Here are some suggestions for morbidly minded home moviegoers who are looking to bone up on a few good tales of bloodthirsty bugs.
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Big Ass Spider!(2013)LikeTremors, this recent sci-fi adventure represents a slick, funny throwback to the bug movies of the 1950s. A giant alien spider, kept under observation by military scientists, escapes and goes on a wild rampage, threatening the city of Los Angeles. Hordes of soldiers launch an offensive to stop it, but they are no match for the beast. The only hope to bring it to bay is a lone exterminator (Greg Grunberg), who has an uncanny ability to get inside the spiders mind and predict where it will strike next. This spoof is director Mike Mendezs loving tribute to classic monster movies, as evidenced by the scene lifted fromKing Kong(1933), where planes descend upon the spider over a downtown skyscraper. Fun cameos abound, including Lin Shaye, the tanning victim fromTheres Something About Mary(1998), and, as a stray jogger, Lloyd Kaufman, the legendary head of B-movie studio Troma Entertainment, whose releases includeThe Toxic Avenger(1984) andChopper Chicks in Zombietown(1989).
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Tarantula(1955)When I was a kid, this movie convinced me Mara Corday was the most glamorous Hollywood star. She appeared in everything I liked most not justTarantulabut alsoThe Giant ClawandThe Black Scorpion(both from 1957). The dudes here arent slouches either: John Agar as scientist Matt Hastings, Leo G. Carroll ofThe Man From U.N.C.L.E.fame as the professor at the bug lab, and an uncredited Clint Eastwood as the fighter pilot charged with shooting down a giant tarantula that escapes from a desert laboratory. Its another picture supposedly set in New Mexico, but everything was actually shot in California or around Yuma, Arizona. A real tarantula named Tomorrow was the star, with special effects making it appear 100 feet tall. Technically, this is not a bug movie, because spiders are arachnids, which have eight legs, not insects, which have six. But only entomologists will care about that.
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Tank Girl(1995)This colorful sci-fi comedywasactually shot in New Mexico, mostly around White Sands. Inspired by a British comic-book series, its full of feminist touches, featuring not only Lori Petty as the , but also her sidekicks Jet Girl (Naomi Watts) and Sub Girl (Ann Cusack). The director, Rachel Talalay, is one of the few women ever to direct a post-apocalyptic, dystopian flick. There are no bugs to contend with, but there are killer kangaroos, a squeaky toy rat, and a Shakespearean mutant, seemingly a bilby (a bandicoot-like marsupial), as the story is set in Australia. They join forces to whip an evil magnate played by Malcolm McDowell, who is bent on plundering the worlds water, in a madcap adventure that owes as much to HomersOdysseyas it does to junky late-night TV. The movie is an easy target for critics, but the cheesy dialogue is zany fun, and so are the cameos and performances by the likes of Iggy Pop and Ice T.
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Keep in mind, only in the 1950s did bug movies mostly consist of gigantic mutant ants, bees, spiders, or wasps. Beginning in the 60s, we see more of an emphasis on the mutant part of the equation. These beasts may exhibit mixed characteristics, involving any number of species blended together not just insects but creatures with reptilian traits (such as rapacious crocodiles) or deranged mammals (for instance, killer kangaroos). Often these are aliens or monsters unleashed from some forbidden and previously undiscovered cove on planet Earth, like the ferocious dinosaurs dreamed up by Ray Harryhausen forThe Valley of Gwangi(1969).
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Tokyo Gore Police(2008)Japanese monster movies have turned more macabre and violent in recent years, as evidenced by the release ofMutant Girls Squad(2010),Meatball Machine(2005), andDead Sushi(2012). They arent exactly copacetic for the mature audience in Santa Fe. But perhaps because Ive watched thousands of movies, and stayed a bit immature, I have a soft spot for these pictures, especially the ones that blend the gore with comedy. If youre curious to see what theyre like, check outTokyo Gore Police the best of the bunch. Eihi Shiina the crazy girl from Takashi MiikesAudition(1999) stars as a detective battling mutant rebels and monsters to avenge her fathers death. This is a splatterfest to putThe Evil Dead(1981) to shame. As one critic noted, Every severed limb produces approximately 30 gallons of fake blood. How can you go wrong when your creatures include hardwired maids with crocodile jaws jutting down from their waistlines? ◀
Gangster movies can be scary. So can war pictures, and thrillers. But ounce for ounce, is anything more terrifying than giant-bug movies? You know the kind Im talking about where the bugs have mutated into monsters so big and overwhelming that they can no longer be swatted down.
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Why do giant-bug movies scare us so much? Maybe because they are among the first dark, ominous films our parents let us see.
