John Sturges’s science fiction suspense thriller THE SATAN BUG, previously available on home video in laserdisc, VHS, and mediocre-quality MOD DVD editions, finally makes its welcome debut on the Blu-ray format in a beautiful, newly remastered transfer from Kino Lorber as part of their Studio Classics line.
Operatives of multimillionaire supervillain Charles Ainsley breach security at Station 3, a super-secret chemical warfare research installation in the desert east of Los Angeles, stealing flasks of biological warfare agents “botulitis” and the even more deadly Satan Bug, which is capable of killing every living organism on Earth in a matter of weeks. The recently fired head of security, decorated former Korean War helicopter pilot and nonconformist U.S. intelligence agent Lee Barrett (George Maharis, ROUTE 66, THE HAPPENING), is tapped to investigate the break-in and locate the missing super-toxins. Responding to a mysterious telegram, Barrett meets with General Williams (Dana Andrews, NIGHT OF THE DEMON, HOT RODS TO HELL) and his daughter Ann (Anne Francis, SO YOUNG SO BAD, BLACKBOARD JUNGLE) at the Desert Inn Motel to discuss the investigation, and newly hired Dr. Gregor Hoffman (Richard Basehart, PORTRAIT IN BLACK, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU) falls under suspicion as a possible “inside man.”
A ransom note from Ainsley threatening an “incident” is delivered, and the decision is taken to keep the investigation quiet so as not to drive any potential suspects underground. Another suspected insider operative is later found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool, and, as promised, a botulitis attack is carried out in Key West, causing mass deaths downwind of the blast (only 16mm B&W footage of the aftermath is shown, likely due to budgetary and/or Production Code restrictions). Barrett and Ann Williams are taken hostage by Ainsley’s greasy goons, milk-drinking Donald (Frank Sutton, FOUR BOYS AND A GUN, GOMER PYLE: USMC) and Veretti (Ed Asner, THE VENETIAN AFFAIR, in one of his pre–Lou Grant heavy roles with bad hair and horn-rimmed glasses), and General Williams’s team determines that a device rigged with Satan Bug bacteria has been planted somewhere in L.A., setting off a tense race against time to find and disable the device before it can be triggered by the psychopathic Ainsley.
Scripted by Edward Anhalt (THE BOSTON STRANGLER) and James Clavell (THE FLY, SHOGUN) from the novel by Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra), under the pen name Ian Stuart, SATAN BUG was produced by director John Sturges for the Mirisch Corporation, then riding high on a long string of major hits such as THE APARTMENT, WEST SIDE STORY and A SHOT IN THE DARK. Compared unfavorably by a number of contemporary critics to the wave of campy, action-heavy Bond ripoffs and spoofs that was inundating American moviegoers in early 1965, due to its more realistic and serious tone, and considered by some as a disappointment from Sturges after his nearly unbroken string of commercially and critically successful films including BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE SATAN BUG is a densely plotted, gorgeously shot, engrossing and entertaining suspense thriller, and deserving of a reappraisal by genre fans.
THE SATAN BUG may also have suffered critically and commercially by not fitting neatly into a specific film genre. While there are elements of science fiction and Bondian intrigue in the movie, it’s more akin to a political thriller along the lines of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE or SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, with enough twists and turns and double-reverses to satisfy fans of such fare and reward repeat viewings. The first hour or so is a bit talky, but it builds steadily, catching fire in the last third with some well-executed action and a genuinely thrilling nail-biter climax. There is virtually no humor or tongue-in-cheek, with the story played deadly straight, and thankfully no heavy-handed sermonizing about the morality of producing bacteriological weapons to slow things down. Modern viewers, however, may find some amusement—or express alarm—at the apparently lax lab procedures and careless handling and primitive storage of the virulent bacteria throughout the movie. Valuable assets to the film include the sweeping SoCal vistas and intricate, detailed gel-lit interiors captured by Robert Surtees’s (BEN-HUR) Panavision cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith’s (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., PLANET OF THE APES) distinctive, synthesizer-inflected score, and DePatie–Freleng’s (THE PINK PANTHER) clever animated opening titles. There is also a brief but very cool scene of Barrett digging a jazz combo at a cocktail lounge, and a ginchy mid-century modern hilltop hideout for the bad guys to hang out in.
