Movies to drive you a little buggy

Pickings are slim for cicada fans who want to see them in starring roles


May 02, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

For a little bug that becomes a national obsession every 17 years, the cicada hasn't left much of an impression on America's movie screens.

That's assuredly strange, given Hollywood's predilection for jumping on any trend that comes within earshot and milking it for every dollar possible. There have been movies about the Lambada, Halley's Comet, Valley Girls, Jim Jones, roller boogie, ninja turtles, The Gong Show and Martha Stewart.

But those bizarre insects that show up seriously en masse every 17 years; that cause the squeamish to squeam even more than usual at the thought of squishing a handful of them with every step; that force educated people to cower in fear as though the sky were falling, moving spring cookouts indoors and warning their children to stay inside ...

About those bugs, the movies have said practically nothing.

Outside Hollywood, cicadas have shown up a few times. Turkish television broadcast a film called The Cicada (Agustor bocegi, for those who speak Turkish) about 30 years ago, and South Korean theaters in 1985 showed a movie called A Cicada Sings in the City (Dosh ieseo uneun maemi), which is exactly what millions of the little buggers will be doing over the next few weeks.

But on American movie screens, hardly anything. Unless you count the occasional screen appearances by singer Jon Secada, whose name at least sounds like he could be an insect.

And so, cinephiles who mark every cultural milestone by selecting an appropriate movie to watch -- people, say, who view Chariots of Fire whenever the Olympics are about to start or rent Jesus Christ Superstar every Easter -- may find themselves seriously out of luck when those insects with the beady little eyes start descending from the trees. Unless, that is, they're willing to be a little creative, to stretch their criteria for an appropriate movie to include horrific bugs of any kind. As everyone knows, the movies have been bugging people for years. Herewith, a few examples:

* The Beast Within (1982): Doesn't it figure? One of the few Hollywood films to star a cicada, and he's the bad guy. After a woman is raped by some demonic bug-thing, the son she bears seems fine for several years, but then begins morphing into something the Cicada Anti-Defamation League may want to check out. Ewwww!

* The Swarm (1978): Give those 17-year bugs stingers, and you'd have this disastrous Irwin Allen disaster flick, a camp classic that somehow managed to lure such Hollywood luminaries as Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Olivia de Havilland and Michael Caine to a film The New York Times would label "the surprise comedy hit of the season." A deadly swarm of African killer bees (the real ones, not those once portrayed by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live) invade the United States and wreak havoc on school playgrounds. Only the timely arrival of the Air Force, combined with bug expert Caine's discovery of an electronic hum that sounds exactly like a queen killer bee in heat, saves the day.

* Them! (1954): That old bugaboo of 1950s horror films, radioactivity run amok, unleashes a horde of gigantic mutant ants on an unsuspecting America. Watch this and be glad you don't live anywhere near Three Mile Island.

* The Ten Commandments (1956): God brings forth the original plague of locusts, to help Moses convince Pharaoh that the Jewish people should be released from bondage -- a demonstration of wrath memorably re-created here by master showman Cecil B. DeMille. (For a less biblical but comparably devastating example of rampaging bugs, check out 1937's The Good Earth.)

* The Fly (1958): True, this movie stars only one bug, but what a bug it stars! A crazed scientist comes up with a machine that can transport matter, then, during a demonstration, gets his atoms mixed up with those of a lowly housefly, with decidedly creepy results. (Jeff Goldblum reprised this role in a 1986 remake.) A word of advice to anyone trying out a similar machine in the next few weeks: make sure you sweep all the cicadas out of it first, lest you become the one going into hibernation for the next 17 years.

* Joe's Apartment (1996): Poor Joe -- his New York apartment is so rundown, he has to share it with a bunch of talking cockroaches. As bad as that may seem, imagine sharing it with a bunch of cicadas; the incessant singing alone would drive anyone nuts. Or should we say, buggy?

* The Day of the Locust (1975): True, it's not about locusts, or any other bugs, for that matter; it's about Hollywood in the 1930s and what a depressingly shallow place it could be. But it's got "Locust" in the title (a rarity), stars Karen Black (who affected a certain bug-eyed look when aroused) and features a central character named Homer Simpson (which is cool, no matter how you look at it).

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