Bitten by the Movie Bug

Any self-respecting L.A. waiter can throw festival names at you right along with his head shot. There’s Sundance, there’s Cannes, there’s Venice. And then there’s yesterday’s Insect Fear Film Festival--"scaring the general public with horrific films and horrific filmmaking since 1984"--courtesy of the entomology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “After all, how many people would come if we advertised a lecture on insect physiology?” says May Berenbaum, festival founder and queen bee, er, head, of UIUC’s entomology department. “But if we show a movie about giant radioactive ants in the sewers of L.A. and then give a lecture on insect physiology, we get an audience.”

For 2004, the theme was genetically engineered insects, with a bill that included “The Tuxedo,” “Tail Sting” and “Mimic.” Themes past have included mosquitoes, with an on-site blood drive; female insects (offering the festival’s only soft-core entry to date, “Invasion of the Bee Girls”); and a 12-hour bad film marathon with refreshments such as stir-fried silkworm pupae and a popular Hotlix tequila-flavored lollipop with worms. Between screenings, audience members can encounter live specimens, which Berenbaum likens to a “meet the stars” opportunity. Draws include live tarantulas (“not insects, but a high ick factor”), tobacco hornworms and hissing cockroaches, a “Fear Factor” favorite.

Although Hollywood’s insect effects have improved, there’s still work to be done when it comes to scripts. “Poor Mira Sorvino,” says Berenbaum, referring to the star of “Mimic.” “When we heard the words the writers put in her mouth, oh boy. It’s a hoot for us entomologists to listen to.”