Oct 25, 2018
On Blu-ray: The Swarm (1978), The Cyclops (1956), The Queen of Outer Space (1958)--Oh My!
I love films that entertain in ways their creators haven't planned. It’s such a happy accident when a story approached with sober intent becomes a little off-kilter, and as a result much more interesting. These kinds of flicks are my bread and butter, because they serve as a constant reminder not to take anything too seriously. That’s a philosophy one should consume daily. A trio of films like these recently made their Blu-ray debut through Warner Archive and I had a blast watching them.
The Swarm (1978)
This bee-blasted epic is the flick that killed the enormously profitable disaster movie industry. Helmed by the granddaddy of the genre, Irwin Allen, it was such a flop that the director refused to ever discuss the film again. Disaster films aren’t known for their sober dramatics, so the fact that this take on large scale chaos is known for being one of the goofiest of the genre is something special.
The Swarm seems to star just about everyone with name recognition who held a SAG card at the time, as was typical for the genre. The massive cast is led by Michael Caine as a scientific expert who is always arching an eyebrow and shouting because he can’t believe how dumb everyone is about bees. He falls for a military doctor played by Katharine Ross, who usually has someone making her life miserable in her films, so she might as well deal with bees. In the midst of the “always constipated” phase of his career, Henry Fonda plays another scientist, though he does demonstrate uncharacteristic warmth for that period. Other names in this astonishing gathering of stars include Richard Chamberlin, Richard Widmark, Ben Johnson, Patty Duke, Jose Ferrer, Lee Grant, Bradford Dillman, Slim Pickens, Fred MacMurray, and Olivia de Havilland.
As an elegant schoolteacher sought after by Johnson and MacMurray, de Havilland perfectly captures the spirit of the film in a notorious moment where she observes the destruction caused by the bees outside the schoolhouse window and slowly turns to utter “ohhhhh” in a deep, guttural moan. It’s how you feel watching the movie and it also encapsulates the tone of the frenzied performances, gigantic bee hallucinations, and sweaty PTSD induced by these furry guys.
For a while it’s a blast. Then the action slows down a bit too much in the second half. However, nothing can erase the chic delight of Olivia’s old Hollywood-style anguish.
Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer and the behind-the-scenes documentary Inside the Swarm.
The Cyclops (1956)
This is the kind of movie where a scientist muses, “Now I know I wasn’t imagining things when I thought I saw that giant lizard yesterday” in the same tone he might wonder where he put his car keys. Astonishing things happen, but no one seems to find them all that strange. The titular mono-sighted monster of this kooky sci-fi romp doesn’t make an appearance until minute 45 of its 66 minute running time (though you do get a dramatic blast of “Cyclops vision” before that happens). Before then, in addition to that oversized reptile, you get a glimpse of an enormous bird chomping on a rat, and the feeling that something has gone drastically awry.
Before these astonishing creatures make their appearance, a group of four embarks on an expedition. Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) assembles three men to assist in her search for her missing test pilot fiancé (Duncan Parkin). They are a varied bunch: a scientist (James Craig), a pilot, and a mining expert (Lon Chaney, Jr.) who’s an opportunist with his own extracurricular activities planned for this journey. Those giant creatures, which reached mega-size due to that popular 1950s culprit radiation, change their plans.
Legendary, and that overused term is apt here, voice artist Paul Frees supplies the animal sounds, which are amazing because they fit the beasts, and yet sound precisely human at the same time. You can almost picture him at the microphone, having a wonderful time.
Once the one-eyed wonder appears, he doesn’t speak, instead alternating between groaning and shouting. His abrupt entrance at the mouth of a cave, where he pops up and bellows “RAWR!” is bizarre in the most delightful way. He is in full “get off my lawn” mode, no curiosity, no fear, just pure rage that these people exist. Eventually he adds lust to his repertoire when he spots Susan, though you’ve got to wonder what he plans to do with such a tiny lady. Is this her boyfriend on radiation?
Despite his having no verbal ability, Susan insists on asking a barrage of questions, all of which are answered by a moan and more longing looks. The exchange gives the audience the opportunity to examine the creature’s melted face, crowded, dirty teeth and unblinking marble of an eyeball. The moment ends abruptly, because a snake plops onto the monster’s neck and he slowly begins to wind the confused, but remarkably calm animal around his neck in an attempt to make it look like they are fighting. That limp battle pretty much sums up the spirit of this odd flick.
The Queen of Outer Space (1958)
When I first heard that Zsa Zsa Gabor was the star of this sci-fi flick I thought she was a perfect choice for Queen of Outer Space. It turns out that title goes to Laurie Mitchell, Gabor's actually a scientist, but the kind of scientist who wears evening gowns and a full face of make-up while doing experiments, so she remained on brand. She’s also part of the resistance on her home planet Venus. The entire population is women, because men have been banned, and you know our girl Zsa Zsa wouldn’t stand for that.
Queen of Outer Space begins on Earth, with a group of men embarking on a journey to visit a space station. They have to change course though when the station is destroyed before their eyes. When they land on Venus, the crew is pleased to find themselves surrounded by women in miniskirts and heels. Obviously this script was written by a man, because that would never be a popular costume on a planet with only ladies.
The men find it hilarious that ladies are in control and do everything short of smacking bottoms to show they have no respect for their captors. While most of the women see this as all the more reason to keep men away from Venus, Zsa Zsa and her friends find the men irresistible. The battle of the sexes begins, with warriors in heels pursuing their masculine invaders down starkly, but tastefully decorated corridors, while Gabor and company get as much snoggling time as they can with their new boyfriends.
It’s all very much of its time; some of the men’s lines make you want to throw a rock at the screen, but the high camp feel of it makes up for a lot. It’s also a great looking film. The set design is gloriously artificial and, as impractical as they are, the ladies’ costumes are beautiful as well. There are even some innovations that predict the future, like a flat screen TV with a remote that the queen uses to make video calls.
The disc includes commentary by the Queen of Outer Space herself, Laurie Mitchell. She has a pleasant chat with film historian Tom Weaver. While she doesn’t have any dirt to dish about life on the set, her memories are interesting to hear.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.