A killer strain of bee threatens the inhabitants of a remote island in The Deadly Bees 1966. RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES dons his beekeeper’s outfit and runs for cover.
TITLE: The Deadly Bees
YEAR RELEASED: April 1967 (UK), December 1966 (US)
DIRECTOR: Freddie Francis
CAST: Suzanna Leigh, Frank Finlay, Guy Doleman, Catherine Finn, Michael Ripper, Katy Wild
When she collapses with nervous exhaustion while recording a TV show, pop singer Vicki Robbins (Leigh) is sent off to convalesce at the remote island farm of unhappily married Ralph and Mary Hargrove (Doleman and Finn respectively), where the somewhat aloof Ralph evidently has quite an obsession for beekeeping.
When Mary’s dog is killed by bee stings, Vicki suspects Ralph is responsible and with the encouragement of another bee keeper on the island, the eccentric Manfred (Finlay) she decides to investigate the Hargroves’ farmhouse where she stumbles across a few clues which suggest Ralph is developing a deadly super-strain of bee.
It’s not long before a human life is taken by the mutant creatures, but the authorities don’t seem convinced that foul play is involved. When Vicki herself becomes the target of a bee attack, she has to decide who she can trust…
Amicus was an operation which normally thrived on getting great production values from small budgets, but they had perhaps bitten off more than they could chew here: The matte work needed for such a film was clearly beyond their financial means and what should be a terrifying bee attack ends up looking like Sugar Puffs floating around the screen, although it must be said that the close-ups of bees actually releasing their stingers into human flesh are rather effective and somewhat uncomfortable for those with an apian phobia (and may have caused the BBFC to order cuts on the film’s original release).
Putting aside the effects work, The Deadly Bees is an astonishingly pedestrian work by Amicus standards. Bereft of the verve and inventiveness that characterised their best work, it wanders through its 84 minutes like an after-school detention, its captive cast and crew just trying to get through their interminable chore before the bell rings and they can swarm out of the gates at Twickenham Studios towards happier times.
Freddie Francis tries his best with what’s available, but later made clear his negative opinion of The Deadly Bees, a film hampered by unhappiness with Robert Bloch’s script (which went through a further rewrite by Anthony Marriott), as well as the fact that there were no bees around in the UK at the time of filming so the creatures had to be shipped in, dopily struggling to look menacing in the English climate.
Whatever rewrites occurred on the screenplay did nothing to address the fact that with only five visible residents on the island (plus the visiting Vicki) and thus a very small pool of characters to place in peril, the action was going to have to spread itself pretty thinly to fill out a full feature film.
The Deadly Bees does at least deserve some credit for pre-empting the wave of nature-turning-on-humans films to follow during the 1970’s (think Jaws, The Swarm, Grizzly et al), and any film which has Michael Ripper as the local innkeeper/special constable can’t be all bad, but I’ll leave the last word to Amicus head Max J. Rosenberg. When reflecting on the film, he said: “Freddie is a very patient, sweet and gentle soul, and if Freddie Francis hates something, believe me there must be a reason for it.”
TRIVIA NOTES: The leads had apparently been written with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in mind.
Catherine Finn was the wife of Michael Ripper, the legendary Hammer player here making his first appearance for rivals Amicus.
The Deadly Bees does at least offer a rare glimpse of Brit-band The Birds (not to be confused with the misspelt US band) in action during the opening TV show sequence. Look out for a pre-Faces/Rolling Stones Ronnie Wood on guitar.
Guy Doleman’s next assignment was an altogether more memorable one, as Number 2 in the opening episode of The Prisoner (1967).
Francis later stated that getting Robert Bloch’s screenplay rewritten was a mistake which only made matters worse, and elaborated: “I think the idea was bad from the start, and er… I think the film showed it as well.”
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Quotes taken from the 2003 Blue Underground featurette, “Inside The Fear Factory”.