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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Bay of the Living Dead: I Lost My Horror Movie Virginity to The Deadly Bees

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 2014 at 2:00 PM

The Deadly Bees: theatrical release poster from 1967--that's star Suzanna Leigh in the center - PARAMOUNT PICTURES/AMICUS PRODUCTIONS
  • Paramount Pictures/Amicus Productions
  • The Deadly Bees: theatrical release poster from 1967--that's star Suzanna Leigh in the center

Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a monthly column dedicated to horror movies and TV, past and present.

To this day, I have no idea what possessed me to go see The Deadly Bees at the Mayfair Theater in Brooklyn, New York. It was 1967 and I was 11 years old. But ever since I walked out of that theater, I've been obsessed with horror movies.

Produced by England's Amicus Productions in 1966 and released Stateside a year later, Freddie Francis' The Deadly Bees remains one of the horror specialist studio's best known titles, due in part to the hilarious roasting it got in 1998 on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Even upon its initial release, the film was a huge hit. It's now believed to be Amicus' most profitable film -- reportedly ABC TV paid a great deal of money to air it on their Sunday Night Movie in 1968, where it was seen twice.

The Deadly Bees was the only film which accorded top billing to actress Suzanna Leigh.The blonde beauty almost became a Hollywood star, having appeared in films opposite leading men Jerry Lewis, Tony Curtis and Elvis. Screen Actors' Guild revoked her membership after receiving complaints from American born actresses who felt that the British born Leigh was stealing roles from the locals. The Deadly Bees was her first film upon returning to the UK. In spite of her lead status and the film's financial success, Leigh's career never regained the momentum she enjoyed in Hollywood.

Today Leigh appears at autograph shows and gives interviews regarding her friendship with Elvis and her work in the horror genre. She has not made a film in nearly forty years. Though she's expressed no bitterness, one is left with the impression that Leigh's once promising career was stolen from her.

The Deadly Bees is a film that horror fans love to hate. The film is trashed mercilessly at IMDB. "No buzz about this film," writes one. "A taste of honey, a swallow of crap," writes another.

But the film does have its followers. When writing about the film for DVD Drive-In, George Reis praised the production design and cinematography -- director Freddie Francis in fact won an Oscar in 1961 for the exquisite cinematography he provided for Sons and Lovers. Reis also gave high marks to the make-up applied to actress Catherine Finn for the aftermath of her onscreen death by bee stings. As the ill fated Mrs. Hargrove, Finn gave the film's most powerful performance, in spite of the primitive special effects of the period, ("The bees are putting plastic flies on her", observed the Mystery Science Theater crew when they ribbed the film) Mrs. Hargrove's gruesome, painful death becomes a terrifying sequence. The scene works in part because of actual close-ups of bee stings entering human flesh and because the screams of anguish from the actress were so convincing.

click to enlarge Catherine Finn's shocker of a demise in The Deadly Bees. - GEORGE REIS/DVD DRIVE-IN
  • George Reis/DVD Drive-In
  • Catherine Finn's shocker of a demise in The Deadly Bees.

Catherine Finn (1915-1980) was a classic example of the journeyman actor who spent her life earning a living as a performer while never becoming a star. She worked steadily in small roles getting little if any recognition. Fourth billed in The Deadly Bees, it's the most screen time she ever got in a single production. She spoke less than 30 lines and was killed off just before the film's halfway point. The actress played smaller roles in two other Freddie Francis directed horror films, Torture Garden (1967) and The Creeping Flesh (1972). She deserved better: she played the embittered Mrs. Hargrove for all it was worth. There was a dramatic intensity in her line readings that one rarely saw in films of this type. Indeed, Finn was known for her stage work in her native Ireland -- reportedly she performed Shakespeare in Gaelic. Though she has many credits at IMDB -- eleven appearances on the British anthology series The Vise alone -- she remained a minor player.

