BR: Satan Bug, The (1965)

October 8, 2015 | By


SatanBug_BR_sFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Kino Lorber

Region: A

Released:  September 22, 2015

Genre:  Science-Fiction

Synopsis: A special agent is sent to hunt down the madman now in possession of a stolen vile of lethal germs that could wipe out humanity within a period of months.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary by film reviewer-historian Glenn Erickson / Theatrical Trailer.




John Sturges’ film version of Alistair MacLean’s novel (written under the pseudonym Ian Stuart) is a highly underrated and important entry in the virus or bio-thriller film, and finally makes its deserved Blu-ray release after being ignored on home video for far too long.

MGM/UA’s laserdisc remained the best source for genre fans, but an Italian DVD release offered a crisp transfer that far exceeded the MOD disc MGM put out, which sported a reportedly dated transfer no one was satisfied with. KINO’s BR features an excellent HD transfer, but the film’s soundtrack remains a pinched mono mix that lacks genuine oomph – a drawback when the movie sports a superb Jerry Goldsmith score.

According to commentator / reviewer / film historian (and DVD Savant) Glenn Erickson, while popular with the crowds that bothered to attend screenings, Satan Bug was written off by snooty critics of the period as a straight-faced James Bond riff, if not a lackluster thriller that offered a few tense moments in spite a slow opening and threadbare resolution, but the jabs at his solid thriller are unfair, especially when it features a solid script by James Clavell (Shogun) and Edward Anhalt (The Young Lions), and absolutely superb compositions by cinematographer Robert Surtees.

The slow-burning thriller has a lunatic steal a flask of deadly biohazard material designed for germ warfare – dubbed a Satan bug, because it perpetually reproduces itself – and an agent who sort of doesn’t exist tasked with hunting down the culprit and getting each of the biohazard flasks back to the lab where they were authored. The script neither passes judgment nor offers any critique on the use of germ warfare; it’s just a lean thriller with a mostly bullet-proof template that’s served the genre well.

The most recent comparisons are Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), which stumbled in its finale and featured a fairly useless storyline in China; and Wolfgang Petersen’s complete B-movie Outbreak (1995), where action governs all aspects of the narrative rather than the more procedural approach in Robert Wise’s excellent film version of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1971) – still the benchmark in virus thrillers because the origins, effects, and solution to neutralizing a killer bug is reduced to a few characters and a simple, if not labyrinthine locations.

Screenwriters Clavell and Anhalt transposed MacLean’s original London location to the desert, with the finale eventually taking place in south Los Angeles, but with the exception of a sequence at the then 2-year old Dodger Stadium, L.A. is really a minor character, as 90% of the film occurs in the desert where isolation, desolation, and unforgiving landscapes both hide the bio warfare lab, and the culprits who engage the U.S. Government on a chase as helicopters and tailing agents attempt to keep track of who’s got the flasks and the kidnapped agents Lee Barrett (George Maharis) and Ann Williams (Anne Francis).

There’s a hint of a prior romance between Ann and Lee, but it’s effectively stillborn, as business must trump any emotions between the couple, especially since Ann’s pop, General Williams (an appropriately grey and grave Dana Andrews) is the one coordinating the search and reclamation of secret government killer bugs.

The desert’s provided a creepy backdrop in a number of fifties sci-fi thrillers – notably Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space (1953), and Gordon Douglas’ similarly desert-borne / L.A. endangered Them! (1954) – and Sturges exploits the lean lines and amorphous rock formations in a perfectly framed widescreen thriller, with evocative lab sets by Herman Blumental and sometimes Bava-esque lighting, especially the use of red in the lab to allude to the Satan bug flask’s red stopper.

Erickson’s commentary points out both the virtues and naivete of the film – it’s very much a product of the mid-sixties, lacking the authenticity of Wise’s Andromeda Strain – and contextualizes the film in the genre, within the spy-mad sixties, and director Sturges’ C.V. The film was the first of a 3-picture deal with the Mirisch Corporation (the others being the bloated comedy western The Hallelujah Trail, and the superior O.K. Corral retelling Hour of the Gun, also scored by Goldsmith), and from the quotes offered by Erickson, critics seemed ready to pounce on Sturges, as though he needed some deflating after the spectacular success of his prior film, the instant classic The Great Escape (1963).

Satan Bug was a wise attempt to try out something smaller – a taut little thriller similar in scale to Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) – and yet it boasts a fairly substantive cast. Maharis, also written off as wooden by critics, is perfectly fine as a no-nonsense agent with a singular goal to stop a madman in his tracks, and Francis is a bit more than mere blonde décor. Andrews sells the role of a general with an expertise in strategy, and Richard Basehart is fine as the duplicitous Dr. Hoffman who may or may not be more than a common nutbar.

Small roles are filled by a fascinating array of character actors, including Ed Asner (Lou Grant, Up) as a soft-voiced goon, Simon Oakland (Psycho) playing an unusually petty official, James Hong (Blade Runner) as a rather wry bio-chemist, Richard Bull (Little House on the Prairie) as a mid-level agent, hugely prolific John Anderson as a doomed security chief, and unbilled James Doohan (Star Trek) as a wry / non-verbal yet able agent.

Erickson’s commentary is fact-heavy and delivered a bit dry – much seems to be read from well-researched notes – but a missing ingredient for a real special edition is an isolated music & effects track, like the one which accompanied the old laserdisc. Little of Goldsmith’s score survives beyond a handful of stereo cue, and hearing the score in uncompressed DTS would’ve been an improvement over the laudable but old Film Score Monthly CD from 2007.

KINO’s other extra is the terrible trailer that may have worked for sixties audiences, but really tells little nor sets up the real thrills in this superior killer virus entry.

Interestingly, Anhalt also swrote the story for the underrated virus thriller Panic in the Streets (1950), whereas Clavell wrote the lean and compelling sci-fi classic The Fly (1958). Other MacLean novels adapted for the big screen include the WWII blockbuster The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Secret Ways (1961), Sturges’ film version of Ice Station Zebra (1968), Where Eagles Dare (1968), When Eight Bells Toll (1971), Puppet on a Chain (1971), Fear is the Key (1972), Caravan to Vaccares (1974), Breakheart Pass (1975), Golden Rendezvous (1977), Force 10 from Navarone (1978), the CanCon classique Bear Island (1979), The Hostage Tower (1980), River of Death (1989), and Night Watch (1995).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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