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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Beginning of the End’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, fables can be very enlightening…

Beginning of the End (1957)
Distributed by: Republic Pictures
Directed by: Burt I. Gordon

Once upon a time, there was a fabulist named Aesop…

Yes, that Aesop. Probably the second-best known writer from ancient Greece, after Homer. Yes, the one famous for all those fables.

Like the one about the ant and the grasshopper.

Illustration by Charles Bennet, 1911

Yes, the story about how the grasshopper would be lazy all summer while the ant worked hard, and come the winter the ant was successful while the grasshopper fell apart.

Which is a great analogy to help us better understand the breadth of atomic giant monster films in the 1950s. We can put in perspective the range between classics such as Them!, a film about giant radioactive ants, where we can see the results of all the hard work and care that went into the film, against what we got on the other end of the spectrum…

The film opens cold outside of Ludlow, Illinois, where two kids are getting into some heavy petting. Before the two of them start to get serious (and possibly get the film banned in Boston), they look up in horror, quickly cutting to the opening credits.

Once that’s out of the way, we watch the Illinois Highway Patrol discover the car we saw earlier. Just the car, though, as the kids’ bodies are not in the wreck. And as the troopers soon discover, what happened to the kids also happened to the town of Ludlow.

We soon follow Audrey Ames (Peggy Castle), a newspaper reporter-photographer whose CV reads a lot like Margaret Bourke-White’s. She uses her reputation as a war photographer in Europe and Korea to get embedded with the Illinois National Guard, who are keeping the matter classified until they can get to the bottom of this. Which, we gather as we watch, may take them a while.

Anxious to help, she does some digging on her own and makes a cognitive leap to look at a nearby US Department of Agriculture research lab, where she meets by Dr. Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves). She surprised to find that they’re using radioactive elements to enable the plants to photosynthesize for 24 hours a day off their radiation (?!), which makes them grow to gigantic proportions.

Ends up Ed is an entomologist, someone whose specialty is insects. This is helpful in figuring this thing out when they make a horrible discovery: Locusts have been feasting on the experiments at the USDA facility where Ed works, and the radiation has made them bigger than the plants they were growing.

Bigger, and able to wipe the Illinois National Guard off the map, which forces the regular army under General Hanson (Morris Ankrum) to take over before the locust munch their way through the buildings and people of Chicago…

Considering what state these animal stars were in before filming began, their voracious appetites were probably one of the more believable aspects of the film. According to Gordon, he ordered 200 grasshoppers from Texas who he tried to wrangle around blown-up photographs as mattes (badly). He didn’t shoot them once they got to California, however, spending a few days in his garage before he could do the VFX. By the time he got around to it, the grasshoppers had gone cannibal and started eating each other; there were only 12 survivors when they finally made it to the set.

At least the insects were consistent. Once the bugs show up, Castle’s Ames goes from being an accomplished journalist to arm candy, with barely any lines for the rest of the film. Graves’ Wainwright also transforms from a “bug geek” into a man of action, suggesting the USDA regularly sends employees out to the firing range. About the only person who stays consistent from start to end in the script by Fred Freiberger and Lester Gorn is Ankrum’s Wainwright, playing a general who (unlike his similar role in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) gets to do more on screen this time.

Interestingly, this was only Gordon’s second turn as a director. He was given the job by AB-PT Pictures, a production company formed when Paramount Theaters, recently spun off from Paramount Pictures, merged with the American Broadcasting Company (an early iteration of the ABC we know today). The plan was that the company would create films for theater circuits mainly in the Midwest and South.

This, however, would be the only film AB-PT Pictures released. While Gordon would go on to do better-known films for Allied Artists and American International, AB-PT dissolved, unable to adjust to the growing appreciation of television by the audience.

Thus making the film’s title, Beginning of the End, an ironically apt description of the production company.

What moral you can pull from this fable, we leave to you…

 

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