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Monday, January 25, 2016

The Golden Age of TV Movies: Killer Bees (1974)

Posted By on Mon, Jan 25, 2016 at 3:30 PM

click to enlarge Title card - ABC TV
  • ABC TV
  • Title card

Welcome to The Golden Age of TV Movies.

This will be, I'm sorry to announce. the final edition of this column. Its been fun re-watching and reliving these fabulous TV films from long ago. I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane as much as I did. 

For this final column, let's take a look back at one of the stranger offerings from the archives of ABC Movie of the Week.  

Long, long ago, Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) was the most famous and highest paid woman in the world. Audiences lined up around the block to catch every one of Swanson's cinematic extravaganzas during the 1920s — her films often set the period's fashion trends.

When Swanson's star fell after the advent of talkies, she gave up on Hollywood and moved to New York City where she made millions as a businesswoman. She acted sporadically for the rest of her life, most notably in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950). Swanson was sensational in the film—she scored an Oscar nomination (and won a Golden Globe) for her wonderfully over-the-top performance as Norma Desmond, a fallen silent film star who had retreated into a fantasy world of her own making. Sunset Boulevard became Swanson's signature role—the film is now regarded as one of Hollywood's greatest.

Swanson was in her mid-70s when she agreed to play Maria Van Bohlen, matriarch of a wealthy if creepy family in Curtis Harrington's Killer Bees, which premiered on ABC on February 26, 1974. A number of  talented people worked on the film besides Swanson. Auteur Harrington, at the time Hollywood's only openly gay director, had a long history of casting fading movie queens in macabre roles, such as Oscar winner Simone Signoret in Games (1967) or the disturbing What's the Matter With Helen, which co-starred Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters in 1971. Killer Bees'  cast included rising TV star Kate Jackson, who's career would soon catapult into the stratosphere when she became one of Charlie's Angels in 1976. Edward Albert, then Jackson's real life boyfriend, played her fiancee in Killer Bees. Two years earlier, the actor attracted a great deal of attention for his starring role as a young blind man determined to live an independent life in the hit film Butterflies Are Free

Killer Bees tells the bizarre tale of Victoria Wells (Jackson) who travels to the California wine country with her fiance, the wealthy if secretive Edward Van Bohlen — she's coming to meet Edward's eccentric (to say the least) and reclusive family. The Van Bohlens have made a fortune bottling their own brand of "strangely sweet" wine — the taste comes from the honey which is produced by the bees that live in their vineyards.

click to enlarge Kate Jackson, Edward Albert - ABC TV
  • ABC TV
  • Kate Jackson, Edward Albert
Within moments of her arrival, there are several mysterious deaths in town — a stranger loses control of his car as the vehicle is covered by bees. A telephone lineman falls to his death after he discovers the bees nesting in a converter box high atop a pole. The bees appear and disappear mysteriously, obviously causing these strange accidents even though no one is stung.

The bees, we soon find out, appear to have a psychic connection to Madame Van Bohlen (Swanson), the ancient family matriarch who seems to be controlling them. Is Madame the queen bee? 

The budgets for these TV films were generally on the low side, and CGI effects didn't exist in 1974, so some of the film's effects are ... cheesy. (Think small animated polka dots swirling about during the swarming scenes.)

click to enlarge Gloria Swanson and friends. - ABC TV
  • ABC TV
  • Gloria Swanson and friends.
On the other hand, Swanson and Jackson showed some real chutzpah in allowing real bees to crawl all over their bodies — Swanson during an unsettling sequence in which she chats to her beloved bee-babies, telling them how much she loves them. And Jackson, when she discovers the bees' nest in the attic of the spooky Victorian mansion which serves as the Van Bohlen home. This is a surprisingly poetic sequence in which David Shire's haunting score lets us know that the bees are a supernatural entity — we see them swirling about the attic as an empty rocking chair sits at the center of the enormous hive.

How Madame came to be the Queen bee — how she controls those "babies" — is never explained. The viewer is asked to suspend belief and go along for the ride.

It's a worthwhile journey. Killer Bees is not your average cookie cutter killer-bee flick. It's a horror film like no other, an original idea that manages to offer up an atmosphere of dread and even a few genuine scares. And it's always nice to see a grand, old school diva like Swanson chewing the scenery. 

Just be careful not to get stung!           


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