The Ship of Monsters(1960)Do yourself a favor. If you have never seen this sci-fi/musical/Western comedy, watch it on YouTube. You wont regret it. This is the most popular sci-fi movie ever released in Mexico (asLa nave de los monstruos), and a shipful of fun. When a disaster kills all the men on Venus, two gorgeous babes get sent out via rocket ship to retrieve available men from planets around the galaxy. Mostly they capture hideous monsters (a talking skeleton, for instance, and a little brain-headed dude). In a final stop before returning home, they touch down on Earth in the Mexican countryside, where they meet and woo the singing cowboy Piporro (Eulalio Gonzlez). Hailing from the province of Nuevo Len in northern Mexico, Piporro made his debut in a radio drama as a norteño sidekick to Pedro Infante. Here, he sings and kicks alien butt, while wooing Lorena Velzquez, star ofSanto vs. the Vampire Women(1962). Now thats true art.
Here are nine bug movies (including some with other forms of mutated animals) worth exploring, divided into those set in New Mexico, in the U.S., and abroad. I dont claim these are the absolute best of the genre in that case, Id have to include the originalThe Fly(1958) orThe Naked Jungle(1954), in which South American plantation owner Charlton Heston battles themarabunta, a column of army ants extending for miles. Also, I left out a personal favorite,Invasion of the Bee Girls(1973), because it boasts too much nudity to be acceptable for kids.
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Why do these movies scare us so much? Maybe because they are among the first dark, ominous films our parents let us see. They arent as full of sex as crime movies, or as insidious and creepy as thrillers, so even youngsters barely out of kindergarten may be entertained by them. These movies may represent viewers first exposure to primal fear, and most of us, by age five or six, have some sense of what its like to brush up against bugs weve already been bitten by a mosquito or stung by a wasp or had to dodge a column of ants.
Them!(1954)More than 60 years have passed since the release ofThem!, hardly diminishing its status as the ultimate bug movie. The first American foray into the genre, it still ranks among the most ferocious features of its kind a suspenseful, gripping movie that has been copied scores of times but rarely surpassed. The premise is that an atomic bomb test in New Mexico has spurred the formation of giant mutant ants that congregate on the outskirts of White Sands. A police sergeant ( James Whitmore), rancher ( James Arness), and scientist (Edmund Gwenn) pool their resources to prevent the ants from spreading everywhere. Based on a story by George Worthing Yates, who co-wroteIt Came From Beneath the Sea(1955) andEarth vs. the Flying Saucers(1956). None of it was actually shot in New Mexico the Blayney Ranch near Palmdale, California, doubled as the ants desert lair.
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Wizards(1977)This animated feature wasnt shot in New Mexico either, but its creator, Ralph Bakshi, moved to the Silver City area in 2002 to concentrate on painting. Hes still a New Mexico resident, continuing to make animated shorts (he completedLast Days of Coney Islandin 2015). Dark and surreal,Wizardscharts a global war between two wizard brothers, one of them wise, the other an evil technocrat. All manner of creatures get swept up into the conflict, not only elves and demons but also two-legged, horse-like reptiles only two legs, because that took less time to animate. Bakshi calls it his first family film, and its toned down fromFritz the Cat(1972) andCoonskin(1975), although still violent and racy, especially the scantily clad fairy princess. It remains a great midnight movie, with amazing rotoscoped battle scenes lifted from Sergei EisensteinsAlexander Nevsky(1938).
Mothra vs. Godzilla(1964)The fourth Godzilla movie originally known asGodzilla vs. The Thing is arguably the best. I still get shivers up my spine recalling the twin fairy princesses, played by Emi and Yumi Ito˘, as they chant to awaken the mystical Mothra and save the creature from getting put on display in a Japanese amusement park. Only a few battle scenes pit Mothra against Godzilla, but theres an exciting outdoor skirmish as the U.S. Navy attacks Godzilla on Torada Beach. Eiji Tsuburaya contributes eye-popping special effects, and the direction by Ishiro Honda (see sidebar) is sharp. This was the last time Godzilla played a terrifying dinosaur prepared to ravage Tokyo. In subsequent appearances, he became the citys staunchest defender. Perhaps that change fit the zeitgeist, but it always struck me as a cop-out and a disappointment.
Travel the world, see the sights, run from monsters
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FormerLos Angeles Timeswriter Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, publisher ofJapanese Giants a magazine devoted to Japans movie monsters have filled one of the larger knowledge gaps in the Western world. Together, they have produced the first English-language biography of filmmaker Ishir Honda.
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Tremors(1990)Back in the 1990s, when Hollywood got too smug to make decent bug movies,Tremorsarrived like a flash in the dark. Ive watched the movie at least five or six times, and relished the sequels as well. The bugs here are graboids, humongous wormlike creatures that tunnel around the godforsaken town of Perfection, Nevada. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are hoots as dimwits Val and Earl, but even more fun are Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as a military-minded survivalist couple who are armed to the teeth and drop everything but napalm on the graboids. If you ask me,Tremorsdirector Ron Underwood ought to be put on a pedestal as high as Quentin Tarantinos not just forTremors, but also for the two New Mexico pictures he made back-to-back afterwards:CitySlickersandSpeechless.