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The Satan Bug


Diabolical runaway viruses, Batman! John Sturges followed his hugely popular, star-studded The Great Escape with this rather anonymously furnished thriller, based on an Alistair MacLean novel (he of the hugely popular Guns of Navarone). Albeit, one written under the pseudonym Ian Stuart. The movie’s efficient enough in its propounding of Pasteurian virus propaganda, but the most evocative aspect is easily the title. Which, not entirely unlike William Friedkin’s later Sorcerer, is somewhat misleading.

Sure, there’s a bug, but its only diabolical quality is the promise that it could kill all life on Earth in a mere few months. There’s a nasty strain of botulism about too, but that’s much less hazardous, relatively. This is the kind of premise that calls for international pursuits and terrifying trails of victims, but the nature of the threat – held gingerly in your basic lab flask, for goodness sake – is that it can’t actually be let loose or everyone is toast (there’s a vaccine, but the arch villain has taken it himself so stands to be the only survivor of a devasted world). 

Dr Hoffman: Also a virus, airborne. But self-perpetuating. Indestructible. Once released, it will multiply at a power beyond our calculations. It perhaps will never die. To this virus we have given a highly unscientific name, but one which describes it perfectly. “The Satan Bug.” If I took the flask which contains it and exposed it to the air, everyone here would be dead in three seconds. California would be a tomb in a few hours. In a week, all life, and I mean all life, would cease in the United States. In two months, two months at the most, the trapper from Alaska, the peasant from the Yangtze, the Aborigine from Australia are dead. All dead, because I crushed a flask and exposed a green coloured liquid to the air. Nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug.

The botulism is needed, then, to aggravate the stakes; localised death can be unleashed, including an incident at the lab – of a variety chief investigator Lee Barrett (George Maharis) eludes but which fells James “Scotty” Doohan – and a display of nefarious mettle in Florida. A further show of strength is planned for Los Angeles, resulting in its evacuation (Sturges wanted a climactic set-piece evacuation on the LA freeway, but his plans were nixed by city bigwigs, to his chagrin). Other than some scenes at a football stadium, then, the action largely takes place in the Californian desert, with escapes, pursuits, captures and further escapes. 

So while Sturges makes effective use of widescreen, there’s a very localised sense of scale, compounded by the undernourished cast. Someone was trying to make Maharis a star at the time, but it didn’t stick (Chuck Heston had been offered the lead, it seems). Dana Andrews (Crack in the World) is always an indication of a B-movie in the offing. Ed Asner is a baddie in the days when he had hair. Anne Francis, of Forbidden Planet fame, is simply forgettable. James Hong, developing every virus everywhere all at once, appears in one scene (Lee Remick is also present, uncredited).

Ann Williams: What kind of messiah?
Lee Barrett: Take your pick. Extreme right. Extreme left. From the I’d-Rather-Be-Red-Than-Dead fanatics to the Bomb-Moscow-Right-Now fanatics.

Richard Basehart is the most reliable of those assembled, as the somewhat incoherently written main villain Charles Reynolds Ainsley. It doesn’t matter that he’s incoherent because he’s already been characterised as a nutter. Actually, given the caveat that he’s fallen for aforementioned Pasteurian virus theory (which is not to say biolabs don’t do lots of nasty things), he’s starting from a premise far sounder than those who developed the Satan Bug. He wishes for the closure of Station 3, “the most secret chemical warfare establishment in this hemisphere”, insufficiently secret – and clearly incredibly lax about fundamentals like photo IDs – that he couldn’t locate it, infiltrate it by masquerading as scientist Dr Hoffman for months, and then make off with the goods.

Lee Barrett: This was delivered about 10 minutes ago. “Mankind must abolish war, or war will abolish mankind. I have what you’re looking for. I order your Citadel of the Antichrist destroyed. The President will publicly announce immediate compliance. To prove that I am to be obeyed, there will be an incident.”

Barrett accuses Ainsley of wanting “Power! Power for its own sake!” and it does seem he has become skewed from his initial, unfiltered gaze by that time (one wonders why he didn’t just blow up Station 3 while he was robbing it, but still). In the novel, the Satan Bug is a derivative of the alleged poliovirus. It threatens to destroy all human life (rather than all life) and a mad environmentalist is at work (so like Greta), rather than someone who objects to war. We’re informed Ainsley is a “Millionaire crank. Right at the top of the list of crackpots.

He’s an eccentric. No pictures, no relatives, no public life… Lunatic fringe, crank,
rich, with resources
” and he tells us himself that “I am a biochemist… of sorts… I made my fortune in patent medicines”. So, despite his altruistic intent – if you want to call it that – he is basically a Big Pharma guy, one who is threatening the world with his own depopulation agenda involving a (fake) virus. Hmmm…

Of course, Ainsley, being Big Pharma, has located a highly effective and not at all dangerous vaccine (one that even does what vaccines are purported to do): “Two days ago, Baxter made it and that’s why he had to die…”, such that “now I’m the only one who has the formula. And the vaccine is in my bloodstream”. That just proves he’s a crackpot. Were he legitimate Big Pharma, he’d plan the bug’s release and then roll out the vaccine just in time to make a fortune.

Ainsley: Some scientists thought that the H-bomb would start a chain reaction that would blow up the world, but it didn’t. Now, nobody really knows about this. Theoretically, yes. But it hasn’t yet been put to the real test. Perhaps it will destroy all life. Perhaps. Certainly, it could destroy millions.

Admittedly, the conversation between Ainsley and Barrett speculates regarding the efficacy of the threat and does so by namechecking the nuke lie, and the scaremongering that preceded its actual scaremongering. We never get to see the Satan Bug at work thanks to Barrett’s fortuitous catch. We do see those highly deadly botulism strains wreaking near-instantaneous havoc, though (exceedingly quick and deadly, so a very humane nasty virus). 

Along the way, Barrett displays some remarkably Miss Marple deductive logic in working out where the case of flasks has been secreted (“I’d hide ’em in the water!”) but at no point does he become an interesting character. The whole thing is pretty impersonal, although there’s a decent Saul Bass-riffing title sequence that sets us up for something altogether punchier. Even as a financial failure and a so-so movie, though, The Satan Bug does its bit to further the perceived threat of deadly forces all around us, waiting to strike, be they natural or augmented.

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