Five Nasty-Critter Horrors

We all love our pets, right? And we all love nature and all the many creatures that God in His wisdom has placed alongside us, right? Well, possibly, but surely not all the time! For today’s Shocktober column, I would like to shine a light on five times the fauna that we share planet Earth with were not so easy to get along with. From beetles and bears to spiders and dogs and worms, these five instances of Nature gone amok will surely prove perfect fare for this creepiest of all holiday seasons: 

BUG BUG (1975)

Viewers who may be having some insect problems in their own abode may feel a bit better about their domestic situation when they see what the residents of a small California desert town have to contend with, in 1975’s Bug. After a seismic event releases the titular nasties from deep underground, the ugly, beetlelike creatures start making trouble, setting fires wherever they go by rubbing their chitinous rear antennae together. And then things get even more problematic, when a balmy biology teacher (excellently portrayed by Bradford Dillman) decides to cross the “Firebug” with the ordinary domestic roach! OK, first let me say what “bugged” me about this film. It is occasionally slow moving and, other than Dillman’s character, there is no other character of any depth or interest to speak of. And since even Dillman’s character goes bonkers halfway through, there’s really nobody for the viewer to root for or identify with. There is, however, plenty of good news. The film IS creepy as can be (roachaphobes, be forewarned!) and features an eerie electronic score by Charles Fox and interesting directorial touches from Jeannot Szwarc. And those bugs really are something! I could not tell half the time if I was looking at a genuine insect or the result of some special FX wizardry; probably a cunning mixture of the two. And the four bug attack sequences, three of them on women, are gruesomely effective and well done. A tip of the hat to producer and co-writer William Castle, who, in this, his last film, demonstrated that he still knew how to deliver a gripping entertainment. (Come to think of it, the Firebug almost looks like a pint-size Tingler!) My buddy Rob has astutely pointed out to me the picture’s skillful use of establishing shots, prolonged silences, “disturbing imagery” and “unnerving stillness,” and I must admit that a repeat viewing revealed the film to be not so much slow as deliberately paced. Ending on as bleak a note as can be, the picture will most likely send viewers off to the hardware store to pick up a preventive pack of Combat!

GrizzlyGRIZZLY (1976)

A common thread runs through the four films of director William Girdler that I have seen: All are somewhat crudely made, shlocky entertainments, and all are nevertheless quite fun to watch. First, there was 1975’s Sheba, Baby, a lesser Pam Grier action flick; then, 1976’s Project: Kill, with Leslie Nielsen (of all people) starring as a drug-enhanced secret agent on the run who gets involved with the forever yummy Nancy Kwan; and then 1978’s The Manitou, in which a large tumor growing on the neck of Susan Strasberg turns out to be the developing fetus of a rebirthing Indian medicine man! And now, for this viewer, 1976’s Grizzly. Released a year after Jaws kicked box office tuchus, the film makes zero attempt to conceal its debt to Steven Spielberg’s big-fish classic; indeed, the film’s poster itself proclaimed its monstrous ursine protagonist “The Most Dangerous Jaws In The Land.” In the film, for reasons that are never adequately explained, a 15-foot-tall, 2,000-pound grizzly takes to killing and eating campers in a national park (the viewer must assume it to be Yellowstone or Yosemite, although the picture was shot in Clayton, Georgia, near where the state borders both North and South Carolinas). Thus, it falls on head forest ranger Kelly (Christopher George), chopper pilot Don (Andrew Prine) and maniacal naturalist Scott (the great character actor Richard Jaeckel) to put a stop to the ferocious attacks… To Grizzly‘s credit, the viewer does not have to wait long to see the film’s first attack sequence, and these scenes crop up fairly regularly throughout. The film is fairly bloody (or should I say grisly?), and there really is no way of predicting who will be attacked and who will survive; even little moppets are open game! As if the film’s debt to Jaws were not already transparent enough, however, Grizzly gives us POV shots from the bear’s eyes, accompanied by ominous music; a scary nighttime tale told by one of the hunters; a bureaucratic jerk who wants to keep the park open, despite the obvious danger; and an explosive death for the beastly nemesis at the picture’s end. The acting by the film’s three leads is certainly passable, although the thesping by the lesser players (especially the grizzly’s victims) is often quite lame. Girdler’s film has been shoddily put together, like his others, and, most egregiously, features a “monster” that just isn’t that fear inducing; indeed, despite his murderous inclinations, the grizzly here often looks kinda cute and cuddly (although still a long way from Winnie the Pooh or Yogi!). One element of the film that this viewer did enjoy was the breezy, outdoorsy score by Robert O. Ragland, conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London; so reminiscent, somehow, of many of these cheezy, mid-’70s entertainments. Other aspects of Grizzly to find pleasure in: the best horse decapitation scene since The Godfather and the hilarious name of the film’s editor – Bub Asman. I wish MY name was Bub Asman! Anyway, as I mentioned up top, all in all, good, shlocky fun. My psychotronic guru, Rob, by the way, tells me that Girdler’s follow-up film, 1977’s Day of the Animals (also starring George and Jaeckel), is even more fun than this one, and it will surely be my next visit to the world of Girdler…

KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977)

