Last week Shout! Factory released their very good Blu-ray of the very bad killer bug movie, "The Nest" (1988). Watching this TV-movie-on-a-budget horror film about mutant cockroaches made me think about my own outsized fear of these tiny, eyeless monsters, some of the horror films that may have inspired it, and how even the most well-intentioned horror movie can thoroughly make the thing it's trying to scare you with dull.
I grew up in South Florida in the middle of the city, but that wasn't any escape from the many trees that were home to cockroaches and palmetto bugs. No matter how clean we kept our home, these terrors would skitter in under the door or through any kind of crack they might be able to find, hiding in the dark recesses of our cabinets and closets. Imagine walking into a dark room in the middle of the night, reaching out for the light switch, only to have something crawl over your fingers. The relief of the light would be short-lived, the overhead bulbs drawing your eyes towards a skittering mass of horror fleeing into the dark recesses where they couldn't be seen.
Why didn't we cut down the tree? You'd have to ask my late grandmother that.
One would become hundreds in no time at all, and even after numerous fumigations, traps, and cleanings, there would always be a straggler who would begin the whole cycle all over again. I can say that I'm thankful, at least, that it was mostly just the small ones, with only the occasional big-bodied roach stumbling across our kitchen floor, or (and this was the real tiny little hell), having one walk your way and suddenly take flight, their oddly glinting bodies held impossibly aloft by buzzing wings.
Keep in mind, I really only have a specific fear of roaches, Katsaridaphobia, and not the more general fear of insects, Entomophobia. I can get along with a spider or an ant. I can't, however, figure out where to look a roach in the eye, and when they swarm in a mass, it's like some terrible living shape pulsing with pestilence and ill-intent.
Which is why the E.G. Marshall segment of "Creepshow," "They're Creeping Up On You" affected me so profoundly as a kid. If you'll recall the sequence, maybe the most unpleasant of the excellent George Romero/Stephen King joint, it's about a miserly, germ-phobic, cruel tycoon who discovers that his hermetically-sealed high-rise apartment is suddenly overrun with roaches. By the end of the segment, the place is crawling with them, each part of some larger, ironically malevolent body punishing Marchall's character for a lifetime of awfulness.
By the end, after the roaches have thoroughly terrorized him, this happens:
...and I officially do not want to mess with "Creepshow" anymore.
"They're Creeping Up On You" is so elemental in the way it plays out, the way the bugs sweep through the apartment like a ceaseless, silent plague. Imagine the whole sequence playing out without a score, and it would probably be more wrenching than it already is. They surge like a grotesque tide, and unlike some of the other horrors in the film, there's no negotiating with them, no tricking them, and no stopping them. They're legendarily tough to kill en masse and I grew up with the old joke that after a nuclear war, the only thing that would survive are Twinkies and cockroaches.
I think chronologically, I may have seen "The Nest" for the first time not too long after the first time I saw "Creepshow," a video rental from the local store borne of morbid, almost mosochistic curiosity. Can you look at that artwork above and tell me you honestly wouldn't consider picking this up as a kid? Plus the premise was an attention-grabber (not that I ever read the back of horror movie boxes back then): an evil corporation attempts to eradicate roaches using roaches, ultimately creating carnivorous super-roaches that terrorize a small island community.
Director Terence H. Winkless ("The Might Morphin Power Rangers Movie") flits between comedy and horror here with lots of daylight shots and awkward, slow reveals of the swarms of cockroaches. I'm not sure how it affected me as a kid, but seeing the old Concorde Pictures release now, it's startling how badly Winkless and screenwriter Robert King mangled the the concept (based on a novel by Eli Cantor). I kind of want to side-step it for a moment, though, to talk about some unlikely films that still managed to creep me out with cockroaches in a way that "The Nest" never could.
And one of them featured Ed Begley Jr. as an Amazonian bug masquerading as the father of a nuclear, suburban family while Dabny Coleman, their queen, wears a dress. That would be "Meet the Applegates" which, until this very moment, I thought was about cockroaches, when they were, in fact, mantises. Somehow, I'd gotten it in my mind that director/co-writer Michael Lehmann's 1990 satire was about roaches seeing as how there was the nuclear plant connection (the human skin-wearing bugs were anti-nuke, worried humans were going to kill everything). I'm convinced the fan-written synopsis on the IMDB is wrong, but whatever: they'll always be roaches to me.
It wasn't the silly concept of humans-as-bugs that got me, it was the scale, how visceral it was to have something so horrible at full-size. Plus, there's a pretty jarring moment midway through where Robert Jayne's stoned Johnny Applegate attacks his friends.
Director Michael Lehmann, who's an old pro at striking a comic/dark tone all the way back with "Heathers" somehow, almost accidentally buries a horror movie in this farce. Maybe there was something to the idea of bugs hiding behind the innocuous eyes of Ed Begley Jr. and Stockard Channing, having affairs, eating alongside everyone else, and walking upright (before skittering up a wall). It never stops feeling wrong to see their antennae peeking up the backs of their heads, their grotesque extra legs flexing and bending.
A more overt treatment of the human-as-bug was in poor Debbie's (Brooke Theiss) sad and horrible transformation in "A Nightmare on Elm Street IV" (immortalized below in the Cinema of Fear toy line image above). It's one of the most striking sequences among all of the increasingly toothless "Elm Street" (and yet I love nearly all of them), this one putting tough girl bodybuilder Debbie face-to-face with her greatest fear (and mine): roaches. We discover early in the film that for all of her bravery and late-80's badassery (she was rocking guns before it was cool for ladies to rock guns), she's desperately terrified of roaches.
During the sequence, Debbie's arms are ripped off at the elbows, only for a roach's arms to begin poking through the holes, finally revealing themselves as full-on limbs as Debbie stumbles, terrified through a seemingly endless corridor. But that's not the worst of it, because after some blind wandering, she falls on her face, unable to get up, trapped in the sticky surface that makes up the ground. Debbie struggles and twists, only to get her face stuck and ripped off in the muck, revealing the eyeless face of a roach beneath it.
And in the final coup de grace, we scale back to see Freddy looking through a cardboard roach motel, throwing off a little quip before crushing it and poor Debbie.
It's garish and silly, and cartoonish, and deeply unsettling to me, even to this day in a way that I don't think "The Nest" ever could be.
The problem with "The Nest" (one of many, many problems) is that the roaches are never really in the frame in any way as to be convincingly dangerous to the human actors. Even though a few get stomped in the process of the film, we see them swarm in small, seemingly dazed groups, accompanied by a shrill sound effect designed, I think, to indicate that these mutant roaches are screaming or something. Who knows?
The nearest equivalent I can see is setting your terrifying shark movie in the desert or your haunted house movie in a brightly-lit water park. It doesn't serve what's essential and terrible about the subject. They're unknowable, and unpleasant when they move and they move a lot and together. That sense of unexpected contact of being overwhelmed should dominate every scene, but outside of an attack on a diner near the film's climax, we never get that kind of moment (and director Terrence Winkless can't seem to help playing it like the kitchen scene from "Gremlins"). The whole thing devolves into mutant, humanoid roach monsters and cat creatures held up by wires and goodwill, and by the end, you're only scared that the movie will keep going on.
So that's the big takeaway from this piece: know your monster and know what about your monster scare your audience. Play on the most traumatic, most elemental thing about that fear and don't over-embellish it.
"The Nest" is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory via their Scream Factory label.