THE SWARM (1978) Blu-ray
Director: Irwin Allen
Warner Archive Collection

Irwin Allen's greatest disaster of a disaster film THE SWARM hits Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Archive.

When the military responds to a distress call from a Texas air base, they discover everyone apparently dead but for civilian Bradford Crane (Michael Caine, ASHANTI), an entomologist who claims to have followed a swarm of bees that are responsible for the deaths. General Slater (Richard Widmark, COMA) does not believe Crane until the cause is confirmed by surviving base doctor Helena Anderson (Katherine Ross, THE LEGACY) and air search planes sent out to identify a strange mass moving at seven miles per hour away from the base crash and explode. Upon contacting the White House, Crane is put in charge of an operation to destroy the threat which he believes to be African killer bees come to the United States by way of South America and a recent trio of hurricanes. Although he is assigned to provide military support for Crane's scientific team, Slater assigns Major Baker (Bradford Dillman, PIRANHA) as Crane's military liaison and to secretly compile a dossier on the scientist. After discovering that as little as four stings from these bees can kill a human, Crane assembles a crack scientific team including immunologist Dr. Krim (Henry Fonda, 12 ANGRY MEN) to develop a mass antidote and Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain, ultimately faring little better here than he did in THE TOWERING INFERNO) to develop poison pellets that will harm the bees and not any of the other plant or insect life. When the bees attack and kill his parents on a picnic, young Paul Durant (Christian Juttner, RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN) and his friends firebomb the hive, sending the swarm to descend on the nearby town of Marysville. In the disastrous aftermath, the team determines that the swarm is only three days away from reaching Houston.

Although Amicus had given us THE DEADLY BEES in 1966 – a loose adaptation of the detective story "A Taste for Honey" – the revelation in the 1970s that African Killer Bees introduced into Brazil to increase honey production that escaped from quarantine were only a decade away from reaching the United States spawn a subgenre of "when animals attack" films, with the KILLER BEES (by Curtis Harrington) and the duo THE SAVAGE BEES and TERROR OUT OF THE SKY reaching television in the mid-1970s. Irwin Allen's THE SWARM – and, to an extent, the American/Mexican co-production THE BEES, also from 1978 – attempted to tell similar stories on a grander scale. Allen had the edge in budget and star power, but that just meant a bigger flop which has since developed a cult following big enough for Warner Bros. to put an expanded version on laserdisc. In spite of the expanded scope of the film, the plot is not so different from any other Allen disaster film, and yet the elements fall flatter than usual. Scientist Crane is the everyman hero going up against the military, but Caine's paycheck performance is far from sympathetic, coming across as alternately wooden or arrogant – and not helped by the script which he requires him to bellow out lines like "The honey bee is vital to the environment" – and his relationship with Ross' female colleague is just checked off of Allen's list like the geriatric love triangle between Marysville mayor Clarence (MY THREE SONS' Fred McMurray), school principal Maureen (Olivia de Havilland, HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE), and retired engineer Felix (Ben Johnson, TERROR TRAIN), the budding romance between pregnant soldier's widow Rita (Patty Duke Astin, THE BABYSITTER) and her doctor (THE FLYING NUN's Alejandro Rey), and various scientific and military personnel who get karmic bee-related comeuppance for even being mildly contrarian to Crane. The department miniatures, matte paintings, and coffee ground swarms were studio grade effects, but seem stodgy by comparison to the lower budget examples, while the slow motion shots of people writhing under attack seem to drag the film out further than the many subplots which fill out the space between set-pieces. The cast also includes guest shots by Lee Grant (DAMIEN: THE OMEN II), Cameron Mitchell (BLOOD AND BLACK LACE), Jose Ferrer (BLOODY BIRTHDAY), Slim Pickens (BLAZING SADDLES), Don "Red" Berry (DOCTOR DRACULA), and Arell Blanton (BLOOD MANIA). The Panavision photography of Fred J. Koenekamp (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) is workmanlike while even composer Jerry Goldsmith (PLANET OF THE APES) seems on autopilot.

Initially released as a Warner clamshell in the early 1980s in its theatrical 116 minute version, THE SWARM was expanded to 156 minutes for their three-sided, widescreen, Dolby Surround laserdisc and digitally-processed VHS release. This cut was released to Warner snapper case DVD in 2002 with an anamorphic transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 surround audio along with the TV behind the scenes featurette "Inside THE SWARM". Warner Archive's 2018 Blu-ray features a new HD master with detail and grain so finely rendered that the switch between locations and studio sets is as apparent as the contrast between live action and opticals. The red gel lighting of the based sequences is no longer as noisy as it was on tape and DVD, and its employment is even more apparent in the final shots where gels are used as fill lighting to match the actors to the explosive blue screen backdrop. The film was released in mono for 35mm engagements and 4-track magnetic stereo for 70mm ones, and the magnetic source has been utilized for the various releases. While some of the surround mixes for other seventies disaster films have been mostly impressive, THE SWARM is not one of them. Goldsmith's score is expansively rendered, and the buzzing of the bees does have a certain irritating presence, but explosions and directional flame-thrower fire is nowhere near as thrilling as one would hope (which is presumably why Warner Archive did not spring for a discrete 4.0 track or a 5.1 remix). Optional English SDH subtitles make the ridiculousness of some dialogue double apparent. Apart from the theatrical trailer (2:10), the only extra is “Inside THE SWARM” (22:12) which covers the actual phenomena of African killer bees, the pseudo-science of the film, a look at the stunt work, and bee-wrangling with commentary from Caine, Fonda, and Ross among others. (Eric Cotenas)