(1977) 3 ½ Stars: Kingdom of the Spiders is a film that Kingdom of the Spiders is a film that apparently has critics split fairly down the middle. The Maltin book gives it 3 stars, the Time Out Film Guide deems it a “must to avoid,” and my beloved Psychotronic Encyclopedia says it’s “better than you’d expect.” And me? I enjoyed it, and found it a nice surprise. In this one, everyone’s favorite space-truckin’ blowhard, a post-Kirk/pre-Hooker William Shatner, plays a veterinarian in the peaceful little town of Verde Valley, AZ. This town is soon overrun by about a kajillion hairy tarantulas seeking greener pastures after indiscriminate pesticide use cuts off their food supply. Yummy Tiffany Bolling, playing a university entomologist, joins Shat, and is amazed to learn that these critters are not only teaming up, but have quintuple the venom power of your average garden-variety tarantula… Anyway, this film, directed by John Cardos, delivers some real suspense, especially toward the end, when Tiff and Shat are holed up in a deserted hotel defending themselves from a legion of the eight-legged nasties. The Psychotronic… book reports that 5,000 live tarantulas were used in the making of this film, and most of them seem to be right up there on screen. This picture is nothing great, truth to tell, but is very likable, well put together, and features some good cinematography and fine support from the great Woody Strode and the (then) real-life Mrs. Shatner, playing Bill’s sister-in-law. Shat himself is not nearly as hammy as you might expect (he CAN be very effective at times), and Bolling’s character is pretty darn cool, only becoming unhinged toward the end. My only problem: The downbeat ending comes a bit too abruptly for me. My suggestion: Pair this one with Tremors (1990) one evening for a fun “nasty critters in the desert” double feature!

CujoCUJO (1983)

Having twice been on the receiving end of some vicious canine attacks, I can personally attest that “man’s best friend” isn’t always all that friendly. But what I’ve experienced is nothing compared to what some of the good folks in Castle Rock, Maine go through in the 1983 filmization of Stephen King‘s Cujo. In the film version, Cujo, a frolicsome St. Bernard to begin with, is bitten on the nose by a rabid bat, and by the time cheating housewife Donna Trenton and young son Tad (played to perfection by Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro) come to his owner’s house for some car repairs, the overgrown pooch is a frothing mess and has already offed two people. What follows is a remarkably suspenseful siege, with mother and son trapped in their dilapidated Pinto while the monstrous, four-legged killer alertly skulks outside. If only Donna had on her the now-ubiquitous cell phone, most modern-day viewers will think, and today such a siege dilemma truly might not have to happen. But nevertheless, what an amazing wringer this picture puts us through! The film features inventive photographic touches by Jan de Bont (howzabout that 360-degree swivel shot inside the beleaguered car?!?) and imaginative direction by Lewis Teague that manages to squeeze every drop of possible tension out of the predicament. Kudos also to handsome Daniel Hugh-Kelly, who gives a nicely warm and sympathetic performance as Tad’s father. Actually, this first-time viewer was pleasantly stunned at what a nearly perfect horror outing Cujo turned out to be, only marred (for me) by the film’s too-abrupt ending that fails to give us total closure. Still, my stomach was in knots by that ending, a sure sign that Teague & Co. have succeeded in delivering a very effective example of gripping horror. As Danny Peary puts it, in A Guide for the Film Fanatic, it is a “surprisingly nerve-racking adaptation.”

TREMORS TREMORS (1990)

Several months ago, I watched a film called The Worm Eaters (’77), a truly horrendous movie about big grown-ups who like to eat little worms. And just the other night, I went 180 degrees and saw Tremors for the first time, an excellent film in which giant, 30-foot-long worms take to eating people in the desert town of Perfection, NV (population:14). So now I know what the rest of the world has been aware of for the past 30+ years: This is a terrifically entertaining, fast-paced, action-packed sci-fi/comedy hybrid, directed by Ron Underwood, with one outstanding set piece after another, likable and offbeat characters (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward’s Val & Earl make for one fun team), very fine FX and way-cool monsters. Fans of 1950s science fiction (my personal favorite film genre) will just eat this movie up, especially since – unlike such classic fare as, oh, The Giant Behemoth (’59) – we get to see the scary critters fairly early on in this picture. And these intelligent, giant sand monsters really are something to see, what with their snakelike tentacle tongues, relentlessness and great speed; much scarier than the sand creatures that threatened Adam West in a classic Outer Limits episode called “The Invisible Enemy.” Fans of Reba McEntire should love seeing her strap on some serious firepower and have at these nasty “graboids,” too. Executive producer Gale Anne Hurd’s previous films The Terminator (’84) and Aliens (’86) have this in common with Tremors: Once they get going, there’s just no letup. It’s easy to see why this film has inspired at least three direct-to-video sequels! Still, an explanation for the graboids’ existence would’ve been nice…

Anyway, FanLit viewers, there you have it … five cinematic wonders featuring nasty critters that just might give you pause the next time you are walking around in a natural setting. And all perfect fare as you settle in with your fur baby some dark and chilly October night…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. highest percentage so far on movies seen in your highly enjoyable capsule reviews. Love Tremors. Cujo I thought actually improved on a good book by dropping some story, and Kingdom of Spiders has Shatner, no ’nuff said there. I know I saw Bug, but as I recall nothing about it save a bit of creep factor with the bugs, you must be spot on with regard to the lack of memorable characters!

    enjoying these October reviews!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Very happy to hear that you’ve been having fun with these minireviews, Bill! And yes, any film that features The Shat can’t be ALL bad, right?

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