Before summer gets squashed out, we celebrate the season of pesky pests by looking at ten of the most iconic killer bug movies.
Each year, when the temperatures rise, that usually means plenty of outdoor activities that allow us the opportunity to bask in the glory of the sweltering summer months. Swimming, camping, sports, porch lounging, bonfires, and more provide plenty of sunny entertainment from May through September. But with the good comes the bad, and it arrives on the wings or spindly legs of those pesky insects that possess the ability to properly freak you out.
Sure, not all bugs are scary. But when they happen to be the victims of science gone awry, are exposed to toxic sludge, or get hit with a mutation-inducing wave of radiation, things can get really spooky.
So, as the summer season comes to a close, here’s my list of badass bug movies that are sure to have you armed with a rolled newspaper and an industrial-sized can of raid! Bug off!
1. THEM! (1954)
When it comes to discussing giant monster movies of the sci-fi golden age, you are obligated to include the 1954 classic Them! in the conversation.
Among the first to lumber out of the giant bug gate, many naysayers would be flabbergasted to learn that this big budget bonanza is wildly frightening and incredibly well-spoken, commanding a level of respect that has allowed it to swarm its way to the most coveted spot at the giant monster picnic.
One of the many creepy crawlers to scamper out of the radioactive dust of the nuclear bomb tests in the wake of WWII, Them! tells the tale of a pack of ants that have mutated to massive proportions and have begun wreaking havoc in the New Mexico desert.
Expertly acted and boasting a wildly mature script, Them! is a visual feast that somehow avoids totally falling victim to the campy B-movie trappings that many of these types of films have as time has worn on. The special effects have managed to maintain their grandeur (the film was nominated for an Oscar for its visual effects work), lending heavily to the apocalyptic atmosphere of billowing sands and gnarled structures that are the handiwork of the stalking ants.
And then there are the scares, which are laid out so seamlessly that it’s easy to see why Them! has morphed into the classic that it is today.
Originally meant to be released in 3D (the color opening title card is a dead giveaway), Them! is a quietly clever reflection of Atomic Age paranoia that pondered the bomb’s effects and man’s willingness to harness the sublimely destructive powers of the gods.
It’s an essential classic that should be required viewing for any young monster fans and studied by film gurus for its intellectual underpinnings.
2. TARANTULA (1955)
A year after Warner Bros’ Them! stampeded through the parched American desert, Universal Studios jumped into the ring with Tarantula, an equally clever assessment of America’s vigilant march into the scientific unknown.
Part giant monster movie fused with Universal’s classic ghouls that dominated the ‘30s and ‘40s, Tarantula tells the tale of a scientist using experimental technology to create a nutrient that would effectively end world hunger. However, the experiments – which are atom based – are creating mutated humans and animals.
A terrible accident unleashes a massive tarantula that leaves a trail of death in the surrounding areas.
Explicitly inspired by Them!’s astonishing special effects work, Tarantula is equally as jaw-dropping with its make-up work and special effects. Our eight-legged menace lumbers the rocky terrain quite convincingly, and when it attacks, director Jack Arnold – fresh off The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature – gives a colossal sense of scale that makes the hair on your arms stand on end.
And then there are our human monsters, who suffer from “acromegalia,” who could stand with the likes of such terrors as the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf-Man. It’s a wicked little fusion that was, at the time, a cocktail of old and new.
Leaning more into science gone haywire than mushroom cloud unease, Tarantula grapples with America’s post-WWII superpower mindset on bold, scientific progression. It understands the heart of the country was in the right place, but it questions the morals and the ghastly consequences that may come with making the world a better place.
It makes for one of the finest sci-fi chillers of its day.
3. THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957)
Two years after Universal-International unleashed Tarantula, the studio gave audiences another dose of giant bug pandemonium with The Deadly Mantis, directed by Nathan H. Juran.
While The Deadly Mantis may not be the best film on this list, it’s certainly a fun example of pure ’50s giant monster fizz.
The Dead Mantis picks up just outside the Arctic Circle, where a volcano blast has recently melted several of the nearby icebergs, which happen to be housing a giant prehistoric mantis. After the monster begins attacking local outposts and villages, a scientist and the military race to stop the monster before more damage can be done.
Among the cheaper efforts of the big bug craze, The Deadly Mantis is comprised largely of stock military footage that morphs the film into something of a highlight reel of the U.S. military at the time.
