“Let’s get ready to bumble!”
Killer insects have been responsible for some classically bad movies in the past: the entire killer-bee genre, for example, or J.P.Simon’s extraordinary Slugs, which took a Shaun Hutson novel and removed all the artistic qualities therein. Bug Buster operates in a similar way, except without a source novel to plunder, so resorts to scenery-chewing and not one, but two, actors who’ve never done anything outside the starship Enterprise: George Takei and James Doohan. But like many bad movies, there is a saving grace, and in this case, it comes in the form of Randy Quaid. He plays General George, a pest eliminator – or, as his ultracheap TV adverts put it, “elimina-torrrrrrr” – who is lurking in the background for the first two-thirds of the film, foreshadowing events with a glorious mix of machismo and bullshit. His commercials alone are enough to keep you watching.
This is fortunate, since the rest of the film doesn’t have much on this front, beyond poor Katherine Heigl going through more insectoid torture than most fledgling actresses should have to. She plays Shannon, who has been having nightmares involving giant cockroaches crawling over her skin – and let me put it this way, I couldn’t see any CGI being used. While not quite up to the standard of infamous Hong Kong nasty, Centipede Horror, you still have to take your hat off to her. Such are the traumas that have to be endured when you are in a movie with a monster which is not in the slightest big threatening or dangerous; the “Ick!” factor must be upped instead, and Heigl is the unfortunate heroine.
Anyway, she and her family (including another has-been from television, Bernie Koppel from The Love Boat) buy a hotel, and move into the sleepy California town of Mountview. At least, it was sleepy, until Steve (David Lipper) and Veronica (Meredith Salenger) go for a dip in the local lake, despite “the old wives’ tales about people getting their legs gnawed off in the water”. And, lo, before you can say “Wasn’t she in Lake Placid?”, Veronica has duly been nibbled by something slimy, and I don’t mean Steve. The local sheriff (Doohan) closes the lake with admirable promptness – as he says, “You saw ‘Jaws’, didn’t you?” – until he shoots a “scarfish”. The local vet, who moonlights as the local doctor, local forensic pathologist and, for all I know, local priest, helpfully informs him it’s a fish out of its water, and also has a giant cockroach in its stomach.
Realising this is not 100% normal, she calls her old teacher, Professor Fujimoto (Takei, shown right). He gives a new meaning to the old saw about “phoning his lines in”, since he never appears in a scene with any of the other characters, only talking to them on the telephone. Back at Shannon’s hotel, the lounge act have turned up; charmingly named ‘Trailer Park Trash’, their set is interrupted by the sudden, roach-related death of their sax player (played by cult movie guru Johnny Legend). Shannon is so upset, she…goes to see Fall of the House of Usher with Steve. As you do. But by an amazing coincidence, two audience members also suddenly go icky in an insect style – what are the odds against that? Cue an amusing cameo from MTV-jockette ‘Downtown’ Julie Brown as rabid reporter Katie Cunning of FU2 news, who is immensely irritating, yet is equally spot-on the mark, as a caricature of immensely irritating local news reporters.
“I can’t help wondering if there’s any connection between the roach I found in the fish, and the ones I found in the humans,” says our local vet/pathologist/whatever. Well, duh! Shannon continues her unusual therapy for her traumatic experiences by…taking the world’s bubbliest bath, watched by the town loonie, though her only reaction is to grab propane curling-tongs. Before you know it, she’s taking a shower too, in preparation for her next date with Steve – hey, why let a few deaths get in the way of your social life? Although in mitigation, if I had to let bugs crawl over me for the sake of art, you’d not get me off the soap for months. Veronica cunningly distracts Steve by having her leg go all septic (the one nibbled in the lake; it seems like a lifetime ago, but is really only three beers) and the unfeeling bitch then goes and dies on him. Sheesh.
Bugs are now pretty much everywhere: Veronica starts hatching, Shannon’s nightmares come true, though the insects attacking her are vacuumed up by Steve [as an aside, I’ve done this myself in New York – it’s about the only way to get rid of the roaches there], and her parents are ambushed while making love. Cue Katie Cunning again, though her horror is as nothing compared to the viewer’s, at having watched The Love Boat‘s doctor have a shag. “This whole thing has gotten way out of hand,” says a deputy, but I don’t think he’s referring to the movie in general. However, there’s only one man who can help…
“He was a war hero in Vietnam.”
“What did he do?”
As the man himself says, “When General George opens up his can of whup-ass, there’ll be roaches in Siberia feeling the heat…” Associating with the General is nothing if not educational: “They appear to be amphibious…that means they can live in water and on dry land.” On the other hand, I wouldn’t put too much reliance on his scientific accuracy; five minutes later it’s, “Vampire bat: its bite’s deadlier than a king cobra…kill you like that…” Minor details like there not being vampire bats in California, and their bite not being poisonous anyway, don’t get in the way. But pseudo-science and cliche is this film’s stock-in-trade, as the following exchange shows:
“So you’re saying that once they get inside the body, they spontaneously lay larvae
which destroy human tissue as they multiply at hyperaccelerated rates?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying!”
Things gallop cheerfully on to the inevitable conclusion in the roach lair – an old mineshaft, should you care about such things – which sees Oscar-nominee Quaid (1973’s The Last Detail) rolling around on the floor, engaging in a fist-fight with a papier-mache insect. Difficult to say whether he or Heigl were the most humiliated in making this film. There’s a Scooby-Doo moment, in which Scotty proves that ye canna change the laws of physics (ok, he doesn’t, but I always wanted to write that) before the obligatory ending that isn’t, leaving scope, more in hope than anything else I suspect, for Bug Buster 2. In your dreams, Doumani.
This is shallow, laughable and badly-written. There’s no doubt about that. But in its defence, it never stops moving, with something always going on. Heigl is cute and personable, and any producers reading this should also note she is clearly willing to do anything for a role… Randy Quaid is quite magnificent, and it’s a shame that he only turns up properly for the last third of the film, as he sets things ablaze and the character could easily sustain an entire movie. The effects are pretty decent, even if there’s some confusion over the difference between “cockroaches” and “millipedes”…hey, they’re all bugs. Mindless, gloopy and passable fun, if taken with the prescribed dose of alcohol.