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The second release in the short-lived AB-PT Pictures Corp. (ABC Broadcasting and Paramount, the other was an effort called The Unearthly), Beginning of the End is one of Bert I. Gordon's best. It's a smartly paced and ambitiously assembled plagiarism job on Gordon Douglas's Them!, from plot and dialogue all the way to the blatant ripoff of the first film's poster art. Awkward at best, this generic 50s Big Bug movie must have been a scream when lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The good news? Image's new DVD is stunningly good-looking, and makes BIG-Gordon's shoestring Sci Fi epic a pleasure to watch.
With a directing career pretty much based on H.G. Wells' The Food of the Gods, and being a handy man with do-it-yourself special effects, Bert I. Gordon generally struck out bigtime whenever he tried something original, and did his best work when creating, ah, hommages to other people's hit monster movies. This film's resemblance to Them! is explicit. Beginning of the End starts with two cops investigating a disappearance, tasks the Army and government entomologists in figuring out the mystery, and then moves its climax to a major city imperiled by the insect foe. The title is a dialogue line that mimics Edmund Gwenn's grim warnings of apocalypse in the previous Big Bug picture. Them! originated with a script that Warners' scaled way back - throwing out scenes of massive battles between soldiers and ants in New York City that were deemed far too expensive to produce. Good ol' Bert's version retains all of those effects-laden story ideas, and solves the budget problem by using laughably poor effects work to do the job.
Gordon had an effects matting system worked out that successfully combined images with a bi-pack method in a camera, rather than through expensive optical printing. It's quite clever, and yields arresting images that get the job done in a Z-picture sort of way. Beginning of the End has more effects shots than most of his films, using this travelling matte process to stick macro-photographed locusts onto live-action backgrounds. Visually, they're such a mismatch that they look like cutouts pasted onto the screen, but Gordon clearly had the attitude that anybody complaining would first have to admit they bought a ticket to a picture about giant grasshoppers. The 50s were notorious for energetic monster movies with pitiful effects - and although Gordon's technical finesse would never earn respect from the industry, they were good enough to satisfy the market.
Elsewhere, there are a lot of rear-projection effects, and the very ineffective use of live locusts crawling on photo-blowups of streets and buildings.
The plot and its trimmings are unconvincing and implausible. Pretty Peggie Castle (Invasion, U.S.A) looks sexy in her tight skirts and silk blouses, but never once behaves anything like a real writer or photographer, and soon after linking up with hunky Peter Graves, turns into a heavy-breathing along-for-the-ride type. Graves basically plays a glorified gardener, who is surprised when his giant plant experimental station creates giant insects down the food chain. Reliable General Morris Ankrum tells us with a straight face that his solution to saving Chicago, is to blow it up with a nuclear bomb. Actually, that's pretty realistic military thinking, isn't it?
The science is unbelievably naive, with tech concepts covered in the standard BI Gordon method: explain something, and then immediately re-explain it in words suited to a kindergartner. Graves uses the isotopes, which are like a substitute sun (?) to get his plants to grow 24 hours a day. Tomatoes thus somehow mutate as big as beach balls, etc. Also, Graves has a deaf-mute helper played by Than Wyenn, who lost his voice and hearing because of a little 'radiation accident', tsk tsk. Wyenn can't hear anything, but has lots of smiling reactions to things the other two are saying, even when their backs are turned and he can't read their lips. Its strange that Wyenn is so relaxed, because Castle and Graves ignore him almost completely, in scenes surreal enough to fit into a Buñuel movie.
Headlines, telegrams, and voices tell us that towns are wiped out and divisions of soldiers devoured by the locust hordes, almost none of which we see. With almost all of the relevant action happening offscreen, Beginning of the End makes do with a couple of very well-edited battle scenes that at least give the impression that some fierce fighting is going on, even if the miniature bugs and fire never even begin to fit into the live-action stock shots. When thousands of locusts are supposed to be overrunning Chicago, making a beeline for Graves' transmitter, we're shown a handful of bugs going in no particular direction. The mass drowning in Lake Michigan is covered in two or three brief cuts of the insects bobbing around in what might be Gordon's kitchen sink.
The upshot of all this is that Beginning of the End is so goofy and inept, it's irresistable.
Image's DVD of Beginning of the End is another one of their frequent excellent genre efforts. The film elements used are pristine, and the transfer excellent - enabling a close examination of the effects processes used, and the effectiveness of the photography. For instance, photograph a bug crawling on a photo blowup of a building, and the result is a very sharp and dimensional-looking insect, against a fuzzy, indistinct and flat-looking photo. Even us naive 50s kids could see through the effect.
Interestingly, the appropriate matting enforced by the 16:9 enhancement crops away the film's main joke, a shot or two where the bugs crawl off the buildings, and keep crawling onto the sky background. Those mistakes must all have happened up near the top of the frame that the matting cuts off. After 40 years of open-matte TV viewing, we find out that Bert is innocent of that particular charge.
Director-producer and enthusiastic genre collector Bruce Kimmel is an okay host for a commentary with Gordon's ex-wife Flora and daughter Susan. He keeps things light and lively, and is uncritical & nostalgic when assessing the film. There's not a lot of detail - Kimmel can't identify familiar actor Thomas Browne Henry - and it's less a commentary than a friendly chat and wider discussion of all of Gordon's films. Although Flora assisted Bert in his effects and is more than qualified to speak authoritatively about the film, we don't hear very much new about the picture.
One detail in Beginning of the End threw Savant for a loop: when the first squad of soldiers retreats from the big bugs at the site of the destroyed grain warehouse, in television prints there was always a truly awful effect shot. Near the end of the sequence, where the camera pans left with a fleeing Army truck, a locust enters from screen right and chases it. The joke was that the bug's legs don't move, resulting in an ambitious shot that fails miserably. But the effect isn't in this print - I think the truck shot still is, but without the bug matted in. I've seen the show enough to expect it to pop up and it didn't - if I simply missed it, or I've gone stark raving, please be kind in your rebuttal letters! 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beginning of the End rates:
1. Nostalgia time. When Savant was a small fry, he got taken to the movies only to see things like
Perri, the Flying Squirrel and Oklahoma!, matinees from which I remember specific visuals and
little else. But in 1958 my eyes opened wide when I got to see a Republic serial (one of their last, I expect) and
trailers for Beginning of the End and Curse of the Faceless Man. The Etruscan stone man scared the
bejeesus out of me - a concept thing, I guess - but even at an impressionable 5 years, the pale big bugs of the
Gordon movie just looked ... odd, maybe. We were at Edwards Air Force base, where big grasshoppers were a daily
sight - nothing scary about 'em at all.