Bug and Mimic: Cockroach Movies and the Sometimes Mad Scientist
God-like qualities of the cockroach underpin the narratives of cockroach horror films whether or not cockroaches are presented as survivors or victims, and whether or not they are constructed as benefactors or destructive forces of nature. The suggestion that the cockroach will outlast all other life forms, including humans, permeates popular film, including positive appearances as the only friend of the hero in WALL-E (2008) and negative portrayals as villain in Men in Black (1997) and Starship Troopers (1997). In horror films such as Bug (1975), however, their “villainy” is a product of transformation through deliberate genetic alterations. Bug examines the destructive repercussions of genetic engineering meant to alter cockroaches for human benefit but move beyond historian William M. Tsutsu’s suggestion that “these cinematic big bugs [represent] ambivalence about science and technocratic authority, and repressed Freudian impulses” (1). In Bug both humans and the “bugs” they study turn monstrous.
Cockroach horror films reinforce this stereotype as they highlight humanity’s ambivalence toward cockroaches. To a certain extent, Bug draws on positive qualities associated with cockroaches, including their contributions to human health, their intelligence, and their longevity. Although Bug anthropomorphizes roaches on a higher level, however, neither the insect nor the scientists that transform them are well-treated. Based on the novel, The Hephaestus Plague, William Castle’s final film, Bug, highlights what happens when a scientist tampers with nature: roaches that belch flames remain vulnerable and easily destroyed until another entomologist, James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman), attempts to mate them with other roaches. The roaches then become more like humans as they gain intelligence and grow deadly as they breed, producing carnivorous offspring. Eventually, these offspring also mate and kill, creating a flying burning insect that drags Parmiter and the science he represents to hell.
Despite the heightened anthropomorphism, then, in Bug, both cockroach and scientist are constructed as monstrous. Although the film’s scientist, Parmiter is a biology teacher who explains many things, he is also, as entomologist James W. Mertins explains of the scientist image, “shown … as detached from reality,” a “psychotic” (86). Parmiter tells his students, “Earth, soil, wind, temperature are all part of an exact pattern.” He mesmerizes a squirrel. He tells them about a Florida beetle that scalds its enemy. But when a farm boy shows him his dead cat, burned by the flaming cockroaches, the teacher is intrigued, so much so that he makes the roach his life work, even after the roaches kill his wife by crawling into her hair and lighting her up like a human torch.
Aided by the insect photography of Ken Middleham, who also filmed the documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) and the science fiction thriller Phase IV (1974), Bug provides an authentic portrayal of the cockroaches, at least until breeding ignites their intelligence to such an extent that they can read and write. The prehistoric roaches that appear after the quake, for example, produce sparks not unlike the bioluminescence of the South American cockroach, called “pronatal headlights” in Bell et al’s Cockroaches. As Bill Gibron of PopMatters declares, close-up shots of these roaches mandibles also “make their actions seem almost plausible.”
The monstrous nature of these roaches is shown in a variety of scenes before Parmiter decides to breed a new species. His friend Mark’s (Alan Fudge) wife Sylvia (Patty McCormack) is killed by a roach attack, for example, and a roach also climbs in another woman’s ear (Jamie Smith Jackson) and destroys her. Although we do not see her killed on screen, Parmiter’s wife Carrie’s (Joanna Miles) death is gruesome. But as Mark explains, these new roaches live very short lives and cannot reproduce, at least without intervention, so the danger associated with them should be finite.
The horror of the film becomes amplified when Parmiter further anthropomorphizes the roaches by facilitating their reproduction. In a dark and deserted farmhouse setting, the now reclusive Parmiter breeds this new species of roach with what looks like an American cockroach specimen, a process that will transform a dying species into a menace. When Parmiter sees the roaches write “We Live” on the wall with their bodies, he knows he has created unbeatable human-like monsters and is helpless against their assault. After their flames engulf him, we see him burning, but in an odd twist that emphasizes the parallels between the roaches and their creator, Parmiter, the offspring of the original breed drag him into the crevice left by a second earthquake. The fissure’s bottom looks like the bowels of hell, with fire and brimstone deep below, and the earth explodes and covers them, closing off the opening.
This sudden ending turns horror into camp but demonstrates negative associations with both science and anthropomorphized insects found in most bug features. It also serves as a not too subtle moral attack on science and the cockroach monsters it could create. As Bill Gibron states, “Naturally, whenever you wander onto God’s domain, things get out of hand and more people die. And it takes an unexplainable divine intervention (a second earthquake and a noble individual sacrifice) to end the debacle.” Because the evolutionary transformation Parmeter attempts involves a cockroach pest, however, his violation of nature becomes even more monstrous.