Sunday 11 March 2012

Bug Buster (1998)

Director: Lorenzo Doumani
Stars: Katherine Heigl, David Lipper, Meredith Salenger and Randy Quaid

This DVD was just too good to resist, especially for a measly buck ninety-nine. It's a modern day monster movie from the late nineties that tries to be a throwback to the late fifties and succeeds, though only in a good way for about two thirds of its running time. It features a cast of TV actors, led by Dr Izzie Stevens from Grey's Anatomy and backed up by both Scotty and Sulu from Star Trek, along with The Love Boat's Dr Adam Bricker, Battlestar Galactica's Sheba and Crystal from Passions, even a brief appearance from MTV VJ Downtown Julie Brown. The monster is played by Doug Jones, early enough in his career that it predates even Mystery Men. In the end the show is stolen ruthlessly and shamelessly by Randy Quaid, who ably spins his gimmick into a force to be reckoned with. Of all things, he plays an over the top exterminator from TV commercials. Early on that's the only place we see him. Later, he joins the regular plot and simply takes over.

The setup is traditional. Before the opening credits, the governor of California announces at a press conference that he will order his state be sprayed with a chemical pesticide to combat the spread of a fly that threatens to wipe out it's entire food crop for the year. What stands out today is that the doctor who stands up to protest this decision is played by George Takei, who many would dearly like to see enter politics. He's Dr Fujimoto, who explains that his studies suggest that this particular chemical pesticide will cause mutations and accelerated growth in insects. His final line is quintessential Takei. The governor asks him what could be worse than losing the entire state's food crop and putting thousands of people out of work. 'You have no idea,' comes the reply. Well, we have a pretty good idea, given that this is a monster movie called Bug Buster, one made by Shoreline Entertainment, an independent production company on its second title.

After the credits we leap forward thirteen years to find cockroaches crawling all over a sleeping Katherine Heigl. They don't appear to be CGI, not least because I don't think the budget ran that high, so she did a pretty good job of not icking out. These things are everywhere, crawling over her face and up her nightgown, hanging from the ceiling fan. My stepson would have fled the house screaming like a girl at this scene, so I'm sure the stereotypical girls at drive ins would be burying their heads in their boyfriends' chests right about now. And this is most certainly a drive in movie. I can't think of a better place to see it. The budget, or the lack of it, is also noticeable in that this scene, which is a recurring nightmare on the part of young Shannon Griffin, is reused a number of times during the film. Maybe Heigl managed to not ick out only once and then briefly, forcing the filmmakers to reuse the footage every time they needed more.

Shannon is moving with her parents from Newport to Mountview. They're a happy family, even though Gil Griffin has been downsized and has bought the Black Forest Lodge with their savings. He has a new lease on life, he explains. 'Moving here is going to be a blessing for all of us,' says Cammie, his wife. I'd certainly go for it. Mountview may not have a doctor any more but it has a movie theater playing classic Vincent Price movies. The tone is very old school. Shannon is the rebellious kid who didn't want to leave what she knows as home, but in this throwback to the fifties that simply means she gets to pout at the lodge's door for a scene and then make the best of it by hooking a cute guy in no time flat. The Griffins are also a peach of a TV family, a mere year before TV would create another peach of a family called the Griffins in Family Guy. Heigl is best known from Grey's Anatomy, Dad from The Love Boat and Mum from Battlestar Galactica.

