Blu-ray Reviews: Kino Unleashes Killer ANTS!, Killer Bees in TERROR OUT OF THE SKY, Killer Spiders in TARANTULAS THE DEADLY CARGO
A trio of new physical releases from Kino have got me thinking about a lot of things.
First, what a shame it is that more titles from the golden age of made for TV movies haven’t seen release on Blu-ray or even DVD.
To that I say, TGYT (Thank God for YouTube). Of course what YouTube offers in terms of quantity is mitigated by often crappy image quality.
Several titles I’d like to get my eyes on just don’t seem to exist in watchable format. So kudos to Kino for releasing great looking versions of these eco horrors on Blu-ray, with audio commentaries to boot.
The themes that distinguish Eco-horror have to do with the natural world. There are films in which a natural entity suddenly attacks man for no reason. However, most Eco-horror follows the model of nature punishing man for something he’s done. Pollution, scientific experimentation and environmental damage are often used as the catalyst.
For example, Gojira aka Godzilla (1954) and many other 1950s sci-fi horror films that involve giant monsters are technically examples of Eco-Horror since they share the major theme of nature striking back at man because of atomic radiation. But Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) is an eco-horror as well, though it never gives any real explanation for why the birds attack.
The 70s is the golden period for these kinds of films with movies and TV filled with nature strikes back stories. Films like Willard (1971), Frogs (1972), Night of The Lepus (1972), Jaws (1975), Bug (1975), Grizzly (1976), Squirm (1976), The Pack (1977), The Long Weekend (1978), and Prophecy (1979) hit the big screen.
But TV kept up the pace with Trapped (1973), A Cold Night’s Death (1973), Locusts (1974), The Savage Bees (1976) and others. Eco themed horror was everywhere and there was barely a member of the animal or insect kingdom left unrepresented.
The first title, and the one people will rightly make the most fuss over, is Ants! aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor (1977). This made for TV flick has long been on the most wanted list of many. Those of us that saw it on first airing remember it well indeed.
Construction around a resort hotel inadvertently releases a huge colony of poisonous ants on the site. Pollution has mutated them into an aggressive horde that leaves a trail of dead guests and townspeople in its wake. What can stop them?
Ants! boasts a fantastic cast. Myrna Loy starred as Nora Charles in the Thin Man films of the 30s and 40s and was eventually given an honorary Academy Award in 1991. Robert Foxworth, who also starred in the John Frankenheimer helmed 70s eco-horror Prophecy (1979), was such a prolific TV actor viewers of that time would have recognized him from multiple series.
Likewise Lynda Day George, who also contributed her talents to another eco horror, Day of the Animals (1977). Lastly Ants! features a great performance from Suzanne Somers. Somers was a household name at this point for her TV role as Chrissy in Three’s Company and provided the most famous image from Ants!, showing her demurely ant-slathered cleavage .
The supporting cast also includes the great Bernie Casey, who fans will remember as being in everything from Gargoyles (1972) to Never Say Never Again (1983) to Revenge of the Nerds (1984),= and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). The list could go on and on.
Also present is Moosie Drier. one of the most recognizable child actors of 70s and 80s TV. You might remember him from his long stint on The Bob Newhart Show but he was a constant guest on most of the major TV shows of the time, Marcus Welby M.D., Rowan & Martins Laugh-In, The Waltons, Adam-12, Police Story, Emergency!, Little House on the Prarie, CHIPS, The A-Team, and Different Strokes. Also, blink and you’ll miss the great Brian Dennehy in a small role as the fire chief.
Lee Gambin, author of Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film (Midnight Marquee) offers an audio commentary that showcases his near-comprehensive command of the subject describing the surprising diversity of eco horror and its tropes, its intersection with the disaster film, and an equally impressive store of knowledge about the careers of the actors here. He also makes reference to one my favorite made for TV eco horror movies ever, A Cold Night’s Death. Gambin also did audio interviews with several cast and production people.
The film is presented here in both the 1.33:1 TV and the 1.85:1 Theatrical Versions. Those wishing for more ant horror should check out Them (1954) The Naked Jungle (1954), Phase IV (1974) and Empire of the Ants (1977).
Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977) isn’t as much fun as Ants!. It’s not even close to the best spider movie of its era. That honor goes to Kingdom of the Spiders (1977). But it does have a lot to offer. and I'm a sucker for spider movies in general.
Two disreputable pilots bribe South American border officials in hopes of getting a valuable load of coffee beans into the States. Along for the ride are a few locals who bunk in the back on the beans.
Also bunking, unseen, are hundreds of venomous tarantulas. The bugs come out to play while the plane is still in the air but they don’t stay there for long. After killing everyone on board, they crawl out of the crashed plane into the remote town of Finleyville, where they not only start claiming more victims but threaten the season's orange crop, spelling financial doom for the rest of the inhabitants.
Howard Hesseman and Tom Atkins play the two pilots and one could wish they were in the film a bit longer. Hesseman is most famous for his TV character of the burnt out DJ Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati. Tom Atkins is a horror genre stalwart and his resume reads like a list of now revered classic films: Halloween III, The Fog (1980), The Ninth Configuration (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Creepshow (1982), Halloween III (1982), Night of the Creeps (1986), Maniac Cop (1988). His career was much bigger than that handful of great films and he always elevated the material. Next up is Claude Akins.