However, the film packs several expansive action sequences and maintains an epic feeling that sweeps you high into the sky on the buzzing wings of our destructive mantis. The film’s highlights are undoubtedly the monster scaling the Washington Monument and a fog-shrouded attack that leaves a trail of vehicular carnage. And at the heart of it is the photogenic beast itself, which seems to boast most of the film’s budget as it looms – quite expensively — over its shrieking human-shaped meals.
The Deadly Mantis may not be the deepest entry on this list. At times, it feels like an assembly line production whipped up to satiate the public’s craving for giant monsters pulverizing intricate little miniature towns.
But the glimmers of a colossal, globe-trotting scope make the film feel like an early blueprint for the breezy summer epics we enjoy today.
4. SQUIRM (1976)
During the 1970s, one of the subgenres that reigned supreme was nature-run-amok flicks, which found Mother Nature striking back viciously against man’s increasingly careless treatment of her. One of the most fun movies of this subgenre is the endlessly bizarre 1976 effort Squirm, directed by Jeff Lieberman.
Squirm picks up in the small Georgia town of Fly Creek. This rural little community is reeling from a destructive storm that has left sparking powerlines pumping thousands of volts of electricity into the soggy soil. Nearby, young Geri (played by Patricia Pearcy) is awaiting the arrival of her boyfriend, Mick (played by Don Scardino), who is busing in from New York.
After the pair discover the remains of what appears to be a local antique dealer, they quickly tell the local sheriff, who dismisses their claim after the bones mysteriously disappear. As strange occurrences stack up, the couple slowly realizes that the events all seem to be linked to worms, which appear to be feasting on human flesh.
Hinging almost on the surreal side, Liberman creates an aura within Squirm that seems unequivocally hallucinatory.
He toys endlessly with the audience, making you question whether bloodthirsty worms are the real culprits here. Of course, they ultimately turn out to be a hazard. But the way the film is staged seems like the paranoia slithering out of the ground could almost be linked to the thick southern heat that weighs feverishly over our baffled protagonists.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that some of the more unintentionally hilarious moments threaten to suck the mood right out of Squirm, much like the deadly fish food that devours the flesh clean off the bones of their respective victims. And don’t get me started about that whole egg-cream moment! Still, there are shocks-a-plenty nestled into Squirm’s smug sense of humor, and it pulls off its terror through a restrained gore budget.
Propelling the suspense even further is the presence of one character that has been infested with our squirming hellions and will stop at nothing to make sure Geri becomes his worm queen. Yikes!
The film packs one hell of a finale, which is blacked-out and set to a chilling lullaby that will properly scare the bejesus out of you.
5. KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977)
In 1977, national treasure William Shatner decided to get in on the “animals attack” phenom with the immensely gloomy and apocalyptic Kingdom of the Spiders, which stands as one-half Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and one-half George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Kingdom of the Spiders picks up in rural Arizona, where local farmer Walter Colby (played by Woody Strode) has discovered one of his prized calves has suddenly died for no apparent reason. He calls in the local veterinarian, Dr. “Rack” Hansen (played by William Shatner), who ships a blood sample off to a nearby university. In response to the blood sample, the university dispatches Diane Ashley (played by Tiffany Bolling), an arachnologist who arrives to let Rack know that the calf died from a large amount of spider venom.
Initially skeptical, Rack soon discovers that Diane may be on to something when massive spider hills are discovered near Colby’s farm. But little do they know that their problems are just beginning, as the spiders soon start amassing around the entire area and unleash a string of chaos.
With a sense of hopelessness closing in around the viewer by the second, Kingdom of the Spiders remains fiercely realistic throughout its brief runtime. It hurls nightmarish scenarios at the viewer, from our eight-legged terrors silently prowling about a bedroom as one character takes a shower to a plane that has become infested, causing a fiery crash out of the sky.
And then there is the climatic siege, which has shadowy echoes of Night of the Living Dead, as a group of our characters battle against the swarming spiders clamoring for a way inside a fortified lodge.
Taking some of the political cues from Jaws, Kingdom of the Spiders swipes at depth with some recycled ideas from Spielberg’s aquatic classic. It ultimately feels a bit tacked on, but director John “Bud” Cardos covers this by unleashing a hellish Birds-like assault on the town that expands the scope of the disaster at hand.
It also helps that Cardos allows room for some substantial character development, elevating the stakes and tension even further as tangles of spiders blanket our shrieking heroes.
