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[Cover Story] Bugshow

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Red Carpet Roundup

Anne Nagro | July 27, 2010

Summer is the season for blockbuster movies — and for pests. What happens when you combine the two? From campy to vampy, PCT takes an insider’s look at some famous — and infamous — insect films.

Cannes can’t hold a candle to it. Sundance? Not a chance.

For horrific "insect" films — and the sometimes awful filmmaking that accompanies them — fans turn in droves to the Insect Fear Film Festival.

Last February 900 movie-goers crammed the free event, now in its 27th year, at the University of Illinois’ Foellinger Auditorium in Urbana-Champaign.

This year’s draw? Deadly prehistoric arthropods like the giant scorpions freed by volcanic activity that terrorize Mexico City in The Black Scorpion (1957) and grad-student-eating trilobites unearthed in the Antarctic in Ice Crawlers (2003).

Festival-goers also enjoyed film shorts from The Deadly Mantis (1957), where a giant mantis goes rogue after being freed from Arctic ice due to nuclear testing, and Monster on the Campus (1958), sporting a dragonfly that reverts to its primeval, two-foot-wingspan self after drinking primitive fish blood, which also contaminates the resident scientist and turns him into a Neanderthal.

Needless to say, the movies aren’t chosen for their accurate portrayals of insects. "That’s the point of our festival," mused Dr. May Berenbaum, University of Illinois entomology professor and event organizer.

The films are a starting point for educating attendees about the "most misunderstood taxon on the planet." Before the movies and shorts roll, Berenbaum introduces the festival’s theme, outlines the "biological improbabilities" that appear onscreen, and cites errors made by movie scientists who "don’t seem to know much about insects." She also delights in pointing out shoddy production values and filmmaking problems. Some of the movies are "so bad they’re actually entertaining."

Armed with this knowledge the audience is better equipped to find the blunders, which makes watching them more fun, explained Berenbaum.

A family-friendly film traditionally kicks off the evening as parents and children make up a large part of the audience. (For the second movie, "all bets are off.")

Before-show activities are a hit with younger fans, especially this year’s live petting zoo with tarantulas, hissing cockroaches, horseshoe crabs and tobacco hornworms. Attendees also inspected insect fossils and mounted arthropods, viewed insects through an electron microscope as part of the University’s Bugscope project, got their faces painted, and explored the annual Insect Art Contest exhibit.

Even festival T-shirts designed by graduate students have a following. This year’s shirt was modeled after the Jurassic Park movie logo but stars a giant trilobite instead of T-Rex. Past notables are a parody of Abbey Road for a beetle-themed event, the "metamorphosis" of Edvard Munch’s character in The Scream to an arthropod, and a depiction of insects storming the festival theater.

*****

Top Insect Flick Picks

In our own take on Access Hollywood, we asked entomologists to share their favorite "insect" movies — the good, the bad and the ugly.

First up: Dr. May Berenbaum, organizer of the Insect Fear Film Festival and 27-year devotee of "horrific films and horrific filmmaking."

All-Time Favorite: Beginning of the End (1957) — Radiation experiments at a USDA lab in Rantoul, Ill., produce giant grasshoppers that attack Chicago. "It’s ridiculous," and it’s set "close to home" but obviously not shot in central Illinois because of the mountains in the background, laughed Berenbaum.

Favorite depiction of an Entomologist: CSI episode "Sex, Lives and Larvae" (Dec. 22, 2000) — Forensic entomologist Gil Grissom solves a murder mystery using his knowledge of insect biology and life cycles. Although not technically a movie, it’s a decent representation, said Berenbaum.

Favorite Insect Musical: Joe’s Apartment (1996) — In this spoof a Midwestern guy moves into a New York City apartment that’s infested with singing cockroaches. He’s "stretched beyond endurance," especially with cockroach song-and-dance numbers like "Funky Towel," recalled Berenbaum. "It’s really pretty hilarious." (Check out "Funky Towel" on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nk97Oil2qnc.)

Worst Animated Insect Film: Shinbone Alley (1971) — This musical based on the "Archy the Cockroach" poems by Don Marquis is "so excruciatingly bad that by the third reel the audience was shouting ‘Die, Archy, die!’"

Favorite Reference to Pheromones: Empire of the Ants (1977) — In this picture, giant radioactive-waste-induced ants in Florida use pheromones to control the townspeople and force them to run a sugar factory. Uh-huh.

Favorite Soft-Core-Porn Insect Film: Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) — A mad scientist creates a group of women who emulate the honey bee during copulation, which is deadly to the drone (read: men are seduced to death). This is probably the only soft-core-porn insect fear film, said Berenbaum.

Here are top picks from our other panelists:

Them (1954) is a favorite of Dr. Roger Gold, entomology professor at Texas A&M University, Terminix Service Manager Stoy Hedges, and Rose Pest Solutions Technical Services VP Mark Sheperdigian. What’s not to like when giant irradiated ants living in the desert move to Los Angeles and take over the sewer system? It’s the "quintessential" 1950s insect flick, said Sheperdigian.

The Fly (1958) also gets high ratings. It "scared me to death" as a kid, Gold recalled. Laughed Hedges, "That just proves how old we are."

