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Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Beginning of the End

This is the sort of film that producer/director Bert I. Gordon would become famous (or infamous) for. B.I.G. liked playing with relative size, making his antagonist(s) larger than life. The Beginning of the End (BotE) is an obvious rehash of Them! ('54) with radiation-induced giant bugs, but substituting grasshoppers for ants. Instead of menacing Los Angeles, these giant bugs go for Chicago. BotE is a cheaper copy in many ways, but still found a ready audience in the mid 50s. Some better-than-B actors helped keep BotE from foundering completely. Peter Graves is the male lead. He saved Killers from Space ('53) and It Conquered The World ('56) from total loser-dom. Peggie Castle was the female lead in Invasion USA. Morris Ankrum, veteran B-sci-fi actor, once again plays the stern military man as he had in Rocketship XM ('50), Invaders From Mars ('53) and others yet to come.

Quick Plot Synopsis
People in rural Illinois are starting to disappear. Then a whole town of 150 is wiped out. Audrey (Castle) is a reporter who pushes for the story. Radiation might be the culprit, but no one has any nuclear material. She interviews Ed, an agricultural scientist (Graves), who has been growing giant tomatoes with the help of radiation. The isotopes are safely locked up, however. They travel to the site of a wiped out warehouse which stored tons of wheat. There, a giant grasshopper eats one of the scientists. Ordinary grasshoppers had munched on the giant tomatoes and so grew giant too. Hundreds of them mass in the woods. A National Guard unit's small arms can't stop them. They march towards Chicago, destroying Peoria and a couple others en route. The army's best tanks can't stop them. Panic ensues. Chicago is evacuated. The giant grasshoppers infest the Chicago area, but go semi-dormant during a cool night. Top brass in Washington plan bomb Chicago with an a-bomb to kill them while they're in one place. Ed and Audrey think they can find a sound that will attract the giants. If they could lure them into Lake Michigan, they'd all drown. They capture a live giant and bring it to the lab for tests. None of the sounds affect it. Time is almost out when they do find a frequency that works. Speakers are set up on one of Chicago's towers, to attract all the outlying bugs to downtown. Then a boat in the lake with a speaker will attract them to their doom. The plan works, though with a protracted fighting scene. In the end, they all drown. Chicago is saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The giant bug (or other critter) sub-genre was only just getting started. We had ants in Them! and a spider in Tarantula. There will be many more to come, but this was an early one yet. The first half of the film, with it's mystery, is much better than the latter half. The relentless threat to a major city harkens to HG Wells' War of the Worlds. After that, it gets lame, but Graves and Ankrum don't disappoint.

Cold War Angle
While mostly an atomic radiation cautionary tale, there is the basic story line of a relentless force moving upon an American city. Panic, evacuation, a-bombs. It's all familiar Cold War material.

Don't Fool With Mother Nature -- Popular Science magazines were bright with the prospect of what radiation-mutated crops might do for mankind. This is exactly what Ed was trying to do. As with all good naive scientists, he failed to see the bigger picture. Pests eat crops. Giant crops can create giant pests. The moral behind the film is that messing around with radiation can go horribly wrong.

Strong Woman -- Peggie Castle plays an obviously tough and independent reporter. She'd covered the destruction in WWII and Korea, written respected books and never once screamed like a girl. (she did scream when Frank was eaten, but it was more shock and a call for help than silly panic). Towards the end of the movie, she has less to do, and does lean in the chest of hero Ed (Graves), but she's on screen as more of an equal than a date.

Unsafe Sex? -- A teen couple are necking on Lover's Lane. They get eaten. A pretty woman in only a towel is primping in her hotel room (back to the window). She gets eaten. Such scenes suggest to some viewers that Bert was giving subtle messages that being sexual is dangerous -- avoid it! This seems too flat. Instead, you could see the necking couple and the sexy woman as representing a very personal and vulnerable aspect of mankind. Intimate moments feel very vulnerable. Our outward mask of civilization is off. Like the lady in the hotel room, we're dressed in only a towel (not full battle gear). Attacks at those moments enhance the mood of vulnerability. It's not a subtle "don't neck" message (like anyone would ever listen to such a message anyhow).

