Beginning of the End (1957) ****
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Runtime: 1h 16m
Bert I. Gordon, AKA Mr. B.I.G., is best remembered for a string of films he made in the 1950s about giant monsters. Gordon’s rate of production is quiet impressive, in 1957 and 1958 alone he turned out no fewer than six feature films, all of them dealing with creatures of abnormal sizes. The quality of these films ranges from pretty good like Attack of the Puppet People (1958), to mediocre The Cyclops (1957), to terrible but in a wildly funny way Earth vs. the Spider (1958). Beginning of the End falls firmly into the latter category, and as a consequence it is probably the most entertaining film in Gordon’s entire oeuvre, and certainly my favorite among his 1950s phase, though it bears noting that I haven’t gotten around to watching The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) or it’s sequel War of the Colossal Beast (1958). Here Gordon’s usually slip-shod production techniques produce something that is unintentionally hilarious. While it’s nowhere near the best 1950s monster movie, it’s definitely a contender for the title of funniest.
I haven’t been able to find a statute to the effect, but I assume there must be some kind of law requiring the first victims in a monster movie to be teens making out in a car. Naturally, Gordon is no lawbreaker so he opens his film with a teenage couple being attacked and killed by an unseen menace. The crime baffles the police, as all they can find is a smashed wreck of the boy’s car and a scrap of a bloodstained sweater. The death of two teens can be written off as a freak tragedy, even given the odd circumstances of the death. However, these deaths only point the authorities to a larger disaster: The nearby town of Ludlow is completely eradicated by forces unseen. Naturally Gordon didn’t have the money to destroy an entire mid-western town or even to convincingly fake it, he was working for AIP after all, so stock-footage of post-war Europe will stand in for the Midwestern town. Local law enforcement realizes they are in way over their heads and call in the Illinois National Guard. They suspect it might be a surprise attack by the Russians, or some kind of weapons test gone wrong. They never guess that the real culprit is a swarm of giant, radioactive locusts.
The National Guard cordons off the whole town, which only leads hard-boiled reporter Audrey Aimes to suspect that she’s onto something big. Aimes finds herself unable to sweet-talk her way past the sentries so she tries their commanding officer: Colonel Sturgeon at his office in Paxton. The commander tries to stonewall her too at first, but caves once she agrees not to publish anything without his go-ahead. The problem is nobody, including the National Guard, knows what happened in Ludlow. Fortunately Aimes has been to the movies sometime in the last decade and knows that there are only three possibilities for such unexplained disturbances: 1). Aliens, 2). Monsters from a lost world, or 3). Radioactive mutants. Since there have been no unexplained sightings late at night, or geologic disturbances, Aimes goes looking for any usual experiments involving radioactivity.
As it turns out there is a laboratory, sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture nearby. The purpose of the laboratory is to study the possible applications of radiation as a catalyst for giant growth in vegetables, fruits and cereal crops. It looks like Dr. Ed Wainwright the head entomologist and deaf/mute Frank Johnson the chief Botanist are already enjoying considerable success in their experiments, though the gigantic vegetation in their lab still isn’t fit for human consumption. They also have a recurring issue with bugs getting into the lab and nibbling on the experiments, which both men regard as little more than a nuisance. When interviewed by Aimes, Wainwright insists that there’s no way their experiments could be responsible for the destruction of Ludlow. Aimes, for her part, is convinced that the atomic garden has nothing to do with the strange goings on. Yet she returns later on to enlist the aid of the scientists in investigating the earlier destruction of a warehouse, which the authorities are stupidly treating as unrelated. She figures that the impartial eye of a scientist will pick up on some clue the police and military have missed.
As it turns out no specialist’s training is needed to deduce the fate of Ludlow, the teens at make-out point, and the warehouse. As soon as the trio arrives at the destroyed warehouse a giant grasshopper attacks them. Frank is captured and eaten but Aimes and Wainwright escape to safety. They call in assistance from the National Guard. The single squadron dispatched proves no match for the superior numbers of the grasshoppers. Despite the defeat the Colonel Sturgeon remains confident that once fully mobilized the Illinois National Guard will be able to contain the grasshoppers without any outside assistance. Wainwright disagrees, while accompanying the squad on their doomed mission he heard a humming noise, one he recognizes as characteristic of locust mating. Locusts reproduce incredibly fast and he sees no reason that giant growth should have made them less fertile. The advice he gives to the credulous officer is call in the regular army and call them in quick, because they are going to need all the firepower they can get to stop the newly hatched swarm. Colonel Sturgeon doesn’t believe him, so Wainwright jets off to Washington to give the Joint Chiefs of Staff an impromptu lesson on the potential danger of giant locusts. Almost immediately he receives word that the swarm overran the National Guard units blockading it, and the locusts are en route to Chicago.