If you've ever seen a monster movie, you know it can't stay this happy for long, and sure enough in Mountview, the stories about things that eat the legs off swimmers in the lake turn out to be true. Something is down there trying to get its hooks into skinnydipping Veronica Hart and Steve, the sort of boyfriend she's already got her hooks into. Enter James Doohan to start with the pop culture references that pervade the film. He's a very calm sheriff but a tough one. One scratch on Veronica's leg and he shuts down the lake. He saw Jaws, you see, and he 'just doesn't want anyone to get hurt.' It doesn't last. When searching the next day, he shoots the scarfish that was trying to eat his young deputy, Bo (yes, the other deputy is Luke) and business is back to usual, at least for a while. Dr Laurie Casey, the cute local vet, isn't sure it will last. Nothing adds up and so she calls her former professor, Dr Fujimoto, for advice and everything links back together.
Bug Buster isn't just a monster movie, it's a comedy, so we know it's not taking itself seriously, but it worked for me for the majority of the film. The story is traditional and the tone is PG as far as the internal morals of the piece go. We do get to see one of Katherine Heigl's breasts as she gets out of the bath but that's it for 'adult material'. Switch it to black and white and age it a little and the main thrust of the story would have worked half a century ago. Sure, audiences in the fifties wouldn't have got the references to Uncle Buck, Mike Tyson and The Dukes of Hazzard, let alone recognised any of the plethora of TV actors in the cast, but on the flipside Dr Fujimoto's computer equipment would have seemed believable back then. It's your usual primitive late nineties PC but this one does DNA analysis, talks with a sultry female voice and allows him to set up 3D battles between insects. To us it's stupid, to them it would have been science fiction.

The death scenes get pretty gruesome, surprising given the tone the film takes otherwise, but they do play up the quirkiness: the first character to die is Johnny Legend, after roaches creep up his saxophone during a performance by Trailer Park Trash. While there obviously wasn't much of a budget, the gore effects are surprisingly good and the monster at the end, designed by Jeanne Vosloo of Alterian Studios, is an appropriate throwback to the heyday of the genre. Presumably if the filmmakers had stayed true to the death scenes of the classics, they wouldn't have sold their movie. Otherwise it's very traditional. There's a local nutjob foreseeing doom and destruction, this time called Judediah. There's a love interest for Shannon in the form of Steve Williams, an orphan working at a gas station. The cops don't really know what to do. The scientists struggle to find out. Meanwhile the deaths continue to mount. It's nothing unusual but it's capably done.

Where it broke for me is when Gen George, Pest Eliminator, star of a number of suitably over the top TV commercials screened during the film, escaped the small screen and actually joined the rest of the cast in Mountview as a character. Randy Quaid has a blast as Gen George, supposed Vietnam vet and hater of all things bug. His commercials are militaristic, with him swinging from jungle vines and firing automatic weapons at anything that moves. His number is 500-KICK ASS. You get the picture. Well, this was funny in the form of commercials but bringing Gen George in to take care of the bug problem in Mountview is when the film jumps the shark. I don't want to fault Randy Quaid's performance because he's solid as a rock but he just shouldn't be there. The film immediately stops being a story and becomes a Saturday Night Live skit. Everything set up is forgotten and ignored so that Gen George can run riot and the cast can try not to crack up.

George Takei had fun as Dr Fujimoto, though he didn't bring any Star Trek jokes with him as he did to Full Moon's Oblivion films. His biggest problem is that he doesn't actually interact with any other character, presumably because he wasn't actually in the same place as the other actors. After the opening scene, which doesn't feature any of the other characters in the film either, he's confined to his lab from which he talks to his old student on the phone, getting her name wrong every time. Downtown Julie Brown plays a sensationalist TV reporter, ignoring every convention of good behaviour to get another salacious tidbit. So there's been life in the film, just relatively believable life, or at least as believable as monster movies get. Once Gen George hits town, all that is thrown out and we go as overboard as we can. As if to compete, every character starts to go wild too, even James Doohan who had been as restrained as Takei wasn't up to this point.

I liked the film for two thirds of its running time. It's nothing special, to be sure, but it's a fun little monster movie with faces we know and stories we know better. The dialogue is decent: 'He was a war hero in Vietnam,' Uncle Buck says about Gen George. 'What did he do?' 'He survived.' The location is neat; the camera capable; all the actors decent, even if we don't recognise them. It feels like one time writer Malick Khoury knew his genre and paid it fair homage. But I hated the last third. Gen George leads a charge not just against the bugs in Mountview but against the old school tone of the film. To me he felt like Hollywood arriving and demanding that it should all be louder, more obnoxious, more stupid. So in come the fart jokes, the stand up comedy and the overt spoofs of Patton and Ghostbusters and who knows what else, all at once. Even the ending is insanely stupid and makes absolutely no sense whatever. I should have stopped an hour in.

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