Real-life legendary monsters make great fodder for horror films. Whether it’s the mythical Abominable Snowman in Shriek of the Mutilated or the Bigfoot-like Fouke Monster in The Legend of Boggy Creek, nothing scares people like something that can actually get them, even if that fear is fueled by paranoid speculation. When a few groups of the more aggressive Africanized honey bees escaped from their South American hives and were rumored to be heading for America in the fifties, movies about swarming killer bees were bound to follow. The first of these was, surprisingly, a British film, made in 1966, called The Deadly Bees.
After a short little bit of expositional foreshadowing in which two government officials discuss a letter that they have received from a man who claims that he has developed a new strain of bees that can be trained to attack, The Deadly Bees begins with pop singer Vicki Robbins (Lust for a Vampire’s Suzanna Leigh) collapsing during a television appearance. Doctors diagnose her condition as exhaustion, and send her to a small farm on Seagull Island for some rest. The farm is run by a beekeeper named Ralph Hargrove (Guy Doleman from Thunderball) and his wife, Mary (Catherine Finn from The Witches). While exploring the island, Vicki meets the Hargrove’s neighbor, H.W. Manfred (Lifeforce’s Frank Finlay), also a beekeeper. Manfred cautions Vicki about Hargrove and his hives, while Hargrove warns Vicki to stay away from Manfred and his bees. Soon, animals and people on the island begin to suffer fatal bee attacks, leaving Vicki to figure out which beekeeper is the master of the killer swarm.
Made by Amicus Productions, which was second only to Hammer when it came to horror in the U.K., The Deadly Bees has the atmosphere of a disaster movie while still remaining true to its horror roots. The film was directed by Freddie Francis (The Creeping Flesh, Paranoiac), whose eye for imagery definitely gives it the feel of an old British fright flick, but the addition of the bees as the cinematic monster provides a more modern feel to the movie. The film is campier than many of the classic Amicus films, mainly due to the overacting of the cast and the “creativity” of the visual effects, but still has its horrifying moments, thanks mainly to the creepy concept of an inescapable swarm of killer bees.
In its day, The Deadly Bees performed poorly at the box office, mainly because of a handful of script issues. The first draft of the script was adapted from the 1941 novel A Taste for Honey by H.F. Heard by Robert Bloch, who is better known as the man who wrote the book on which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is based, but is also an accomplished screenwriter in his own right with credits that include Straight-Jacket and Asylum. Bloch’s original script was written for Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff to be cast as the male leads, but scheduling and budgetary problems forced both actors to withdraw from the production. Bloch’s script was truer to Heard’s novel than the finished film, with the story being almost a Sherlock Holmes-style detective tale. At Amicus’ request, Freddie Francis had Bloch’s script rewritten by Anthony Marriott (“Public Eye”), removing characters and changing the order of events. The hybrid script lacked the continuity that would have been present if the story had been crafted by a single writer, so The Deadly Bees isn’t quite as effective of a thriller as it could have (and should have) been.
The lackluster visual effects in The Deadly Bees only add to the film’s poor reputation. Although real bees were used for the hive scenes, most of the swarming was manufactured by overlaying a close-up shot of bees on top of the action, with smaller plastic bees attached to the actors’ faces and bodies during attacks. Other swarming shots were created by superimposing a shot of coffee grounds floating in water over stock footage of the countryside, giving a chaotic appearance to the footage. While one cannot fault the effects photographers for their inventiveness, the finished product looks silly in many places, stripping the film of much of its terror. The visual effects helped The Deadly Bees gain a cult following, but for all of the wrong reasons; the audience was laughing at the picture instead of with it. The film was even corny enough to have been featured on an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” several years after its initial release.
Aside from its special effect shots, the film looks great. A cinematographer himself, Freddie Francis knew what it took to give a film a stunning and memorable look; he had already shot The Innocents for Jack Clayton and Never Take Sweets from a Stranger for Cyril Frankel, and would go on to shoot both Dune and The Elephant Man for David Lynch. His second set of eyes on The Deadly Bees was director of photography John Wilcox, the man who shot most of Francis’ horror films, including Nightmare and Hysteria, as well as several of the classic Dr. Who movies. The Deadly Bees was shot in glorious Technicolor, giving it the bright, popping color palette for which the Hammer and Amicus films of the sixties and seventies were known. The bee attacks use camera tricks that help to make them especially effective from a photographical standpoint, with the camera switching to a POV shot that shows the confusion of the victim by utilizing motivated zooms and just-out-of-focus images. The photography in The Deadly Bees almost distracts from the too-simple visual effects. Almost.
Because the heroine is a pop singer, the music in The Deadly Bees is important. Truth be told, there are only songs in the opening couple of scenes, but the few songs that are there are well done, establishing Vicki’s character as that of a big rock star. The musical numbers are all hip, British pop songs from the sixties, with Vicki’s vocals being overdubbed by pop songstress Elkie Brooks. The film gets around lip-sync issues by not even trying; Vicki collapses in the middle of her song while the tape keeps playing, revealing that the character had been lip-syncing on the show. There’s another interesting observation about the music show during which Vicki collapses; right before she goes on, a band is shown playing. That band is a real British band called The Birds (not to be confused with the American band The Byrds), and the group includes future Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood. That’s him on the far right with the checkered Fender telecaster guitar. Far out.
The exaggerated Africanized Bee threat of the late fifties frightened the public well into the seventies and beyond, and the movie industry capitalized on that fear; dozens of bee movies would pop up in the years directly after the release of The Deadly Bees, movies with similarly generic titles such as The Swarm and The Savage Bees. Much like Jaws brought about a ton of seafaring natural horror movies, The Deadly Bees influenced an entire subgenre of killer bee flicks.