Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part IV): The Deadly Bees (1967) dir. Freddie Francis

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's THE DEADLY BEES (1967). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: Okay, sir, I hope you're ready for this: we're about to have opposing opinions! In our correspondences prior to me watching today's feature, THE DEADLY BEES (1967), you intimated to me that you believed it was a right old dog, and that in your words it "really stunk." And as I said myself, I had not heard the best about this programmer from Amicus and Freddie Francis--riding on his fourth consecutive feature for that company--namely that it was horrendously cheesy. Cheesy it most certainly is, but I'm definitely not inclined to call it horrendous. Why, you ask? Why on Satan's green earth would I receive any sense of enjoyment from a movie that tries to generate suspense from subpar superimposition work and has a story that moves at the speed of honey? Well, I guess it all comes down to--as does everything else--a simple matter of taste. And once I had a taste of the peculiar nectar that THE DEADLY BEES had to offer, I found myself buzzing with delight.

My diminished expectations curdled a little at the sight of the "original songs" that were featured in the film's credits, but come the swinging 60's jam session where the two ditties were utilized, it turned out that they actually weren't all that bad. But just when you think that you're going to be settling in for a kitsch-fest with more full-fur clothing than you can shake a can of red paint at, our pop star heroine Suzanna Leigh is whisked away to the quiet English countryside to recover from a case of vague nervousness. And once we pulled up to the dirt roads and weathered farmhouses in the film's first act, I knew that me and THE DEADLY BEES were going to be alright. The tone of this film compared to the others felt much more intimate to me and the stakes charmingly low. There's no implication of a world-wide invasion by the bees or even a "race against the clock" pace; it's literally about a couple of people who get stung to death in the country and the general alarm that that generates amongst the handful of citizens who are even aware that it's happening in the first place. I mean, how is that not a breath of fresh air when stacked up against other films of its ilk, both classic and contemporary, that pump up their narratives with so much sound and fury and apocalyptic hellfire that it all becomes so much white noise? Having all the "action" in THE DEADLY BEES take place in a town that looks to be inhabited by five people actually allows the strangeness and horror to seem that much more poignant.

And yes, of course those superimposed images of the bee's swarming look terrible (Tess, the Hargrove's dog who, naturally, is the first victim of the bee's wrath has this look on her face when the first superimposed shot of the bees shows up that is basically the canine version of "Uhhh... what?"), but in my eyes they are redeemed by the one real onscreen death that manages to be uber-creepy and unsettling. I'm willing to give Amicus the benefit of the doubt with the special effects, in all their scratchy, penny-ante glory, but Francis really does his best with the material he has to work with, proving that he was a craftsman as well as a workhorse. The death of the character played by Catherine Finn (who is clearly the Ghost of Charlotte Rampling Yet to Come) is extremely well-played. The shots of her seem hazy under all those laid-over bees, but what you do glimpse looks like the bees on her face are stuck there, as if they were burrowed in her skin. The closeups of the insects barbing real human flesh do much to sell that idea, their spurs leaving behind little noxious balls of bee-goo. And when Finn shakes her head up and down, her scalp looks positively bedazzled with writhing bees. It's just nasty, and personally I'm fine with having one death scene as memorable as that in a killer bee movie than a repetition of the same old stunts. Because, really, how diverse can killer bee murder sequences be?

Okay, I think I've babbled on enough for the moment. We know some of the reasons that I think this movie is the bee's knees (he said, hating himself), but now I'm interested in knowing how all of this was interpreted by you. Try not to be a buzz kill. 

NT: First, I would like to amend my previous, pre-discussion assessment of today's film, as I feel that my comment, in its brevity and curtness, belies the thoughtful analysis I was reaching for. What I should have written was that "THE DEADLY BEES [yawn] really stinks." About the nicest thing I can say concerning Amicus's fourth horror outing is that it made for an uproarious episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. But as much fun as Mike and the 'bots have skewering the film, they repeatedly point out an essential truth about THE DEADLY BEES that I'm trying to get at: this is a dull and dreary piece. Marital strife, petty rivalries, and cute dead dogs in the lifeless English countryside. Oh, joy.

You list a few aspects of the film that you found enjoyable, and I couldn't quibble with most of them too much. The groovy musical numbers are just fine, though I question the narrative logic and necessity of their inclusion, along with that behind making the heroine a fragile pop starlet in the first place, beyond a misguided stab at capturing the interest of England's youth (which would then be promptly lost the moment the glitzy, fast-paced music world is traded in for the small town arts of beekeeping, tea-time, and passive aggressive matrimony). The shoddy projected VFX of the bee attacks are pretty far from what you or I could reasonably call 'great,' and the plastic bees glued to the actor's faces don't help sell much either, but these scenes don't fatally sting the film's chances at success. I also agree that the small scale of the story is preferable to a hysterically pitched, overly ambitious beepocalypse. (For evidence of why this is so, sit through all two and a half hours of THE SWARM [1978] and then rock restlessly back and forth as you ponder giving up on cinema.) Yet, THE DEADLY BEES' small scale approach is also responsible for the majority of the film's problems. This is a mystery with no mystery. We're stuck in a Two-Beekeeper town, and it doesn't take much brainpower to figure out which one's responsible for the deadly stingings. (Never trust a kindly old beekeeper; eat the honey of the scowling ones.) Moreover, we don't much care about the killer's motive (not to say there's much of one), or about those who have died (who will quietly fume and smoke all those cigarettes now that Mrs. Hargrove is gone?), or about those who might (come again, how did a pop star end up in the middle of all this small town aggression?). We care only about watching the time clock tick up to the closing credits, and that's a damning feeling to hold against a film scarcely eighty minutes long.

