One of my favourite genres is the “killer virus” milieu. Let’s face it, there’s nothing quite as scary as a disease that kills lots and lots of people, even if it can be stopped by Dustin Hoffman (Outbreak), immunity among the upper middle classes (Survivors) or talking to it (The Burning Zone).
Just have a think about their close cousin, the zombie movie, even the funny ones (Shaun of the Dead, Zombi Holocaust), and it won’t be long before the idea of some tiny little thing inside you that you can’t do anything to stop from killing you really does start to get upsetting.
So, for this and because it’s going to take me a while to scribble up lots and lots about Manhunter, I’m starting the long-promised “movies you should own” (aka “I’ve got it on DVD and you should to”) feature of this ‘ere blog with a shortish chat about The Satan Bug, probably the first proper entry in the killer virus canon.
Here are the creepy opening titles:
Creepy, huh, and the movie hasn’t even started. Incidentally, despite appearances, that’s not a Saul Bass title sequence, just an imitation of one.
The Satan Bug is based on a book by Alistair Maclean (writing as Ian Stuart). Now, we have few things to thank Richard Nixon for, but one of them was the outlawing of research on biological warfare (although those peskies Ruskies never bothered to stop their efforts, even if we did). But that wasn’t until the early 70s and The Satan Bug was written in the mid-60s, back when research was still legal.
The book posited two things: what if a US military research laboratory managed to develop a biological weapon that could end all life on Earth (the eponymous Satan Bug); and what if someone stole it and threatened to release it?
Think about. Get creeped out. Stop thinking about it.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that it’s the best movie ever made. The acting’s not fabulous by anyone’s standards, and its concept of high-security is radically different from anything we’d regard as secure these days.
But it’s got some cracking direction from John Sturges (who directed The Magnificent Seven), an excellent cloak-and-dagger script from James Clavell (who would go on to write Shogun among other things) that manages both to embody the conventions of the time and to exceed them, and Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) makes for a cracking villain. The fact the thief steals not just The Satan Bug, but relatively minor weapons such as Botchulinus that can only kill a few 100,000 at a time, means that there’s not one big build towards the end, but little moments of terror as glass vials are uncovered in the worst of places.
It’s also got a good line in music. Legendary movie composer Jerry Goldsmith was experimenting with atonal compositions, something he’d go on to perfect in Planet of the Apes: the other worldly, almost insect-like music he uses makes you feel the Satan Bug is just around the corner and is going to scuttle up your leg, even though it’s a virus. It’s probably one of his finest science-fiction scores, and he wrote a lot of science-fiction scores. You can still pick it up on CD.
Here’s the original 1965 trailer for it. It’s a bit rubbish, but I do so love the style of the time, which was to have one of the stars come on screen to explain the movie to you. Fun, hey?