Movies From the Black Lagoon: The Satan Bug

Movies From the Black Lagoon
The Satan Bug - 1965, Unrated

Chemical warfare, terrorism, and an unstable millionaire combine for taut thrills in this yarn from John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven).
Sturges was fresh from the success of "The Great Escape" when he opted to make this smaller scale terror tale. If you ever wondered about what might happen when a chemical agent, capable of destroying all life on the planet, gets liberated from secret lab and falls into the hands of a lunatic version of H. Ross Perot, then this is the flick for you.
The story begins with a look at "Station Three" near closing time, before the weekend. Security measures appear tight, but that doesn't stop a crew from breaking in the old fashioned way (by mailing themselves to the lab in crates of equipment). The thugs manage to steal six vials of botulism, and one flask of the titular menace. The base turns to its ex-security chief, Lee Barrett to investigate the break-in as everyone who works there is a suspect. Barrett goes to work and figures out how the team escaped the base, but his main concern is who has the virus. His worse fear is that a member of the lunatic fringe is involved-you know one of those types that is so 'gaga' over the idea of world peace that they will kill millions to prove their point. Barrett immediately singles out a few known radicals with the finances to pull off the job and has the military look into them while he interrogates, I mean questions, the scientists at the compound. He acts on the assumption that it had to be an inside job due to the tight security measures at eh base as well as the secret nature of its business. Here the film borders on science fiction, as it wants you to believe that the government can keep a secret.
The scientists don't know anything helpful (go figure) but the military reports back that Barrett's chief suspect, a chemical company millionaire, has gone off the radar and not been seen in months. No pictures exist of the guy so he could be anybody. A cool plot point that dovetails nicely with origin of one of the scientists but that's all you'll get out of me. Barrett continues to make intuitive assumptions and eventually figures out where the chemical weapons are when he takes note of a report of a flat tire on the night of the incident. Unfortunately the thugs are there to reclaim them too and they take Barret hostage. This turns out to be a good thing as it gets Barrett closer to the "Satan Bug" and introduces him to the architect of the robbery. Turns out our millionaire just wants to use the weapon as insurance so that the military will shut down all labs that are dedicated to creating weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately he doesn't trust that the government will comply unless he shows that he means business so he sets off a strain of botulism in Florida and rigs another one in L.A. The climax finds Barret wrestling with the madman in a helicopter over California while a flask, containing the world's deadliest virus, rolls perilously close to the open door that just saw the pilot go tumbling through it. Great stuff that folds suspense and intelligence into a tense plot, that has since become commonplace in action movies that depend on bigger and bigger explosions but smaller and smaller ideas.
Ideas drive this one so credit must go to the writers. Alastair Mac lean (the Guns of Navarone) wrote the novel this came from but James Clavell (Shogun) did the screenplay and made two important changes by moving the film's location to the U.S.A. (the book was set in England) and changing the motivation of the villain (who was simply out for a big payday in the book). Clavell's script doesn't shy away from the moral implications of creating deadly weapons. The last line in the film, uttered by a triumphant Barrett, cements the message by making it clear that stopping the terrorist only removes half of the equation as we now have to share our living space with a virus that could kill us all, and didn't exist until man created it.
The players are solid too and include a slew of people who had their best success on the small screen. George Maharis (Route 66) is well cast as Barrett and manages to make the character equal parts brain and brawn. Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) makes for a good villain and his final exit is a whopper. The thugs are menacing as all get out, due to the casting of Ed Asner and Frank Sutton, who would later go on to sitcom infamy as grouchy authority figures, Lou Grant and Sgt. Carter, in the" Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Gomer Pyle". Anne Francis (Honey west) is also on hand but mostly as eye candy though she does get to spoil one goon's day. There are also several well-paced sequences that detail the horrors of chemical warfare. Most chilling is a scene where the characters view the aftermath of a chemical attack on Florida. The camera pans over empty streets strewn with litter, which upon closer inspection turns out to be corpses. MGM released this on VHS in 1996 but your best bet is to catch it on television until they finally get around to releasing it on DVD.
Best Line: " He's floating at the bottom of the pool."

Tom Doty occasionally emerges from the Lagoon to check his e-mail and to read to children every Wednesday at 10:30am at Borders in Hagerstown. If you'd like to get a message to him, write to: