Roger Ebert said of Invasion of the Bee Girls, at the time of its 1973 release, “[it] is the best schlock soft-core science fiction movie since maybe The Vengeance of She.” Wow. And did Ebert invent a genre there?
In writing about this movie, which is my personal top 10 all time favorite cult films, I don’t want to get bogged down with a long rundown of its plot. For one thing, anyone reading this could get that from IMDB or 20-30 other places on the web. For another, people who haven’t seen the movie, and want to, should experience it the way I originally did: with only a vague sense of what it is about. Let it surprise you.
But, for some reference, here are a few particulars: the tale is set in a place called Peckham, in California. It’s a small town that’s home to a scientific research complex. Men, both inside and outside of the science center, are dying of heart failure. And none of them had cardiac conditions before. Autopsies reveal that they were all into some intense nookie at the time of their passing; or, as one character states, they were “coming and going at the same time.” Because the research center is government-sponsored, the feds get interested and send in one of their agents to investigate.
The cast is ideal. Anitra Ford, one of the original “Barker’s Beauties” models on The Price is Right, portrays a sultry, remote, dangerous lady scientist. 1968's Playboy Playmate of the Year Victoria Vetri is another researcher, and is the good-girl sexy scientist, to balance out Ford’s bad girl-sexy scientist. William Smith, who has an acting CV that goes on forever and who had played badass motorcycle dudes prior to Bee Girls, is the federal agent. That trio makes up the main players, but there are several enjoyable side characters.
Smith, who was gracious enough to answer a few questions of mine about the movie, describes how he came to take on the role of the hunky agent Neil Agar.
Editor's note: Just in case you weren't sure yet… like many other theatrical releases of its era, this film contains abundant skin and frankly sexual references.
Here's Smith's response to my query about how he felt about playing a hero after portraying baddies in earlier roles:
“I knew the director, Denis Sanders, through our mutual friend Fred Weintraub. We had talked about working together, and this was a perfect opportunity. Actually, I had recently played a 'good guy' in Grave Of the Vampire and Gentle Savage and I was looking for more 'good guy' leading roles at the time, which was one of the main things that interested me about doing this part.”
The movie offers an endless bevy of hot babes, gay characters, tensions between Peckham’s working class townies and the high-falutin’ scientists from the laboratories, a wealth of oversize sunglasses and deliriously large 1970’s computing equipment, psychedelic mirror scenes, fisticuffs, a climax that I’m not even going to try to describe . . . . And there’s constantly quotable dialogue. My own favorite line comes from am embittered woman who’s in a loveless marriage to one of the researchers. She tells her long-faced hubby, at their bedtime and with her own mug covered in cold cream, that if she thought that having sex would kill him, she’d be all for undoing their longstanding abstinence. Ahh, love. One of the scenes I enjoy the most is an incidental one, that just comes out of nowhere and ends as abruptly, and that involves a motorcycle, a woman in some cool-ass boots and nothing else, and she and her lover tumbling down a hillside. There’s lots of bee buzzing, too, natch.
For me the most intriguing thing about this odd film is its director, Denis Sanders. This is a man who began his cinematic career by winning an Oscar for his first short film. He later directed the likes of Robert Redford, Lauren Bacall, and Sydney Pollack, and wrote (with his brother) the screenplay for the film adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Then he somehow wound up doing a documentary about Elvis’s late ‘60’s comeback, and another music-related film, before accepting the Invasion of the Bee Girls gig. Bee Girls was released when he was only 44 yet it is his last known big screen credit, even though he lived another 14 years after its opening.
“I really liked working with Denis,” Smith relates. “He was a very talented director and writer, and nice to work with. It was sad that he died so young. I was looking forward to working with him again. Anitra Ford and Victoria Vetri I remember as both being good to work with. Victoria was very popular at the time, having recently been Playboy Playmate Of The Year, and she was still trying to get her acting career in gear.”
The thing about Bee Girls is that, despite its schlocky premise, it is a genuinely good movie. No, it can’t be taken seriously. But it’s not like one of those camp films where you laugh the whole time because the acting is so bad, you see the microphones hanging from the ceiling and actors clearly reading from cue cards that are taped to the floor, etc. There’s a very strong atmospheric tone to the movie, the characters are convincing and compelling, there’s mind-altering effects and other striking sensory enhancements. And the story, silly though its premise is, moves along and keeps you watching to see what will happen next. I enjoy it on both a camp level and in a way where I view it without my tongue resting in my cheek. I wish I had seen it on the big screen when it first came out, preferably at a drive-in, maybe paired up on double bill with The Vengeance of She.
I asked Smith how he remembers Sanders’s and the cast’s perspective on the movie, specifically wanting to know whether they were conscious of it being a camp project:
“I think that all of us in the cast and on the crew took this as a fairly serious film, and not anything campy. I feel that Denis certainly felt that way, and he was trying to pattern the feeling of the film after the same type of style and underlying tension that you got from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, which was a favorite of his. I always play a character straight unless the director tells me otherwise, and I think that even though the film is considered a little campy by today's standards, at the time it was released it was thought of as a straight science fiction / action film.
“I watched it again a couple of years ago, and I thought that it held up pretty well, considering it was made over forty years ago. It still has charm to it, even if it is in a very “70s” sort of way. I think that it is definitely a film that will always be considered a cult classic of that era, and of the genre.”
No doubt. Roger Ebert tagged it as such as soon as he viewed it.
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Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.