Sunday, April 17, 2016

Insects in Classic Movies

A giant ant in Them!
Be they little specks or large enough to crush a man, insects have long been a big screen pest. A plague of locusts stripped the wheat fields in the climax to The Good Earth (an effect achieved by superimposing coffee grounds over oil-covered wheat). An army of soldier ants destroyed a South American plantation in 1954’s The Naked Jungle, although the crisis served to mend Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker’s shaky marriage.

That same year introduced a colony of 12-foot-high ants in Them!, the finest giant insect picture ever made. It was also the first to imply that nature was rebelling against man’s misuse of radiation. Imitations quickly followed, featuring giant grasshoppers (The Beginning of the End) and a preying mantis (The Deadly Mantis).

A publicity still from
Return of the Fly.
A single, regular-sized fly proved the culprit in 1958’s The Fly when it interrupted an experiment and merged atomic particles with an affable scientist. Nine years later, The Deadly Bees started an insect film subgenre with its lively shock scenes of swarming bees stinging nice people to death. The number of bee films increased over the next decade, amid real-life reports of killer bees flying up from South America. A popular TV-movie, The Savage Bees, was followed by The Bees, Irwin Allen’s big-budget bust The Swarm, and Terror Out of the Sky.

While bees have been portrayed as dangerous killers, filmmakers have taken a more lenient view of ants. Certainly, the destructive side of ants was displayed in The Naked Jungle, It Happened at Lakewood Manor, Empire of the Ants, and Legion of Fire: Killer Ants. But there have also been cute computer-animated ants (A Bug’s Life and Antz) and intelligent ants seeking to breed humans to create a new super race in Phase IV.

Disney's famous cricket.
In other notable insect-related features: The Devil (Peter Cook) turned Dudley Moore into a fly in one of the episodes of Bedazzled; the Academy Award-winning pseudo-documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle explored the premise that insects will inherit the Earth one day; a government device designed to kill insects raised dead humans in Don’t Open the Window and turned them into flesh-eating ghouls; the moon’s inhabitants were discovered to be the insect-like Selenites in First Men in the Moon; and a nice wholesome family turned out to be roaches in disguise in Meet The Applegates. Burgess Meredith provided the voice for a talking horsefly in Hot to Trot (1988).

The best six-legged singing insect was undoubtedly Jiminy Cricket of Pinocchio fame. Below is a representative sample of pre-2000 films with prominent roles for insects:

The Good Earth (1937)
Pinocchio (1940)
Hoppity Goes to Town (aka Mr. Bug Goes to Town) (1941)
Once Upon a Time (1944)
Them! (1954)
The Naked Jungle (1954)
The Deadly Mantis (1957)
The Cosmic Monster (aka The Strange World of Planet X) (1957)
Secrets of Life (1957)
The Beginning of the End (1957)
The Fly (1958)
The Wasp Woman (1960)
Mysterious Island (1961)
First Men in the Moon (1964)
The Deadly Bees (1967)
Bedazzled (1967)
The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)
Phase IV (1974)
Don’t Open the Window (aka Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue) (1974)
Killer Bees (1974 TV movie)
Locusts (1974 TVM)
Bug (1975)
The Savage Bees (1976 TVM)
Empire of the Ants (1977)
Damnation Alley (1977)
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
It Happened at Lakewood Manor (aka Panic at Lakewood Manor; Ants) (1977 TVM)
The Exorcist II:  The Heretic (1977)
Terror Out of the Sky (1978 TVM)
The Bees (1978)
The Swarm (1978)
The Beast Within (1982)
Creepshow (1982)
Phenomenon (aka Creepers) (1985)
The Nest (1988)
Hot to Trot (1988)
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Meet The Applegates (aka The Applegates) (1990)
Whispers (1990)
Popcorn (1991)  (the movie-within-a-movie “Mosquito”)
Naked Lunch (1991)
Matinee (1993)  (the movie-within-a-movie “Mant!”)
Skeeter (1994)
Ticks (1994)
Jumanji (1995)
Jonny Quest vs. the Cyber Insects (1995 TVM)
Angels and Insects (1996)
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Microcosmos (1996)
Joe's Apartment (1996)
Ulee’s Gold (1997)
Mimic (1997)
Starship Troopers (1997)
Legion of Fire: Killer Ants (1998 TVM)
Antz (1998)
A Bug’s Life (1998)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.


  1. Appropriately picking nits - the still is from FLY II. Sadly one of the best of these, PHASE IV, is only available with its tail lopped off. You have to go to youtube to see its final chapter - the Phase IV of the title. Saul Bass' only feature.

    1. Thannks. I fixed the caption. Agree that PHASE IV is an innovative, very different sci fi picture.

  2. So glad you included dear Dr. Phibes!! I agree that Them is the best of the lot, actually one of the top sci-fi movies of any time for pure quality, in my opinion. I'm going to keep this list and watch as many as I can find ... good one, Rick!

  3. 5 Million Years To Earth, with its locust hive - mind Martians is pretty significant.
    What a great connection question - Good Earth/Phibes/Exorcist II.

    1. True, it'd make sense to include the insect-aliens in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT since FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is on the list. And, yes, that'd be a nice connection!

  4. For me, the thing about Them! is that you really care about the players, they aren't cardboard representatives, they are real people. I still miss that first officer who got killed. Oh, and feel bad for the poor mom of the boys, and always sad that James Whitmore doesn't make it. The little girl yelling THEM! really makes it!!! Five stars!

  5. My favorite part of THEM is how the opening scenes play like a mystery. That and the acting separate it from the clones that followed.

  6. Surprisingly thorough list! I did catch a couple of things. You mention that movie-within-a-movie titled "Mosquito," but there's also a 1995 feature of that name starring Gunnar Hansen. In the 1950s, we're missing "Monster from Green Hell" which has some truly gargantuan wasps, starring Jim Davis. In Japan, Toho was largely dedicated to giant reptiles and mammals, BUT the Kamacuras is a giant mantis-type thing. According to Wikizilla, they first appeared in "Son of Godzilla" (1967) and later in "All Monsters Attack," Godzilla vs. Gigan," and "Godzilla Island." They never got a starring role. Another supporting player was the Meganulon, which appears in "Rodan" (1956).
    I was going to mention various giant spiders, but then I remembered you specified "insects." Duh! Thanks again for the fun look back!

    1. Great additions and I'm kinda bummed that I omitted MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL....

  7. Excellent Rick! Have to agree about THEM! Have you ever seen WIlliam Friedkin's 2006 film BUG? More or a psychological horror along the lines of Beckett than a horror film. Intense performances from Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon.

    1. No, John. I haven't see BUG (though you're the second friend to recommend it!).

    2. John is right ... Bug is wonderful! By the end, you'll feel like you've run a marathon!

  8. 'Them' and 'Naked Jungle' are my favs from the list. Not strictly insects but 'Arachnaphobia' is also another of my favourite bug movies
    long with so bad it's wonderful 'Wasp Woman' and 'Star Ship Troopers'.

  9. We can also add 'Evolution' with the mad waspy creature that gets inside Orlando Jones haz-mat suit.

    1. Another great addition to the ones you mentioned earlier! I did omit spiders intentionally (and, in fact, have a separate entry for them).