Saturday, September 14, 2013

PHASE IV (1974), BUG (1975)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *good*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*


Two bugged-out films this time...

PHASE IV, the only film directed by celebrated title-sequence designer Saul Bass, has gained some fans over the years despite its initial box-office failure.  However, though its visual look is distinctive, the story lacks tension and the characters are tedious.

A colony of ants in the Arizona desert has become aggressive and unpredictable, constructing large sand-towers.  The government begins to evacuate the local residents.  Two scientists, young Jim and his older mentor Dr. Hubbs, are assigned to a small lab-facility in the desert from which to study the ants, but the government keeps them on a short leash and Hubbs is constantly afraid that the experiment will be terminated too quickly. 

For no clear reason the ants attack one of the local farms, where young Kendra (Lynne Frederick) lives with her grandparents.  Thanks to the chaos caused by the ants, the grandparents are killed in a wreck and the farm is set afire.  Kendra is taken in by the two scientists.  Jim treats her with friendliness while Hubbs largely ignores her, concerned more with seeking out the vulnerabilities of the colony.

The ants slowly begin to attack the laboratory, gnawing through vital wires so as to deprive the humans of their radio, and in one instance biting Hubbs on the hand.  The ant's poison doesn't kill him but his swollen hand transforms him into Captain Ahab, out to destroy the ants by any means possible.  In contrast, once Jim realizes their dire circumstances, he gambles that the ants have acquired increased intelligence and tries to communicate with them.  Kendra for her part is semi-traumatized by the deaths of her only relatives, but she conceives the idea that the ants are after her alone, and she leaves the facility to surrender to them. Inevitably both men are forced to meet the menace of the ants head-on.  Vengeful Hubbs meets the fate he desired for the ants, while Jim learns that the ants have somehow transformed Kendra in a vessel for their own consciousness.  The film ends with the implication that the ants will arrange a "marriage" between Jim and Kendra, the better to produce a new race of humans that the insects can better interact with.

The scenes with the ants and their mysterious towers look great-- the humans, not so much.  All three of them are merely sketches, not full-fledged characters, so their reactions in the face of this threat to humanity are, well, nearly inhuman.  The character of Kendra is further weakened by a zombielike performance by Lynne Frederick.

There's some cosmological interest in the scientists' discussion of ant-biology, but this is another of many films that emphasizes flashy visuals to the detriment of character development.  Not every type of film needs the latter.  But PHASE IV did.

In contrast, 1975's BUG, directed by Jeannot Szwarc, shows a more felicitious balance between cosmological peril and human reaction to it.  I have not read the source novel, Thomas Page's HEPHAESTUS PLAGUE.  But since Page was one of the writers adapting the book-- along with famed promoter-director William Castle, his last project before his death-- I suspect that the greater complexity of the human dimension derives from Page's novel.

Though the story is framed as one of the many "nature strikes back" films popular at the time, the deeper subtext is that old Frankensteinian refrain: "he meddled in things man should leave alone." 
The film begins with Professor Parmiter dropping his wife Carrie off at church. The fact that he does not attend doesn't arouse comment, though it does fit in with general portraits of scientists as irreligious, and therefore susceptible to temptation.

The preacher gives Carrie and the rest of the congregation a rambling hellfire speech, and one of the parishioners remarks that it's a speech everyone has heard before.  It's a super-conservative speech, in which the preacher shows his aversion to hippies by calling attention to "the hairy heads of our children," and conflates the blessings of God with the Protestant work ethic:

"Every time one of you folks gets a check for the fruits of your labors, you get a kiss from God!"

But this time the hellfire speech seems to call up resentments from below, as an earthquake sets the whole church rocking.  The tremors subside, but they release from the earth's depths an unknown species of "bug," a roach-like creature that's extraordinary strong and can spark fires by clashing its appendages together.  Shortly after some of the bugs cause the death of some locals, Parmiter finds and cages all the bugs he can find. 

Page's bugs are one of the few movie-monsters whose fake biology is reasonably well extrapolated, and Szwarc's film puts forth all the scientific data so as to make it as fascinating to the audience as to Parmiter himself.  He deduces that their ancestors were trapped far underground, causing them to mutate into creatures who fed on burnt ash.  Unfortunately for Parmiter, he doesn't capture all the firebugs.  The bugs, questing about for their normal food, cause the injury of one young woman, and a little later, the death of Parmiter's own wife.

Parmiter, unable to deal with his grief, assuages his anguish by attempting to play God.  As it happens, the bugs, unable to withstand the lesser atmospheric pressures for very long, are doomed to perish.  Parmiter, unable to bring back his wife, elects to breed a new version of bug by cross-mating a female with a normal male roach.  He names his new "child" after himself and the god Hephaestus, who is associated with the blacksmith's fire and with the underworld-- at least in his Roman identity as Vulcan the volcano-god.

As some Christian rhetoric has it, nothing good comes of making hybrid creatures, and sure enough, Parmiter's new breed not only proves hardy enough to live, it develops wings with which to fly, more pronounced fire-making abilities, and at least rudimentary intelligence.

However-- perhaps because the movie wasn't capable of attempting a large-scale battle between humanity and the bugs-- the conflict remains between Parmiter and his creations.  Sure enough, when he finally realizes the enormity of his acts, he tries to destroy the breed.  Not only do the bugs set him on fire, but the earth obediently opens in another earthquake.  "Human Torch" Parmiter plunges into a not-too-figurative hell, and his demon-spawn follow him down into the abyss-- after which the earth just as obligingly closes and consigns them all to perdition.

Bradford Dillman, often stuck in light leading-man roles during his career, acquits himself admirably as Parmiter, who begins as an extremely good-natured fellow-- he even talks to a squirrel in the critter's own language-- and who become corrupted by that old Faustian flaw: the pursuit of ilicit knowledge. Most of Jeannot Szwarc's films strike me as journeyman efforts, but BUG is a good deal better than his average work, and may be his best film overall.

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