The Deadly Bees
1967 / Freddie Francis
When was the last time that you saw a movie about killer bees?
In spite of a brief run of “bee-sploitation” pictures in the mid-’70s, including cult B-horrors such as The Bees (Mexico, Alfredo Zacarías, 1978) and mainstream disaster blockbuster The Swarm (US, Irwin Allen, 1978), our fuzzy little black-and-yellow friends are the stars of so few animal-attack creature features, even in our modern age where the SyFy Channel leaves no critter/catastrophe combo un-spliced.
Perhaps the value of bees and pollination to our ecosystems during this current state of climate crisis is too undeniably crucial for filmmakers to even consider depicting them as a threat in our modern age. Not helping the case for our insect friends is their mental association for many horror fans with a certain infamous and much-parodied sequence in the disastrous Nicolas Cage-starring remake of The Wicker Man (US, Neil LaBute, 2006). Personally, I believe there’s never been a better time for Mother Nature to sting humanity where it hurts. Revenge is a dish best served honey-sweet.
The true reason as to why there aren’t a dozen “Bee-Nado” movies lining the shelves of your local HMV is likely down to the fact that there isn’t really a definitive stand-out example of “bee-sploitation” that had audiences going apis for the subgenre. Sharks have Jaws (US, Steven Spielberg, 1975), bees have The Deadly Bees (UK, Freddie Francis, 1966). The Deadly Bees is, to say the least, no Jaws.
When you’re putting together a retrospective on a beloved film studio responsible for releasing a whopping 23 genre features in the space of just 12 years, there are unfortunately bound to be a couple of duds; what I mean to say is that The Deadly Bees is somewhat of a minor entry in the Amicus cinematic canon. Very loosely adapted from A Taste for Honey (H.F. Heard, 1941), an unofficial Conan Doyle pastiche that lost its Holmes expy protagonist somewhere along its journey to the screen, it’s a reluctant and inconsistent tale of murder and mad science that rarely lives up to the creature-feature thrills of its title.
Its plot follows exhausted popstar Vicki Robbins (Brit horror regular Suzanna Leigh), sent to the countryside for a few weeks of rest and relaxation by her agent following a live television performance gone awry. Her home for the holidays is the Hargrove cottage on Seagull Island, owned by a middle-aged farming couple, Ralph (Bond villain Guy Doleman) and Mary (Catherine Finn), whose relationship is visibly put under strain by the former’s all-consuming obsession with bees. In the midst of marital dysfunction, beekeeping rivalries and a series of grisly incidents in which the victims appear to have been violently stung to death, it becomes clear to Vicki that there is a deadly secret on Seagull Island – not a secret to the audience, mind, who are probably wondering where the promised deadly bees are.
The film isn’t entirely a failure, mind. Its rural setting and permanently grey skies bring a nice edge of the gothic to a movie that would otherwise be unremarkable in the atmosphere department; there’s something deeply appealing about the image of bee boxes lined up like headstones in the Hargroves’ yard, a visual so inspired that it leads me to believe that there’s a far better picture hiding somewhere within The Deadly Bees. Screenwriter Robert Bloch, whose original script for the film was almost entirely re-worked by playwright Anthony Marriott prior to production, would likely be inclined to agree. The final result of said rewrites is a shambolic narrative that slaps sequences against each other with no regard for pacing or tone, cutting between locations and side plots in a manner that prevents any tension from building.
Appearances of the titular deadly bees are few and far between, and when the swarm does show up, the results leave something to be desired. Taking a few good pages out of Hitchcock’s book, the bee attack sequences feature a visual effect deeply reminiscent of The Birds (US, Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), albeit far less competently achieved; I appreciate that The Deadly Bees was released in 1966 and that some of its visuals will have aged better than others, but I can’t imagine the cloud of yellow-tinted bugs that crudely overlays close-ups of screaming actors was particularly effective even back then. A blistery red-raw corpse featured in one brief key sequence is the only element of the film that lives up to its pleasantly pulpy title, one of all too few sequences in which our buzzy assassins take out a human victim; concerningly, a lot more screen time is devoted to sequences of bees being killed, most commonly with fire, a large quantity of which I am not entirely sure were simulated.
More potential intrigue lies in the intense rivalry between beekeeper Hargrove and his business competitor, H.W. Manfred (Frank Finlay CBE), roles originally envisioned for horror icons Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, the latter of whom had previously starred in a television adaptation of the story as part of anthology series The Elgin Hour (ABC, Herbert Brodkin, 1954). Scheduling conflicts prevented both from appearing and with all due respect intended, Doleman and Findlay simply don’t have the same level of screen presence that Karloff and Lee would have brought to the production. Even with said screen greats in the cast, the film would have suffered from a fatal flaw in its plotting – for nemeses Hargrove and Manfred only share a single scene together, almost entirely wasting the potential for each actor to play off of each other, their rivalry criminally underplayed.
Other members of the cast try their darnedest to make the most of the clumsy material at hand, but it’s very apparent that there isn’t very much in the script for them to actually play with – the only obvious exception being Catherine Finn as Mrs. Hargrove, whose portrayal of a neglected wife turned screeching, bee-hating firebrand is admirable, although her screen-time is limited prior to her gruesome entomological demise. Also of note is the appearance of Michael Ripper, a regular of Amicus’s rival studio Hammer; regularly seen in classic ‘60s horrors slinging pints behind the bar of a local pub, it’s entirely unsurprising that Ripper’s role in The Deadly Bees is that of a bartender. Of less interest are the two Ministry of Defence agents who occasionally appear for no rhyme or reason in cut-aways, their purpose in the movie seemingly entirely unknown aside from being ignorant and useless; part of me wonders if this was an element of the source novel that was lost in translation.
It’s incredibly hard to care about a film that doesn’t seem to have had any care put into it. Perhaps The Deadly Bees could be a secretly intelligent tale that uses beekeeping as a means to discuss man’s desire for mastery and control over nature, but I simply just don’t think that enough thought was put into the film for it to be given that much credit. It’s hard to watch The Deadly Bees and believe that it’s from the same director behind The Skull (UK, Freddie Francis, 1965) and The House That Dripped Blood (UK, Peter Duffell, 1971), films both full of heart, creativity and macabre delight. I didn’t exactly expect an out-and-out creature feature from a mid-60s Amicus production called The Deadly Bees, but I expected something more than… this.
There actually is a great bee horror movie out there, and if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen it. The Clive Barker adaptation Candyman (US, Bernard Rose, 1992) is the source of one of the greatest horror villains ever put to screen, a serial killer of urban folklore whose body is, in essence, a human beehive. Born in London, in 1960, it’s possible that director Rose watched The Deadly Bees at a young and impressionable age – probably not, but it’s a nice thought to end on.