One of the most enjoyable subgenres of 1950s sci-fi film is the “Big Bug” subgenre, also known as the “Insect Fear” or “Giant Insect” subgenre.
Compared with giant monster movies – Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, It Came from Beneath the Sea, etc. – Big Bug movies offered less outright death and destruction.
But they were weirder and more offbeat than typical giant monster movies.
They were also more realistic, and therefore more scary.
Even when their heyday had passed, Big Bug movies lingered on in American pop culture. In the 1962 Mars Attacks trading cards, giant insects figured into no less than a dozen cards, as the Martians use super-science to enlarge Earth’s insects and send them on murderous rampages.
In the 70s, Big Bug movies merged with Eco Terror to inspire Food of the Gods, Kingdom of the Spiders, and Bug. In the 80s and 90s, Big Bug movies helped inspire Skeeter, Creepshow, and Mimic. I’m sure you can add to this list.
But our business here is the 50s.
You can easily find articles about classic monster movies, both American and Japanese. But almost nothing has been published about the great Big Bug classics. Below, I’ll note six prominent Big Bug movie patterns and make further comparison with monster movies.
Then I’ll list all the Big Bug classics in chronological order.
1. OMINOUS ORIGINS
As with giant monster movies, radiation or chemicals are most often blamed for creating the creatures; in other words, we did it to ourselves. But natural disasters may also be responsible, as in The Black Scorpion. Either way, there is a sense of pessimism.
2. TELLTALE SIGNS
Usually, incredulous police or townsfolk discover signs of the giant insects – weird tracks, strange sounds, or sticky residue – before the actual creatures appear on screen. This makes for a step-by-step narrative.
3. DEAD FARM ANIMALS
These are often the creature’s first victims. Cows seem especially unlucky.
4. HEROIC SCIENTISTS
Perhaps an entomologist, but more likely a geologist or other kind of scientist will be our hero. They tend to be thinkers and planners. This differentiates them from the more creative reporters or the more strapping explorers who might be the heroes of giant monster movies. Sometimes the scientists clash with military men, as in several space-oriented sci-fi pictures of the era. But more often they’ll work with the military side by side.
Here you’ll get a relaxing five minutes of footage from a science documentary, the kind of thing you’d see in a high school biology class. It will happen when our hero needs to educate the town authorities. You’ll get real footage of the actual-sized insects of the giant creature’s type. Like the town authorities, the audience gets enlightened by the film-within-a-film. This helps us fully appreciate the Big Bug’s menace.
Something also common in regular giant monster movies: a big map on a wall to help us follow the creature’s path through the countryside. Often, the path leads straight toward a big city, and our heroes must stop the creature before it arrives.
Now here are all eight Big Bug classics. I’ve written more extensively on each of these in my Claws & Saucers film guidebook, but I hope you’ll enjoy my brief descriptions and comments below.
1. THEM! (1954)
From otherwise undistinguished director Gordon Douglas comes this first, and possibly best, of all Big Bug movies. It’s sad and serious at the opening, and it’s light on action compared with its imitators, but it’s got an eerie entrancing mood that lends it a touch of class. The giant ant puppets look realistic, though they’re always partly shrouded by fog or darkness.
2. TARANTULA (1955)
After Creature from the Black Lagoon but before Incredible Shrinking Man, director Jack Arnold made Tarantula, which probably has the best special effects of all Big Bug movies. The tarantula is real, superimposed to look 100-feet tall as it creeps across the Arizona desert.
Bonus: Clint Eastwood plays the fighter pilot who attacks the creature with napalm at the conclusion; you’ll scarcely see his face but you’ll recognize that voice.
3. THE BLACK SCORPION (1957)
You’d never think that some guy named Edward Ludwig who directed silent shorts in the 1920s would give us the most action-packed of all Big Bug movies in the 1950s.
But maybe we should expect no less when Willis O’Brien (King Kong) did the stop-motion effects. Mexico (not the US) gets attacked by many giant scorpions (not just one as in the title). For added fun, our hero never buttons his shirt and our heroine wears a tight jumpsuit.
4. BEGINNING OF THE END (1957)
From Bert I. Gordon (“Mr. BIG”) comes a surprisingly exciting story about giant grasshoppers attacking Chicago. Live grasshoppers are used, shot to look huge. In several shots, you can tell that it’s just life-sized grasshoppers crawling over some photographs. But the acting is strong (Peter Graves!) and, heck, the whole thing is only 75 minutes anyway.
5. THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957)
Substandard in all respects, this one is still interesting for the Cold War military stock footage. The mantis itself is a decent puppet, but the movie is uninspired. The ending recalls Them! Director Nathan Juran made Attack of the 50 Foot Woman a year later.
6. EARTH VS THE SPIDER (1958)
This is the only Big Bug movie that offers no explanation for the creature’s origin. The spider just emerges from a cave one day and attacks a small town, even crashing a high school dance!
The movie is aimed specifically at teenagers, one of the first movies to do so since teens as a “target audience” were first recognized a year earlier with I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Director Bert I. Gordon (yes, him again) didn’t notice, or didn’t care, that the giant spider changes size about five times during the movie. This just makes it even more fun.
7. MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1958)
Here’s another bad one, even worse than The Deadly Mantis, about giant wasp-beetles in Africa. (We’re told that the creatures are wasps even though they are clearly beetles.) Actually the beetles themselves are decently animated with stop-motion, and they make a scary buzzing sound. But they get very little screen time, and they pose no threat to anyone until the way end. Director Kenneth Crane also made the incredibly bizarre Manster (1959).
8. THE STRANGE WORLD OF PLANET X (1958)
Here’s the lone British entry into the subgenre. It’s also the least famous entry in the subgenre, and probably the worst. “Planet X” refers to Earth. In the movie, a visiting alien tries to help Earth fend off some mutated grasshoppers, roaches, beetles, and spiders. The special effects are awful and the pacing is glacial, but the final battle with the insects isn’t bad. The only good effect is a corpse’s face getting eaten off!
And that’s it! Those are the eight Big Bug movies that started it all.
Some viewers count THE BLOB (1958) as a bug movie, but I say it’s a monster movie, especially since the blob comes from outer space. Big Bugs might get created by cosmic rays, but the bugs themselves always have earthly origins.
If you’d like further reading, you’ll find that most articles focus on newer films, naming Starship Troopers, Arachnophobia, or Cronenberg’s The Fly among the leaders.
But here are two articles that list at least a few 50s classics:
- This one from FEARnet is a decent Top 5. It includes Monster That Challenged the World (1957) which features giant snails.