2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 56, winter 2014-2015
“As beautiful as a butterfly”?
Monstrous cockroach nature and the horror film
By Joseph Heumann and Robin Murray
A key scene in the middle of Guillermo del Toro’s 1993 horror debut, Cronos, typifies how fiction film uses conflicting views of insects. Attesting to insects’ power, dying industrialist de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) says a coveted device prolongs life because a cockroach trapped inside it functions like a “living filter.” He asks the film’s hero, Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), who has activated the mechanism for himself, “Who says insects aren’t God’s favorite creatures?” They have survived from almost earth’s beginnings while other species have disappeared. More to the point, de la Guardia suggests that insects may have qualities that transform them from vile creatures into gods, declaring, “Christ walked on water—just like a mosquito.”
Animal studies scholar Marion W. Copeland provides a context for this kind of reaction in her essay, “Voices of the Least Loved: Cockroaches in the Contemporary American Novel,” in Insect Poetics, asserting, “The symbolic value of the cockroach to marginal literatures comes from the insect’s reputation as both survivor and victim” (155), characteristics that anthropomorphize the cockroach and imply both positive and negative perspectives on humanity. The suggestion that the cockroach will outlast all other life forms, including humans, permeates popular film, including positive appearances as the only friend of the hero in WALL-E (2008) and negative portrayals as villain in Men in Black (1997) and Starship Troopers (1997). [open endnotes in new window]
In the horror genre, such a symbolic value also sometimes leads to explorations of how we may transform cockroaches into both monsters and saviors when humanity intervenes “scientifically,” either deliberately or by accident. Copeland and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff assert a usefulness to anthropomorphizing, and entomological consultant James W. Mertins declares that “almost all of the well-treated movie arthropods are at least somewhat anthropomorphized.” But in the cockroach horror film, as Stephen R. Kellert points out, representations of the cockroach highlight its characteristics so as to promote fear in humans while also drawing on traits we share with these insects in our most horrific versions of ourselves.
A definition of “anthropomorphism” put foreward by computer scientists Per Persson, Jarmo Laaksolahti, and Peter Lonnquist indicates how we might make these horrific connections. For Per Persson, et al, anthropomorphism serves as “a way of simplifying and thereby making sense of the environment by projecting a host of expectations about human life onto aspects of that environment.” They say we do this by referring to differing phenomena and schools of thought—primitive psychology, folk-psychology, traits, social roles, and emotional anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphized traits of the cockroach, then, underpin the narratives of cockroach horror films whether or not the films present cockroaches as survivors or victims, or as benefactors to humanity or destructive forces of nature.
When Gregor Samsa awoke to discover he had turned into a cockroach in Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s brilliant literary creation forever crystallized humankind’s eternal fear of and disgust with the common household insect. In the horror films Bug (1975), Damnation Alley (1977), The Nest (1988), Cronos, and Mimic (1997), however, their “villainy” is a product of transformation that differs from that described in Metamorphosis. In these horror films, such changes connect with themes about ecology, either through the films’ depicting experimental genetic alterations or chemical or nuclear environmental disasters. Mimic and Bug, for example, examine the destructive repercussions of genetic engineering originally meant to alter cockroaches for human benefit, and these representations even move beyond historian William M. Tsutsu’s suggestion that “these cinematic big bugs [represent] ambivalence about science and technocratic authority, and repressed Freudian impulses” (1). Cronos takes these points about a changed environment further, emphasizing insects’ symbolic survival value, In addition, the film explores the implications of humanity’s drive for immortality by transforming its hero into an insect not unlike the cockroach that was the source of his change. Despite this seemingly positive association, however, Cronos also projects a negative view of the cockroach and all it represents. In this regard, it is like most films about insects.As Mertins asserts, “arthropod features rarely project positive images of arthropods, entomologists, or science” (86).
