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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

June Bugs: Stung (2015)


Written by Adam Aresty
Directed by Benni Diez

Matt O'Leary:  Paul
Jessica Cook:  Julia
Lance Henriksen:  Mayor Caruthers
Clifton Collins Jr.:  Sydney Perch

My friend Bryan, who runs the totally sweet website Cinemasochist Apocalypse, watches and reviews killer insect movies as the summer heats up in his "June Bugs" event. And, well, if you do something twice it's a tradition. That means June Bugs is a tradition here at Checkpoint Telstar as well. Bryan himself recommended today's feature to me, which means I'm about to find out how mad he was that I gave him eight copies of the same book as an elaborate practical joke at B Fest a while back. Giant mutant wasps count as "bugs" for the purposes of June Bugs, so that's all right. Time to light this candle and actually get something watched and wroted up for the Checkpoint.

The film starts with a sweeping helicopter (or drone) shot of a forest in the autumn; some of the leaves are changing and some of the trees are bare. A CGI bee drones along in front of the camera until a wasp body-tackles it out of the sky and stabs it with its stinger. Let's give credit to the filmmakers; it's less than a minute into the film, including production company logos, and something got stung. This won't be one of those movies where promises are made but never kept.

The credits roll over shots of the bee's bodily fluids getting saturated with venom, going from yellow to cloudy white. Then clouds of red take over from the white, and bubbles of dark green and yellow suffuse the screen to take over from the red liquids. I don't know what exactly it's all supposed to be depicting, but it sure looks ominous. And slimy, when the wasp stinger pulls out of (or bursts out of) the bee's body. Hooray for nasty-looking things I haven't seen before in a movie!

The first line of dialogue spoken in the film is "Fuck!", shouted by the driver of the Country Catering truck as it barrels down a series of tiny one and two lane country roads. Paul is the driver, and goes into a sadistically long monologue about getting car sick and throwing up in reaction to seeing Julia (the serious one, cause she's wearing glasses) working on a checklist for their upcoming catering job. The bumpiness of the road leads Julia to spill her totally not Starbucks coffee on herself, which means she has to take off her hoodie and change into another shirt, which distracts Paul enough that he almost hits a couple guys trimming trees by the side of the road--and who will almost certainly be added to the Expendable Meat roster when it's time for people to get wasped up real good.

Julia motormouths for a while about how she's worried the business is going to fail which will make her a failure (and a deadbeat, because she can't pay Paul--although I understand borrowing from Peter works in that situation). Paul tries to be reassuring but is constantly distracted by having to drive the van as well as trying to sneak a look at his boss's tits while she changes clothes. Paul also asks if his boss smokes weed, which means it's probably his van if he's talking about drug use on the clock.

Generic rock chords fill the soundtrack as Paul pulls the van up to a huge and run-down remote mansion. Julia confiscates his cell phone so he can't fuck around while he's supposed to be working and Paul surrenders it with poor grace. He better be a fantastic cook if he's this much of an asshole. Julia reminds him not to drop stuff as he's unloading the van and makes another reference to her firm's economic instability this year. Monster movies always take on at least something of the tenor of their times (radiation causes monsters in the Fifties; pollution took over two decades later) but I don't know how the economy getting rocket-fucked by Goldman Sachs is going to result in giant wasp monsters showing up in this one.

Paul, attired in a business-casual ensemble with a red vest now that he's on the clock, gets stuck setting up folding chairs and tables out on the mansion's lawn (and utterly fails to win the Mister Logistics Person Seal of Approval for how much extra effort he's putting into things by trying to get it done quickly). He meets Larry the piano player who noodles his way through a royalties-free assortment of organ chords while a bee flutters around in the foreground. Inside the mansion, Julia helps an unnamed kitchen worker chop onions. Some conversation in the kitchen leads the audience to realize that Julia's father used to own the business and recently died. Julia's just trying to keep things together for the sake of her peace of mind as well as her finances.

Paul gets his shit together sufficiently to put tablecloths on everything and starts juggling Sterno cans (I can see the Sterno being used as a bug killer in the third act, but dare I even hope this movie actually will weaponize his mad first-act juggling skills?). Flora the kitchen lady says that Paul likes Julia, who reacts with a completely understandable "Yeah...no." She also says she'd rather jump off a cliff than get involved with her van driver / table setup guy, which makes me assume that the pair of them will be jumping off a cliff to get away from wasps by the climax of the film. Look, the dialogue in these things only really exists to set up things that will pay off later, okay? Think of the "You won't make a dummy out of me" line from John Vernon in Killer Klowns from Outer Space. That's how this stuff works.

