If there is one gripe I have with horror movies going back as far as I can remember was that they were adept at scaring me when I was a little kid but as a jaded adult it takes a lot to shake me. There are no real scares to be found. The complexities of what is scary have become so multidimensional that I’m at a point far beyond where most production companies and studios draw the line. Even the most intellectual horror movie has to settle on the lowest common denominator that it is comfortable with if it intends to draw any audience at all. Bug doesn’t seem to concern itself with the politics of studio horror and I suppose that is why it appealed to me.
William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist and the completely awesome French Connection (among other awesome flicks) had been busy deflecting the marketing of Bug that wanted you to believe that it was like Saw. He even went so far as to call his movie a black comedy about love and paranoia. I have no idea what he found so funny in the script as Bug easily classifies itself as one of the most ghastly movies I’ve seen in recent memory, detailing one man’s descent into paranoid delusion and the woman that he brings along for the ride.
It may not fit easily into one genre, definitively, but many of parts are clearly labelled horror. A horror movie doesn’t have to be hack and slash and I’ve found that the ones that stick with me are the ones that forsake the typical trappings of carving and cutting in favor of a disturbing lack of reason and sanity. Bug has many components, mostly about love and loneliness but there is also a startling element that focuses on the distance we’ll go to preserve our illusions.
Agnes is a woman on the edge. She spends her nights smoking pot and drinking, shouting into the phone that won’t stop ringing at who she presumes is her ex-husband in jail only to find that there is no one there. She lives in a classically seedy, claustrophobic motel room and delivers drinks at a lesbian bar to pay whatever bills she has and afford her rather large drinking habit. Her friend from the bar, R.C. brings with her a guy from the same bar and the two girls party hard over booze, blow and weed while the guy from the bar, Peter, hangs back, withdrawn. Eventually, we learn that he’s a drifter with an unsettling background involving a preacher father without a congregation who homeschooled Peter. One of Agnes’ dark secrets is also revealed. Nearly ten years ago, her son Lloyd was kidnapped right out of her grocery cart while she was turned away. Peter winds up staying the night, unable to sleep, hearing helicopters outside. In the morning, Agnes awakens to find that he ex-con ex-husband, Jerry, is out of jail and in her shower against the restraining order that the police seem uninterested in upholding. He’s a stereotypical scumbag and doesn’t seem to care much that he’s unwanted at Agnes’ place. Jerry slaps her around a bit and lays down some threats before taking off with promises to return. Peter, who has been absent during all of this returns and the two bond furter over bran muffins before their damaged personalities pull them even closer together and they have sex. Following their torrid encounter, the cracks in the foundation begin to show and Peter finds a bug in the bed that Agnes can’t seem to see. She is eventually convinced that it is there and the wheels of insanity slowly begin to turn.
Agnes may be damaged goods and the early getting to know you scenes suggest that she is a haunted individual but nothing suggests that she may be susceptible to the complete psychological collapse that is on the horizon. She is clearly a lonely woman with a lot of open wounds, a compounding drinking problem and slight paranoia. She lives a dreary existence, afraid of her ex, flirting with homosexuality as a result of disastrous relationships with men. Her home is a small, dirty motel room. Agnes is looking for anyone or anything that will take her out of the place she is stuck in and it looks like Peter, as awkward and creepy as he is, will be the one to do it. Peter’s background suggests just as much horror and trauma as Agnes’ own only the details of his life are not as clearly detailed and what is real and imagined becomes impossible to determine.
The morning following the sex, Peter admits that people are after him and that he needs to beat it in a hurry if he wants to stay ahead of them. Agnes practically begs him to stay but he rushes out of the house only to return moments later to find Agnes breaking down in the bathroom. He explains that he is a Gulf War veteran that was experimented on by the military and that he fears she may be infected with whatever it is since they had sex. She comes out, happy that he’s back and that he’ll stay and suddenly the room is violently shaken and filled with lights from the windows and the extremely loud sound of helicopters outside.
The day following the “discovery” of bugs in the house sets the pace for the rapid descent into madness that is coming. Peter has hung dozens of fly strips throughout the house and everything is covered in plastic. Dozens of cans of bug spray are littered everywhere. Peter pricks his finger and studies the blood under a microscope. Upon Agnes’ return with her friend R.C. in tow Peter announces that there are parasites, bugs, in his blood. Agnes and R.C. were at the doctor about the infection but R.C. reports that the doctor said that the bites look like self mutilation and there wasn’t anything in her body. Peter lifts his shirt to reveal hundreds of cuts and scratches. Looking like things are starting to come apart, R.C. tries to take Agnes out of the house with her, but Peter flies into convulsions. R.C. is practically chased away after telling Agnes about a Dr. Sweet who came to the bar asking questions about Peter and suggesting that he was mentally ill.