Typically, then, altered and enhanced roaches are presented as horrific monsters that must be destroyed, perhaps because they too closely resemble the monstrous side of humanity. Damnation Alley illustrates how cockroaches might transform into killers after a nuclear holocaust, and The Nest explores the possible disastrous consequences of a biological experiment that turns roaches into flesh-eating fiends. Mimic and Bug, on the other hand, examine the destructive repercussions of genetic engineering meant to alter cockroaches for human benefit. Mimic explores the long-term effects after entomologist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) creates a mutant breed of cockroach, the Judas Breed, to offset an epidemic spread by the common cockroach. Bug also examines the ramifications of developing a new breed of cockroach, in this case showing the roaches’ growth both in intelligence and destructive force. Cronos more explicitly highlights the symbolic value of the cockroach as a seemingly immortal survivor. All these films, however, demonstrate a similar perspective on the cockroach, suggesting that manipulating nature, even for beneficial results, ultimately leads to destructive ends.
Damnation Alley and The Nest: classic cockroach horror
Based on a novel by science fiction writer Roger Zelazny, Damnation Alley shows us Earth after a Third World War. The planet is tilted off its axis, covered in radioactive dust, and surrounded by bizarre red clouds and spasmodic flames. Like the iconic Big Bug movie Them (1954), one of Earth’s new realities is monstrously transformed insect life. Also, according to the film’s narrator, the climate has gone insane. Once the radiation settles down, the few humans that remain must struggle for survival and dominance, a struggle nearly thwarted by the monstrous insects created by the nuclear war. And the most horrific of these monstrous insects is the cockroach. Such a plot setup is sure to set off a predicitable response in viewers. As interdisciplinary scholar Eric C. Brown explains in his introduction to Insect Poetics,
“Cockroaches routinely outrank other animals as the most repulsive species, and reality television shows like Survivor and Fear Factor exploit disgust at protein-laden arthropods to draw ratings” (x).
Setting up the plot, the first set of insect monsters in the film, giant blue scorpions, surround a compound where ex-military personnel now live. The scorpions attempt to attack a motorcycle rider, Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), who is returning from town with a stuffed life-size female doll. His roommate, Keegan (Paul Winfield) first believes Tanner has sacrificed a woman to the scorpions, but when he looks through his binoculars, he realizes it is a department store mannequin. In this post-apocalyptic setting, the mannequin rather than the giant blue scorpions attract Keegan’s attention.
Such a comic scene in some ways separates Damnation Alley from earlier insect horror films that had primarily serious tones. In an essay suggesting that those big bug movies were responding to “growing misgivings about the safety and effectiveness of modern insecticides,” historian William M. Tsutsui demonstrates this separation. According to Tsutsui,
“Critics and historians have invariably interpreted these cinematic big bugs as symbolic manifestations of Cold War era anxieties, including nuclear fear, concern over communist infiltration, ambivalence about science and technocratic authority, and repressed Freudian impulses” (1).
Damnation Alley takes a more comic approach to the big bug movie. Yet, here too giant scorpions are portrayed as monsters that must be avoided and destroyed, even though humanity’s addiction to war produced them.
A second set of insect monsters show up later in the film, after the military compound near Tanner and Keegan’s refuge explodes when a cigarette ignites a gas leak. Only two of the officers housed there survive—Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard) and Lt. Tom Perry (Kip Niven). The new insect monsters emerge in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the group encounters large formations of killer cockroaches while collecting supplies. The first evidence of the roaches appears when they find a human skeleton picked completely clean by radioactive cockroaches emerging from the sewers. The film emphasizes their monstrous nature by having the roaches attack Keegan, who is overwhelmed and killed in seconds. Tanner and Janice also encounter hordes of cockroaches in a department store, but they escape on their motorcycle. “The whole town is infested with killer cockroaches,” Tanner exclaims and then we see human skeletal remains throughout the town.