Sydney Perch, a hunchbacked mama's boy played by a totally unrecognizable Clifton Collins, Jr., introduces himself to Paul during the tail end of the setup for the garden party, and asks that his private booze supply not be handed out to the hoi polloi who will come (from where? It was a 400 mile long empty one-lane road to get to the mansion...) and drink all the open-bar they can guzzle down. Paul promises to look after his stash. He demonstrates a little bit of self-control by turning down the offer of a beer with Sydney because he's on duty and while neither man notices, yappy poodle Percy is digging a hole in the lawn that a bee vacates with a quickness. I thought they built hives in trees, but my real knowledge of the apiaric arts is that the Honeycombs had a #1 hit in the UK with "Have I the Right?". Anyway, whatever's immediately underneath that hole on the lawn is making ominous rumbling noises but it's way too early in the film to get a good look at whatever's making it.

On the lawn, Paul manages not to drop a tray full of glasses when a huge (and pretty nice CGI, at least on my monitor) stinger-toting insect buzzes past his head. He smashes one of the glasses when he tries to go Full Khrushchev on it with his shoe, and warns Julia about the local wildlife when she drops off the ice pick that he left in the van. Paul's demonstrating more responsibility than I honestly expected when he tells his boss to watch out for the wasps because they're huge and terrifying--and also wonders if Sydney is allergic to them, and asks her to warn the guy while he's moving the van (and changing into a spare pair pants that Julia brought since he tore his flailing around when the wasp showed up).

The spare pants look to be about four inches too loose in the waistband for Paul, which means he's probably going to demonstrate utter dignity later on in the film. And he goes poking around in the greenhouse behind the mansion, because that's what happens in films like this. It gets established that the man who owns the place is a pharmaceutical company executive around this time, by the way, so if he was using his own living space as a dumping ground for unsuccessful antidepressants or failed boner pills that could be what makes the bugs get big. I mean, you need SOME kind of a reason for it and that's as good as any. The ominous rustling noise in the undergrowth turns out to be Percy the dog; while giving a good-natured but vulgar rebuke to Percy, Paul gets overheard by Ms. Perch, an elderly widow who macks on him a little bit before a honking car horn signals that it's time for Paul to go back and serve alcohol to the guests. He's pretty good at schmoozing with the customers and very good at judging how much liquor someone wants, so it might just be that his real skills are undermarketed.

Lance Henriksen walks up to the bar and announces that the party needs an autopsy while Julia and Paul are talking about how well things are going so far. He does say the appetizers are delicious and that he's going to need a caterer for his upcoming mayoral re-election party, so it's a real networking opportunity. Night falls while more ominous flapping and buzzing noises become more apparent and one of the bugs snags an entire "little piggy thing" out of the mayor's hand (done entirely through the power a dubbed-in sound effect and of Lance Henriksen looking at his empty hand and seeming surprised and put out).

Well, it's been twenty minutes and the monsters have become more and more apparent (including one that gets smashed into a disgusting gooey mess by Paul). And when the piano player stops by to offer to split a jay with Paul they sneak off behind a convenient tree to light up. Oh, that's probably going to be the signal for the second act to start (although not before Paul appears at Julia's side while she's taking over the bar and a creepy late-middle-aged dude makes eyes at her while she pours him a drink). Julia's got just enough time to bust on Paul for not sharing his weed when Sydney stands up to make a speech and thank everyone for coming by to have another garden party--the first after his father passed away (what is it with this film and dead dads?).

The speech tapers off and Sydney smashes one of the bugs against his own shoulder, but before he can realize something's gotten bug guts all over his sweater vest a partygoer starts gagging and choking. Paul turns out to know more than a little first aid, but the convulsing, hideously blistered man spasms uncontrollably, just as thousands of those huge creepy evil wasps burst out of that hole in the lawn. We get that stinger-near-an-eyeball image from the poster (someone's trophy wife) but she smashes the bug before it can attack her. The first on-screen stinging victim is the creepy dude that liked the way Julia held a booze bottle; try not to be creepy towards anyone if you're in a horror movie. You'll last longer.

