Bug (USA, 2006)
As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, mental illness is not a subject often served well by horror films. Even when a mentally ill person appears in a relatively sympathetic light, such as in Repulsion, people around them still end up dead. This is horror, and everything is viewed through a twisted funhouse mirror. Every bed has a monster under it, something in the water will eat you, hitch-hikers and the people who pick them are all dangerous, and mad people are driven to kill by their insanity. If such characters were representative of most people with mental illness, there wouldn’t be a film. Horror films are about the extremes.
A few things set Bug apart from the normal clichés, not least of which is the quality of the writing, making the folie à deux at its core sympathetically human. It is a story of two damaged people who, by coming together, break each other further. This spiral into shared madness would be dark enough, but what truly pushes Bug into horror movie territory is its ambiguity. There is a possibility that at least some of the paranoia on display is not delusional, and if the conspiracies, mind games and medical experiments are real, then Bug is as much a work of body horror as any early David Cronenberg film.
Agnes is a waitress, living in a crappy apartment somewhere in the middle of nowhere. A friend introduces her to Peter, a former soldier filled with strange intensity, who gradually insinuates himself into Agnes’ life. As their relationship deepens, Agnes learns that Peter is AWOL, believing himself the unwilling subject of medical experimentation by the US Army. The two of them start to tie these experiments to the insects they believe are infesting Agnes’ apartment, and the resulting paranoia leads them deep into horror.
The insect infestation in Bug has strong parallels to morgellons, a controversial syndrome where sufferers believe their skins infested with anything from insects to unidentifiable fibrous matter. Agnes and Peter, like morgellons sufferers, cannot produce evidence of their infestation that will satisfy anyone else, but remain steadfast in their beliefs. This is all very easy to dismiss until a number of strange events and visitors seem to lend credibility to Peter’s story. By this stage, however, the belief system that Peter and Agnes are building includes many classic paranoid conspiracy elements that it is still difficult to see it as anything other than psychotic.
The horror in Bug is not just psychological. As Peter and Agnes become more convinced of the unnatural nature of their infestation, they show symptoms and take countermeasures that are sometimes stomach turning. There are definite parallels with Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, with shared delusions leading to bodily mutilation and self-destruction. By the time we reach the last act, there is a palpable sense of dread as to how far this destruction will go, and how warranted it may be.
Bug began life as a stage play and still has much of the feel of one, with a small cast and much of the action taking place in a single location. Like the 2011 Killer Joe, Bug is adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play and directed by William Friedkin. Also like Killer Joe, there is also a slightly artificial feel to the dialogue that is highly theatrical, but never quite detracts from the film.
While the final act has all the tension and nastiness a horror fan could ask for, some may find the slow-burn build up and talky, claustrophobic theatricality off-putting. This would be a shame, though, as it pays off in one of the most harrowing depictions of paranoid madness that horror cinema has to offer.