Friday, January 6, 2012

The Abysmal Swarm

The phrase “mistakes were made” was custom-built for use after a night of boozing: The Missus was already trashed and I was half in the bag, so the idea of popping Irwin Allen’s 1978 sci-fi ecological disaster movie onto the Netflix Streaming seemed like a good idea at the time, a pleasant dose of mega-cheese to wind down the night.
Boy, were we wrong….

Aside from vague generalities regarding the plot—killer bees (remember that boogeyman?) arrive in the US and cause all sorts of havoc for an all-star cast—all I remembered about the flick was that I sat through it twice during its initial run at Brooklyn’s King Plaza movie theater (yep, that theater’s been there since forever—listen, sonny, I remember when it was a duplex!).
Jeez, my parents must’ve been fighting a lot during that summer, because The Swarm is a bad, bad film.

Honestly, although short on logic, there is much more excitement, surprises, craftsmanship, smarts and pure entertainment in Plan Nine From Outer Space or Attack of the Crab Monsters than this flick.
The Swarm is the type of bloated H’wood nightmare than must make Roger Corman grind his teeth to nubs thinking about what he could have done with its budget.

Meanwhile, The Swarm has to absolutely have the ugliest color scheme and art direction ever. (And that the movie was nominated for an Oscar in costume design is further historical proof that at least one branch of the Academy has always been out of it.)

Actually, everything about The Swarm is awful, starting with a script that is colossally-overburdened with exposition:
People stand for sheer, excruciating minutes telling each other about the awful stuff they’ve seen.
What is this, a first draft?
Sheesh, the “Carrot Man” episode of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space TV show had a better script!

Usually I appreciate it when a film tries to be mean-spirited, but in The Swarm it just seems lazy and cheap—cynical attempts to pull at our heartstrings, but ineptly maneuvered.
Regarding the plot, so much is picked up and then put down inexplicably, the basic rules of storytelling and coherent lively filmmaking ignored so completely, that only that all-star cast chock-a-block full of Hollywood has-beens kept me from thinking that The Swarm was actually a kind of cheap Eastern European anti-film.

Because how else do you explain that all the dead bodies show no signs of bee stings? There is zero attempt to apply any makeup onto the extras playing victims. No welts, no discolorations, no swelling—
It was kind of shocking the…gross incompetence that allowed something like that to get by. It’s insulting.

The effects are pitiful, a shame on L.B. Abbott’s lustrous career (the stuff he did for weekly shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or Batman were infinitely better than the coffee grinds in the sky or Tinkertoys set on fire here), and the cinematography looks like it was shot through a turd filter.

That is, with the exception of any shots that prominently featured female lead Katherine Ross: she always looks great in this flick—her close-ups are like perfume ads—it’s like director of photography Fred Koenekamp had a HUGE crush on her! Not that I can blame him…so do I…

Film was never really Irwin Allen’s forte if you ask me—
Of his theatrically released films and TV movies, The Poseidon Adventure is the only one that I think is a genuinely good film, with moving performances and an excellent technical side. Many will point out that Allen only produced that film.

Allen really shined with TV—specifically his mid-1960s output: who still doesn’t love shows like Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or Land of the Giants? That stuff was really cool and weird, and at the time probably more popular than Star Trek!

It was the fickle taste of the public killing off his TV shows that eventually pushed Allen into imitating and jacking up the formula introduced in Airport, a flick many say is the first “disaster movie,” with the all-star cast in danger (in Airport’s case there’s a maniac with a bomb on an airliner).

The PoopSideDown Adventure (hee-hee!) was a goldmine, and Allan imitated and jacked up his own formula again with The Towering Inferno (a movie I don’t like, because unlike Poseidon, it has no socio-political relevance—I choose to interpret The Poseidon Adventure as a metaphor for the US at the end of the 1960s: everything’s upside-down and fucked-up, including “…and a child shall lead them,” and going to the bottom is the only way to get to the top, dig? Meanwhile, Inferno only exists to hurt. It’s a mean and nasty movie. McQueen’s cool, though—as always.)

It’s obvious that Allen wasn’t in tune to popular tastes after a certain point, but a film as incompetently put together as The Swarm never deserved an audience.

The always-readable This Island Rod (where I swiped the awesome frame-grab/title card below) has an impressive review/commentary/essay on The Swarm, read it HERE.

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