Sure, bees can be scary under the right circumstances; say, you’re allergic for instance, or you accidentally knock over a hive, or someone fills your mattress with them. But do you know what’s even scarier? Family. This brings us to Killer Bees (1974), an interesting yet generically titled TV movie that has more to do with the ties that bind than the stings that kill.
Originally broadcast on Tuesday, February 26th as an ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week, Killer Bees had killer competition with CBS’ smash lineup of M*A*S*H/Hawaii Five-O and NBC had their World Premiere Movie. Any guesses as to who won that night? No matter, because ABC had a secret weapon in Kate Jackson, my favorite Angel and first boyhood crush; she is more than enough reason for a recommendation from moi.
Crack open your trusty fake TV GUIDE and see what’s buzzing around:
KILLER BEES (Tuesday, 8:30pm, ABC)
A young couple returns to his family vineyard for her to meet his family, overseen by a paranoid and mysterious matriarch. Plus, bees. Edward Albert, Gloria Swanson, and the Goddess of Light and Beauty, Kate Jackson, star.
Our teletale opens with a man pulling into a small town and promptly trespasses into the nearby Von Bohlen Winery estate, resulting in a rather hostile welcome from a swarm of African bees. They follow him into his vehicle as he tries to escape, and in short order he crashes his car into the nearest telephone pole and perishes. At that exact moment, Edward Von Bohlen (Edward Albert – Galaxy of Terror) and his girlfriend Victoria (The Supreme Miss Jackson) are pulling up to the estate. The black sheep of the family, Edward has returned to tell the family and especially the matriarch, whom everyone refers to as Madame (Gloria Swanson – Sunset Boulevard), that he and Victoria are expecting a baby.
But before they can even get comfortable, Victoria is already made to feel like an outsider by everyone in the clan, including Edward’s father, and his brothers, one of whom is the town doctor and coroner. You see, the Von Bohlen’s own the whole town, and Madame seems to control all the bees as well; you could say her hold on them is even supernatural in nature. It is odd, however, that the bees never acted up until the arrival of Victoria…
Killer Bees (oh man, that title is painful) is far from the norm in the When Animals Attack sub-genre; yes, it follows Hitchcock’s The Birds formula as a kick off point as many do (outsiders must thwart evil/nature/door-to-door solicitors), but then something strange happens: it becomes a psychodrama about family and control thereof for 30 minutes before ramping up towards a fascinating climax. That middle 30 is almost fatal though, and a couple more attacks in between would have elevated the piece and put it on firmer genre ground. (I mean, I came for the bee deaths, thanks.) Hats off to the filmmakers though for using actual bees for much of it, eschewing the blowing puffed wheat of The Swarm (1978), which holds its own very special charms.
Yes, Killer Bees could push the exploitation angle farther, but director Curtis Harrington (Ruby) was already old hat at keeping it clean and creepy; How Awful About Allan (’70) and The Cat Creature (’73) are prime examples of how he could work within the boundaries of network standards and still create effective thrillers, albeit quite tame. Perhaps if the title had been changed to Chasing the Occasional Bee with the Von Bohlen’s expectations would have been more in line. (Okay, that’s the last remark on the title. Probably.)
Regardless, Killer Bees is worth sticking around for, because the cast has some true royalty in Miss Swanson, here in her second to last role (which would be Airport 1975); she’s alternately charming and chilling as Madame, who lords over the town and her family as its queen. Beyond the metaphor of familial ties, her connection to the bees is never explained, and perhaps that’s for the best; a little mystery always helps, and cements the denouement firmly within the genre. It’s a strong finish, to be sure.
But since it’s my column, a few words about Miss Jackson, if I may? She had already done genre work by this point, and was still two years away from becoming one of Charlie’s Angels; she’s simply luminous here, not to mention feisty and defiant, all the while commanding the screen with the sound of her sweet sandpaper lilt and mischievous smile. She’s simply the best, and I don’t mind spoiling the fact that the Killer Bees leave her unscathed. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be reviewing this at all.