Turns out that the wasp monsters inject an impossibly fast-growing giant bug monster that bursts out of its hosts' living bodies. That's not a good sign at all, and I find myself wondering how anyone in the cast is going to live through the attack if a single sting means getting parasitized and then torn apart. Also:  Points to Paul for whipping a tablecloth over his and Julia's heads while they run for the mansion. They get taken away when he drops the van keys on the lawn while panicking over the Tyranid that just split a trophy wife in half escaping from her thorax. The surviving party attendees (Lance Henriksen among them, thank goodness) hole up in the mansion's kitchen to compare notes about what's happening. Sydney confirms that nobody's going to get cell reception in the mansion and also turns out not to have dialed 911 to get help because he didn't think anyone would believe him. Which, to be fair, they wouldn't. (Why not just say there's a fire, or a shooting? That would summon lots of cars with flashing lights, especially if the mayor of Wherevertown is one of the people threatened by the situation...)

The survivors (Paul, Julia, Sydney, his mom, Mayor Carruthers, and Flora) take stock of the situation--some more than others--and Sydney shows Paul and Julia to the phone in the office just in time for a dying sting victim outside to drive into a telephone pole and cut the mansion off from the outside. Larry the piano player miraculously escaped getting stung only to get double-teamed by a pair of giant wasps in a scene to horrific and budgetarily intensive to actually depict. I'm a little worried, though; there's fifty-five minutes of movie left and we've got the cast whittled down to six sitting in a room. Here's hoping that the pacing for the remaining percent of the film doesn't ruin the good will that a cool premise, engaging actors, and nicely goopy practical effects and bug puppets have built up so far.

Paul turns out to be the only one who's got it together enough to plan things through and try to keep the people in the house alive; eventually, a whispered conversation arrives at a plan:  Everyone's going to hide in the basement, which will be easier to seal off than anywhere else in the house. Sydney is about to unlock the basement door when a scream rings out from the kitchen; Paul and Julia run back to see what's going on. Sydney follows reluctantly and they discover that his mother was stung; the bug monster escaping from her injured Flora and literally explodes out of Ms. Perch (and winds up wearing her necklace, in a ghoulish sight gag). Time to go to the basement, minus Flora once she gets stabbed through the kitchen door (and her skull) by the monster. Now we're down to four people in the house with one monster inside and several dozen outdoors. Great news.

According to Sydney, the basement door is "up to fire code standards", so the creatures won't be able to break through it. On the debit column, however, there's no way to communicate with the outside world and Julia dropped her wine bottle opener in the panic so there's no way for Mayor Caruthers to start work on the Perch wine cellar while they try to figure out what to do next. (And the ever-resourceful Paul has a bartender's trick to loosen the cork without breaking the bottle by putting the bottle in a shoe and whacking the base of the bottle against the wall, so at least if Lance Henriksen's character is going to die, he won't be sober when it happens.)

While Paul and the mayor work on that bottle of wine, Julia and Sydney talk for a while; turns out those "good times" that Sydney mentioned in his toast before everything went awful never existed. Both parents hated him in their own way for being physically malformed, and after Julia walks away to give him a little privacy he starts itching at his shoulder while the "bug skittering" sound effect plays. Maybe he knocked a stinger into his skin while killing the bug that landed on him?

Percy's off starting to turn into the threat for the end of the film, so the mayor, Paul and Julia talk for a little while over that wine bottle. For what it's worth, Caruthers thinks that Paul really showed intiative and True Grit while saving everyone's lives (and we learn that Paul was a lifeguard at a swimming pool but has his belief in an ordered universe shattered when a kid he saved from drowning died of pneumonia contracted from the water in his lungs).

While Paul and Julia talk about what they'd do with the hypothetical overtime they're going to make off this job (I don't think driving to Hawaii is a very realistic goal, Paul) Sydney sneaks off to look at himself in a mirror--that scratch on his shoulder is huge, pulsing, and something's moving underneath it. Sorry, man, you got dealt a series of raw deals by life. But it turns out that the poor bastard knows more about what's going on than anyone could have reasonably expected--he says the incredibly illegal fertilizer he mixed up for his mom to use in her greenhouse mutated the bugs. Also, nice tip of the hat to The Return of the Living Dead on the fertilizer jugs, filmmakers--I definitely saw the word "Trioxin" on the label. And I no longer feel that bad that Sydney's going to get hollowed out by a giant wasp and tear him apart. I don't care how shitty your childhood was, putting Trioxin in your Weed 'N' Feed is asking for exactly the kind of trouble you're in. For that matter, winking at Dan O'Bannon's masterpiece of comic dread shows what the filmmakers were shooting for here. There's moments of emotional truth mixed in with the jokes and carnage, and Sydney himself serves the same storytelling focus that Freddie did in the 1985 film.