The film depicts cockroaches as monsters throughout these battles within the community with little attempt to anthropomorphize them. As the survivors head toward the hope of sanctuary in Albany, New York, insects are a monstrous enemy defying all natural laws. Radiation was the culprit causing changes in insect life, alterations that don’t appear in any other species in the film. Ultimately Tanner, Janice, and Denton successfully combat all the insect monsters they encounter and find fellowship in Albany with what we presume are the only remaining humans in the Unites States. The transformed cockroaches presumably live on as monstrous nature that must be eradicated or avoided.
At least in Western culture, cockroaches continue to promote fear and aversion in humans. In Hollywood films, insects—cockroaches in particular—embody characteristics that promote fear in humans, but those traits may also implicitly refer to aspects of humanity. For example, insects are “often associated with notions of mindlessness and an absence of feeling,” thus setting up a potential imaginary link between insects and madness. And they also possess a radical “autonomy… from human will and control” (Kellert 58), a disposition associated with humans who resist subjugation. Finally, according to Kellert, their incredible fecundity seems to generate the most fear in humans. In Damnation Alley, for example, such fecundity turns monstrous when it contrasts so vigorously with humanity’s self-destruction.
The Nest (1988) complicates horror film imagery by connecting the cockroach’s monstrous aspects to a mad scientist figure. With its focus on the connection between science and corporations, The Nest’s plot may copy that of the more famous Alien (1979). As in the Alien films, a conflict between humans and monsters they have created is resolved once a queen and her brood are discovered and destroyed. This time, though, the “nest” is deep in a cave outside an idyllic California coastal town. The plot then warns against genetic modifications of cockroaches, a transformation that turns bugs into horrifically anthropomorphized monsters. Negative associations with the insects grow as they take center stage from the film’s opening until its closing denouement. Entomologist Edward O. Wilson’s foreword to Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior, and Natural History illustrates well a kind of revulsion and aversion that this film illustrates:
“Most of us, even the entomologists in whose ranks I belong, have a stereotype of revolting creatures that scatter from leftover food when you turn on the kitchen light and instantly disappear into inaccessible crevices. These particular cockroaches are a problem, and the only solution is blatticide, with spray, poison, or trap.” (Bell, et al ix)
The cockroaches in The Nest are first established as pests that must be eradicated but then transform into monsters that may ultimately destroy humanity instead. Theyare, as Eric C. Brown claims, “humanity’s Other” (xi). It is worth describing the plot in some detail to see how science is shown to create the horror.
The Nest opens in a small harbor town of North Port where Sheriff Richard Tarbell’s (Franc Luz) switchboard officer has been getting strange calls about missing animals, calls that are immediately connected to insects when Tarbell finds a cockroach in his coffee at a diner counter. The sense of a widespread presence of cockroaches is also reinforced when the librarian reveals that something—mice or insects—has eaten all of the bindings out of her library books. The central cockroach drama, however, intertwines with a subplot, a love triangle Tarbell creates between himself and two women, the diner’s owner Lillian (Nancy Morgan) and his previous girlfriend Elizabeth (Lisa Langlois). The re-igniting of Tarbell and Elizabeth’s romance leads to a clue about the insect problem. When Elizabeth takes a walk toward the hideout of their youth, she finds a “no trespassing” sign from “Intec Development.” A German shepherd’s cries of agony stop her; when she reaches the dog, she finds his flesh eaten down to the bone. Tarbell retrieves something that looks like insect droppings off of the dog, yet village Mayor Elias (Robert Lansing) urges Tarbell to hold off on searching the Intec property for more evidence. He claims Intec is building condominiums and will bring revenue to the island.
The Nest constructs scientists as monsters when Intec sends an entomologist, Dr. Morgan Hubbard (Terri Treas), to the island to examine the devoured dog. Dr. Morgan serves as a typical representative of the inhuman, perhaps “mad” scientist seen in most classic monster movies. Instead of experiencing the fear felt by the rest of the community, Dr. Hubbard seems enamored by the roaches and explicitly anthropomorphizes them. For example, when the cockroaches attack a trapped cat, she exclaims, “very brave, very strange creatures,” since few predators can threaten the cockroach.
