Monday, May 2, 2016

Glutton for Punishment: The Bees

by JB
Just about halfway through this risible film, I started imitating a bee! ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

We are all interested in bad movies, inexcusable cinema, worse-than-mediocre pictures, and sweet, sweet honey, for that is the stuff we use to fill the empty spaces in our mouths. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, and the buzzing—that is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of some of the worst movies ever made. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable soul who survived the screening and multiple stings. I am that miserable soul. The absurdly low budgets, the thousands of real bees, the ridiculous insect acting—my friend, we cannot keep these a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. Remember, my friends: terrible movies such as these will affect you in the future!

I have of late—and wherefore I know not—been sampling the Blu-ray restorations being peddled by the folks at Vinegar Syndrome, whose motto seems to be, “If it was filmed between 1971 and 1983, it’s worth an expensive 2K or 4K restoration.” Their latest disc is The Bees, a little-known film from 1978 directed by Alfredo Zacarias. The Bees may be just the evidence we need to prove that Vinegar Syndrome is WRONG for wanting to preserve some of these films.
The Plot In Brief: Crazed, African killer bees have infiltrated normal hives in South America. Dr. Miller (Claudio Brook) and his sultry wife Sandra (Angel Tompkins) begin to study this phenomenon. Miller believes he can domesticate the killer bees; his death-by-multiple-bee-stings ten minutes into the picture suggests that his theory needs a little work.

Enter “bee experts” John Norman (John Saxon) and Dr. Sigmund Hummel (John Carradine) who also wish to tame the killer bees. Norman hatches a scheme to confuse drone bees with pheromones; Hummel is convinced that he can learn to talk to the bees. Both of them oppose the importation of killer bees into the United States, which is apparently something several large American corporations want to do, because even though the bees KILL PEOPLE, they are super-good at making honey so all the businessmen see are dollar signs. Will Norman and Hummel manage to tame the killer bees? Will “Big Honey” rule Wall Street? Will Norman fall in love with sad widow Sandra? Will hundreds of innocent people die? Is there any way that “a corrupt Secretary of Agriculture” can be an effective movie villain?
TRIVIA NOTE: Warner Brothers actually paid Roger Corman’s New World Pictures to postpone the release of The Bees until after WB’s big-budget, high profile film The Swarm was released. They needn’t have bothered.

One of the many reasons The Bees fails as entertainment is its crazy narrative structure. (Other reasons would be its glacial pace, its dubious scientific underpinnings, the amateurish performances by all but its leads, and its special effects that amount to little more than throwing confetti into a fan and tricking the actors into entering a set filled with real bees.) After a promising and exciting opening set in South America—during which 1) two local villagers try to steal pounds and pounds of honey but are stung to death, 2) we learn an American scientist is “trying to turn devil bees into nice bees,” and 3) the remaining villagers set out to avenge their friends’ deaths by trying to beat everyone to death and set fire to everything in sight—the film shifts gears like a ten-ton Mac truck. The film re-sets to the United States and foists a second act upon its unsuspecting audience that has to be seen to “bee” believed. (See what I did there?) This middle section of the film is interminable, like a documentary showing Dr. Norman conduct a series of apiary-pseudoscience seminars in real time.
Meanwhile, the film actually manages to swing the sympathies of the audience onto the side of its tiny, titular protagonists by cross cutting to scenes that are unintentionally hilarious. Unless director Zacarias suddenly decided he wanted the film to “say something profound” about the inevitability of death, I cannot be the only viewer who feels that the way the bee attacks are conceived, shot, edited, and placed in the film can only be viewed as comedy. Zacarias will start with something neutral—two men and a woman in an elevator, for example—then suddenly turn things grim. The men brutally attack the woman and rob her, only to discover that her make-up case is filled with killer bees! The bees attack the men, stinging them to death. Actually, only one of them is stung to death—the other runs out into the street and is hit by a speeding car. I am not making this up. “Hooray!” we hear ourselves shouting. “Those bees foiled a violent crime! We love the bees! Thank God that woman had bees! More bees!”

This basic scene is then repeated ad nauseum. (MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE BEES FOLLOW.) A corrupt US Senator? He’s stung to death and falls out a window! What does this teenage girl find in her lunch? Hint: sting, sting, sting! An innocent man jogging on the beach—what’s that in his shoe? The entire assembled crowd watching the Tournament of Roses parade—you get the idea. With each subsequent bee attack, we laugh louder and cheer harder.

Did former President Gerald Ford ever find out that he has a cameo in The Bees? Because guess what? Former President Gerald Ford is in The Motherf’ing Bees.
Based on the interview with Bees director Alfredo Zacarias that Vinegar Syndrome has included on the disc, he seems like a very nice gentleman who set out to make a very ambitious film. Zacarias says he is proud to have made a film in which another species realizes that Earth is being endangered by human activity, so that species sets out to obliterate mankind. NOTE: Zacarias is only describing the last four minutes of his film. Nothing earlier in the film even alludes to this level of probing social commentary—it’s just a low-budget horror film that’s so badly done we end up rooting for the killers.

The transfer here is flawless, one of the best transfers of a low-budget 1970s movie I have ever seen. Even that selling point has its drawbacks though. The pristine transfer makes it even easier to spot stock footage, of which The Bees has plenty. At one point a scared group of innocent citizens in San Diego flee a bee attack, screaming all the way—except it’s actually stock footage from the 1950s of townspeople fleeing a small English village with bees optically added to the shot. Time-traveling, intercontinental, limey-loathing killer bees!

My friend, you have now read this column, based on my own sworn testimony. Can you prove that this film doesn’t exist? Perhaps on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it, but he might have been Alfredo Zacarias, director of The Bees. He will seem like a nice man, but that does not make him a good filmmaker! Many scientists believe that bad movies are being filmed at this very moment—and that we can actually talk to BEES! We once laughed at fire, the wheel, pheromones, gravity, the electric light, and the rejuvenating power of royal jelly. So much laughter! And now some of us laugh at very bad movies. God help us in the bee-filled future.


  1. Unfortunately, bees have a bad rap. Fortunately, bees are actually pretty cool. As someone who kept bees for a couple of years, I'm always astounded and distressed how the nefarious wasps whip up trouble and the blame goes to the "bees". F those wasps. and F this stupid movie which I'll never see.

    1. Wasps are a boon to gardens. They eat aphids and other pests so that you don't have to use chemicals.

    2. Thanks for your comment and yes I agree. Even ants, which I don't like very much, are good for aerating the soil. Everything has it's role to play. I'm huge wild mushroom loving person, and though most are living symbiotically with trees, or breaking down dead waste, some are parasitic, but I love them the same.

      I didn't know what wasps ate until one summer, we found a dead bear, partially consumed by maggots, in the woods. Before we saw the bear, we kept getting stung by wasps. It was a mystery because we couldn't find a nest, but then we found the decomposing bear (again getting stung)....everything was feasting on that corpse..ughhhhh...that image will stick with me.

      It just bugs me that people always refer to getting stung by a "bee" after getting too close to a garbage bin, when in fact, they've probably rarely encountered a actual bee in their life (unless they've been loitering in front of a beehive). My f'ing the wasp's was meant to be lighthearted...but seriously I don't like wasps! AND am deathly afraid of bees, which made taking up beekeeping one of the great achievements of my life. (rant, sorry)