Before Julia and Paul can kick the shit out of Sydney for dooming everyone, the lights go out. Mayor Caruthers' dialogue is a hat tip to his own best film, where he wonders how a bunch of animals could cut the power to the house. The backup generator kicks in so the lights come back on and the group decides to make a run for it in the catering van. Which is right when Paul realizes he lost the keys and needs to go outside to "retrace his steps" and get them back. He also says he's the only one who goes outside, at least partially because he doesn't want to be responsible for anyone else's safety.

Paul leaves through a pair of windows in the basement and goes to look for the keys on the lawn, trying not to make any noise or otherwise attract the wasps. He runs around like a clod and hides while a rather nicely done scene shows a group of the giant wasps on the roof of the mansion building a nest (I think). Inevitably, he fishes the ice pick out of the cooler; at least he isn't completely unarmed at this point. I should praise the filmmakers here, by the way. They've changed tones from a workplace comedy to a grossout monster attack movie to a siege horror film, and now we've got Paul on his own trying to do the right thing and demonstrating more maturity than he did before.

While Julia waits at the window for Paul and Sydney scratches at the slowly growing mass on his shoulder, the mayor says he wants to try out that shoe trick and open another bottle of wine. He doesn't actually get to the wine rack before realizing that something's wrong with Sydney, and the scenes of him and Julia in the cellar are intercut with Paul on the lawn as he eventually finds the keys and sees Percy. Like all humans in movies like this, he tries to rescue the dog, and it turns out that yappy little poodles can carry a wasp monster host just like a person can. Paul manages to drop the ice pick when the monster jumps him, but manages to pick it back up and murder the creature before it can sting him. His triumph lasts about a third of a second before he hears Julia and the mayor screaming for help in the basement as the passenger Sydney was carrying in his hunch breaks out.

Paul dives back into the basement (shattering the window) and clocks Percy--who is the only person not to die instantly when the bug monster breaks out of his body, for some reason as well as the only one not to instantly get a giant wasp monster to burst out of his torso after being stung--with a shovel. Then, just to be sure, he and Caruthers knock a shelf full of stuff over on his prone body. The commotion attracts the notice of the wasp monsters that were up on the roof of the house and they start to move in on the survivors. Thankfully Paul didn't manage to drop the keys again on his way back to the basement. Also I did like the conversation between Julia and Paul before they went to make a break for it ("Is it safe out there?" "No."). They've got to try and get to the van anyway, so it's time to make some selections from the Improvised Weapons Catalog (they went with a fire extinguisher, a can of bug spray and a shovel) and sneak through the house, which now has wasp-monster secreted resin all over the interiors as the creatures have started building a nest.

The nest material means that getting out of the mansion isn't simple or straightforward any more; each room has to be navigated carefully and quietly by all three people. Partway through their escape a monster skitters by a big round hole in one of the interior walls and it's time for the trio to hide and be silent while the wasp thing turns on a radio by accident. Once the monster smashes the radio and flaps off to do monster errands the protagonists continue sneaking through the house in a sequence that stops being suspenseful and starts just becoming overlong and dull. They make it to the front door and find that the wasp resin is too hard to break so they're still stuck in the house.

Caruthers must have made a little too much noise because he gets ankle-grabbed through the door he was trying to open and dragged off to be eaten; the monster that got him bites through the fire extinguisher that the group brought along and gets stunned when it blows up. Paul and Julia manage to get away at least for the moment and barricade themselves inside another room (and hide under a table, perhaps in a nod to ducking and covering to survive an atomic blast). Julia and Paul stave off panic by admitting that nobody's going to hire Country Caterers after the events of the last few hours and it's time to explore different career paths. The conversation comes to an end when a monster breaks through the door and the top of the table--and it's nicely blocked, because neither of the remaining characters can see what's going on from the way they're sitting. Paul flips the table over and pins the monster down while Julia gets the Chair Leg of Truth and destroys the creature's head.

The victory is short-lived, though, with more of the monsters breaking through the ceiling and it's time to run through the house in another "suspenseful" scene that goes on a bit too long again. The pair wind up at a hole to the outside of the house and it's daylight again, so I guess they were hiding under the table for several hours. They stand around just outside the house without looking up so when a bunch of bloody skin and flesh land on the ground next to them that's the first clue that a giant bug is clinging to the wall of the mansion right above them. They run, but the monster's faster and can move in three dimensions easily, so it gets behind Paul and lifts him off the ground with a stinger through the shoulder (though he doesn't seem to get a dose of venom). Julia stabs the Christ out of the monster's tail with the trusty ice pick and severs it; the bug slaps her a dozen yards through the air in retaliation. Paul blacks out and the movie's point of view shifts to Julia as she wakes up on the lawn.