Dr. Hubbard’s reactions to the insects reinforce studies of cockroaches that highlight their physical and intellectual strengths. Such studies also make explicit connections between cockroaches and humans. According to Copeland, for example, “as in humans, female cockroaches have stronger immune responses than males and the very young and very old have weaker responses than mature adults” (131). As early as 1912, studies at Summer Teacher’s College in St. Louis showed that cockroaches could learn to “overcome their innate aversion to light” (135). They were also found capable of running a maze, even without their heads (135). In The Nest, then, cockroaches join forces to trap and defeat a cat.
The film reveals that because they have been genetically modified in an Intec lab, the roaches have also developed new powers, more concretely illustrating the human and god-like qualities associated with them. The females now can reproduce without the contributions of their male counterparts, for example. Because she has produced these females, Dr. Hubbard embraces these new superior but deadly qualities, naming them nymph cockroaches. She lauds their abilities, but when she puts her gloved hand near them in a large lab container, they quickly bite it, highlighting their move from human prey to predator. As a “mad” scientist, however, Hubbard seems sexually excited by the mangling of her hand, refusing to remove it until Elias pulls it out. Despite these warning signs, Dr. Hubbard tells Elias she can control the roaches and asks for twenty-four hours to solve the problem.
Elizabeth’s examination of Elias’s papers begins to reveal the truth about these cockroaches’ genetic alterations. Instead of condominiums, Intec has built a research facility where, according to Hubbard, her experiments are benevolent rather than destructive and meant to create cockroaches that will destroy all other roaches and then die without reproducing. However, the cockroaches have grown so powerful that even a lethal pesticide can’t destroy them. A solution arises when the main characters realize the roaches have become social animals and must have a nest and a queen to guide them.
The final dark scenes of the movie emphasize a possible solution to rebalance the horror of this now monstrous nature. As Elizabeth explains, if they destroy the caves, they will destroy the nest, suggesting that if they destroy the horror’s setting, the monstrous insect horror will also disappear. The roaches all go toward the queen in the caves like “a collective unconscious,” the film thus making an overt connection to an anthropomorphized cockroach mythology. In the cave where the nest is hidden, Dr. Hubbard is destroyed by a roach figure constructed of multiple human skeletons. Tarbell and Elizabeth escape the cave before it explodes, and the two kiss. In The Nest, both science and the cockroach become monstrous, but since only the bugs and the mad scientist die, perhaps the plot implies we need only destroy our worst selves.
Bug and Mimic: transforming cockroaches for human good
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).
The film introduces the negative associations with cockroaches and eternal life when Angel learns of the archangel statue and seeks to retrieve it for his dying uncle and benefactor, de la Guardia. Angel also initiates the change from the warmth of the Gris home and antique shop to the cold lifelessness of the de La Guardia factory and residence. There his uncle lives in a germ-free environment lit like a horror setting. Such a change of setting deliberately draws on the chiaroscuro of gothic film, according to del Toro’s production notes.
Jesus’s first encounter with the Cronos device then begins to disrupt the warmth of his home and shop as it begins to transform him from human to immortal insect vampire. Although it looks like a wind-up toy with a playful display, the device pierces Jesus’s palm, leaving a pool of blood. Jesus seems to react with thirst to the sting, drinking nearly a pitcher of water directly out of the refrigerator. A plate of meat seems to arouse him and it begins to glow and turn even more blood red. When the hunger grows more powerful, he uses the device again, exposing the cockroach mechanism that controls it. Aurora watches from the head of the stairs as the device begins to work and Jesus recites the Lord’s Prayer. We then see the inner workings of the device as it penetrates him. Clock gears turn and fill a cockroach with fluid. When it finishes, the device disconnects. The next morning Jesus awakens feeling and looking younger, even shaving off his moustache. When he enters the kitchen, though, Jesus lowers the blinds because the light bothers him, an act that begins to expose the repercussions associated with this kind of eternal life.
Jesus’s renewed life force also triggers a counterattack from de la Guardia. When a revived grandpa Jesus goes to his shop, the lock has been broken, and the shop is in shambles. A card has been left there with Angel’s name on it and a note, “We are open all night.” When Jesus enters the de la Guardia factory, he leaves the warmth of his antique shop and home behind. It is almost as dark and gray in de la Guardia’s enormous room. Because he is dying, de la Guardia will do anything to get the device and prolong his life, even with his own cancerous body parts in jars around him. Now that he has tasted its results, however, Jesus will not relinquish it. Instead, he again applies the device, broaching cockroach mythology as he anthropomorphizes its contents, asking it as it completes its work, “Who are you, little one?” he asks. “A god?” He has not yet acknowledged his own transformation into something close to the insect from which he draws eternal life.
At a New Year’s party, however, the disastrous repercussions of Jesus’s transformation become clearer. Jesus and his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) act like young lovers until another guest gets a nosebleed and rushes to the restroom. Jesus follows and focuses intently on the man’s blood, nearly licking it off the sink before another guest cleans it. More blood is on the floor, so Jesus kneels down and begins to lick it slowly. Insect noises seem to accompany his thirst, suggesting he is turning into a man-sized cockroach like the one inside the device. Angel disturbs his feeding when he knocks him unconscious. When Jesus awakens, he is at the wheel of a car, and Angel pushes it over a cliff. At the bottom, Jesus exclaims, “I don’t want to die today” and thinks of Aurora, even after his body is carted off to a funeral home where he escapes before being cremated.
The final battle between warm and cold, good and evil, and the cockroach’s life-giving and treacherous qualities occurs because Jesus wants to escape the horror he has become. To better use the device or to stop his pain, Jesus must find the alchemist’s book in the de la Guardia factory. Aurora follows and finds the book, but the relevant pages are missing. De la Guardia has eaten them and declares that Jesus has been reborn. To illustrate this rebirth, de la Guardia peels off Jesus’s old useless skin, revealing the white new skin beneath it. Jesus needs human blood, de la Guardia explains, and now can survive like any bloodsucking insect. When Jesus gives de la Guardia the Cronos device to be free of the curse it contains, de la Guardia attacks him with the sharp end of his cane. “You don’t even bleed right,” he says, but before he can pierce Jesus’s heart, Aurora smashes the old man’s head, killing him.
The battle between the two opposing forces connected with the device and its insect center are resolved when Jesus defeats Angel during the fight’s climax. To save himself and his family, Jesus falls with Angel off the factory’s neon sign, suggesting a merging of the warmth of the neon and the cold of the factory. Angel is dead, but Aurora revives Jesus with the device. When Aurora seems ready to sacrifice herself for him, giving him her blood with one word, “Grandpa,” Jesus draws on the humane qualities deep within him and smashes the device, freeing himself and his family from his curse. The last shot of the film shows him in his new skin, lying in bed with Aurora beside him. Mercedes enters the room, and they share a loving family moment before his death.
In these last scenes, immortality and the cockroach device that produces it are constructed as immoral and, as de la Guardia presents it, evil. Jesus may have become a literal Christ figure with his ultimate sacrifice for the common good. But he has also merged with the cockroach from which he draws his longevity and sought an “unnatural” eternal life. As Roger Ebert suggests, “There is always something shameful … about being unwilling to die when your time has come. Cronos adds a religious edge to this moral claim, demonstrating perhaps that an Earthly immortality is a “greater punishment” than death, since our role in this world is “to prepare for the next” (Ebert). Because this immortality is associated explicitly with the cockroach—both the golden cockroach exterior of the device and its inner insect workings—it too must be destroyed.
