The Swarm

Year: 1978
Production Co: Irwin Allen Productions
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Irwin Allen
Producer: Irwin Allen
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Cast: Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Slim Pickens, José Ferrer, Olivia de Havilland, Fred MacMurray, Richard Chamberlain, Lee Grant, Patty Duke

Before watching this whole film I only remembered a single clip from a TV viewing decades before – Michael Caine as the hero talking a young boy in hospital down from a nightmarish PTSD-induced vision of a giant bee and somehow knowing exactly when the badly superimposed creature disappeared from the kids' mind.

Those 30 seconds told me all I believed I needed to know about what a camp classic it would be, so I finally cued it up recently prepared for a riotous good time with a terrible concept (but what I hoped might be a halfway decent movie), and I wasn't disappointed.

It was already notorious back in 1978, with critics and the press asking how disaster flick doyenne Irwin Allen managed to assemble such an amazing cast (Michael Caine, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, Lee Grant, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark and Katharine Ross) and make such a stupid movie.

A platoon of soldiers in hazmat suits brandishing automatic weapons gingerly make their way into a military bunker, finding bodies strewn everywhere in the lower levels and control rooms and a single survivor, Dr Crane (Caine), who suspects a species of African bee has become even more toxic and aggressive and is now in a gigantic swarm making its way across America.

There's not a lot of nuance but a lot of plot as a family having a picnic are attacked by the swarm, the surviving son drives their car into a nearby town in a panic and Brad and love interest/base scientist Helena (Ross) drive all over the region trying to figure out how to stop the swarm.

de Havilland, Fred MacMurray (in his final role) and José Ferrer form a love triangle subplot, Fonda is an old associate of Brad's that arrives to do toxicology work which might help, and all the while the gigantic, hand-animated swarm weaves and drifts menacingly throughout the sky, descending on towns, nuclear plants and eventually the city of Houston to deliver death and destruction on an Irwin Allen scale.

For a good time Hollywood thriller I was actually surprised at how downbeat a lot of it was. The script might be one of the only halfway clever things about it because of how none of the cast get a break, every new plan failing worse than the last and feeling all very nihilistic until the final twist. Allen also definitely wasn't going for PG thrills, not scrimping when it comes to shots like a school playground full of kids collapsing, dead, after the bee attack (leading to de Havilland's infamous moan/scream).

But it would have taken the talents of Dante, William Shakespeare, Stephen King and Franz Kafka combined to make a decent story out of such a ridiculous conceit, and most of the cast agreed. Caine himself went on to call it one not just of his notorious paycheck movies but the worst one he'd ever made.

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