Their crazy bond is growing and Peter starts making broad accusations about the government, the military and the Bilderberg Group secretly implanting tracking chips in people and making them zombified killers. Among these people were Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh and Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. He reaches deep and manages to include every aspect of conspiracy culture that he can think of. Jim Jones and The People’s Temple suicide was the result of a massive assassination by the U.S. Government. By the end of his rant, both he and Agnes are sure that the government has not only infected Peter with blood parasites but that the parasites are transmitting tracking signals, letting the government know where he is. So they plaster the walls with tin foil. Peter also becomes convinced that the source of the bugs was an egg sac implanted in a tooth filling, so he tears it out with pliers.
We’re not done, though.
The movie takes nearly an hour to reach the point when things are unravelling. By the time they begin to really lose it, we know why it is that Agnes is so ready to accept the extremely crazy rantings of Peter as gospel truth. She doesn’t know about any of this shit but his detailed accusations and web-like links to all parts of the conspiracy sound very true. It makes the remainder of the movie much easier to swallow since everything falls apart so quickly. It’s unclear how much time passes but the timeline would suggest that from the 60 minute point to the curtain call, only a couple of days have passed. I’m still not sure what William Friedkin thought was so darkly comic about this movie. Tragic characters surround you, everyone has real problems that are much more tangible than government surveillance via blood drinking insects. There is nothing funny about Agnes and Peter’s relationship but it seems to adhere to typical leader/follower relationships that you find in criminal team cases of the mentally ill (Leonard Lake/Charles Ng, Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka, Henry Lee Lucas/Ottis Toole), one dominant personality and one submissive personality that needs acceptance from the other for one reason or another. The movie plays out like a psychological profile of these kinds of people.
For reasons I’m still trying to understand, though I can understand the role of the scene in the movie, a guy drops off a pizza outside the motel room. Terrified and suspecting more government surveillance, Peter and Agnes inspect the pizza and react in horror when they find more bugs. There’s another knock on the door, a man announces that he is Dr. Sweet and he only wants to talk. With the help of Jerry, he forces his way in and tries his best to talk sense into Agnes about Peter. He’s a delusional paranoid with schizophrenic features, apparently, but the clinical diagnosis does nothing to change her mind. Peter has her convinced that Dr. Sweet is one of them and that he wants to take him away for more experiments. By now the room is lit entirely by bug zappers. Everything looks sickly. Dr. Sweet smokes some of Agnes’ weed and then changes up his approach. He claims that he can help Peter by surgically removing the bugs and he knows where Agnes’ missing son is. If she cooperates, he’ll take her to him. But Peter emerges from the bathroom, crazed, covered in cuts and blood. He and Dr. Sweet argue and then he savagely stabs the doctor to death, explaining to Agnes that he was a government android and that they can never be trusted. We’re nearly at the bottom now. The semi-coherent story takes a turn for the completely nonsensical as Agnes and Peter begin drawing lines about the bugs and their role in the conspiracy until it makes no sense at all. None whatsoever. Hurtling completely out of control toward the conclusion.
The movie shifts gears from second to fifth going from the second act to the third. Our characters are clearly defined by this point. Their motivations may be insane, but Agnes and Peter are at least somewhat sympathetic characters which makes it so difficult to watch them come apart at the seams. The final thirty minutes are some of the most intense that I can think of from recent memory. The sickening blue light of the scenery ratchets the insanity factor through the roof and what was once claustrophobic and dirty now feels even smaller since tin foil covers every surface.
Bug is actually based on a 1996 play by playwright Tracy Letts and it feels very much that way. Characters are few and much of the action is intense scenes of dialog only during the last third of the movie does anything happen that is in line with typical items of a horror movie plot but make no mistake, Bug is as unsettling as they come. There is nothing more alarming than watching someone lose their mind. You’re inserted into their world and left with nothing tieing you to reality. Peter and Agnes accept each other’s mental illness and they detach from the rest of the world with you, the viewer, in tow. The movie deliberately hits you with these moments that cause you to wonder just what the fuck is going on. Peter and Agnes are occasionally threatened by the deafening sound of government helicopters and the bright lights shining into their home. Dr. Sweet suddenly takes a couple of hits off of Agnes’ water pipe and starts talking about the conspiracy as though he were really a part of it. He even knows things about her that he shouldn’t, though the rational mind will remind you that either R.C. or Jerry could have told him about Lloyd, the missing child.
Even though it fared well in the summer box office, squaring off against much more friendly material like Shrek 3, Pirates 3 and Spiderman 3, I still don’t hear many people talking about it. Bug is destined to wind up pure cult down the road as many people rediscover and re-evaluate it on DVD. It is pure crazy and a brand of frightening that shouldn’t surprise you coming as it does from the director of one of the world’s scariest pictures, The Exorcist. Given how deeply I was shaken by this unconventional horror movie, I hope Friedkin brings the scary more often. The world needs more movies like this.