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Beginning of the End

Beginning of the End(1957)

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Giant Grasshoppers Invade Chicago! Now that's the kind of newspaper headline that immediately grabs your attention and accurately sums up the plot and simple appeal of Beginning of the End (1957), Bert I. Gordon's tacky, no-budget attempt to duplicate the success of Them! (1954), the best movie ever made about mutant ants. Produced at the height of the science fiction movie boom in the late fifties when nuclear testing was constantly in the news, Gordon's film posits this "what-if" scenario; an agricultural lab accidentally breeds a new species of locusts through their experiments with radioactive isotopes and pretty soon the damn things become king-sized problems for the National Guard and the citizens of Illinois.

Like most of Gordon's fantasy films, Beginning of the End, now available as a special edition DVD from Image Entertainment, is obsessed with size, particularly extra large and beyond. With the notable exception of Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Gordon was firmly convinced that paying audiences wanted to see big, barn-sized monsters on the screen and most of his oeuvre reflects that from prehistoric beasts (King Dinosaur, 1955) to a bald, paranoid army colonel (The Amazing Colossal Man, 1957) to gargantuan teenagers (Village of the Giants, 1965) to the entire animal kingdom (The Food of the Gods, 1976). Talk about running a gimmick into the ground! Beginning of the End doesn't forge any new ground in the genre of giant, radioactive insect films but it does have two appealing leads - Peggie Castle and Peter Graves - who manage to find romance amid the constant onslaught of pesky, man-eating grasshoppers. It also features some notoriously bad special effects that begin to look like the work of some brilliant surrealist the more you stare at them. One of the more famous scenes - ask anyone who saw this on television as a child - is when the mutant grasshoppers are climbing up the side of a Chicago skyscraper and you can see that it's a photograph, not a model. It's particularly obvious when the critters reach the top of the building and continue climbing into the sky. In the new DVD edition of Beginning of the End, this favorite gaffe is missing and Glenn Erickson in his review of the film for DVD Savant explains why: "The appropriate matting enforced by the 16:9 enhancement crops away the film's main joke...Those mistakes must all have happened up near the top of the frame that the matting cuts off. After 40 years of open-matte TV viewing, we find out that Bert is innocent of that particular charge."

Probably the most significant aspect of the special edition DVD of Beginning of the End is the stunningly beautiful transfer. If only all B-movies on DVD could look this great! The black and white cinematography is so crisp and clear; obviously they had a pristine source print to work with. As for the extra features, there is a still gallery and a loose, running commentary between director/genre enthusiast Bruce Kimmel and Gordon's ex-wife Flora and their daughter Susan, who appeared in several of her father's films. Unfortunately, Flora's memory of the making of Beginning of the End is pretty fuzzy except for a few anecdotes. Likewise, Susan, who was only a small child at the time, doesn't have much to add either, except for a bizarre story about the stunt grasshoppers used (or should we say, killed?) for the film. For the most part, the commentary provides a rambling but amusing overview of Gordon's work (Picture Mommy Dead, 1966, The Mad Bomber, 1972, and other films are discussed) with occasional detours into Kimmel's particular obsession with Peggie Castle; at one point he speculates on which male characters in the film are lusting after her.

For more information about Beginning of the End, visit Image Entertainment. To order Beginning of the End, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeff Stafford