Beginning of the End (Republic, 1957). Lobby Card (11" X 14").
Starring Peter Graves, Peggie Castle, Morris Ankrum, Than Wyenn, Thomas Browne Henry, Richard Benedict, James Seay, John Close, and Don C. Harvey. Directed by Bert I. Gordon.
This is the sort of film that producer/director Bert I. Gordon would become famous (or infamous) for. B.I.G. liked playing with relative size, making his antagonist(s) larger than life. The Beginning of the End (BotE) is an obvious rehash of Them! ('54) with radiation-induced giant bugs, but substituting grasshoppers for ants. Instead of menacing Los Angeles, these giant bugs go for Chicago. BotE is a cheaper copy in many ways, but still found a ready audience in the mid 50s. Some better-than-B actors helped keep BotE from foundering completely. Peter Graves is the male lead. He saved Killers from Space ('53) and It Conquered The World ('56) from total loser-dom. Peggie Castle was the female lead in Invasion USA. Morris Ankrum, veteran B-sci-fi actor, once again plays the stern military man as he had in Rocketship XM ('50), Invaders From Mars ('53) and others yet to come.
People in rural Illinois are starting to disappear. Then a whole town of 150 is wiped out. Audrey (Castle) is a reporter who pushes for the story. Radiation might be the culprit, but no one has any nuclear material. She interviews Ed, an agricultural scientist (Graves), who has been growing giant tomatoes with the help of radiation. The isotopes are safely locked up, however. They travel to the site of a wiped out warehouse which stored tons of wheat. There, a giant grasshopper eats one of the scientists. Ordinary grasshoppers had munched on the giant tomatoes and so grew giant too. Hundreds of them mass in the woods. A National Guard unit's small arms can't stop them. They march towards Chicago, destroying Peoria and a couple others en route. The army's best tanks can't stop them. Panic ensues. Chicago is evacuated. The giant grasshoppers infest the Chicago area, but go semi-dormant during a cool night. Top brass in Washington plan bomb Chicago with an a-bomb to kill them while they're in one place. Ed and Audrey think they can find a sound that will attract the giants. If they could lure them into Lake Michigan, they'd all drown. They capture a live giant and bring it to the lab for tests. None of the sounds affect it. Time is almost out when they do find a frequency that works. Speakers are set up on one of Chicago's towers, to attract all the outlying bugs to downtown. Then a boat in the lake with a speaker will attract them to their doom. The plan works, though with a protracted fighting scene. In the end, they all drown. Chicago is saved. The End.
The giant bug (or other critter) sub-genre was only just getting started. We had ants in Them! and a spider in Tarantula. There will be many more to come, but this was an early one yet. The first half of the film, with it's mystery, is much better than the latter half. The relentless threat to a major city harkens to HG Wells' War of the Worlds. After that, it gets lame, but Graves and Ankrum don't disappoint.
While mostly an atomic radiation cautionary tale, there is the basic story line of a relentless force moving upon an American city. Panic, evacuation, a-bombs. It's all familiar Cold War material.
Popular Science magazines were bright with the prospect of what radiation-mutated crops might do for mankind. This is exactly what Ed was trying to do. As with all good naive scientists, he failed to see the bigger picture. Pests eat crops. Giant crops can create giant pests. The moral behind the film is that messing around with radiation can go horribly wrong.
Peggie Castle plays an obviously tough and independent reporter. She'd covered the destruction in WWII and Korea, written respected books and never once screamed like a girl. (she did scream when Frank was eaten, but it was more shock and a call for help than silly panic). Towards the end of the movie, she has less to do, and does lean in the chest of hero Ed (Graves), but she's on screen as more of an equal than a date.
A teen couple are necking on Lover's Lane. They get eaten. A pretty woman in only a towel is primping in her hotel room (back to the window). She gets eaten. Such scenes suggest to some viewers that Bert was giving subtle messages that being sexual is dangerous -- avoid it! This seems too flat. Instead, you could see the necking couple and the sexy woman as representing a very personal and vulnerable aspect of mankind. Intimate moments feel very vulnerable. Our outward mask of civilization is off. Like the lady in the hotel room, we're dressed in only a towel (not full battle gear). Attacks at those moments enhance the mood of vulnerability. It's not a subtle "don't neck" message (like anyone would ever listen to such a message anyhow).
One of the most memorable "special effects" of BotE is how regular grasshoppers (albeit big ones) are set loose to walk among or climb on photos of Chicago. As cheap as it is, this works pretty well. Note how they had cutouts of a line of busses from the same photo, set in front of the building plane, so grasshoppers could walk between them. Also note one scene where the set-back of the building is cut separately, so the grasshoppers can hang their legs over the parapet. Cheap as they are, these effects work better than the poorly done superimposition (green screen), which gets overused.
