Bug (1975)—the mad scientist.
Monstrous cockroaches ignite hair in Bug.
Cockroaches in Bug prove fatal.
Bug’s cockroaches look tame but breath fire.
In Bug cockroaches evolve quickly, learning to fly, write, and drag their creator to hell.
In Mimic the mad scientist is also a healer.
The mimic’s humanlike stance.
A mad scientist seeks to rectify the horror she created.
The opening of the film Cronos shows the device’s first vampire owner.
Jesus and his granddaughter Aurora admire the cronos device.
The powerful de la Guardia contemplates his own mortality.
Jesus seems destined to become a vampire like Dracula.
Although both Bug and Mimic anthropomorphize roaches and other insects, neither the insects nor the scientists that transform them are well treated. Based on the novel, The Hephaestus Plague, William Castle’s final film, Bug, highlights what happens when a scientist tampers with nature. Roaches that belch flames remain vulnerable and easily destroyed until entomologist James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman) attempts to mate them with other roaches. The roaches then become more like humans as they gain intelligence; they grow deadly when they breed, producing carnivorous offspring. Eventually, these offspring also mate and kill, creating flying burning insects that drag Parmiter and the science he represents to hell.
Despite the heightened anthropomorphism, then, in Bug, both cockroach and scientist are constructed as monstrous. Although the film’s scientist Parmiter is a biology professor who explains many things, he is also—as entomologist Mertins remarks about the scientist image—“shown … as detached from reality,” a “psychotic” (86). Parmiter begins as a great teacher who tells his students, “Earth, soil, wind, temperature are all part of an exact pattern.” When he instructs his students about a Florida beetle that scalds its enemy, however, the film’s focus on a rare roach species is broached. And when a farm boy shows him a dead cat, burned by the flaming cockroaches, the teacher is intrigued, so much so that he makes the roach his life work—even after the roaches kill his wife by crawling into her hair and lighting her up like a human torch.
Aided by the insect photography of Ken Middleham, who also filmed the documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) and the science fiction thriller Phase IV (1974), Bug provides an authentic portrayal of the cockroaches, at least until breeding ignites their intelligence to such an extent that they can read and write. The prehistoric roaches that appear after an earthquake, for example, produce sparks not unlike the bioluminescence of the South American cockroach, called “pronatal headlights” in Bell et al’s Cockroaches. As Bill Gibron of PopMatters declares, close-up shots of the film’s roach mandibles also “make their actions seem almost plausible.”
The monstrous nature of these roaches is shown in a variety of scenes before Parmiter decides to breed a new species. His friend Mark’s (Alan Fudge) wife Sylvia (Patty McCormack) is killed by a roach attack, for example, and a roach also climbs in another woman’s ear (Jamie Smith Jackson) and destroys her. Although we do not see her killed on screen, Parmiter’s wife Carrie’s (Joanna Miles) death is gruesome. But as Mark explains, these new roaches live very short lives and cannot reproduce, at least without intervention, so the danger associated with them should be finite.
The horror becomes amplified when Parmiter further anthropomorphizes the roaches by facilitating their reproduction. In a dark and deserted farmhouse setting, the now reclusive Parmiter breeds this new species of roach with what looks like an U.S. cockroach specimen in a process that will transform a dying species into a menace. Later, when Parmiter sees the roaches write “We Live” on the wall with their bodies, he knows he has created unbeatable human-like monsters and is helpless against their assault. After their flames engulf him, we see him burning. But in an odd twist that emphasizes the parallels between the roaches and their creator Parmiter, the offspring of the original breed drag him into the crevice left by a second earthquake. The fissure’s bottom looks like the bowels of hell, with fire and brimstone deep below, and the earth explodes and covers them, closing off the opening.
This sudden ending turns horror into camp, but it also demonstrates negative associations with both science and anthropomorphized insects found in most bug features. It also serves as a not too subtle moral attack on science and the cockroach monsters science could create. As Bill Gibron states, “Naturally, whenever you wander onto God’s domain, things get out of hand and more people die. And it takes an unexplainable divine intervention (a second earthquake and a noble individual sacrifice) to end the debacle.”
As in The Nest, Mimic illustrates some of the negative repercussions of genetic engineering, even with good intentions. To eradicate a deadly disease spread by roaches, entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Miro Sorvino) creates the Judas Breed, a roach hybrid designed to kill the common U.S. cockroaches carrying the virus. What fails in Tyler’s design, however, is the genetic change meant to kill off this new strain. Although Tyler has constructed this new species without the ability to reproduce, they mutate over a three-year period and not only multiply but also grow to an enormous size, allowing them to mimic their human prey in an explicit act of anthropomorphism.
