Friday, October 30, 2015

Invasion of the Bee Girls (Sequoia Pictures, 1973)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The first film on our program last night was Invasion of the Bee Girls, a 1973 movie with some genuinely formidable talent — the director was Denis Sanders, already known for the music documentaries Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970, about Elvis’s Vegas comeback in 1969) and Soul to Soul (1971, about a troupe of African-American soul-music stars giving a concert in Africa). The writer was Nicholas Meyer, who went on to write The Seven Per Cent Solution (one of the better book-length Sherlock Holmes pastiches) and write and direct Time After Time. The cinematographer was Gary Graver, who had already shot most of the unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind with Orson Welles as director. All that talent got wasted on a movie that took a potentially compelling presence — Dr. Susan Harris (Anitra Ford), a woman scientist at Brandt Institute in Peckham, California, develops a jelly extract from bees and uses it to turn women into sexually voracious creatures who literally fuck their husbands, boyfriends or tricks to death (they end up dead from heart attacks due to sexual overexertion) — and wasted it on a lot of silliness. Sanders clearly had an eye for composition, and the film is shot in excellent and well-used color (the vibrancy and brightness of the hues is a stunning contrast to the murky greens and dark browns that dominate most “color” films today). The hero is Neil Agar (William Smith, who usually played villains in biker movies but is surprisingly credible as a James Bond-ish character here), a State Department agent who learns of the bee-girls’ actions in Peckham and gets sent to investigate, presumably to find out if this is some secret weapon being unleashed by a foreign power for sinister purposes.

The heroine is Julie Zorn (Victoria Vetri), who at least for most of the movie appears to be the one woman Dr. Harris has allowed to remain normal instead of being “bee-ified,” though there’s a tiresome final sequence in which she and Neil finally end up in bed together, only just as it looks like they’re enjoying a perfectly normal and non-life-threatening sexual encounter, we hear the buzzing of bees on the soundtrack and there’s a glint in her eyes that in previous bee-sexual experiences in the film was signaling that her bee-energies were coming into play and she was ready to attack and wear out her partner. Of course, the film takes its own sweet time telling us all this, but when we see Dr. Harris and her basement installation in which she turns ordinary human females into “bee-girls” the film shades over from the mildly risible to the totally silly. The highlight of the process is that, after a ray gun is aimed at the poor woman’s crotch to irradiate it, her naked body is covered with a weird sort of goop that looks like a cross between cake frosting and Silly Putty and she’s then baked in a radioactive oven, from which once she emerges and the putty covering is removed she’s a sexually voracious monster even though she still looks the same as she did when she went in. It’s the sort of movie that has an eminently reasonable running time (85 minutes) but seems considerably longer than that, and it’s also a nudie in that we get to see a lot of women going topless as well as at least one sequence of a nude (straight) couple in the wilderness, though the male is only shown from behind (darnit). This sort of sexual exploitation of the female body was actually rather common in underground films of the early 1960’s — a few big-city theatres would book “nudies” and show them after midnight following a night of more mainstream fare — but it seems excessively dated for 1973. The film’s music doesn’t help much, either: the credited composer is Charles Bernstein, who must have been affected by having to carry out his career under the long shadows of his namesakes Leonard and Elmer, but the music is a weird assemblage of “vapor voices” and Ligeti-esque mumblings that seem to have been his homage to the use of the real Ligeti’s music in 2001: A Space Odyssey — and the 2001 references become even clearer when the final extreme close-ups of real bees are accompanied by the opening of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra — which, as I’ve commented before when that music has been used in such silly contexts, is the praise imbecility pays to genius.