Akins was one of the busiest actors in Hollywood with some 230 plus credits on his IMDB page. He did less genre work but what he did was significant. He was in two episodes of the original The Twilight Zone ("The Little People" and "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"), the Kolchak the Night Stalker (1972) film, the made for TV horror The Norliss Tapes (1973) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).
I can’t resist an aside here. Akins was also in the eco-horror Tentacles (1977) but then again who the hell wasn’t in Tentacles?! I can probably ask Lee Gambin how this happened but Oscar winners Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters and John Huston are in it as well as Bo Hopkins and well known character actor Cesare Danova. For crying out loud, both John Houseman and Yul Brynner were attached at different points. It’s an, 'Oh my God what were they thinking?' kind of experience, but one worth having.
Okay, back to Tarantulas: the Deadly Cargo. Pat Hingle, one of America’s greatest and most prolific character actors, shows up as the town’s retired doctor here. Hingle was best known as Commissioner Gordon in all the early Batman films but he had a wide ranging career with more than 200 IMDb credits listed. Lastly, Tarantulas does something shocking for the time with one of its child actors. Matthew Labyorteaux was best known for his work on Little House on the Prairie but he also starred in Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend (1986), and of late has been doing lots of voice work.
The disc also comes with an audio commentary from Made For TV Horror expert Amanda Reyes and her Made For TV Mayhem Show podcast co-hosts Dan Budnik and Nate Johnson. Those seeking other great spider flicks of the 70’s should find The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), and Kiss of the Tarantula (1975).
Terror Out of the Sky (1978) is notable for being a sequel, which is itself a rarity in made for TV cinema of the time. Why a sequel? Both Terror Out of the Sky and its predecessor, The Savage Bees (1976) deal with a subject that was on the minds of many people at the time. It had been widely reported that highly aggressive and dangerously toxic so-called African Killer Bees has started a migration that would eventually lead them to the United States. It was a terrifying notion.
The story picks up on the events of the first film with the bees once again escaping into the outer world and threatening everyone in their path. There’s a a bit more to the story involving a love triangle between the three leads but Im not sure what else you need to hear. I mean, there’s killer bees! All over people!
There’s also a fantastic cast. Veteran actors Efrem Zimbalist JR. and Tovah Feldshuh are joined by none other than Grizzly Addams himself, Dan Haggerty, as a rough hewn helicopter pilot whose blue collar sensibilities and heroics provide a counterpoint to all the scientific chatter.
Phillip Baker Hall went on to become one of America’s most respected actors, appearing in films like Magnolia (1999) and Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984). Here he shows up as a government official hassling the scientific lab from which the bees escape. Charles Hallahan is immediately recognizable because of his role in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1983) a few years later.
Steve Franken (also from Ants) pops up here as a bee scientist, as does Bruce French who, oddly enough, had been in The Savage Bees in an unrelated role as a police lieutenant, and plays a bee researcher here. He kicks the movie off with a fantastic death scene and some bee attack makeup that was pretty icky for it’s time.
Franken will be highly recognizable to genre fans. His IMDB lists 183 credits and his career included dozens of the top TV shows of the 60s, 70s and 80s. I won’t even try to list them. Some of my favorite memories of Franken are from The Time Travellers (1964) and Westworld (1973). He was also in The Night Gallery segment The House and the Kolchak The Night Stalker episode, Chopper. But no paragraph about his career is complete with an encouragement to the reader to see The Party (1963). He plays a drunken waiter and almost manages to upstage Peter Sellers. Lastly, I’ll remark on the amazing child actor Ike Eisenmann. He had one of those faces that just sticks with you. That, and a formidable talent provided him quite a career. He starred in Escape To Witch Mountain (1975) and it’s sequel, dozens and dozens of iconic TV shows in the 70’s and 80’s and closed out with too many voice over roles to count.
There have been other Bee attack movies as well. The Deadly Bees (1966), Killer Bees (1974), The Swarm (1978) and even a movie simply called, The Bees (1978).
For even more info on the Eco-horror film you should pick up Lee Gambin’s Massacred By Mother Nature; Exploring The Natural Horror Film (Midnight Press) and When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals by Vanessa Morgan (Moonlight Creek Publishing).
I mentioned at the beginning that these films have me thinking about a lot of different things. Beyond the nostalgia of seeing them again was the unsettling sense of immediacy they still had. These movies trade in a kind of prophetic fear linked with mans abuse and pollution of the environment and the primacy of nature. They are very much of their time.
I'm 57 years old. I grew up around much broadcast scientific concerns about over-population, pollution of the environment, and factory farming animal abuse. Documentaries, newscasts, episodes of TV shows and made for TV movies like these constantly called attention to the need to address all of these.
But next to nothing has changed.
We now live in a world where we actively talk about how long we have left on this planet. This isn’t because of some inevitable natural process. It’s due to our own mismanagement of this incredible place we share. We watch children speak bitter words to world leaders who refuse to take the necessary steps to prevent absolute catastrophe. It’s all so reminiscent of that scene from Jaws.
Mayor Vaughn: "I don't think either of one you are familiar with our problems."
Hooper: "I think that I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and BITES YOU ON THE ASS!"
This is the almost universal message of eco-horror. Whatever the masses may be guilty of, leaders rarely act to hold them in check, create less exploitable systems, or work meaningfully toward sustainable ways of managing resources. They’re just too busy looking after the bottom line.