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The Bees (1978)

In the late 1970s, a minor tabloid kerfuffle warned of a supposedly impending invasion of the United States by South American 'killer bees' - which led to a blip of films of the subject. The highest-profile item was Irwin Allen's much-ridiculed The Swarm and the TV movie cash-in was The Savage Bees, but this runaway effort from Mexican writer-director Alfredo Zacarias (Demonoid: Messenger of Death) is the shoddiest and arguably most entertaining of the cycle. In rural Brazil, a starving peasant (Jose Chavez Trowe) and his young son raid the hives of apiculturist Dr Miller (Claudio Brook), stupidly unloosing the 'devil bees' rather finding the honey stash. Miller has barely time to be exasperated and have a cute breakfast with his younger wife Sandra (Angel Tompkins) before an angry mob shows up with torches - the thief carrying his dead son as if it were someone else's fault. Miller's research station is burned down, releasing even more bees which kill the well-intentioned scientist. His widow remains surprisingly perky and instantly gets over her bereavement - not to mention a nasty incident whereby two men try to mug her in an elevator and get stung to death by bees she is transporting in a stylish case. She even thinks it's cute and amusing when she overhears her weirdly-accented Uncle Siggy (John Carradine) and the smarmy hero John Norman (John Saxon), two more entomologists, talking about how much they lech after her ('that's adding incest to injury').

Unethical businessmen who hope to realise fortunes from royal jelly-derived cosmetics try to have bees smuggled into the country, but the insects get loose from a special belt worn by the smuggler. Prefiguring Flying Virus, this happens in mid-air - though we get dull stock footage of an emergency landing in Mexco City rather than a full-on Bees on a Plane sequence. The villains revert to Plan B (which we are told of but don't see dramatised) by bringing in frozen bee sperm. This naturally goes wrong and leads to clouds of bees attacking various people, including a cowboy-hatted fellow (Whitey Hughes) who has paid two obnoxious children to hunt down some bees because he finds the stings usually ease his rheumatic pains. The Bees is a rare exploitation film to feature cameos from two American presidents - the real Gerald Ford in news footage of a parade that gets attacked (though Ford is left alone) and a Jimmy Carter impersonator (Walter Hanna) who phones Norman to congratulate him on saving the country. A streak of Corman-style humour, underlined by a frequently inappropriate happy music score, emerges in a fairly amusing turn whereby the bees are combatted by a synthesised pheromone (a word no one in the film can pronounce properly) which makes drones try to mate with each other rather rather than fertilise the queen. 'Are you telling me that this chemical of yours will turn all the male bees into homosexuals?' asks an official, '… that reminds me of certain neighbourhoods I know in Los Angeles.' To save his career, Undersecretary of Agriculture Brennan (George Bellinger), who is in with the villains, has hit-men kill Uncle Siggy, but the attack on the laboratory releases an even more dangerous, smarter strain of bee which won't be fooled by the 'pherone'. A brief scene in which Norman and Sandra find a dead hit-man with a stung face runs twice, once in its proper place and once out of context earlier in the film. Enter the Dragon veteran Saxon, who has a nice line in black tracksuits with racing stripes, gets a martial arts fight with one of the assassins, but ends up shoving a case of bees in the goon's face. Naturally, the clever bees then get into the wicked politician's office and sting him to death - and black swarms are superimposed on Washington D.C. and other major cities in an underbudgeted but apocalyptic species war.

Driven to desperation, Norman tries to decode the language of the bees ('are you mad,' shouts an English-accented functionary, 'do you mean you want us to conduct peace negotiations with bugs?'). In an absurd scene perhaps influenced by Bug, Norman and Sandra make contact with the superintelligent species as they buzz and swarm in his bedroom and laboratory. The far-out finish puts a 1978 eco-spin on The Day the Earth Stood Still as an impassioned Norman addresses a UN committee and delivers the bees' ultimatum, 'either we share this world with them on their terms or we vanish as a species.' The scepticism of the delegates prompts a show of force by the new species, who swarm into the conference room but don't attack as a declaration that they 'intend to dominate the Earth equally with mankind'. A few real bees are seen in close-up, but this overrelies on extras (some apparently lifted from Reptilicus) flailing their arms in what look like storms of wood chips and flecks and specks superimposed over much stock footage. Carradine, doing an undetermined accent, has one of his meater late-career roles, and Saxon is straight-faced even as the script goes beyond the average bee picture silliness into areas of mind-expanding lunacy.

First published in this form here.

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