(director/writer: Jeannot Szwarc; screenwriters: William Castle/Thomas Page/from the novel The Hephaestus Plague by Thomas Page; cinematographer: Michel Hugo; editor: Allan Jacobs; music: Charles Fox; cast: Bradford Dillman (Dr. James Parmiter), Richard Gillilland (Gerald Metbaum), Joanna Miles (Carrie Parmiter), Alan Fudge (Prof. Mark Ross), Jamie Smith-Jackson (Norma Tacker), Patty McCormack (Sylvia Ross), James Greene (Reverend Kern); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: William Castle; Paramount; 1975)
“If you can accept how ridiculous, improbable and stupid it is, you might find it as satisfying as spraying Raid on a roach.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s the last film credited to legendary schlockmeister impresario William Castle (he died in the middle of producing another film in 1975 from a heart attack, at the age of 63). Here he is cowriter and producer. Castle, known primarily for his gimmicks, hands over the directing honors to cowriter Jeannot Szwarc (“Jaws2″/”Supergirl”/”Somewhere in Time”). She does a good job framing eerie shots of the insects. Castle’s gimmick for this film was to have tiny windshield wipers attached to the bottom of the viewer’s seat and at key moments they would go on to simulate crawling cockroaches. The theater owners didn’t buy into that idea and it was forgotten. Thomas Page also worked on the script adapted from his book The Hephaestus Plague. For a low-budget B-film (produced for under a million dollars), it’s not bad if taken in the right spirit. In any case, even if the plot lacks credibility, the dialogue is clunky, the electronic score is irritating, it’s overlong, tacky and dull in spots, it is somewhat imaginative (at least it tries) and is more intelligent than it has a right to be. It’s basically a nature-run-amok film that turns into a mad scientist film. The creepy crawly sci-fi/horror film is an entertaining throwback to the mutant-monsters-amok drive-in flicks of the 1950s. If you can accept how ridiculous, improbable and stupid it is, you might find it as satisfying as spraying Raid on a roach.
Set in a small town in the California desert just when a fire-and-brimstone preacher is giving a sermon in church warning about a sinful country turning away from God, an earthquake erupts and destroys the church and shakes up the unnamed town. The massive earthquake releases an unknown strain of mutant cockroaches buried deep in the recesses of the earth for 50 million years. It’s gradually learned they have the ability to start fires, have an intelligence, no digestive system but eat ash and can’t survive for long because they can’t adapt to the earth’s pressure. They cause fires in cars, one gets into the ear of a girl who answers the telephone and it sets her ear on fire, one ignites a cat, another gets into the hair of a housewife of a college professor, Carrie Parmiter (Joanna Miles), and sets it on fire, and the roaches cause an upsurge in unexplained fires in town.
Dedicated entomology professor James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman) becomes so curious about this new breed of insects, shaped like a rock, and their ability to start fires by rubbing their rear legs together, that he goes from being a regular guy everyone loves to a cranky recluse studying the insects in a remote house a student lets him use. He leaves his colleagues, and spends weeks observing the roaches and gradually goes bonkers. His obsession has him turn into a mad scientist, but he discovers many of their secrets and develops a new, resistant strain. Unfortunately the tape he makes explaining this goes up in fire, and tragedy strikes when a visitor (Patty McCormack) brings him a Bible from Carrie.
I believe the filmmakers tried to come up with a spotty allegory pitting the church against science over the creation myth, but they didn’t have it in them to carry it through to make any sense. From such a silly premise one can only expect a schlocky film, and that’s what you get. For those who don’t take it serious, there’s plenty of campy fun to be had in this roach infested desert.
REVIEWED ON 6/6/2007 GRADE: C+