I can't decide if Irwin Allen's 1978 The Swarm is the among the worst movies ever made, or among the greatest. At the very least, it is certainly the most accidentally (I hope) racist movie I've ever seen when watched through the PC lens of 2014.
The entire cast is white, with the exception of one minor character of Latin-American descent and a few other minorities as deep, deep background extras. I'm pretty sure there's one line of dialogue delivered by an African-American, but I'd have to go back and check.
This mob of A-list crackers struggle to overcome the menace du jour, in this case vast swarms of killer bees invading Texas.
Not only that, by the mid point of the film, the name as been shortened simply to "African." So we have mind-boggling scenes of the always amazing Richard Widmark telling Michael Caine that "by this time tomorrow, there won't be a single African left in the Houston area" and on and on. Ouch, right?
The notion that this might have been satiric and intentional isn't off the table. After all, screenwriter Stirling Silliphant also wrote In The Heat of the Night, a searing denunciation of racism in the American South (it won Best Picture in 1967.) Was this some kind of bizarre inside-joke?
Given how ineptly (or brilliantly) written the rest of the movie is, the answer has to be no (or maybe yes.)
The film itself is bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. I mean bad the way a sheep would say it. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaddddddddd.
Yet, also amazing. Amazing precisely because it's so bad. Not just bad, but ridiculous. Not just ridiculous, but over-the-top out-of-its-fucking-mind ridiculous.
Caine plays Brad Crane, an etymologist who's put in charge of staving off an invasion by killer bees. His main character trait is that he eats sunflower seeds from a leather pouch. "High in potassium, low in sodium" he tells us several times during the movie, as if anyone gives a shit.
Crane's main antagonist, outside of the bees, is Richard Widmark's General Slater. Their interactions always quickly turn into screaming matches, with Caine shouting and blustering literally about any suggestion the General makes. It would make you cringe at its ham-handedness if it wasn't so goddamn funny.
Then there's this gem, an extended scene where Crane, investigating a killer bee attack, informs the general that the killer bees may be using plastic to line their nests. We literally spend three minutes of precious screen time setting this up, with no pay off. We never learn why this might be a problem, or what future hazard it poses. Yes, they may be lining their nests with plastic. But so what? Crane keeps that info to himself. (My own theory is it will allow them to survive in harsher, colder climates. But it would have been nice for the filmmakers to let us know.)
Assisting Crane in his efforts is Dr. Krim, played by Henry Fonda. Krim is disabled and needs a wheelchair. When he arrives by helicopter, we're treated to the surreal image of Michael Caine lifting Henry Fonda out of the helicopter like a groom carrying a bride over the threshold and depositing him in his chair. Bizarre. Truly bizarre.
Pickens comes to the base demanding access to see if his boy is among the dead. If denied, he threatens to shut the water off as he is the "town engineer." Somehow town engineers outrank 4-star generals, so he's allowed in, searches through the piles of black plastic body-bags, find his boy among the dead, then picks him up and carries him away never to be seen again. As weird and awkward a scene as you've experienced in any film. Also pointless. Pickens' presence in the movie adds nothing to the story. Yet also highly amusing.
But this is all warm-up shit. There's a love triangle in town between Fred MacMurray and Ben Johnson, both of whom are seeking the affections of Olivia De Havilland. The resolution of this love triangle is simply too amazing to be revealed and has to be seen to be believed.
The film is also blood thirsty to a degree we're simply not used to in our major studio releases these days. During the killer bee attack on the town, dozens of school children are brutally killed. De Havilland, playing a teacher, looks out the window in horror at a schoolyard littered with small bodies.
Even more extreme, noticing that there's a nuclear power-plant along the route of the advancing bees, Richard Chamberlain volunteers to head over there and "jawbone some sense into them" (yes, an actual human in an actual movie uses the phrase "jawbone some sense") so they'll shut the plant down.
They don't. The bees attack. The nuclear power plant explodes (for no conceivable reason, by the way). Cut to a computer readout informing us that 32,400 people were just killed. 32,000 people killed as part of a tiny sub-plot. It's the kind of thing you'd expect to see on Metalocalypse. Absolute, fearless filmmaking.
So the question begs, is The Swarm simply an inept, over the top, ridiculous failure? Or is it a canny and brilliant satire of itself and the whole genre?
I honestly can't say.
Better go back and watch again. Michael Caine screaming "killer bees are coming" never gets old.