It may sound like a hokey fifties giant bug movie, but it’s actually an astute and often troubling look behind the scenes of Hollywood during the 1930s. Directed by John Schlesinger, reunited with his Midnight Cowboy screenwriter Waldo Salt (adapted from Nathanael West’s novella), it touches the glamour of filmmaking by viewing it from the gutter of the ignored backroom boys and aspiring starlets.
The story follows Tod (William Atherton), an artist looking, like so many others, to make it in Hollywood. He finds a place cheap enough to live at the San Bernardino Arms, a community of wannabes and has-beens. Among the residents are a precocious brat (played by a young, androgynous Jackie Earle Haley) being pushed by an overbearing mother, an angry dwarf (Billy Barty), and Faye (Karen Black) and her father Harry (Burgess Meredith), a showbiz family on their uppers. Patriarch Harry is a former vaudeville star now reduced to hawking cleaning products door-to-door while still trying to wow with his ‘pizzazz’. Faye is desperate to be on the silver screen, at almost any cost. Tod is besotted with Faye, but she sets up a one-sided relationship with Donald Sutherland’s Homer Simpson. Yep, that’s right. This Homer, however, is devoutly religious, sexually repressed, and socially awkward. It’s his buried emotions that lead to the most shocking of conclusions.
It’s clear this was meant to be an epic, multi-layered film in the vein of Robert Altman’s Nashville. It almost succeeds, but it doesn’t miss the mark so much that it can be written off. The locusts of the title are the little people so desperate to feed at the stardom Hollywood provides, hungry for a life promised following the Depression. A life that will soon turn to war. In the context of the film, it’s a war they get in the disturbing riot of the climax, which is something worthy of a horror film. There’s plenty to enjoy, though, as we mingle with the rich tapestry of grotesque characters, tales filled with humour and melancholy. It’s arguably one of the best movies about Tinsel Town we’ve seen, and could probably pair well with Tarantino’s alt-reality of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for the legendary William Castle playing the director during the soundstage sequence. The cast are superb, Sutherland, in particular, shines as a man being pushed to the limits; every motion and action displays his deteriorating mental state.
Australian label Imprint has released the film in a beautiful edition, with some interesting features. Actor William Atherton (who you’ll know as being ‘dickless’ from Ghostbusters) is refreshingly frank about the film, and Kim Newman offers his insight into the book as well as the movie. There’s also an interesting commentary from Kat Ellinger. Despite being a forgotten big studio flop from the ‘70s, it’s given fabulous treatment. Like many failures, it’s worthy of rediscovery. You’ll never want to hear the song Jeepers Creepers again, though.