Ultimately, Cronos and the other cockroach horror films discussed here also make a larger statement about people’s exploitation of the natural world. In these films, such exploitation turns insects into monsters, creating a monstrous nature that must be eradicated. Although the level of anthropomorphizing in these films coincides to a certain extent with the quality of treatment the insects receive, whether the films in question highlight the positive or negative qualities of cockroaches has no effect on this lethal conclusion.
Unlike insect horror films highlighting less repulsive bugs like butterflies and moths, cockroach horror films anthropomorphize roaches to reveal their monstrous human-related qualities even though the cockroach is, in fact, seen in a more positive light in many cultures. In China, Thailand, Australia, South America, and French Guiana, cockroaches serve as food, traditional medicine, and folktale source. Copeland suggests that studies by anthropologists and explorers reveal that “rather than racking their brains for effective ways to destroy cockroaches, these cultures found the cockroach a useful neighbor, rich in protein and effective for many human diseases. They also seem to have recognized how useful they were to the environment” (81-2). Copeland also notes that cockroaches contribute to cancer research (131), a point that connects explicitly with the entomologist work in Mimic.
Because of these strengths, Copeland believes we can learn from cockroaches. She suggests in “Voices of the Least Loved,” for example, “the necessity of humans drastically altering our current cultural and personal assumptions about ourselves and the rest of the living world (and, of course, of altering the behavior such assumptions foster) is critical if we hope Homo sapiens is to enjoy anything approaching the long, successful life story of the cockroach” (170). In Cockroach, Copeland goes even further, arguing, “our survival as a species may depend on discovering a saviour who looks at us from many-faceted eyes that replace our own myopic human view with the cockroach’s ‘very long view indeed’” (168).
In contrast to Copeland positive view, the horror films we explored anthropomorphize cockroaches in order to vilify them, not learn from their strengths. The anthropomorphism utilized in the cockroach films explored here does not, as Mertins suggests, lead to positive representations. Although Damnation Alley, The Nest, and Mimic blame humanity for transforming the lowly cockroach into a flesh-eating monster, none of these films suggest that humanity should be destroyed, no matter how adroitly the insects are anthropomorphized. Damnation Alley includes little or no anthropomorphizing but both The Nest and Mimic anthropomorphize on several levels. In Mimic, the Judas Breed’s protective stance toward their offspring might even indicate a social level of anthropomorphism. These three films all illustrate the monstrous qualities of cockroaches so their destruction becomes not only feasible but also desirable.
Bug and Cronos take a more individual approach to cockroach monsters, illustrating perhaps what happens when humanity embraces the cockroach and its strengths so vehemently that both cockroach and human are transformed. The levels of anthropomorphizing are amplified in both these films because of the integral connection between the roaches and their human counterparts. One might argue that Jesus, for example, becomes a humanized version of the cockroach. In Bug, on the other hand, the roaches gain such a high degree of human intelligence that they not only become literate, but also responsibly rid the world of its dangerous mad scientist.
Horror films from Damnation Alley to Mimic reinforce stereotypes as they highlight humanity’s ambivalence toward cockroaches. Damnation Alley and The Nest clearly construct cockroaches as monsters with no redeeming qualities. Mimic, Bug, and Cronos, however, draw on positive qualities associated with cockroaches, including their contributions to human health, their intelligence, and their longevity. Yet these films also turn these strengths into detriments and consequently, turn cockroaches into horrific monsters. They are “Others” whose humanlike qualites grow into a monstrous nature not only because this is a convention of the horror genre, but also because their transformation is either a product of a genetic, chemical, or nuclear eco-disaster or a violation of human and nonhuman nature alike. In these films, both the human “scientist” or “victim” and the cockroach must be annihilated to eliminate their “evil” influence, a destruction that signifies perhaps a desire to eliminate the most monstrous elements of human and nonhuman nature. When monstrous nature becomes anthropomorphized, it may become too human, making it too easy to see us in them.
1. Mixed versions of the cockroach myth appear in films such as Naked Lunch (1991) and Joe’s Apartment (1993), as well. [return to text]
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