Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
One of the joys of Amazon Prime is that its film collection pays no heed to the Netflix model of “new! new! new!” To that end, there are thousands of films across genres and from different countries that were released ten, thirty, fifty, or more years ago, and it’s in that pile of cinema less celebrated that we go digging each week. That said, I typically go looking for films that are new to me, but sometimes a memory from my youth is enough to lead me towards a re-watch instead. For this week’s Prime Sublime, it was the memory of a woman standing and planning dinner in the Brady Bunch kitchen when suddenly her hair and entire head burst into flames…
Join me, won’t you, as we go back forty-five years for the legendary William Castle‘s final film — 1975’s Bug.
What’s it about?
Carrie (Joanna Miles) arrives at her rural community’s small church and settles in for a weekly sermon, but even as the pastor praises their god for his gentle nature an earthquake strikes. The old structure is shaken, the floor itself ripples with the earth, and several of the parishioners are injured. They don’t know it yet, but the quake has ripped open the ground nearby unleashing a previously unknown species of cockroach capable of starting fires with their butts (and hind legs but let’s not get bogged down in technical jargon). Two people are killed when their truck explodes, and when one man investigates strange noises outside he discovers one of the bugs cooking a stray cat’s head. Carrie’s husband James (Bradford Dillman) is a scientist at a nearby university, and he quickly becomes enamored by this new species.
Soon fires are reported around town, people are bitten by the burrowing bastards, and James makes a discovery — in addition to being blind and unable to reproduce, these bugs are slowly dying due to the surface pressure. As he continues his experiments, his wife attempts to make chicken mousse (??) only to have one of the bugs crawl into her hair and ignite a fire. The flames spread, killing Carrie and damaging the rug, and James’ scientific curiosity becomes muddled with grief and despair. He finds a way to keep the bugs alive. He finds a way to help them reproduce. He screams as they evolve flight and spell his name with their bodies on the wall.
What makes it sublime?
I was into horror movies from an early age and was witness to all manner of deaths, disfigurements, and devious acts as a child, but of the many images that stuck in my imagination over the years the burning woman from Bug remained the sharpest. Numerous factors were at play from the bug itself, to the sudden shift from normalcy to chaos, to the woman’s screams as her head is engulfed in flames, but there’s a very real case to be made that it stayed with me mostly because of that damn Brady Bunch kitchen. It’s the same set on the Paramount Studio lot as the show was canceled just the year prior. Even if it took me years to make the connection consciously, my brain remembered — meaning while I watched Alice make chicken dinner for the Bradys or the kids run through the kitchen in every other episode, my subconscious was watching a woman burn alive.
Happily, Bug is still a creepily dour and nightmarishly goofy watch even without that buried trauma.
Genre legend William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, 1959; Straight-Jacket, 1964) didn’t direct this final film, but he did produce and write the script (which was adapted from Thomas Page’s novel, The Hephaestus Plague). Jeannot Szwarc tackled directing duties, and while his name may be unfamiliar his filmography includes the likes of Jaws 2 (1978), Somewhere in Time (1980), Supergirl (1984), and Santa Claus: The Movie (1985). The film faces its horrors head on without camp or playfulness — Castle reportedly wanted small brushes installed on theater seat legs to brush against moviegoers, but the gimmick was denied — and instead takes a wonderfully dark and cynical view of humanity’s place in the world. That’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had with the cheap effects, but the film itself is taking it all extremely seriously.
The opening sequence shows an earth uninterested in our fantasies involving higher powers, and a second swipe at god occurs later in the film when a woman arrives to comfort James with the bible in hand only to be attacked and devoured by indifferent cockroaches. Science fares no better, though, as James’ intellectual curiosity and mad hubris only serves to make things worse. Under his experimental guidance, the bugs turn from indestructible arsonists to serial killers capable of flight and basic grammar. Real talk, bugs writing “WE LIVE” on your wall is a shitty thing to wake up to.
That journey is a bit atypical for a genre film as instead of ramping up the carnage the film plateaus and then withdraws to focus on James’ obsessive descent in the scientific method. That pull back might leave some viewers wanting more, but fans of films like the admittedly far superior Phase IV (1974) will find plenty to love here with its cynical take showing humans to be no real match for an insect species evolving beyond our understanding.
The film’s “animals attack” horror is terrifically effective, especially if the thought of bugs creepy crawling through your hair is enough to get you flinching. The discovery that the bugs crave the taste of raw meat is followed by the unsettling image of James waking up to find them crawling and nibbling on his chest. Another nearly burrows into a woman’s ear, a couple people become human kindling (complete with scary full body stunt burns), and there’s an emotional horror in seeing the lead character’s wife die so horribly. The sequence that stands out as worthy of a warning, though, is the cat beat early on as the bug tries to barbecue its head. It’s not a pleasant scene, but accounts from the time of the film’s release specify that the animal was unharmed and the scene was monitored and approved by the American Humane Association. Still, it’s unsettling.
And in conclusion…
Bug won’t be to most people’s tastes as it shifts from “nature gone wild” horror to an apocalyptic tease, all brought to life with big acting and the occasionally dodgy effects, but it’s the epitome of memorable, low budget sci-fi/horror from the 70s. And that, my friends, is the good stuff.