journally but good. We were giving the audience an elbow to the ribs every third line.”

Whatever the impetus was, insect attack films were a bonafide ’70s phenom, and Kino Lorber has just reissued three great TV movie specimens of the subgenre on Blu-ray, namely Ants! (a.k.a. It happened at Lakewood Manor), Terror Out of the Sky and Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo. All three hail from Alan Landsburg Productions and were either written or co-written by the late Guerdon Trueblood, perhaps best known as the screenwriter of Jaws 3-D and director of highly underrated crime movie The Candy Snatchers. They’re full of retro fun and great casts making a meal out of their B-movie trappings in typical made-for-TV style.



The clear standout of the three new Kino releases is, without question, Ants! Also known by the more unassuming name It Happened at Lakewood Manor, it made its first bow on ABC December 2, 1977 and stars Steve McQueen clone Robert Foxworth as a foreman working at the aging, decrepit Lakewood Hotel. When a few of his construction worker buddies are killed by an especially aggressive colony of ants, he tries to sound the alarm bells. All the while, the elderly matron of the hotel (old Hollywood legend Myrna Loy) is in negotiations with a sleazy real estate douche (Gerald Gordon) who wants to turn the charming old hotel into a casino. He also repeatedly and uncomfortably comes on to his secretary, played by Suzanne Somers. Remind you of any ex-Presidents?

Eventually, everyone realizes that the mysterious deaths around the hotel aren’t caused by some kind of virus but by a nest of ants that are both highly venomous and impervious to insecticide, a perfect combo. An increasingly crazy rescue attempt is made to safely get the remaining main cast out of the hotel, led by a fire chief played by the late, great Brian Dennehy (First Blood, F/X). This leads to some truly jaw-dropping stunts and set pieces that make for one of the most rousing conclusions to a TV terror tale ever.

What’s even better is the tongue-in-cheek nature of the proceedings, especially a scene where a cornered Foxworth, in a fit of rage, throws a gasoline can at a stairwell full of the buggers and screams, “ANTS!” Yes, you get the title (including the exclamation point) in there real good. The final scene where Foxworth, Gordon, and Lynda Day George attempt one last desperate gambit to survive has to be seen to be believed, especially if you are a marijuana enthusiast. While some of the cheap effects don’t quite work, (especially in regards to how the ant hordes are represented), the MVP of the movie is undoubtedly editor George Folsey, Jr. of Animal House and The Blues Brothers fame, who milks every second of excitement from a legitimately deranged story.

More ant-based horror from this era: Phase IV (1974) and Empire of the Ants (1977)

Terror Out of the Sky

Terror Out of the Sky

Our second TV movie, titled Terror Out of the Sky (a.k.a. The Revenge of the Savage Bees), premiered on CBS December 26, 1978. It is a sequel to the superior The Savage Bees, which first hit NBC airwaves in late 1976 and starred Ben Johnson and Michael Parks as a Louisiana sheriff and doctor (respectively) trying to keep a swarm of Africanized bees from descending on Mardi Gras festivities. That film, directed by Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller, featured a loony final set piece in which an entomologist named Jeannie Devereaux (Gretchen Corbett) has to drive a VW Bug (get it?) covered in killer bees through the streets of New Orleans and safely into the Superdome before her oxygen runs out.

It’s no surprise that in the opening of the follow-up, Terror Out of the Sky, Jeannie (this time played by Tovah Feldshuh, long before she was Deanna on The Walking Dead) is still having PTSD nightmares of her Superdome experience. As James Cameron’s Aliens taught us, the only way to truly shake off your traumatic demons is through hella intense immersion therapy. Enter a new swarm of irritable, sting-happy killer bees that have infiltrated the National Bee Center and may have been sent to some unsuspecting rural honey harvesters. It’s up to Jeannie, her lovelorn boss David (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), and her pilot boyfriend -who looks a lot like Grizzly Adams- Nick (Dan Haggerty) to hunt down the buzzy devils before they collide with a little league baseball game.

The finale ups the ante on The Savage Bees by trapping Jeannie inside a stalled school bus covered in killer bees, although this time, she’s not alone. A troop of sweaty, shirtless Boy Scouts is along for the ride as Jeannie attempts to keep them alive long enough for David to execute an even more insane rescue. While this TV flick is an entertaining time burner, the image of a beautiful grown woman trapped in a bus with a bunch of hormonal tween boys is about as chuckle-inducing as it sounds, even with dependable kid actor Ike Eisenmann (Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell, the Witch Mountain movies) in tow. Be forewarned that the ending is also a bit of a downer.

One interesting motivator behind the preponderance of killer bee movies around this time appears to have been actual real-life events. Killer bees emerged out of Brazil in the mid-1950s from a hybridization program, took their first human victims in 1966, and began deadly air assaults in Rio de Janeiro in 1977. Fortunately, most of the hype surrounding the hysteria in the United States over Africanized bees was just lurid tabloid/movie fodder, although it did inspire the bee sketches on SNL, and was later made light of in Shane Black’s 1977-set The Nice Guys.

Other bee-based horror from this era: Killer Bees (1974), The Bees (1978) and The Swarm (1978).

Tarantulas- The Deadly Cargo

Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo

Easily the most problematic of Kino’s three insect attack reissues is Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo. First broadcast on CBS on December 28, 1977, it’s a fairly straightforward story of a flight out of Ecuador carrying three things: coffee beans, undocumented immigrants, and venomous spiders. Two of those things don’t make it off the plane when it crash lands in a small California farming town, where the eight-legged killers go on a very slow, quiet rampage.

The biggest handicap of this entry is it starts by focusing on the two shady pilots of said aircraft, Howard Hesseman of WKRP in Cincinnati fame and horror MVP Tom Atkins (The Fog, Halloween III, Night of the Creeps). These two are so well-cast as both buddies and shameless scoundrels that when they are unceremoniously dispatched 20-minutes into the film, you feel royally ripped off. Why Ants! screenwriter Guerdon Trueblood couldn’t simply keep these two amoral pilot characters alive to help clean up the mess they made, is anyone’s guess. Instead, we’re introduced to four new protagonists, none of whom ever seem to truly take charge of the situation.

These new heroes are a pilot named Cindy (Deborah Winters), her fiancé Joe (the very Paul Rudd-esque Charles Frank), the fire chief Bert (Claude Akins), and a town sawbones named Doc Hodgins (Pat Hingle). All of them try to come to grips with the spider pandemic felling countless citizens before you can yodel “epidemic,” all the while impeded by the de rigueur straw man mayor whose only priority is his orange crop. Throw in a cute kid fridged as a motivator, and you’ve got the Jaws formula served up lukewarm, with a climax involving immobile spiders being shoveled into buckets. Odder still, is an ending that seemingly celebrates the evils of capitalism rather than condemning it, the way Spielberg’s film did two years prior.

Other spider-based horror from this era: The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977).

Although a few other bugs managed to crawl their way onto the screen post-Jaws/Hellstrom, including cockroaches (1975’s Bug) and worms (1976’s Squirm), 1978 proved to be a bit of a last gasp as the industry collectively refocused on Star Wars rip-offs. The late ’80s and early ’90s would see a bit of a revival with entries like The Fly, The Nest, Slugs, Arachnophobia, Ticks, and Mimic, but the potent mix of naivete and paranoia in the 1970s proved to be the ideal breeding ground for insects attack flicks. Long may they reign.

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