The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The fifth entry into this disreputable canon is the pastiche-laden slice of insect sexploitation, Invasion of the Bee Girls…
Alternate Title: Graveyard Tramps
J.P. Simon’s notorious 1982 slasher, Pieces, has one of the greatest tag lines of all time; a sales pitch so perfect the brusque announcer in the picture’s plasma-splattered trailer practically barks it at you. “Pieces!” he proclaims. “It’s exactly what you think it is!” And he’s right…to a point. While Pieces is unquestionably schlock producer Dick Randall’s sleaze tour de force – a cheap, ludicrous Christopher George vehicle complete with a chainsaw killer constructing a doll out of dead women – it also contains a few surprises that no one could ever see coming from the marketing alone. A Kung Fu professor jumps from the bushes, all stereotypical Bruce Lee caws as he tries to kick our heroes in the head. Linda Day screams “bastard” for an interminable amount of time (via a shrill, poorly dubbed voice). And who could forget the genital tearing finale, leaving the audience to simultaneously groan whilst scratching their heads? Sure, Pieces delivers on its trailer’s gnarly promise, but it’s the oddball zigs into absolute stupidity that make it fascinatingly special.
Invasion of the Bee Girls predates Pieces by almost a decade, yet both carry a similar exploitive spirit in attempting to deliver exactly what the audience wants while smuggling in moments of genuine oddity that stick with you long after the cheekily scored (to Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”) end credits roll. The surface is pure camp soft core, amalgamating a pastiche of '50s sci-fi with '70s grindhouse, but novice screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (of eventual Wrath of Khan fame) and director Denis Sanders (of 1964’s Shock Treatment) are diving into a deep end of weird in this seemingly shallow pool. Sex is expended as violence, as an alien race of insect women fuck their way through the male population of tiny science community, Peckham, California. As they go, the Bees induct other queens into their hive, slathering them in sticky white goo before microwaving the women in a disco oven straight out of a Ken Russell movie. Is this some sort of anti-feminist sex picture, parading as heady sci-fi? Perhaps. But it might also be a massive metaphor for the “threat” of an independent woman to a male-dominated civilization, ready to unleash her libido in order to rule the world.
Nicholas Meyer intended Invasion of the Bee Girls (which he originally titled The Honey Factor) to be an inversion of horror tropes. His agent had gotten him a job at Warner Bros., complete with an office on the lot. The rookie writer’s task: to write a horror film in which men, not women, were the primary victims. In his memoir, The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood, Meyer reminisces:
“…I recalled a Letter to the Editor I had read in the Times some years earlier, where a woman had complained about Hitchcock’s Frenzy. ‘Just once,’ she wrote, ‘I’d like to see a movie where the man’s eyes widen in fear…’”
Meyer proceeded to dream up a story in which an etymological experiment went wrong in the middle of the desert, turning all of its female subjects into “queen bees”. As the scientists are eradicated, one by one, the males in the group band together to defend themselves against the women, all of who grow healthier with their increasing power. The young scribe envisioned Invasion to be a picture that could “play the trendy Cinema I on Third Avenue or the Paramus Drive-In with equal appeal”. As content with the finished product as he could be, Meyer turned the script in and left California for a Christmas holiday in New York.
Upon returning to his office, Meyer discovered that his script had been completely re-written and retitled Invasion of the Bee Girls by Amy Andrews, a writer who just so happened to also be one of the producers’ girlfriends. Furious, he phoned his agent, demanding his name be removed from the pages. His agent told the still struggling scribe that he was insane, needed the credit and, if anything, Andrews’ name should be the one removed. Turned out the WGA agreed with Meyer’s rep, and sole authorship remained with the pissed off prima donna.
Meyer confesses to never having seen Invasion of the Bee Girls, which is kind of a shame, as while it certainly was stripped of most of its “Cinema I” ambition (not to mention any real explanation behind the insect sexual magic the Bee Girls wield), it still retains an eccentricity that is unique even for its time period. While the first half finds Sanders directing the picture as some kind of self-aware homage to B&W matinee alien invasion fodder featuring a government agent (William Smith) investigating the aforementioned string of balling fatalities, the second section descends into humorless hallucinatory lunacy. The tonal shift is jarring, but cinematographer Gary Graver (whose resume is peppered with A LOT of porno) unifies the parts into a ruddy whole. This is prime sleaze, but also thoughtful sleaze, no matter how jumbled these scum encrusted contemplations may actually be.
At the center of this estrogen bonanza is William Smith, a leathery crocodile of a character actor who is possibly the zenith of '60s/'70s masculinity. Smith often found himself typecast in “hard” roles; heavies, bikers and bruisers, not nuanced heroes. Often this pigeonholing played to the gruff performer’s advantage in counterculture pictures like Jack Starrett’s Run! Angel! Run!, or when facing off with professional beach bum/”knight errant” Travis McGee (Rod Taylor) in Darker Than Amber. To call his Agent Neil Agar balanced and human is a bit of a stretch, but Smith brings a treasure trove of simmering sex as he beds the laboratory’s head librarian (Victoria Vetri), and investigates the secret gay lifestyle of Peckham’s head sex researcher (Wright King). He’s a proto late period Mickey Rourke, without any of the awful boxing scars and cover-up plastic surgery; instead embracing the grizzled visage he was born with.
The Bee Girls themselves are marvels of passé design – resembling Jackie O. with her oversized sunglasses, crossed with Roger Corman sexpots. Led by Anita Zorn, they’re B-Movie manifestations of how glamorous women were viewed (and simultaneously feared) by 1973. One could make an argument that these lustful creatures are actually avatars for a repressed section of society, taking control of their own sexuality as a means of freeing themselves from the burden of patriarchy. Unfortunately (as is the case with most exploitation), they’re also unquestionably positioned as titillating objects by the film’s finale, thwarted by “one strong man” who can battle back against the carnal urges every other slobbering nincompoop gives in to. The dilution of the original script’s desire to subvert genre tropes is apparent, but its transgressive themes aren’t completely washed away.
Has Nicholas Meyer overreacted in his refusal to view the picture? Maybe. It’s easy to sympathize with any artist whose work was altered without their approval. But that doesn’t mean the end product isn’t an enthralling exploitation entity all its own. If anything, the fact that Invasion of the Bee Girls evolves into such a jaw-droppingly bonkers work of surrealist trash by the final reel is more or less a testament to just how hard Meyer worked to make his original script stand out from other genre fare of the time. Like the rest of his varied body of work (which also includes his stunning adaptation of his own Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), it’s a picture with a world perspective all its own. This eager influence shines through, no matter how much the producers may have fucked with it behind Meyer’s back. So while Invasion of the Bee Girls may not be exactly what Meyer wanted (or what the viewer expects), it nevertheless carries his remarkable imprint.
*For an oral history of the Drafthouse’s beginnings, I’ll refer you to Zack McGhee’s wonderful “My Favorite Movie” Podcast, where he interviews old school DH programmers Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson, as well as current Wednesday night ringmaster, Laird Jimenez. They’re GREAT listens, full of knowledge, wit and insight.
Tonight on Weird Wednesday: Julie Darling