Killer insect movies -- A review of some of the best movie mutant spiders, killer bees, and more

Killer insect movies

They’re out there — lurking in the shadows, hiding in the corners, waiting to get you. What are they? Why, those horror-movie staples, the creepy crawlies. Usually (but not always) weird insects, they come in all sizes and leg-counts, work solo and in groups, are invariably disgusting and lethal and have been terrifying audiences since the pre-Raid era. This week the latest entry in the genre, Arachnophobia, scuttles into movie houses. If you don’t want to battle long lines at the theaters, here are a few other movies starring Icky Things That Go Bump in the Night.

Them! (Warner, 1954)
Giant mutant ants are running wild in the desert, and only state trooper James Whitmore, FBI guy James Arness, and charming mad scientist Edmund Gwenn can stop them. The movie’s then-state-of-the-art mechanical beasties aren’t entirely convincing, but this archetypal ’50s monsters-on-the-loose flick can still tingle your carapace, thanks to taut direction, an intelligent script, a believable cast, and a nail-bitingly effective climax in the sewers of Los Angeles. And don’t blink or you’ll miss a bit part by the young Leonard Nimoy. A

The Naked Jungle (Paramount, 1954)
Repressed plantation owner Charlton Heston does heroic battle with both his hormones (stimulated by mail-order bride Eleanor Parker) and a massive horde of South American army ants threatening to eat him out of house and home — literally. Based on the famous Carl Stephenson short story Leninnen Versus the Ants (once upon a time, must reading in high school English classes), this is pretty negligible as drama, but the ant special effects — credit goes to producer George Pal — are first-rate. The picture does for picnics what Psycho did for showers. B+

Bug (Paramount, 1975)
Director Jeannot Szwarc, who later graduated (if that’s the word) to Jaws 2, struts his exploitation stuff here in a ridiculous tale about mysterious fire-starting insects who are mated with cockroaches by twitchy researcher Bradford Dillman. Many strange events ensue — the bugs learn to spell out words with their bodies, people get barbecued and devoured — but none of these marvels is believable. In all, too much scenery is chewed by too many vaguely familiar character actors, including Patty McCormack (the evil little girl from The Bad Seed), before humanity is saved from extinction. C

The Swarm (Warner, 1978)
Billions and billions of killer bees (you knew we’d get to them sooner or later, didn’t you?) immigrate illegally from Mexico and threaten the inhabitants of downtown Houston. Fortunately, hardest-working-man-in-show-biz Michael Caine is on hand as a scientist who lures the critters out to sea by serenading them with bee mating sounds. Splendid nonsense with an aging all-star cast (Olivia de Havilland, Fred MacMurray, Bradford Dillman again), The Swarm was directed by disaster auteur Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno). B

Creepshow (Warner, 1982)
A collaboration between writer-media conglomerate Stephen King and horror specialist George A. Romero, this episodic tribute to the old E.C. horror comics has a grotesque final segment that features bugs aplenty. Aptly titled ”They’re Going to Get You,” it’s the story of a heartless billionaire (E.G. marshall in a hilariously cranky performance) who gets his comeuppance when he’s devoured by what appears to be the entire cockroach population of the Western world (Donald Trump, please take note). It’s like a Twilight Zone episode with a larger than usual nonhuman cast, but if you’re looking for a great cockroach movie, this is it. Urban apartment dwellers may want to pass on this one. B

Brain Damage (Paramount, 1988)
A disturbed urban kid (Rick Herbst) has a monkey on his back — well, actually a prehistoric leech-like creature named Elmer who sings, philosophizes, feasts on human blood, and injects his hosts with a highly pleasurable psychedelic hormone. Symbiosis, anybody? Writer-director Frank Henenlotter’s disturbing antidrug parable has more gross-out scenes than it probably needs, but it also has the funniest and most literate dialogue ever to grace a no-budget monster movie. And, in a wickedly ironic casting stroke, Chiller Theater TV host John Zacherle is the uncredited voice of Elmer. A-