I'm not certain what went wrong here. As noted, the stellar creative team behind our last few films is once again present, and yet Freddie Francis's direction turns out nothing but flat and uninspired performances, John Wilcox's cinematography finds few ways to make the village visually engaging when not bogged down by those lousy swarm VFX, and Bloch's script is as confused as it is thematically bereft. For all three to have screwed up this badly seems unlikely. For whatever it's worth, Bloch-- in his autobiography-- washes his hands of the script, claiming it was tinkered with by Francis and another scribe before shooting. So maybe he wasn't responsible for the whole pop star angle (though who's to say?), but the mystery-mongering feels like a product of his bag of tricks, so I'll lay blame for that aspect's poor quality on him. I haven't read the film's source material, H. F. Heard's Sherlock Holmes homage A TASTE FOR HONEY (though I do own an attractive vintage paperback copy), but the foreword to a recent edition reveals the basic fact that it's not a mystery of the whodunit variety, but instead one of motive and resolution. The novel, featuring only four (!) characters, realizes how silly staging a whodunit would be with such a small cast of suspects, and so diverts its attention to more interesting matters. Bloch's script fails to do the same, while only incrementally increasing that number of warm bodies worthy of suspicion. This sort of animal attack whodunit can prove effective and surprising when handled with intelligence-- heck almost the same scheme would work a handful of years later in the poisoned-claw-cat-in-a-wicker-basket giallo THE CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT (1972)-- but there's a decided lack of filmmaking intelligence on display here, from all involved. In that autobiography, Bloch also states that the film was written for Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, and I think it says a lot that imagining their presence in the film doesn't improve it much. I wish THE DEADLY BEES were a horrendous film, because a true atrocity-- unlike a crushing mediocrity-- is something to admire.

GR: It's one of those indescribable feelings that I have for THE DEADLY BEES. I acknowledge and understand all of its intrinsic shortcomings and yet there it is, that damnable attraction to it that flies in the face of conventional good taste. Some may call that love, but I certainly don't feel that strongly about it. And yet I'm still willing to posit that almost all of the film's inanities are in fact positive points for me. Who can make sense of the curious and illogical draw we all subjectively have to art? I'm sure that you would not say that THE DEADLY BEES gets anywhere close to a semblance of art, but for me it's a simple and humble vehicle that I can't help but smile at even as it makes adorable missteps like a toddler learning how to walk.

Grant you, I will readily admit that the film's pace seemed a little lagging; during the inquest scene, I happened to glance at the run time and said to myself "Holy crap, we're only halfway through?" It's certainly true that a genuinely entertaining movie wouldn't normally elicit this kind of reaction, so that lackadaisical quality to THE DEADLY BEES does end up hurting it a bit. And my comment before about the film thankfully not having that Hollywood disaster-blockbuster feel doesn't necessarily mean that THE DEADLY BEES couldn't have used at least one show-stopping set piece. A homage to Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963) with the swarm of bees attacking a charming countryside schoolhouse full of screeching British kiddies, perhaps? But again, I'm perfectly fine with the movie retaining its small town drama, in all its daytime soap opera glory. 

I sense from what you mentioned of Heard's novel that this overall theme is more in tune with his original story. Bloch's attempts to cast the tale as a mystery does hamper the narrative--and as you said, that approach has his fingerprints all over it--but for me the "whodunit" aspect presented here is the same kind of mystery that you see in ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968). WE know that quiet Mr. Manfred (Frank Finlay) is up to no good (his reveal of the record tape that controls the bees with a high-frequency ring is basically him saying "Hey, it's me!"), just like those crafty Castavets from Polanski's film, but that doesn't make their respective schemes any the less engaging simply because of the intuitive knowledge we have of their true motives. Well, at least for me. (On a somewhat related note, I'm sad to say that THE DEADLY BEES does fudge on properly selling the beekeeper uniform as a new and distinct garb for its killer in the same fashion that black leather gloves and veils were utilized in the Italian gialli.) Finlay himself makes a lovely villain in the final moments. He may not be a Lee and definitely not a Karloff, but his stodgy, tweeded presence has its own unique charm. His dull-eyed admission to Suzanna Leigh of "I have to kill you" is chilling in its banality. Though I can see how you might say that his nonchalant delivery of this line might be an indication that even he is bored by all the stingy shenanigans.

I can see how THE DEADLY BEES would be perfect MST3K fodder if only for some of the bizarre lines and non-sequiters that pop up. Take for instance Mrs. Hargrove's unfortunate wording of the query "The dog's meat, have you seen it?" or Leigh's agent calling her up to lay on an inadvertant poetry jam when he says "Nothing to do work work, baby. Just seeing if you arrived safely." or the brooding Mr. Hargrove getting stuck on his line: "Don't repeat your visits... to Mr. Manfred." Not to mention Ms. Leigh finishing up one of her numerous toothbrushing sessions with a mouth full of paste only for her to put her electric toothbrush away one cut later with a perfectly clean mouth, insinuating that she enjoys swallowing toothpaste as much as she loves running away from bees in her bra and slip. Such is the weird and inept world of THE DEADLY BEES, and such is my mysterious enjoyment of it. 

NT: All I can say in conclusion is that you've been very kind to these deadly (tiresome) bees, Jose. I'm certain you'll make a fine beekeeper one day.

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