Our stalwart heroine crawls off to look for the van and gets a good look at the exterior of the mansion, which is now covered in wasp nest material. She leans into a corner of some conveniently sheltering brickwork and has a good cry (speaking for myself, I'd have been busy shitting my pants and bursting into tears much earlier in the day). She hears Paul screaming in pain and decides to go back to the house. What the viewer finds out and she doesn't is that Sydney and the bug head peeking out of his shoulder hump are both still alive. They've got Paul immobilized in the central chamber of the hive and Sydney says he's got to be strong and healthy for whatever the next phase of Operation: A Whole Bunch of Wasp Monsters Are In the Mansion is going to be.

As you probably guessed, there's a queen wasp monster to go with all the warrior ones that were bursting out of the party guests earlier. It's busy producing a bunch of larvae and Sydney picks one up, intending to cram it down Paul's throat so he can be the "new Daddy" in the family. If we can trust what Sydney's saying about the wasp queen, it's the one that grew inside of his own mother and he's still a devoted son so he's trying to take care of her like a good boy. Paul's seconds away from trying to swallow a ten pound wasp maggot whole when Julia cuts through Sydney's body with a hedge trimmer and Paul's smart enough to take the larva hostage as they get out of the central chamber. Sydney gets taken out for good by the wasp queen while Paul and Julia run for the kitchen. Julia pops the gas line off the wall and drops the larva down on a pile of Sterno cans, then lights one more more in the van and chucks it into the kitchen. Turns out one of the monsters busts out a Wilhelm scream as the explosion and flames hit it. Julia and Paul drive off down the creepy country road but it's a horror movie so things aren't quite done yet.

The filmmakers saved the crappiest effect in the film for last. Hooray? The flaming CGI wasp monster that attacks the catering van looks like it belongs in a SyFy Original movie, but nothing else in the this film did. I'm guessing they effects company either never had a good render of fire or ran out of time trying to make it work with the wasp models they already had. That's really too bad, because there weren't any really clunky gags in the movie up until now, either CG or practical. The fire bug just doesn't know when to die and jump on the van a second time after falling down in the road and it doesn't look any better the second or third time. Or through the windshield. Paul finally takes it out by punching the monster in the face and driving into a tree while it's busy trying to eat his hand (Julia is given the option of getting out of the van but won't leave her friend, which is actually kind of touching).

Paul wakes up first and tries to see if Julia's all right. After two perfectly good endings we're supposed to believe that in this third one she didn't make it, but of course she's still alive. And the cavalry (or at least an ambulance and a fire department car) get to the crash scene to take care of the pair of survivors while more royalty-free music (this time a guitar duet) wafts across the soundtrack. At long last the two protagonists kiss, which probably feels like rubbing wounds together in the back of the ambulance. But the prerequisite "it isn't over" ending needs to roll, so the last thing we see are a bunch of wasp monsters that incubated inside cattle zooming towards the screen.

How would I rate this one? Ehh-plus. It's got enough good going on in the first 60 percent of the film or so that I can't dog on it too badly but it seriously loses its focus in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth acts. The effects--other than that dogshit looking bug-on-fire--range from capable to amazing and all the performances work out pretty nicely. I'm happy to see Lance Henriksen in anything, so the movie gets some good will from me on that score as well. But overall it's just another monster flick that goes along like lots of other monster flicks. I'm not sorry I watched it and I'm definitely looking forward to the next thing from this writer or director, but you need more than just a hybrid of Party Down and Alien to make your killer insect movie into something really special.

6 comments:

  1. Holy hell, man, "hybrid of Party Down and Alien containing Lance Henriksen" sounds AWESOME. If I'd heard Stung described that way I might have BOUGHT it already.

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  2. Yeah, but 1) They never weaponized Paul's juggling skills, and 2) Those guys trimming trees on the side of the road weren't the Threat-Establishing Casualties. I shouldn't dog on a movie for not playing to the clichés of the genre but I'm going to in this case. If you're hitting most of the major plot points of a monster flick but you establish some things you don't follow up on, I disparage you.

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  3. Two thumbs up for the X-Com reference, I was thinking Chryssalids myself. Nothing worse than getting half your squad off the skyranger and discovering there was a Chryssalid just out of visual range.

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    1. I haven't played the new X-COM yet, but I remember laughing like the Joker as I was taking shots at Chrysalids from my aero-troops. Had one squad made up of flying soldiers specifically for terror missions.

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  4. You should have some "I disparage you" Tshirts made.

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  5. The only custom T I bought over the last five years is the one that says 15,000 JOE MEEK FANS CAN'T BE WRONG.

    I may have to get another one with "I disparage you."

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