The Satan Bug (1965)

John Sturges directs a dramatic and well made adaptation of a classic Alistair MacLean novel. Atlantic Film Sweden R2 DVD.

The Film

"Every person in Mordon would be dead within the hour,
the whole of Wiltshire would be an open tomb by dawn. In a week,
ten days, all life would have ceased to exist in Britain. I mean all life.
The Plague, the Black Death - was nothing compared with this."

Alistair MacLean - The Satan Bug

In a top secret research lab somewhere in remote California, two men have broken into one of the labs and killed the security officer. The General in charge calls Lee Barrett, his son-in-law and recently fired security guard at the lab to investigate. Seeing the meticulous work that the attackers did, he suspects an inside job and is horrified to discover that several flasks containing deadly viruses have been stolen, including the newly refined Satan Bug - powerful enough to kill all life on earth, it is completely unstoppable. A threat is sent to the government insisting that the research base is closed down and to prove their threat, the thieves let off a flask in Southern Florida killing hundreds of people. It is only a matter of time before the next attack is made and there are seemingly no clues...

Written during MacLean's most productive period (under the pseudonym Ian Stuart, to whom this film is credited), The Satan Bug is often held up as one of the writer's most thrilling novels. Fortunately this screen adaptation does it justice - making enough changes to make it filmable while retaining the theme and character of the story. The most obvious change is the relocation to America - rather inevitable considering that this was a Hollywood production, the move however is completely painless and the flow of the story is unaffected - the renaming of many of the characters follows similar lines. Some of the exposition is changed slightly which leads to a few minor continuity problems - a big deal is about about Barrett having being fired from the security of the lab due to his confrontational nature, something that in the book is explained as a ruse but is never similarly answered here - making him seem to be a curious choice to bring back to investigate the loss - the very clean-cut character we see also seems to be at odds with the rebel he is originally introduced as.

As a film in its own right The Satan Bug is particularly well written, building excellent tension and good characterisation throughout. There is a noticeable lack of 'action' through most of the production, with none of the token car chases or gun fights that many thrillers add in to keep the audience watching, instead the film relies on the dialogue based plot to keep the tension high and fortunately this is more than sufficient. Curiously the major twists and turns in the plot, of which there are a few, are presented in a very understated manner, leaving the audiences to have to work out their significance - rather surprising compared to the spoon-feed plots and heavily highlighted twists of many similar films. The quite slow pacing suddenly picks up in the final quarter and it all builds up to a suitably thrilling climax although a slightly confusing moment right at the conclusion does slightly temper this and it is a pity that MacLean's original denouement has been altered which would have made more sense.

Experienced Hollywood director John Sturges takes the directorial reigns for this project and does sterling work, aided by an obviously sufficient budget allowing for some beautiful sets and locations, particularly at the key Base 3. Most impressive of all though is the soundtrack from Jerry Goldsmith - an orchestral score, heavy on the strings it builds an amazing tension in many scenes and really contributes to the power of the film.

The lead role is played by George Maharis, then famous for his Route 66 television show but now largely unknown. He plays very much against his rebel 'bad boy' image here as the pretty much straight-up, clean-cut intellegence officer but plays the part well. There is a solid mix of Hollywood character actors in the rest of the cast and strong performances all round.

Despite a few minor flaws, The Satan Bug is well adapted from one of MacLean's best novels - benefiting from a sufficiently budgeted and very well helmed production with a superb Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack that simply tops it off. A must see film for all MacLean and thriller fans - just don't expect mile-a-minute action scenes or a spoon-fed plot. Highly Recommended.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? No-one well known.
Directed by anyone interesting? John Sturges - an American director responsible for many very well known films including The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) as well as the later MacLean film Ice Station Zebra (1968).
Any gore or violence ? Nothing strong
Any sex or nudity? None
Who is it for? A must see for thriller fans and particularly any MacLean collectors.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print is generally good - taken from a film print it does have some occasional damage and reel change marks. The transfer to DVD is rather poor with some very noticeable interlacing.
Audio English stereo. Sounds generally fine but with some noticable glitches in a few scenes. The audio levels are quite low which for this mostly dialogue based film might be a problem for some viewers.
Subtitles Swedish and Finnish - optional
Extras The disc includes:
  • Brief biographies of John Sturges, George Maharis, Richard Basehart and Anne Francis in English.
Region Region 2 (ALL) - PAL
Other regions? Available from MGM as a MoD disc, with similar sounding picture quality and theatrical trailer as a bonus. On DVD in Italy but with forced subtitles on the English language track.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. English language print.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 25th February 2008.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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