8 Oct

Not a horror movie? You could have fooled me. Bug.

Posted by Bryan White | Monday October 8, 2007 | Reviews

BugIf 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from the same bar and the two girls party hard over booze, blow and weed while the guy from the bar, Peter, hangs back, withdrawn.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.

Order Bug (Special Edition) at Amazon now!

10 Comments 

  1. October 8, 2007 11:11 am

    Dave

    Maybe, but I enjoyed Bug upto a point. I still enjoyed it, but for me the film has a desperation undertone mixed with psychological paranoia that just came across as very chilling. And yes some parts did make me trip.

  2. October 8, 2007 2:01 pm

    Matt

    Bug was quite simply a bad movie. I kept waiting for the payoff but it never came. Psychological paranoia is only good to a certain point.

  3. October 9, 2007 7:03 am

    JC4President

    This movie is not about Bugs? I was going to see it… but I assumed it was simply about bugs who go into the skin and eat you alive. lol I had no idea all these other elements were in the film. On a different note, I saw a movie called “Cheeky!” this weekend… i would not suggest you see it.

  4. October 12, 2007 7:41 am

    JC4President

    Last night I watched Bug…. I have to say, I was very entertained. I was not expecting some tour de force of movie direction or some Academy Award winning level of script and acting…. that being said, for a rainy Thursday night… Bug was a great movie. Specifically, the last scene (with the gasoline) was totally awesome. It was just a perfect ending to the lives of the characters. The way that they were totally spiraling out of control into this complete paranoid lunacy. Also… whoever that main male actor was… he was really awesome. He was so convincing on two counts. One being that he played a very good paranoid lunatic and also the way he conveyed his certainty that there were bugs everywhere. I mean, put this movie into a real life context. What if you had a friend who was certain there were bugs everywhere? That would be one insane person, dont you think? And as such, I feel the actor properly conveyed that mania and delusional behavior. All in all, I enjoyed this movie. Thank you for the review. I appreciate it. If not for the review, I would have never taken the time to watch this enjoyable film. I am now going to see if I can find the origonal version of this film, which was written as a play. This would be enjoyable to see on stage.

  5. October 13, 2007 4:55 pm

    Retroman DC

    hmmm…I’m not sure how I felt about this movie. I saw it in the theater and was expecting more of a traditional horror movie with real bugs under the skin. So I realized in the middle of watching it that the goal of the movie was shifting towards a physcological examination and adjusted my expectations accordingly. So from a character study It was very interesting but had trouble that the woman could so easily be swayed into believing this guys conspiracy theories and she even started cutting herself and thought the bugs were in her as well in such a short time frame?!! maybe if she was already close to being mentally ill herself but she seemed to be a fairly level headed person. So check out this theory of mine…when they had sex they showed the exchange of blood cells and such. I theorize that he actually transmitted a disease to her that was affecting her mentally. the same brain disease he had. so she became more easily acceptable to believing his theories and started to hallucinate herself. I also had problems with this Dr. that suddenly shows up and takes some hits on the weed and then suddenly spouts details of the conspiracy theory. What kind of doctor is this that comes in and starts smoking weed? Is he supposed to be helping them? He seemed more evil as he talked. Perhaps we were seeing him through the character’s eyes. I won’t call this a great horror movie because of some slow pacing and hard to believe moments but still worth seeing. If you like this movie check out Hard Candy! I think that was a much more successful attempt at a horror character driven storyline.

  6. October 22, 2007 12:14 pm

    Marina

    I thoroughly enjoyed this disturbing fall into psychosis but what impressed me most was Judd’s performance.

    I haven’t had a chance to revisit this yet but I hope to before the year is out. I’m thinking one of the reasons people aren’t talking about it is that many people didn’t see it. I’m hopeful it will be “rediscovered” in a few years.

    And Retroman, you’re recommendation of “Hard Candy” is excellent! That is another seriously under-seen film.

  7. October 28, 2007 8:30 am

    Gloria

    I just saw Bug and am wondering of anyone else believed that Peter was, in fact, telling the truth and only looked like he was mental. I mean, how did Dr. Sweet know about Ashey’s son if they hadn’t been watching them? Everything Dr. Sweet did (i.e. smoking crack) and saying Peter was his project (as Peter had said), seemed to be written so viewers would know Sweet was the person Peter had described. This was what creeped me out–not knowing of the government conspiracy theory was true or not. Thought the performances, script and directing were outstanding. Judd was amazing.

  8. November 23, 2007 9:30 pm

    NeKrow

    Didn’t anyone think at all that she snapped after her kid went missing and everyone in the movie was a split personality of hers? This is what I thought.

  9. May 6, 2009 10:36 am

    burningeko

    I got this movie out because of this review, but i really wish I hadn’t read it now as I had expectations and a full plot synopsis going in. I really enjoyed it.
    The characters were amazing and so well portrayed, they were that combination of beautiful and ugly that you see in real people. The lip quivers, the sounds of people sobbing, it was all so authentic you wonder what the director mustv’e done to the poor actors to get them in such a state. It’s nice to watch a movie that is primarily dialogue but your eyes can never leave the screen because any second you look away you know you are missing a powerhouse performance.
    we had to pause the film 3/4 of the way through so that my girlfriend could calm herself down. I really suggest watching this with the lights turned off and if you can manage it, build a little fort with your couch and some blankets to really get that claustrophobic feeling (i think tinfoil hats is going too far though).
    I always love Harry connick jr playing a bad guy because it’s the antithesis of his media persona.

    As a side note I would really like to see a rating system on the front page so I don’t have to read the reviews of movies that I know i will enjoy, anything cinema-suicide suggests is worth watching I would watch and i would like it if I didn’t get a blow by blow account before I’d seen the film.

  10. May 6, 2009 11:13 am

    Bryan White

    Sorry about that. This is a reasonably old review when I was just winging it while trying to crack wise the wole time. Recent reviews are reasonably spoiler free.

    Or maybe I just felt like I had to work Bug out in writing to better help me process what I’d seen. It’s a pretty traumatic movie.


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