It all comes together in a fevered-dream web of horror that is one of the creepier entries lurking on this list.
6. ARACHNOPHOBIA (1990)
As horror entered the 1990s, arguably one of the finest bugged-out horror efforts reared its set of eyes with director Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia.
Striking the perfect balance between laughs and chills, this shuddery effort is a roller coaster ride that continues to age beautifully.
Arachnophobia follows Dr. Ross Jennings (played by Jeff Daniels), who has recently moved with his family to the small town of Canaima, where he is set to take over as the new resident physician. Unbeknownst to the Jennings family, a newly-discovered breed of spider has also found its way to their farm, which is breeding a highly venomous colony that starts picking off the locals one by one.
After it is discovered that the town’s current physician has succumbed to the new spiders, Jennings teams with eccentric exterminator Delbert McClintock (played by John Goodman) and the pair of scientists who discovered the new breed to eradicate the growing numbers before it’s too late.
Lobbing an endless barrage of terrifying scenarios at you that are guaranteed to give you a massive case of the heebie-jeebies, Arachnophobia plays to its name with some truly dazzling results.
It consistently toys with the tiny spiders finding their way into all sorts of inconvenient places like football helmets, slippers, and even a bowl of popcorn, which are all skin-crawling enough to scar even those who don’t mind the little buggers. There are countless moments where you will be gasping at close calls or covering your mouth in suspense as they scamper towards a cat or hurry underneath bleachers.
Twenty-two years on, Arachnophobia looks downright fantastic, barely aging outside of maybe a few choice fashion decisions.
The visual effects, which are comprised largely of real spiders blended with jaw-dropping props, mesh together to form a seamless wave of ick-inducing thrills that never reveal their true age. Adding to the film’s sleek reputation are the performances from Daniels and Goodman, who seem to be relishing their opportunity to horse around in the horror sandbox.
And by the time we find ourselves side-by-side with Daniels’ petrified doctor duking it out with a scrappy, tarantula-sized queen, you’ll be hailing Arachnophobia itself as the queen of the badass bug mound.
7. TICKS (1993)
As the horror genre chugged along into the wake of the slasher craze, the home video market allowed genre fans many lo-fi options to freak themselves out with. There was an increasing number of straight-to-video gems, one of which happened to be 1993’s excellent gross-out Ticks.
Ticks follows a group of troubled teens as they embark on a wilderness retreat that just so happens to fall near a marijuana farm that has been experimenting with various steroid chemicals. Unbeknownst to the farmers, their leaky equipment has infected the local tick population, which is mutating and growing at an alarming rate.
As the kids settle in for their retreat, the man who runs the farm grows increasingly hostile to the youth group’s presence, but both parties will need to set aside their differences as the bloodthirsty mutated ticks begin closing in.
Directed with serious glee by Tony Randel, Ticks has enjoyed something resembling a minor renaissance with the release of Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K transfer of the film, which rolls out the blood red carpet for this unsung homage to ‘50s creature features. It’s packed with tons of outrageous jolts to keep you and your friends losing your minds over what will come next. Of course, this is partly due to the stellar practical effects that danced around the emerging computer-generated wizardry.
Watching the massive ticks hurry across the frame and burst forth from latex make-up in showers of sinewy gore is a blast.
Sadly, Ticks would never enjoy a wide theatrical release, and history would be even more unkind to the film as it was lost to the very bottom of the Z-grade bin. I can only imagine how much fun this movie would be on the big screen, as it has the elbow grease and scope to inhabit it. It also boasts a plethora of familiar faces who probably wish this movie was scrubbed from their resumes, but Ticks is a great time.
It truly deserves its rising place in horror history.
8. MIMIC (1997)
Four years after his staggering vampire debut, Guillermo del Toro slipped into the American mainstream with Mimic.
Often dismissed even by del Toro himself, Mimic is a highly atmospheric monster movie eager to make you shudder in disgust, even if some of del Toro’s unique vision does get crushed under the weight of a big studio.
Mimic picks up in New York City, which is reeling from an epidemic called Strickler’s Disease, an outbreak that has been claiming the lives of the city’s children. With efforts failing to control the virus, the CDC looks to Dr. Susan Tyler (played by Mira Sorvino) to end the outbreak, which is carried by the cockroach population that lurks in the city’s underbelly.