If you're a stock footage fan, you'll find a lot to love in BotE. Tanks on the road, Troops, crowds panicking. In fact, if you watch closely, you'll see one scene lifted from The Day The Earth Stood Still ('51).
The General Hanson character says the Air Force is sending a B-52 (then America's new super plane) with an A-bomb. When they show a clip of footage, it's actually a propeller-powered B-36, the old-tech behemoth the B-52 were designed to replace. Perhaps stock footage of the B-52, America's high-tech nuclear bomber, then operational for only a couple years, was not yet available, or deemed too sensitive to inclusion in B-movies.
One of the things that help a big bug movie work, is that the critter is somewhat fearful even when small. Ants are relentless (fire ants, army ants), many people are afraid of spiders, and later movies' scorpions and a mantis -- which are creepy looking, will have their traits magnified. But grasshoppers? They just don't inspire fear. BotE fights an uphill battle in trying to make them fearsome.
BotE makes good use of off-screen events. We are told the town of Ludlow was wiped out. All we see are stock clips of tornado damage. We only read of Peoria's destruction in a telegram. When anyone is 'eaten' by a giant grasshopper, we only see the giant lunge, the victim cower, then cut away. Good for budgets, but also kinder to audiences.
Despite the poster (in which the grasshoppers have curious teeth and fangs), they do not pick up anyone. In fact, they eat everyone quite fairly. One is implied to have eaten the lady in the towel, however, so there is at least a tiny delivery on what the poster promises.
Bottom line? BotE is another in the big bug sub-genre. If you like that sort, you'll likely gloss over the low budget short cuts. As a story, it's pretty conventional and doesn't break any new ground.
By 1957, producer/director Bert I. Gordon had already tackled giant monsters of all sorts with films like KING DINOSAUR and THE CYCLOPS. BEGINNING OF THE END was Mr. BIG's first nod to giant insects (in this case, giant grasshoppers), a subject he would unleash on us again in THE SPIDER (1958) and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977). The hero of the film is the perfectly cast Peter Graves in his fourth and final 50s sci-fi thriller (the others were RED PLANET MARS, KILLERS FROM SPACE and IT CONQUERED THE WORLD).
Respected female journalist Audrey Ames (Peggy Castle, BACK FROM THE DEAD) drives to Ludlow, Illinois with reports that some 150 residents are missing. She then visits Doctor Ed Wainright (Graves), a young scientist experimenting with vegetables in the hopes that a busty reporter will do a story on him. Visiting the sight of a recent disaster, the doc and the reporter are confronted with humongous noisy locusts, and a silly deaf/mute character is stampeded to death. Meanwhile, the military is brought in (reinforced with ample stock footage), trying to decide how to destroy the buggers without having to set off an atom bomb on Chicago.
This is basically Mr. BIG's imitation of the bigger-budgeted THEM, and the results are a respectable 73 minutes. Sure, using real grasshoppers against rear-projection effects or crawling on a photograph of a building is not terribly convincing, but it still has a certain nostalgic charm to it. Castle does a fine job as the heroine, and Morris Ankrum (who played a general, doctor or cop in nearly every 50s sci-fi flick) and Thomas Browne Henry (BLOOD OF DRACULA, THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS) represent the military. And who doesn't like Peter Graves? He was even likable as the Nazi spy in STALAG 17! The memorable music is by none other than Albert Glasser.
Having already received a DVD release through Rhino's "Mystery Science Theater 3000" series, it was a big surprise when Image Entertainment announced this title. But Image's version puts the previous one to shame and makes it obsolete, going back to the original camera negative for the transfer. BEGINNING TO THE END now looks crisp and clean, and the black and white image has intense detail. It's also Anamorphic and wonderfully letterboxed in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, thankfully covering previous open matte shots of the insects climbing off the peaks of photographed buildings. The audio is also excellent.
Also included is a full running commentary, moderated by producer/director Bruce Kimmel (THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL) that features Bert's ex-wife Flora (who assisted in the special effects) and daughter Susan (who appeared in some of his films, but not this one). The commentary is an OK listen, and although Kimmel is enthusiastic enough, there is a lack of research in the proceedings (Peggy Castle is discussed as if she's still living but she passed away 30 years ago). Not too much is learned from the two ladies (other then the "I" in Gordon's name stands for "Ira" and that only male grasshoppers were used in the film), but they still have a few nice anecdotes to tell. But one has to wonder why the alive and well Bert I. Gordon can't be coaxed into doing one of these things!