One of the most effective things that a horror movie can do is take a seemingly innocuous presence and turn it into something frightening. A popular subject for this treatment is insects; everyone sees them every day without much thought, but when a movie makes them go haywire, it’s terrifying. Whether it is ants, like in Phase IV, or bees, such as in The Deadly Bees, insects can be effective movie antagonists. In 1988, The Nest brought another insect into the spotlight, one that already had a bad reputation as a creepy-crawly: the cockroach.
The Nest tells the story of a small island fishing town called North Port that has a cockroach problem. Unfortunately for the citizens of the town, they aren’t just regular annoying cockroaches. When the mayor’s daughter, Elizabeth (Lisa Langlois from Class of 1984 and Happy Birthday to Me), comes home for a visit, she finds a mutilated dog. Her father, Mayor Elias Johnson (Robert Lansing, who also fought insects in Empire of the Ants), calls in a scientist from the mainland to investigate, a woman named Dr. Morgan Hubbard (The Terror Within’s Terri Treas), who blames the cockroaches. Meanwhile, Sheriff Richard Tarbell (Ghost Town’s Franc Luz), who also happens to be Elizabeth’s ex-boyfriend, calls in the local exterminator, Homer (Stephen Davies from Lords of the Deep), to help rid the island of its bug problem. Soon enough, Sheriff Tarbell discovers that Dr. Hubbard knows more about the roaches than she is telling anyone; that they have been genetically mutated by an evil corporation called INTEC to feed on living meat and to be impervious to any efforts to kill them. Sheriff Tarbell and Elizabeth struggle to figure out a way to defeat the roaches, but the bugs have a few more surprises in store for the heroes.
At its root, The Nest is a simple creature feature. It was even produced by Julie Corman (Saturday the 14th, Chopping Mall), the queen to the king of the creature feature, Roger Corman. The picture was directed by Terence H. Winkless (who would go on to direct episodes of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”), and it combines the camp of a Corman creature feature with the blood and gore of an early David Cronenberg film. The screenplay, adapted by Robert King (Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge) from a novel by Gregory Douglas, is a pretty typical Jaws-like story of man versus nature, but the addition of the faceless INTEC corporation inserts a sci-fi element to the horror. It’s not exactly Hitchcock, but The Nest is very effective at what it sets out to do: creep out its audience.
The creepiest aspect of The Nest is, hands down, the roaches themselves. From the first scene, a somewhat comedic sequence where Sheriff Tarbell unknowingly just misses out on ingesting a cockroach several times during his morning routine, the bugs rule the film. The roaches act as a swarm, but still manage to exhibit the qualities of individual insects. For shooting the bug scenes, Winkless either got very lucky or somehow found the most trainable cockroaches in the world. Either way, the insect shots are enough to give even the most stoic of viewers a heaping case of the willies. The bugs provide plenty of creep factor to The Nest.
Of course, The Nest doesn’t stop at just being creepy – it goes for the gross out, too. The special effects were done by James M. Navarra (976-EVIL), and they are a practical makeup artist’s dream. They start out simple enough, with some bloody wounds that illustrate the effects of a few roach attacks. Then, the effects move into The Fly territory, with hamburger meat, inside-out animal type of stuff. Finally, with the climax of the film, the audience gets to see “the Queen,” which is a full-on rubber-suited animatronic puppetry robotic whatever kind of insane final monster, the kind of creation that puts the Creature in Creature Feature. All of the effects, from the subtle through the absurd, are well done, and they are a big part of what makes The Nest so much fun to watch.
The presence of the cockroaches in The Nest is not accompanied by a musical theme, but with a sound effect. The sound design, which goes uncredited in the film but was most likely done by assistant editor Richard Villa (who did the sound for Invaders from Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), announces the entrance of the cockroaches with a click-y, buzzing, almost ambient hum that is absolutely grating on the ears – it’s the aural equivalent of seeing a swarming lot of cockroaches. The squealing drone is every bit as effective as the theme from Jaws when it comes to letting the viewer know that danger is near, and it’s far more unsettling. If it’s true that sound is half the picture, then The Nest is a complete film.
Creature features stop being polite and start getting real when the creatures are ones that can be encountered by people in everyday life. While the cockroaches in The Nest are not simply run-of-the-mill pests, they still strike a chord with viewers who are prone to cases of the heebie-jeebies, so the film is much more than just an average monster movie.