Picture of Doom -- One of the most memorable "special effects" of BotE is how regular grasshoppers (albeit big ones) are set loose to walk among or climb on photos of Chicago. As cheap as it is, this works pretty well. Note how they had cutouts of a line of busses from the same photo, set in front of the building plane, so grasshoppers could walk between them. Also note one scene where the set-back of the building is cut separately, so the grasshoppers can hang their legs over the parapet. Cheap as they are, these effects work better than the poorly done superimposition (green screen), which gets overused.

Stock Footage Galore -- If you're a stock footage fan, you'll find a lot to love in BotE. Tanks on the road, Troops, crowds panicking. In fact, if you watch closely, you'll see one scene lifted from The Day The Earth Stood Still ('51).

Give Me a B...Any B -- The General Hanson character says the Air Force is sending a B-52 (then America's new super plane) with an A-bomb. When they show a clip of footage, it's actually a propeller-powered B-36, the old-tech behemoth the B-52 were designed to replace. Perhaps stock footage of the B-52, America's high-tech nuclear bomber, then operational for only a couple years, was not yet available, or deemed too sensitive to inclusion in B-movies.

Object of Fear -- One of the things that help a big bug movie work, is that the critter is somewhat fearful even when small. Ants are relentless (fire ants, army ants), many people are afraid of spiders, and later movies' scorpions and a mantis -- which are creepy looking, will have their traits magnified. But grasshoppers? They just don't inspire fear. BotE fights an uphill battle in trying to make them fearsome.

Off Screen Action -- BotE makes good use of off-screen events. We are told the town of Ludlow was wiped out. All we see are stock clips of tornado damage. We only read of Peoria's destruction in a telegram. When anyone is 'eaten' by a giant grasshopper, we only see the giant lunge, the victim cower, then cut away. Good for budgets, but also kinder to audiences.

They're NOT After Our Women -- Despite the poster (in which the grasshoppers have curious teeth and fangs), they do not pick up anyone. In fact, they eat everyone quite fairly. One is implied to have eaten the lady in the towel, however, so there is at least a tiny delivery on what the poster promises.

Bottom line? BotE is another in the big bug sub-genre. If you like that sort, you'll likely gloss over the low budget short cuts. As a story, it's pretty conventional and doesn't break any new ground.


Randall Landers said...

Have to agree with you regarding other bug movies. From giant spiders, black scorpions, fire ants, deadly mantises, they're all unnerving. Magnify them to giant size, and we're scared witless. But grasshoppers? Meh.

We have an annual invasion of ladybugs into my house during the winter. It's a South Georgia thing. They're protected critters, so the Pest Control people won't do anything about it. Most people just laugh at our predicament. After all, they're just ladybugs.

Nevermind the fact that they crawl into everything from projection tvs, computer cpu cases, even our food, they're cute little ladybugs.

Ditto for grasshoppers. Southerners pick 'em up, put 'em in boxes, and go fishin' with them like you would with crickets. Nothing terrifying about them. Perhaps if they'd called them locusts, you might have generated some biblical-based fear...

thingmaker said...

I believe the technique of superimposition used in this and many other films involved simple "double exposure" and would not involve any sort of green or blue-screen. It was called "burning it in" and tended to lead to more or less transparency of the superimposed image, depending on how poorly the effect was planned - reasonably dark background and reasonably light image to be supered could work pretty well.
I agree that most of the effects in this movie are pretty good and I like most of the superimpositions as well as the miniature/photo shots. Generally the transparency and unintended overlaps aren't too bad and the shots - like a giant grasshopper pursuing a truck full of army guys - are pretty cool. And that brings us to the other great thing about this movie - It delivers. The Army actually fights a horde of giant monsters. It may not have the quality of "Them" on any level, but it actually out-delivers it in terms of scope and scale.