Halloween Scene: The Nest (1988)

Earlier this week, I wrote about how reading the excellent Paperbacks From Hell lead me to the delightfully gnarly Valancourt reprint of The Nest by Gregory A. McDonald (actually Eli Cantor). During the time it took me to actually read the book, I stumbled across the fact that a film was made of the 1980 book in 1988. I was admittedly skeptical as the novel features large, but not movie-humongous insects systematically attacking, killing and stripping humans for parts. I haven’t seen a lot of killer bug films, but the ones I had usually relied on forced perspective to make the diminutive members of Club Earth gigantic. How would director Terence H. Winkless deal with that in a film adaptation?

Well, I found out the other night thanks to the film streaming on Amazon Video, which I went into mostly cold (ie, no trailer or previous knowledge of he film’s existence. ). In a somewhat unusual occurrence, my standard look at the cast and crew of the film resulted in very few nods of recognition. Though I want to see Winkless’ martial arts film Bloodfist (which was also penned by this movie’s screenwriter Robert King), the only thing that sounded familiar on his filmography was the one version of Not Of This Earth I haven’t seen and a few forays into the world of Power Rangers. The cast also didn’t ring any bells, but that doesn’t mean much. For one thing, my memory’s not great (especially for actor names) and another, plenty of great films exist that I know nothing about.

The problem with The Nest was that I did know about the story, which was changed wholesale for the film. Instead of an island that just so happened to be the site of an astonishing bit of insect evolution, the big bugs in the film come from a jerk scientist — Dr. Hubbard (Terri Treas) — working for a big, giant jerk corporation (don’t we have enough of that in real life). When the problem starts to raise it’s antennaed head, OF COURSE there’s concern about the tourist season and blah blah blah. But, the characters have also changed. The town sheriff, Richard Tarbell (Franc Luz) is now the lead, the male scientist from the book is gone, the female lead is still Elizabeth (Lisa Langlois), but now she’s the daughter of Elias Johnson (Robert Lansing), the mayor who allowed the testing to go on and Hubbard who’s a full-on, 80s cartoon villain instead of a complex hero, like in the book! I did like the changes to Homer (Stephen Davies) though. In the book he’s a simple dump employee, but in this he’s the town’s capable, though eccentric, pest control expert.

Okay, but I’m a grown-up, I should be able to get past that, right? I gotta tell you, it was difficult. It didn’t help that there were two dead animals on screen within a fairly short period of time in the first half of the film. The effects were not great, but still weirdly effective. I also give the sound design credit for coming up with a truly creepy roach approach that melded well with the simple trick of moving high grass around to denote an army of creepy crawlies. The film is obviously in the vein of Jaws, but also uses a few of Spielberg’s tricks like keeping the culprits off screen (sorta). Oh, this movie’s not for bug lovers of any kind, I should say. They do not get treated very well, like in the diner scene, which was disgusting. With that being said, for 2/3 of the film, the creepiest, most visceral parts came when the film simply showed huge numbers of cockroaches running all over the place, sometimes on people. I winced at that far more than the dog puppet covered in unsettled red Jello. There’s just something primal about that gross-out factor.

And then the movie takes a turn that I definitely was not expecting, BUT that kept me interested even though I was getting sleepy. So, the conceit is that the mayor has told a guy at the jerk company to come spray the island with an insecticide if he can evac the island, but they agree to cancel the order if the lighthouse is lit. Right after that the roaches cut the phone lines, so the mayor can’t call out the cancel order when the professor tells him that the insecticide — which is lethal in these doses to humans, natch — will actually make an even stronger species of cockroaches in the next generation. So, while some of the leads struggle to relight the lighthouse, others try to figure out where the titular nest is and destroy it.

[Let’s call this paragraph spoiler territory if you’re concerned about such things.] However, they quickly discover that the cockroaches can actually incorporate the DNA of their victims into new forms (or something, I missed a bit of the explanation). That means that they get attacked by a crazy roach-cat creature and then others that incorporated human DNA (kind of like the Xenomorphs in the Alien comics). I won’t spoil too much, but there’s actually a great sequence where the bugs have somehow formed a new body for themselves inside of one of the characters’ corpses and then sheds the human skin as it shambles along. It’s wild and it nicely sets up the ending which gives the female lead of the picture the hero role by not only setting some explosives, but also holding off the film’s final monster!

So, yeah, I was disappointed by the simplification of the story. It’s hard to tell, though, if those tropes, tired as they may be, would have bothered me as much had I not just finished the book. But, The Nest did something I wasn’t expecting when it not only surprised me with the third act reveal, but also impressed with a mix of insect wrangling shots and good, old-fashioned, goopy horror special effects. In the end, sure I recommend checking out the film version, but I wholeheartedly endorse the book version.

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