The Wasp Woman (1959) rings true in one respect, said Sheperdigian. When a woman tries an experimental youth beauty cream made from queen wasp jelly, she turns into a wasp and kills people. It’s always the female wasp that stings, he explained. "We men always knew that deep inside."

Arachnophobia (1990) is "pretty well made" despite the fact it’s impossible for insects and spiders to grow to giant size, said Varment Guard Staff Entomologist Gerry Wegner. Hedges finds the movie funny, even if unintentionally so. Orkin Senior Technical Director Paul Hardy agreed it was humorous but "didn’t portray pest control in a favorable light." Sheperdigian, however, loved John Goodman’s portrayal of the pest control operator. Far from a "nozzle-head," the guy was "honest, never at a loss, and he lived through the flick. How much better can you get?" His disappointment: The entomologist is the bad guy.

Starship Troopers (1997) got a nod from Wegner and Hedges for the giant insect-like creatures that attack and dismember an interstellar version of the Marines on a distant planet. Insect-induced blood and gore at its best.

The Mummy (1999) gets points for scenes where Egyptian scarabs burrow into and move under victims’ skin. The X-Files’ War of the Coprophages (1996) episode is similar but with cockroaches. The concept "creeps me out," admitted Wegner.

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) involves tarantulas and William Shatner. Need we say more? "It’s pretty bad," admitted Hedges.

The Naked Jungle (1954) is the "coolest ant movie ever," said Sheperdigian. In it, a two-mile-wide, 20-mile-long column of army ants threaten a South American cocoa plantation. The ants’ capabilities are embellished only slightly, he explained. It’s "based on a real species that can do some impressive stuff."

Mimic (1997) is notable for the termite-praying mantis hybrid created by an entomologist to eat roaches in New York City sewers, said Wegner. It’s no surprise when these creatures grow bigger than humans and start attacking them.

Funniest scene involving a spider goes to Nothing to Lose (1997) with Martin Lawrence, Tim Robbins, a tarantula, and gasoline-soaked shoes. Laugh-out-loud funny, said Hedges. See for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOUvUV69PzA

Creepshow (1982) is a series of vignettes but one is particularly interesting, said Hedges. Roaches get inside a scientist’s body and eventually come pouring out of every orifice. Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBim1j1tVbE

A Bug’s Life (1998) gets points from Sheperdigian for providing a prey’s point of view. In one scene of the animated film, a daddy-long-legs steps over the new-to-town ant hero, who’s startled to find the predator directly above him (but thankfully not hungry). It was an "incredible moment," said Sheperdigian, who witnessed a real hungry daddy-long-legs take out an ant shortly after seeing the film. "It sure put things in perspective for me."

Pacific Heights (1990) is a don’t-agree-to-that-again reminder, said Orkin Technical Director Ron Harrison. When a tenant-from-hell turns his apartment into a cockroach-infested den, the landlord calls in the Orkin man who turns out "looking kind of stupid," said Harrison. We got "burned on that one."

Bug (2006) raises the question of whether a war veteran is a delusional paranoid or victim of army experiments involving insects. Hedges is saving this one for a rainy day.

So, are there any Hollywood films that accurately represent insects? "Ummm, no," assured Gold.

There is "always going to be scientific inaccuracy," agreed Wegner. For him, giant or unrealistic movie bugs don’t have the scare factor of those closer to true size and behavior.

*****

Build it and they will come. The idea for an Insect Fear Film Festival hatched when Berenbaum was a Cornell University grad student and saw a poster on campus for a Godzilla festival hosted by the Asian-American Society. She suggested the idea to her department head, who dismissed it as "undignified." Later as assistant professor at U of I, Berenbaum made a similar pitch that was "enthusiastically embraced."

Since then, the Insect Fear Film Festival has grown into a nationally recognized event cited in news outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, London Times and even the supermarket tabloid Star, which chastised Berenbaum for calling Disney’s Jiminy Cricket a "fraud."

It’s been written up in magazines ranging from Hollywood-centric Premiere to Chemical & Engineering News, and featured on National Public Radio, CNN, ABC World News Tonight and more.

All told, the festival has showcased more than 100 films, videos and shorts in the name of public education.

Already, Berenbaum and members of the Entomology Graduate Students Association are planning next year’s event. It takes time to identify a theme and whether enough films with the right attributes exist, she said. Plus, organizers have to watch films multiple times. "It’s really excruciating sometimes."

Is she worried about running out of festival-worthy movies? "Never."

As Berenbaum recounts on the festival website, the event got its start when Ronald Reagan was in office, materialism was rampant, and insect movies were terrible. Today, a democratic president sits in Washington, environmental awareness and volunteerism are more fashionable, and insect movies are still terrible. "It’s nice to know that there are some things in life to count on."

Fans can count on "something big" for the Festival’s 30th anniversary in 2013, she said. Burt I. Gordon, director of Beginning of the End (1957), was the special guest of the festival’s 20th anniversary. Simon J. Smith, who directed Bee Movie (2007), headlined the 25th anniversary event.

Even Film Critic Roger Ebert paid the event a compliment, said Berenbaum. While being interviewed about his annual "Ebertfest" film festival also held in Champaign, he reminded everyone that his festival wasn’t the first in town: The honor goes to Insect Fear Film Festival. "That was very classy of him, I thought."

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. She can be contacted at anagro@giemedia.com.