The Deadly Bees was loosely -- very loosely -- based on A Taste For Honey, a 1941 mystery novel by H.F. Heard. In the book, reclusive, repressive Sidney Silchester stumbles upon a horrifying secret: Mr. Hargrove, the beekeeper from whom he procures his honey, is a madman who uses his bees as a murder weapon. Silchester is approached by the eccentric Mr. Mycroft. Together they set out to stop Hargrove and his stinging minions.

The book remains in print and is considered a classic murder mystery/detective story with obvious connections to the Sherlock Holmes mythos. When they approached the project, director Francis and screenwriter Robert Bloch (Psycho) originally planned a faithful retelling of the book. But Amicus had other ideas. The studio forced changes in the story which disgusted the filmmakers. Francis later admitted that he nearly quit the movie business after completing the film.

Against Francis' wishes, Sidney Silchester became Vicki Robbins, a blonde female pop singer (Leigh). Early in the film she lip syncs a dreadful song about lost love. Hargrove (Guy Doleman), the book's villain, became the red herring suspect who's ultimately proven innocent. Doleman (1923-1996) was a New Zealand native who's long and varied career was spread across three continents. He's now best remembered as Count Lippe in the James Bond adventure Thunderball (1964). He also appeared in the cult TV series The Prisoner and was on the soap opera General Hospital, among many other roles. Doleman and Finn give The Deadly Bees some real tension as an embittered, middle aged couple who can no longer remember why they got married. ("Sure, they hate each others guts but the sex is great!" quipped the Mystery Science Theater guys.)

While the film's basic premise remains true to the Heard novel, the unhappy marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Hargrove are the only scenes from the book that are recreated for the film.

New characters created for the film include Doris (Katy Wild) Hargrove's 20-year-old lovesick housekeeper. She parades around his farm in a pair of out-of-place high heels.

The film's mad beekeeper becomes Mr. Manfred (Frank Finlay) another newly created role. Finlay is a classically trained actor who received an Oscar nomination for his work in Laurence Olivier's Othello (1965). He decided to have a little fun with The Deadly Bees. He hams it up in a deliciously over the top, self aware performance, darting his eyes madly about in every scene. From his very first appearance, Finlay makes it obvious that Manfred is not only insane, but the killer.

While not faithful to its source material, The Deadly Bees remains a fun and silly way to spend 83 minutes. It's certainly not the unwatchable bomb some have claimed it to be. After reading the book, it becomes understandable why Francis and Bloch were upset with the film Amicus forced them to make. Allegedly, the Doleman and Finlay roles were originally offered to Boris Karloff (Manfred) and Christopher Lee (Hargrove). It's believed that both stars turned them down.

Karloff ironically starred in Sting of Death, an hour-long version of the H.F. Heard novel, which ABC aired on its live anthology series Elgin Hour in 1955. (Sting of Death is available on DVD as part of Sherlock Holmes: The Archive Collection, and is available for free streaming at Hulu.) It's probably the film Francis and Bloch hoped to make a decade later. It was a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel. Robert Flemyng was superb as the anti-social Sydney Silchester, while Karloff commands the screen as the lovably eccentric but brilliant amateur sleuth Mr. Mycroft. As in the book, the teleplay strongly implies that Mr. Mycroft is actually Sherlock Holmes' brother.

The technical limits of producing a live TV drama didn't allow for special effects. When Silchester is attacked by the bees, he swats at thin air--not a single bee is seen. Mrs. Hargrove not only dies off camera, she's never seen at all. Hermoine Gingold, who plays Silchester's cockney housekeeper, stands in as Mrs. Hargrove's offscreen voice.

Lack of horrific scenes notwithstanding, Sting of Death is a literate, elegant adaptation of one of the most wildly pieces of detective fiction ever written. It would have been nice to see what Freddie Francis and Robert Bloch would have come up with as H.F. Heard had written it.

Be that as it may, The Deadly Bees, a much maligned film, deserves a second look. In the right frame of mind, it's terrific fun. The Mystery Science Theater version is nothing short of brilliant.

The Deadly Bees remains available on DVD at Amazon.

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