Freddie Francis, 1966
Starring: Suzanna Leigh, Guy Doleman, Frank Finlay, Michael Ripper
When a young pop singer, Vicki Robbins, collapses from stress and exhaustion during a television appearance, her doctor insists she get some actual rest. He sends her to a small inn owned by a friend, Ralph Hargrove, on the remote Seagull Island. Vicki finds Ralph to be brusque and his relationship with his wife, Mary, is obviously strained. Matters are soon made worse when a swarm of bees attack Mary’s beloved dog, then Mary herself. Learning there are only two bee colonies on the island — one of which belongs to Ralph — Vicki tries to get to the bottom of the mystery with the help of a local eccentric, at great risk to herself.
I’m not going to lie to you — I’m a total sucker for animals attack film. I even did a short series on the subgenre a few years ago, though it’s important to admit that the only killer bees film I wrote about was the fantastic mess, The Swarm (1978), which I still think is the greatest of the bunch. My apologies to The Deadly Bees, because it predates other “bees attack” films — also including such fare as Killer Bees (1974) and The Bees (1978) — by several years. It seems really unlikely that Amicus would select this as their official third feature after an anthology film (Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors) and a stand-alone Gothic horror (The Skull), but the studio spent much of their early years trying on different subgenres. For instance, they would immediately follow up The Deadly Bees with grim serial killer film The Psychopath (1966). Truly a mixed bag.
While most of Amicus’s early films were directed by the wonderful Freddie Francis, who spent more years as a cinematographer than a director, this just doesn’t feel like his work. It’s far less atmospheric than his previous directorial efforts — which include the lovely black and white Hammer suspense film Nightmare (1964) — and a double feature of this film and The Skull would definitely be a bit jarring. And where Francis directed most of these early Amicus films, many of them were penned by the great Robert Bloch (Psycho), though, again, this doesn’t quite feel like his work. It’s actually based on a novel by Gerald Heard, A Taste for Honey — not to be confused with the Tony Richardson semi-illicit coming of age film A Taste of Honey — which is actually a Sherlock Holmes pastiche.
Yes, you read that right. A Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I have no idea why Amicus thought to adapt this into an utterly non-Sherlockian film, but according to Robert Bloch, it was initially conceived of as a project for Christopher Lee (in Guy Doleman’s role as the salty innkeeper, Ralph Hargrove) and Boris Karloff (who would have been perfect in Frank Finlay’s role as the eccentric loner Manfred). Bloch also claimed that his script was altered, resulting in some of the strange continuity errors that plague the film. Indeed, it is pretty nonsensical, with sort of mad attempts to cast suspicion of Ralph Hargrove one minute and Manfed the next (they are the only two beekeepers on the island).
Admittedly, Suzanna Leigh (Lust for a Vampire) does not improve matters. While she’s nice to look at, she’s not very sympathetic or charismatic and it’s just bizarre that the protagonist is supposed to be a famous pop star. This has almost no connection to the general plot, outside a single, completely implausible scene where one of the characters tries to cast suspicion on Vicki on account of her “recent breakdown.” There’s a sad lack of nudity or gore — though plenty of British horror films from this period get along fine without either — with the exception of an almost laughably convenient scene where Vicki just happens to be in a bra and slip when the bees (unsuccessfully) attack her.
The film’s few strengths lie in its supporting cast, spearheaded by the great Michael Ripper, a Hammer regular seen here as the level-headed pub owner and barkeep. He is able to overcome some wonderfully ham-fisted dialogue and lots of knowing looks in the general direction of the camera, as if to say, “If only these idiots had just listened to me in the first place…” Guy Doleman (Thunderball) has a strange role as the gruff farmer/innkeeper and there’s a real sense of sexual menace about his character. His unpleasant wife — I actually applauded when she was finally killed — was played by Catherine Finn, Michael Ripper’s real-life spouse who was hopefully a lot more pleasant at home than here. Frank Finlay (Lifeforce) makes a nebulous role quite compelling, though unfortunately the clumsy script leaves little mystery about his character.
I think I’m being a little unfair to The Deadly Bees, solely on account of it not being The Swarm. It does have some elements in common, namely the laughably terrible effects and some ill-placed comedy in the form of two police officers who keep getting (and ignoring) letters from a maniac who claims he’s bred killer bees and plans to turn them loose on the world. But all in all it’s not a horrible film and has some effective moments of suspense. It’s a pleasantly entertaining way to spend 90 minutes, particularly if you enjoy animals attack films or horror movies where everyone seems to own a bowler hat. Find it on Blu-ray from Olive Films and keep an eye out for an early cameo from the most attractive Rolling Stone, Ronnie Wood.