The plot draws on mythology to reveal the cockroaches as monsters early in the film when they are connected with the deaths of hundreds of children in New York City. An opening shot of pinned cockroaches matches photos of deceased children, also pinned like insects. Close-ups of the eyes and other body parts of departed children then amplify this connection. We learn the death toll has reached 1000, and the Center for Disease Control has been unable to halt the epidemic of “Strickler’s Disease” until Tyler creates the Judas Breed.
Despite their benefits to the city’s young population, the Judas Breed’s impact on the biotic community remains unclear. Three years after the breed’s creation, the disease has been eradicated, but evidence that the new breed has become monstrous begins to appear. We see a man running from something and falling to his death from a painting scaffold while an autistic boy, Chuy (Alexander Goodwin), watches from his window and recites names of different kinds of shoes. Chuy provides the first indication that the predator is the Judas Breed when he makes the sound of an insect with his two spoons and exclaims, “Funny, funny shoes.” When Tyler receives an intermediate sized specimen, she begins to realize that her genetic experiment has failed. Instead of dying off, the Judas breed has evolved, growing into a predator. The Judas Breed has found a way to reproduce despite genetic engineering and has become a threat to the city instead of its savior.
Tyler’s role as a “mad scientist” is complicated in Mimic, however,when she and her partner Peter (Jeremy Northam) decide to “undo” the monstrous genetic mistake she has produced. With help from Chuy’s father (Giancarlo Gianninni), Tyler, and a subway cop (Charles S. Dutton), they bring tension to the conflict between human and nonhuman nature. After a long and suspenseful battle with the Judas Breed “Mimics” in the subway tunnels, an abandoned ornate station, and antique train car, Tyler escapes with Chuy, and Peter destroys the Mimics’ nest by lighting gas in the subway tunnels and escaping through a waterway beneath it. Tyler destroys the remaining male Judas breed by leading him to a train that crushes him, and Peter walks out of a tunnel, reuniting the family, with Chuy added to it. Brute force, not genetic manipulation, seemingly destroys the Judas Breed.
Despite its initial traditionally negative construction of both scientists and the mutant bugs they create, the film concludes with a more sympathetic portrayal of entomology and a more nuanced critique of humanity’s exploitation of the natural world. Mimic draws on Copeland’s more positive approach to the insect, highlighting how metaphors surrounding the cockroach draw on anthropomorphic tendencies. As Copeland suggests, the film demonstrates how associations of the cockroach with chthonic elements affect their literary and filmic reputation. According to Copeland, literary works are “rooted in world traditions that draw on the cockroach’s tendency to prefer dark and hidden places, both linked in the modern mind to the chthonic, the early powers associated with the feminine as well as with eroticism and fertility” (“Voices of the Least Loved” 155). Mimic illustrates these roots.
Although, as Janet Maslin states in her New York Times review, the film “exploits a dual fascination with morbidity and rogue science,” this traditional horror film, drawn from predecessors such as The Relic and Alien, also gains force under the direction of Guillermo del Toro, who infuses a stale plot with stylistic elements that emphasize the disastrous environmental consequences of such genetic alterations. As Roger Ebert suggests, for example, del Toro creates “tactical suspense” with Chuy’s clicking spoons. Del Toro also constructs both the Judas breed and its habitat with an eye toward Gothic horror and suspense.
The Judas Breed, too, moves beyond the typical horror monster with help from both del Toro and production designer Carol Spier. According to Maslin, “the bugs move with scary agility, and the sounds are highly evocative, even if histrionic music too often suggests that the Phantom of the Opera may be in the wings.” Shots of the breed mimicking humans also transform a commonplace horror into a fresh Gothic film. Because the breed is a mutant insect, however, a mixture of termite and mantis, its monstrous qualities also draw on the cockroach’s strengths and stereotypes. Ultimately the Judas Breed must be destroyed, and entomologist Tyler must correct the deadly mistake she made despite its initial benefits. With these qualities in mind, the film demonstrates well—with both narrative and aesthetic elements—that manipulation of the natural world may have dangerous repercussions.
Cronos and humanity’s search for immortality
Although it too argues against manipulating nature and transforming insects, Cronos draws on the more positive aspects of the cockroach mythology and anthropomorphism, stressing the roach’s ability to survive as a way to explore thematically humanity’s urge to live forever. The film broaches positive associations with cockroaches that Copeland notes in her book Cockroach. Because “of its predilection for the dark” (81), Copeland suggests, the cockroach has become associated with “the unconscious and the power of the id” (81), an image Cronos explores. Told from the perspective of a revisionist vampire, Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) and his not-so-innocent granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), the film normalizes the urge for immortality, as well as the power of an id bent on self-satisfaction.
When Jesus unwittingly reactivates a cockroach-shaped gold device, he also highlights positive associations with the insect. Golden cockroaches in the Mexican tradition are associated with fertility and rebirth. As literary scholar Cristopher Hollingsworth suggests, “To Mexicans, the cockroach is more than a pest. Celebrated in folklore and song, this durable creature is associated with survival and successful opposition to oppression” (273). In the film, we find out that this device was built by a 16th century alchemist, Uberto Fulcanelli (Mario Iván Martínez), who craved eternal life.
When the device reappears in Jesus’ antique shop more than 400 years later, it prompts the primary struggles of the film, as well. Jesus must overcome inner conflicts between life and death, and between the human and monstrous forces driving his actions. He must also battle a dying corporate magnate, De la Guardia (Claudio Brook) and his American nephew Angel (Ron Perlman), who will do anything to get the device. To resolve these conflicts, however, the film draws on the same ideology as other cockroach horror films. Because the Cronos device exploits the mythologized sense of permanence associated with the cockroach to transform a mortal human into an enduring insect–like vampire, the user defies the natural order, which can only lead to failure, death, and devastation.
Cronos illustrates and explains the device’s source in an opening scene that introduces the film’s first conflict, that between life and death. An alchemist seeking eternal life creates the device in 1536. He is a mad scientist transforming himself into a vampire who lives until 1937, when the device is re-discovered. Brad O’Brien thus suggests, “although Fulcanelli is a vampire, first he is a mad scientist playing God, a postmodern version of Prometheus, a late twentieth-century take on Frankenstein…. Del Toro has combined the myths of Dracula and Frankenstein in order to form his own creation myth” (173). In its plot however, the film concentrates more fully on the drive for eternal life associated with both the insect that operates the device and the vampire that Jesus becomes.
This exploration of immortality as both a blessing and a curse is presented in two contrasting settings that emphasize these and other dualities: the Gris home and antique shop vs. the de la Guardia industrial complex and residence. As Roger Ebert declares, “This is the stuff of classic horror films, and Cronos … combines it with a colorful Latin magic realism.” And Desson Howe of the Washington Post calls the film “an enormously enjoyable gothic yarn from Mexico [that] transfuses the genre with wry grotesquerie, but retains respect for the old classic films.” The light and color choices made by del Toro accentuate this respect for the classic horror film, while also drawing on elements of both the gothic horror of literature and a sense of alienation created by the modern industrial world.
The contrast between the color palates in these two settings amplifies the conflicts that Jesus confronts. Although the sixteenth-century past of the alchemist is shot in sepias with smooth light that provides a neutral view of this world, the world of the Grises is warm and inviting despite, as del Toro explains in his notes, “a stylistic connection between the alchemist and Jesus” attached to shots of the interior of the device. According to del Toro, in the Gris home and antique shop there should be “no cold tones” and “blues, grays, purples, etc.” should be avoided. The cinematography, del Toro explains, “should be filtering toward an almost golden light.” This use of warm colors connects both the home and antique shop with life rather than death, and good rather than evil, complicating traditional views of the vampire—once the device transforms Jesus, endowing him with youthful drives and eternal life. Del Toro accentuates this warmth with soft and fluffy textures as well, from puffy pillows to the comfy towel Aurora offers Jesus when he returns home after Angel attempts to murder him.
Angel provides the catalyst for Jesus’s transformation, as well as the multiple conflicts of the film. He first shows the placement of both the Cronos device and the roaches that “operate” it inside an archangel statue with a missing eye. Shaped like a cockroach, the Cronos device is gold; it is a golden cockroach like the fertility symbol of Mexican folklore. According to Copeland, golden cockroaches in the Mexican tradition were associated with “the golden maize used in their ritual observance of the sun’s power over the biotic community. They had revered the roaches as one of the chthonic powers” (157).