Blue Monkey aka “Insect” (1987)
Dir. William Fruet
Written by George Goldsmith (CHILDREN OF THE CORN), Chris Koseluk (nothing)
Starring Steve Railsback, Susan Anspach, Don Lake, Gwynyth Walsh, Joe Flaherty, Robin Duke, John Vernon
Sometimes --rarely, even-- a movie is exactly what you think it is. There’s a certain zen beauty in that, something oddly satisfying, even if what you thought it was wasn’t exactly life-changing art to begin with. Such is the case with BLUE MONKEY, something of the platonic ideal of cheesy Canadian Z-movie monster features. And frankly, that’s a good thing. Steve Railsback (LIFEFORCE, ED GEIN, The X-Files) and an ensemble cast of entertaining character actors (John Vernon, SCTV vets Joe Flaherty and Robin Duke, Don Lake, Gwynyth Walsh, Susan Anspach and an 8-year-old Sarah Polley) are trapped in a hospital (that used to be an insane asylum, nice touch) fighting giant bug monsters for reasons which are too convoluted to get into here. If that sounds good to you, you’re gonna have a heck of a lot of fun here. If not... what are you reading this blog for?
When you’re trying to make an exploitation movie for an incredibly small amount of money, tone is everything. Low-budget movies are almost by definition going to be fundamentally uneventful since events cost money, so the trick is to find a way to make the downtime something less than uttery life-draining. BLUE MONKEY exquisitely captures that tone you want, goofy and sometimes intentionally kind of comic, but still taking the monster part relatively seriously -- or at least seriously enough to establish a baseline of real movie, upon which to pile its increasingly ridiculous monster puppet schlock. Compare that to something like the dour white noise of THE DROWNSMAN and it’s immediately obvious why this one is so much more tolerable. It doesn’t even have anything to do with its actual genre elements -- it’s about knowing how to have a good time, keep a light touch and a quick pace, and deliver as many goods as you can.
A bunch of pretty gnarly-looking slimy giant bugs (although you can’t see them too well on this VHS copy) are a nice touch, obviously. Man, bugs are just so creepy and alien anyway, why don’t they show up in horror movies more often? For all the over-designed monsters in the countless shlocky creature features over the years, it’s hard to beat ol’ mother nature at coming up with something really nightmarish. Did the giant bugs of the 50’s sci-fi horror craze make this gauche or what? I’m starting to see this as a real missed opportunity.* But it hardly matters anyway, because the real joy here is just fooling around with Railsback and Co. in an exquisitely horror-lit hospital (man, this place gets mysteriously blue when the power goes off) and soaking in the silly 80s monster movie vibe. Giant bug puppets are always going to be welcome, but experience teaches me they’re not generally enough to carry a whole movie through on their own, especially since there are probably less than 15 minutes of actual bug footage in here. So it’s nice to have the human side of the equation hold its own.
There’s not really a ton of story, more like a series of free floating vignettes about different characters peripherally tied together over a bizarre series of circumstances wherein a foreign plant bites a nice old man, delivers him a mysterious insectoid parasite, and then that parasite gets doused with some sort of blue mystery goo (possibly the origin of the movie’s completely inexplicable title?) which mutates it, I guess, and creates a colony of giant clicking praying mantises? So in that sense, kinda like NASHVILLE if it was located in hospital beset by monsters, and also had less country music. Railsback’s there from the start but doesn’t really take over as the main character until a good way in, and for some reason Susan Anspach (FIVE EASY PIECES, PLAY IT AGAIN SAMHAIM) is set up as the female lead, and then gradually sidelined in favor or Gwynyth Walsh (tons of TV roles, including recurring roles in several Star Trek series and in the movie GENERATIONS) over the course of the movie. Why, I could not say, but they’re both fine actresses so I guess it works out OK in the end. And hey, it’s nice to see a heroic entymologist (scene-stealing Don Lake, a million bit parts in everything from TERMINATOR 2 to POLICE ACADEMY) after that asshole on from BLOOD BEAST TERROR made the profession look so skeevy. I’ll admit, I guess I have some prejudice built up after that one, because it seems like Lake is so into these bugs I figured he’d betray our fleshy heroes, or at least get eaten as punishment for his obsession. But no, he turns out to be a real nice guy who just happens to think giant bugs are awesome. We have so much in common, and yet here I was judging him. I hope we’ve all learned a little something about tolerance here today.
Anyway, this one’s quite competent in a goofy B-movie sort of way. Not a lot of whammy, but a cheerful tone goes a surprisingly long way and some big bug puppets go the rest. Really ought to be better known, or at least available on DVD. There’s no fucking reason in the world WEREWOLF WOMAN has a handsome DVD debut from RaroVideo and BLUE MONKEY has to go begging on VHS. And yet not a single presidential candidate from either side of the aisle has yet make this part of his or her campaign. For shame, democracy.
Director William Fruet didn’t make another movie til 2008, but at least he went on to a rich career in TV, including episodes of The Outer Limits, Goosebumps, and Poltergeist: Legacy. That sounds about right. He did direct a bunch of other horror movies before this, though, including SPASMS, FUNERAL HOME, KILLER PARTY, and THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE. All officially on my list now. While I can’t realistically hope any modern filmmaker could make an ALIEN ripoff with giant bugs set in a hospital this ingratiatingly daffy, at least the 80’s was prolific enough that we’re not likely to go wanting anytime soon.
*Or maybe I’m just giant bug phobic. I think the two scariest X-files (Travelers and Folie A Duex) are both about giant bugs, so maybe it’s just me.
PS: This is apropos of nothing, but did you know that Steve Railsback made a movie called ANGELA (1978) which is a loose modern-day version of Oedipus Rex with Sophia Loren, John Vernon, and John Huston? I don't want to steal BLUE MONKEY's thunder or anything, but that seems like some information you can't really sit on without sharing.