With his independently produced sci-fi shocker The Cyclops already in the black with nary a ticket sold there was really nowhere to go but up for director and bargain effects whiz Bert I. Gordon. As RKO tangled with releasing that picture (picked up just before RKO’s own distribution arm folded) Gordon was already busy making another, this time as part of a deal with the short-lived production subsidiary of American Broadcasting – Paramount Theaters, Inc. Beginning of the End would be the director’s most ambitious project to date, a big-bug thriller in the mold of Warner’s 1954 blockbuster Them! built around a winning exploitation concept – an all out monster assault on Chicago. For his part Gordon did what he always did best. He brought the film in on time and on budget, and with bargain basement thrills to spare. AB-PT wasted no time either. Beginning of the End (opposite the John Carradine / Allison Hayes quickie The Unearthly) was in cinemas and earning bucks a full month before the distribution-challenged The Cyclops premiered.
The end begins when two state patrolmen happen upon an unnatural accident site just outside of Ludlow, IL. The car is totaled and a bloodied cloth hints at violence, but bodies are nowhere to be found. Worse awaits just a mile up the road, where Ludlow itself has been all but wiped from the face of the Earth. It’s structures have been trampled flat and, more disturbing still, the town’s entire population has vanished. The national guard moves in and begins investigating the incident, but their roadblocks net the curiosity of war correspondent turned National Wire Service photographer Audrey Aimes (B-movie bombshell Peggie Castle).
With grudging assistance from the commanding officers Aimes begins her own investigation into the matter, and follows a hunch to a nearby Department of Agriculture facility where experiments with radioactive isotopes are underway. There she finds entomologist Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves!) and a greenhouse stuffed with gargantuan experimental vegetables. With a bit of due diligence and the requisite personal endangerment Aimes and Wainwright uncover the cause of the Ludlow disaster. The grasshoppers which had infested Wainwright’s radioactive garden patch some months earlier have mutated into a veritable army of truck-sized monsters. With local resources exhausted they’ve begun creeping their way across rural Illinois, devouring everything in their path, and neither the Illinois National Guard nor the U.S. Army (commanded by who else but Morris Ankrum) are able to halt their voracious advance. Wainwright and Aimes rush to find an answer lest Chicago, and perhaps the whole world, succumb to the insatiable locust horde.
Okay, so Beginning of the End doesn’t quite live up to the epic expectations set by either its hyperbolic ad campaign or the synopsis I shared above, but it certainly tries in its own small way. Both the scripting (courtesy of one-time screenwriter Lester Gorn and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms‘ Fred Freiberger) and Gordon’s straight-forward direction play quite well early on, building a reasonable sense of dread mystery around the night-time destruction of an all-American small town and the disappearance of its entire populace. Beginning of the End leaves the grimmer eventualities of such an idea to the imagination, and I must confess that the idea of 150 men, women, and children being torn from their sleep by some all-consuming menace is a dreadful one indeed.
The mystery is mostly for naught, of course, unless one is willing to forget the film’s own advertising for the sake of buying into it all. Beginning of the End‘s trailer only makes it a minute before completely spilling the beans about the film’s menace, a race of gigantic grasshoppers who are depicted on the poster art as having bulging cat eyes and toothy cartoon grins! One pities poor Lester Gorn and Fred Freiberger, tasked with devising anything at all credible within the confines of such a preposterous premise. The writing can’t help but succumb to the silliness of it all, with Graves desperately warning about irresistible power (“Each has the strength of ten men!”) of the film’s rather everyday monsters.
While the first appearance by Beginning of the End‘s locusts is indeed startling, punctuated as it is by an excellent Albert Glasser stinger, it’s not especially convincing, and by the end of the film’s brief running time Gordon has already repeated the same angle half a dozen or more times. As with The Cyclops, King Dinosaur, and the majority of his films to come it was Gordon himself who was responsible for the special effects here, which are as transparent as they come. Perhaps the greatest failing of Gordon’s methods (here a mix of miniatures, rear projection, and travelling matte) lies with the nature of the monsters themselves. No matter how enormous Gordon tries to convince us they are, it’s impossible to see the film’s big bugs as anything but what they are – cute, ordinary grasshoppers. I doubt AB-PT much cared so long as they had a marketable monster and enough effects takes to cut a trailer that was good enough to drag in the expected audience – predominantly teenagers. Whether they were there for gut laughs or cheap scares didn’t matter, just so long as they paid their admission.
Somewhere therein lies the secret to Gordon’s mid-century success. For a fraction of the cost he could churn out just as much effects punch as the majors, and in Beginning of the End‘s case likely much more, and whether or not his work stood up to even the most casual scrutiny was completely beside the point. To that end Beginning of the End dishes out the monster stuff in spades, reaching its zenith when a handful of grasshoppers (all that was left out of the couple of hundred the production had begun with) creep into Chicago to threaten a flat photograph of the Wrigley Building. Whether because of or despite the utter stupidity of it all, this is great stuff, with Peter Graves bravely machine-gunning rear-projections of travelling mattes (a one-two Gordon punch!) that keep coming to the same window again and again and again. The pests are eventually routed into the mighty Lake Michigan, leading to an effect so just-plain-bad that I can’t help but love it – the grasshoppers seen briefly swarming the shoreline are just a flat shot from above, and creep in and out of the jagged matte lines at will. The mess is over in two seconds flat, and the audience left to divine the big bugs’ drowning demise from a couple of quick cuts of the water-bound hoppers and a fade back to Lake Michigan’s pristine, bug-less shores. Humanity is again triumphant, and the effects? Eh, good enough.
Indeed, good enough could well be the mantra of Beginning of the End. It’s a decent big bug picture with a passable script and competent cast, and the special effects are certainly there. For a film with no loftier aim than to be cheap exploitation it could well have been much worse, and the box office doesn’t seem to have minded its rattier qualities. Along with Gordon’s later The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End would go down as one of the top earners of 1957.
The home video status of Beginning of the End is a bit confused. The presently available widescreen DVD is quite good, but represents the 73 minute theatrical cut of the picture and loses the stock footage padding – and at least one special effects take – that are familiar to those accustomed to the 76 minute television version. The television version is technically out of print, but remains readily available both on VHS and as the co-feature on Rhino Video’s original DVD of the film’s MST3K appearance.