An additional source of fun for sharp-eyed film buffs and TV addicts is the nearly wall-to-wall cast of familiar names and faces—from the leads to uncredited bit actors—a virtual Who’s Who of B-movie character types and television regulars, including Simon Oakland (BULLITT, THE NIGHT STALKER) in an uncharacteristic role as a scientist, John Anderson (COTTON COMES TO HARLEM) as intelligence agent Reagan, Hari Rhodes (SHOCK CORRIDOR) as a security guard, James Hong (THE BAMBOO SAUCER, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) as Dr. Yang, William Bryant (KING DINOSAUR) and pre-TREK James “Scotty” Doohan as SDI agents (both of whom have on-camera death scenes), Harold Gould (PROJECT X) as doomed Dr. Ostrer, John Hubbard (THE MUMMY’S TOMB) as a guard, Lawrence Montaigne (THE PSYCHO LOVER, STAR TREK series) as a radar technician, comic actor/director Noam Pitlik (THE BIG BOUNCE) as a motel clerk, Russ Bender (WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST), Tol Avery (TWIST AROUND THE CLOCK), and legendary stunt artist/driver Carey Loftin, who appeared in dozens of Republic and Columbia serials and a number of classic Universal horrors, as an intelligence agent. Keep this one in mind for your next Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon match.
Kino’s newly remastered Blu-ray presents THE SATAN BUG in a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Brightness and contrast are spot-on, showcasing some striking light-and-shadow effects in several desert scenes, and the DeLuxe color is vivid, well saturated, and accurately balanced, with a varied palette of natural earth tones in the exteriors contrasting with the vibrant primaries and secondaries in the motel and nightclub scenes and Bava-like gel lighting of the laboratory interiors. Sharpness and detail are above average for a film of this vintage, with skin, hair, and clothing textures popping nicely. Natural film grain is well preserved, yet very tight and never obtrusive, and the source element is virtually immaculate, with nary a speckle, scratch, or dirt particle to be seen. Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack comes through crisp and clear, with impressive separation of the orchestral instruments, though I found some of the dialogue a bit muddy at times, but this seems to reside in the original recording and is not a problem with the transfer.
Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant provides a very thorough and informative audio commentary, covering the development of the project from MacLean’s original novel, including differences in the finished film; a real-world analysis of Station 3’s dubious lab procedures and safety precautions; background info on Maharis, Sturges, Basehart, Francis, Andrews, Sutton, Asner, and Hong; the film’s production history, including budgetary limitations and changes from the shooting script to the finished film; Jerry Goldsmith’s score; similarities to apocalyptic 1950s SF movies like THEM! and THIS ISLAND EARTH; a survey of secret weapons laboratories in the movies, including GOG, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, and HAND OF DEATH (!!); and the influence of Fritz Lang’s DR. MABUSE series on 1960s techno-thrillers. Also discussed are THE SATAN BUG in the context of Susan Sontag’s seminal “Imagination of Disaster” essay, the movie’s generally hostile critical reception, particularly by Pauline Kael and Bosley Crowther, and the symbology of helicopters in science fiction films and techno thrillers. As with the best commentaries, Mr. Erickson’s insights and exhaustive detail significantly enhanced my appreciation of THE SATAN BUG, especially in relating it to contemporaneous historical events and genre conventions. The original theatrical trailer (2:10) is also included, looking sharp in 2.35:1 Panavision and containing scenes shot exclusively for the trailer, with George Maharis holding a flask of Satan Bug bacteria and addressing the audience. A great-looking, highly recommended Blu-ray release of an underrated and unjustly neglected 1960s SF suspense thriller. (Paul Tabili)
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