A different kind of bug hunt...
(An update of my review from 2007)
Before Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, before Outbreak, The Satan Bug was a gripping 'viral' thriller, based on Alistair Maclean’s best-selling novel. Through the 1960s and 70s, Maclean's books inspired a string of hit movies. The author's name on a poster promised adventure and man-centric thrills.
A list of his novels (with their original publishing dates) which were all turned into movies:
1957 The Guns of Navarone
1961 Fear is the Key
1962 The Golden Rendezvous
1962 The Satan Bug
1963 Ice Station Zebra
1966 When Eight Bells Toll
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone
1969 Puppet on a Chain
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès
1971 Bear Island
1974 Breakheart Pass
As you can see, his stories ranged from World War II heroics, through cold war thrillers, to high-tech terrorism. Which brings us back to The Satan Bug, which Maclean wrote under a pen-name and isn’t actually credited in the film.
This is a well-made, tight detective thriller with a slight sci-fi edge (that is if the science of such a bio-weapon is still fictional). The 'Satan Bug' is a virus engineered by the government to kill all living things, a sword of Damacles in a top secret lab in the Nevada desert. Then the bug goes missing, along with another less deadly virus.
So the story starts with a typical ‘locked room’ murder mystery – a well-guarded bunker with a huge combination locked laboratory. How did the thieves get in, let alone escape?
The story depends on the audience paying attention, keeping track of a dozen different suspects, all men in suits. Dialogue drives much of the complex plot with many crucial events, even the opening murders, all happening off-screen. The early detective work has the benefit of the spectacular scenery of the desert mountains, and the action eventually takes off. But with a premise like this, it's suspenseful throughout.
The film is helped enormously by an outstanding early score from Jerry Goldsmith, his first sci-fi soundtrack, using unusual percussion and electronic sounds. The opening title theme is very striking and suitably downbeat.
The director, John Sturges, was the man behind Christmas TV hardy perennials The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, as well as many other well-known thrillers. He does well to keep the tension persistent and the settings familiar.
Notable bit parts include a young Ed Asner (Lou Grant), with hair, and James ‘Scotty’ Doohan without any dialogue, but stealing one great scene, worthy of his red shirt…
There are also a couple of great-looking helicopters in the film, a regular feature in Alistair Maclean films, just because they were standard issue in thrillers at the time - visual shorthand for ‘high-tech’ and ‘big budget’.
The US VHS release was severely ‘panned & scanned’ down to a tight 1.33 full frame. The first widescreen release was the Fox Laserdisc.
There was visible patterning, with hard diagonals turned into a series of steps (see the edge of the desk, above). It’s only distracting on certain scenes, but there’s also slightly muffled audio - not something I'd expect on a digital release.
My mistake, perhaps, and at least this is a chance for the US to see a great sixties thriller in widescreen, on DVD for the first time.
Lastly, there's an original trailer on YouTube.