Movie of the Week: The Deadly Bees (1966)
The way author Allan Bryce depicts the production of The Deadly Bees (1966) in his book “Amicus: The Friendly Face of Fear,” it’s amazing that the movie is as good as it is… which is to say, not that good. It proves how important the editing process can be. Producer Milton Subotsky explains it like this:
I found that the rewritten script Freddie had shot made no sense at all, it was full of unnecessary dialogue and had almost no discernible story line. The first assembly ran to over two hours! I spent several weeks with the editor in the cutting room, trying to turn the footage into a film and build a story out of what was shot. When I finally managed to do so, we found that we only had about 70 minutes of film. I then added a dream sequence and a flashback sequence in which all the murders were explained. This gave us 80 minutes.
I don’t have a problem with the resulting story beyond the fact that it seems kind of silly. On the surface, I don’t suppose someone training bees to attack is an outrageous concept. However, the motivations for doing it are fuzzy at best and the execution of turning the villain’s identity into a mystery is poorly executed.
The movie’s beginning is abrupt. Two men at “the ministry” discuss a letter from a supposed crackpot claiming he has developed killer bees on Seagull Island and threatens to use them to kill someone. Then the action jumps to a television studio where singer Vicki Robbins (Suzanna Leigh) collapses during a performance.
What’s the connection? Well, Vicki’s psychiatrist recommends she take a break for some rest and relaxation on… Seagull Island. It’s an island so small that a boat won’t return until the following week, yet two neighbors are both beekeepers. There’s the potential mystery: which one is responsible for the killer bees?
Is it Ralph Hargove (Guy Doleman), Vicki’s host who has a troubled marital relationship, plays with giant syringes, and owns a horse with giant puncture wounds on its body? Or is it H.W. Manfred (Frank Finlay), Ralph’s neighbor who’s a rival beekeeper, keeps his bees behind a window inside his house, and offers Vicki a safe place when animals and people start dying?
The back-and-forth gets tedious and you have to wonder why Vicki would spend time with either man under the circumstances. It’s also unlikely that a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown would turn into an amateur sleuth to investigate the murders. It’s a movie, though, and she does, so that’s fine.
Besides problems with the script and the director, Bryce explains some technical issues that has an impact on the final product:
Amicus originally planned to shoot The Deadly Bees in the 2.35:1 Techniscope format, a widescreen process cheaper than the full frame 35mm film. But it was discovered that the visual effects depicting bee attacks would not register correctly in this process and so filming had to be changed to the standard Academy ratio, adding to the cost.
This brings me to the not-so-special effects. The bee attacks don’t translate to the final format, either. More often than not, the optical “layer” of swarming bees looks like little colored shapes zig-zagging across the screen, obviously not in the same physical space as the victims. I don’t actually have a problem with this; it’s the same in any killer bee movie I’ve ever seen.
Plus, I’m willing to forgive the effect because the close-ups of real bees crawling on real skin are very good. In fact, there’s one shot of a single bee repeatedly stinging someone, then leaving its stinger in the skin when it flies away. This made me squirm. Unforgiveable, though, is the shot repeated before each attack in which mysterious gloved hands shake bees from their hive.
Adding some class to the effort is Michael Ripper, who plays David Hawkins, bartender slash constable. He’s determined to solve the murder mystery before those men from “the ministry” arrive, yet he doesn’t really do much to investigate. You can discern here where making a movie in the editing room is prone to omitting some of the finer details.
Finally, The Deadly Bees is an inconsistent product of the 1960s, wanting to embrace the era, but not committing to doing so. The scene in the television studio has rock music (by The Birds, not to be confused with The Byrds), trombone zooms, and a wacky sensibility. Once on Seagull Island, though, it’s standard mid-century horror fare.
Author Robert Bloch defends the script that director Freddie Francis hated and had Anthony Marriott rewrite:
Although there was a Holmesian angle (in Gerald Heard’s book, “A Taste of Honey”) which Amicus wanted eliminated, I still felt the story and characters strong enough to warrant preservation, and tried to retain as much of the basic plot and atmosphere as possible, working with a synopsis Milton Subotsky provided. It was my hope that the villainous role might be played by Boris Karloff, in a wheelchair if necessary… When the script was rewritten the result was, in my opinion, a hybrid affair with not inner consistency or logical storyline: the bees were menacing, but the characters were not.
Bryce adds that Bloch thought he was writing a vehicle for both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. What a difference that would have made! How many times have we seen those two raise the level of the material they’re given? Instead, we have this oddity, a full-length movie that would be better suited as one shorter chapter in an Amicus portmanteau.
Written by Robert Bloch, Anthony Marriott
Based on the novel, "A Taste of Honey," by Gerald Heard
Directed by Freddie Francis
Starring Susanna Leigh, Frank Finlay, Guy Doleman, Catherine Finn, Michael Ripper, Katy Wild Released Dec. 23, 1966 (Deming, New Mexico) RT 84 min. Home Video Olive Films (Blu-ray)