The regular army is called in quickly but even they prove powerless to halt the advancing swarm of locusts. For once the monsters are not invulnerable to conventional weapons, there’s just too damn many of them. Mercifully, and realistically, the rapid growth has made it impossible for the bugs to fly, and just like real locusts the creatures are inactive at night, giving the military time to organize their defenses. All the same the army and National Guard are loosing ground and are forced to daily fall back and re-entrench themselves. It isn’t long before Chicago itself is under siege from the locust swarm. Word comes down from Washington to Wainwright and Sturgeon that if Chicago falls the military is prepared to cut their losses and drop an H-bomb on the city. Seeing as the careless applications of nuclear radiation created this threat in the first place I shudder to think of all the giant abominations that will be unleashed by bombing Illinois. Locusts are bad but a plague of giant rats and pigeons would be still worse. Of course the characters in the film are only worried about the economic fallout (which would be catastrophic in it’s own right, it’s not like you can just rebuild the city like they did in Germany after WWII; an H-bomb will make much of the city uninhabitable). Fortunately Wainwright had a brilliant idea for a new gizmo that will stop the locusts dead in their tracks. The only problem is he needs a live giant grasshopper to experiment on before he can get it to work.
Let’s talk about Dr. Ed Wainwright for a moment. On one had he occupies the classic role of a mad scientist. In the process of trying to make the world a better place through science he has inadvertently created a brood of monsters that now threatens all humanity. He works in isolation, aided only by a deformed assistant. If Beginning of the End had come out 10 years earlier then Wainwright would be at best a tragic figure and at worst a raving madman every bit as dangerous as the giant bugs he created. But Beginning of the End is ripping off Them! (1954), not Frankenstein (1931), so not only does Wainwright occupy the role of the hero, he even looks the part. The young Peter Graves is far and away the tallest and handsomest member of the cast. Despite being the man most responsible for the Locust menace now threatening the country, the government invests him with tremendous emergency powers to coordinate their defenses. Whenever there is a disagreement between him and other characters, the film goes out of its way to prove Wainwright correct. The most brazen instance of this happens when the scientist goes to plead his case to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. America’s highest-ranking officers assure Wainwright that the National Guard will be able to contain the Locust infestation. The chairman argues that: “You are a scientist Mr. Wainwright, you know what locusts can do. I’m a soldier; I know what guns can do. I feel secure the Illinois National Guard can handle this situation.” No sooner has this argument left his lips than a report comes in by telephone saying the Locusts have punched through the National Guard cordon and are advancing towards Chicago. There were two competing depictions of scientists in the movies throughout the 1950s: they were either lunatics who pushed the boundaries of human understanding at the expense of safety and sanity. Or they were even-tempered heroes, whose rational thinking made them natural leaders when battling the unknown. Wainwright embodies both clichés simultaneously, no mean feat given that they should be mutually exclusive.
The battle scenes which pit footage of live grasshoppers against stock footage of American soldiers circa WWII verge of surrealist art. Some of the action is accomplished via opposing the two images in rapid, Soviet montage style cuts, which is jarring and unusual enough in the context of an otherwise by-the-numbers film. Still more shocking is the extended process shots where the two separate images are joined together in a moving collage. Gordon might have been aiming for a realistic depiction of soldiers fighting grasshoppers but the consequence of his technique is closer to a dreamscape. Grasshoppers vary wildly in size; they lurch across the foreground without any regard for their surroundings, moving in ways and directions that should be impossible. Personally I find the effect breath taking and hilarious. Still funnier is Gordon’s slipshod approach to the scenes in which the grasshoppers invade Chicago, he takes 2D stills of the Chicago skyline and lets the grasshoppers crawl across them! At one point a grasshopper even crawls off the skyscraper he’s suppose to be climbing and hangs for a second in mid-air!
Beyond the surreal battles and the mad/heroic scientist the best part of Beginning of the End is its general incompetence. For starters the film constantly asserts that it is taking place in Illinois, a state that is famous for it’s static elevation. Yet in the background of many shots there are hills looming in the distance. That it appears in the stock footage is no surprise, but when even the scenes shot specifically for this film have hills in the background you start to wonder if the location scout had ever set foot in rural Illinois. The padding of the film is also particularly noticeable, even for a fly-by-night production. For instance the film opens with an interminably long shot (perhaps 40 seconds) of a car driving down the highway; and then repeats the same shot with a different car at a different time of day hardly five minutes later. The first time it happened I found it funny, but the almost instant repeat of the shot had me laughing like a fool. I’ll confess I was somewhat disappointed when Gordon didn’t trot out the same shot for a third run.
The chief thing about this film, which I think distinguishes it from the less impressive (and less horrible) Earth vs. the Spider (1958) is scale. Depicting a pitched battle between a small town police force and a giant spider is something that Gordon could reasonably pull off on his budget. Showing a swarm of giant locusts descending on Chicago amidst committed resistance from the American army is a whole different story. By reaching so high Gordon forced himself to cut corners, fall back on stock footage, and resort to some of the crummiest special effects I’ve ever seen. The result is a glorious train wreck of a movie that should not be missed. To be fair to Bert I. Gordon, he was capable of making a good film when given the chance, see Torment (1960) or Attack of the Puppet People (1958), yet for my money this is his only truly great film. That he made it by accident is irrelevant.