Dr. Tyler creates a new species of cockroach codenamed the “Judas Breed” that is unleashed in the sewers to decimate the infected roaches. With the situation seemingly under control, the city thinks its problems are behind it. But a whole new breed of mutated monster is lurking in the catacombs under the Big Apple, blending in and claiming a terrifying number of victims.
Based on a short story by Donald A. Wollheim, Mimic is heavily influenced by the dreary gloom of 1995’s Se7en, a clear inspiration for del Toro’s chilly vision of a city – which is quite literally – under the weather.
But that doesn’t stop his gothic inspirations from leaking in through the big studio walls, which favored flashy production values that gloss over other more thoughtful elements del Toro attempts to wedge in. Strangely, he has claimed that the film largely belonged to the studio, but I believe he sells himself short over what he achieved.
While he may not have been able to possess the control he desired, Mimic still brings the creativity we associate with del Toro’s legendary name, mainly in the bug design, which is effectively repulsive and indebted to the shadowy presence of such iconic Universal Studios monsters like Dracula. A horrifying entity blending in and posing as a normal figure amongst man, spreading death and destruction while wearing the unassuming mask of a man.
The characters may be forever lost in the winding desertion of the dingy subways, but Mimic is a stellar creature feature that shimmered with a brilliance we would soon learn to treasure.
9. EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002)
Anyone in the market for a firehouse blast of sheer goopy silliness should look no further than 2002’s zany Eight Legged Freaks.
Favoring laughs over terror, director Ellory Elkayem’s love letter to the giant monster movies of the 1950s is a raucous good time, even if the final act quivers under the weight of a thousand-pound tarantula.
Eight Legged Freaks picks up in the small mining town of Prosperity, Arizona, where a barrel of toxic waste has polluted a small lake frequented by a local spider farmer, who collects the crickets from the water and feeds him to his exotic array of arachnids. Meanwhile, Chris McCormick (played by David Arquette) arrives back in town to protest the selling of Prosperity’s mines, which his father owned up until his death ten years earlier.
He also reconnects with his former love interest, Sherriff Samantha Parker (played by Kari Wuhrer), who he secretly hopes to win back. Chris’s plans take a turn when he realizes that the town is being overrun by mutated spiders that have grown to enormous sizes and started feeding on the townsfolk.
Brimming with affection for the ‘50s giant monster movies that scared the wits out of grandma and grandpa, Eight Legged Freaks is an uncomplicated homage that exists solely to slap a big goofy smile right across your face.
The script favors the proceedings’ comedic side, often leaning directly into slapstick territory.
That being said, there are monsters-a-plenty lurking about Eight Legged Freaks, and the green spider blood and sticky webs are thrown around with total abandon, even if the CGI sheen is starting to wear off.
Boasting one of the coolest horror movie titles of recent memory, Eight Legged Freaks is a great gateway movie for the younger crowd looking to expand their knowledge of the horror genre. The movie’s final stretch may fizzle, but the cast and crew’s never-ending enthusiasm cast a sweet spell.
This pulpy thrill ride nestles deep into the hearts of hardcore horror fans.
10. THE MIST (2007)
After tackling a pair of Stephen King’s more dramatic efforts, director Frank Darabont set his sights on King’s bug opus, The Mist.
Released in 2007, The Mist was a freaky vision of America still making sense of a catastrophic crisis that had spun further and further out of control. And it explored a country stuck in a tug-of-war of logic versus delusion.
The Mist begins with a destructive storm striking a small town that harbors a secretive military base. In the wake of the storm, a strange mist descends upon the town, unleashing a barrage of interdimensional insects that crave human blood.
Ripping a page straight out of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead playbook, The Mist forces us to confront that budding realization that we as a society are growing more and more divided – even now more than at the time of the film’s release.
The Mist hones in on several folks trapped inside a grocery store who slowly succumb to mob mentality, religious extremism, and self-destructive violence, making the alien bugs that amass outside the least spooky thing in the movie.
Under Darabont’s careful directive, The Mist examines post-9/11 reactions under the guise of a giant bug invasion, which kicks off with confusion and then spirals from there. Are we feeling God’s wrath for our sins, or is the situation at hand a freak event that requires clear-eyed contemplation and the unwavering willingness to work as one?
In true Romero fashion, Darabont reminds us that cool heads may not always prevail and that we may all be doomed, even those who believe they are free from sin.
Make sure you give the black and white version of this a spin!