Boll Eevil

2019 April Fool's Day Entry

Boll Eevil is a 1973 horror movie set in Monticello (Drew County). Although poorly received at the time of its release, the movie’s central theme, regarding the dangers of ongoing capitalist exploitation of nature, reflected broader trends in the horror genre of the decade.

Boll Eevil opens with a local farmer, James McCoy, riding out into his cotton field at dawn only to find his entire crop devastated by a sudden boll weevil infestation. Back in his laboratory at Arkansas A&M College in Monticello, Dr. Aaron Heidelburg, a renowned entomologist, receives an urgent visit from state official Henry Buckner, who offers funding for Heidelburg if he can develop some method of eliminating the boll weevil menace, which is on track to be the worst infestation on record. Heidelburg informs the government official that he had actually isolated a chemical that could potentially interfere with the insect’s ability to feed but lacked the necessary equipment to produce and test the chemical in sufficient amounts. “Don’t worry about too much testing, Doc,” the excited Buckner proclaims. “You just let me know what equipment you need and when we can start spraying!”

After a short montage of laboratory work, local farmers are soon shown spraying their fields with the new chemical. Later, out in a field, Heidelburg shows a cotton boll to Buckner and McCoy, observing that while the chemical has not killed the boll weevils, the insects are not feeding upon the cotton bolls as had been their habit. Buckner enthusiastically proclaims, “Wow, Doc, you’ve really come through and saved the great state of Arkansas!”

That night, a teenage boy and girl drive quietly, with lights off, to one of the cotton fields outside of town. There, they begin kissing, but their intimacy is interrupted briefly when the girl exclaims that something bit her. The boy finds a boll weevil on her back, and both of them are dumbfounded: “But they don’t bite people,” the boy says before more weevils start swarming into the cab of the truck, their buzzing soon drowning out the couple’s screaming. Their remains are found the next morning by Sheriff Buford Long, who discovers the bodies of some crushed weevils in the truck and tells his deputy, “I don’t know what killed these folks, but just to be safe, we might want to ring that scientist fella up at the college.” Heidelburg later meets with the sheriff and assures him that weevils could not kill a human being, but reports of weevil attacks soon begin coming in from across the town. After finding yet more bodies, the sheriff tells Heidelburg, “You’ve turned the weevils off cotton, but that just left them hungry—hungry enough for human flesh! You decided to play God, and now we’re gonna be served up on your altar of sacrifice!” Angry at the insinuation, Heidelburg storms off, only to be attacked and killed by weevils while trying to get into his car.

The last half of the movie involves a group of mostly anonymous townsfolk, led by Sheriff Long, moving from place to place as they seek refuge from the ravenous boll weevils. After discovering that the altered weevils are resistant to insecticide but attracted to light (one of the film’s many departures from scientific fact), the sheriff and a group of eager students hatch a plan to use the stadium lights at the college’s football field to attract all the boll weevils there; the lights would be outfitted with explosive charges, and when enough weevils had assembled, they could be blown up. Sheriff Long offers to stay behind to detonate the explosive. The weevils attack him, but he lives long enough to yell, before setting off the charge, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear NO WEEVIL!” The movie ends with scenes of the townspeople emerging into the light of a new day, stunned but alive, although the last shot is of a boll weevil perched on a cotton plant as ominous music plays.

Boll Eevil reflected themes that were common to other horror movies of the period, such as Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), and Empire of the Ants (1977). Often categorized as “eco-horror,” these movies offered a pop culture critique of the idea of human superiority to—and separateness from—the natural world, as well as a warning against the reckless use of biological research for profit-making ends. For example, Night of the Lepus centers upon a plot to disrupt the breeding cycle of rabbits using hormones after the creatures start multiplying in excess following local extirpation of coyotes by humans, but the experiment goes awry, resulting in murderous rabbits that stalk humans for prey. In some respects, Boll Eevil anticipates the 1978 federal boll weevil eradication program, which targeted the pest throughout the cotton-growing South, and highlights some of the controversies related to the program.

The film’s producers were inspired to choose Monticello as the movie’s location due to a 1971 New York Times profile of the town, with a focus upon its local university and its unique sports mascot, the boll weevil. Arkansas A&M College had become the University of Arkansas at Monticello that same year, but the producers of Boll Eevil found the A&M name more authentic for a southern institution of higher education and so, for filming, replaced new UAM signs with their predecessors. The film had little budget, however, and the final product did not impress most viewers when it premiered on April 1, 1973. Historian Michael B. Dougan has referred to this style of low-budget horror movie as “death by stock footage,” wherein the image of a person screaming is intercut with obvious stock footage of whatever creature is supposedly attacking (the same technique was also used in Frogs). But Dougan insists that Boll Eevil’s comparative lack of success was not dependent solely upon its low budget: “What Boll Eevil lacked, when set next to other horror films of the era, was enough bare skin to cover over bare-bones production values. Present-day film critics like to play up the ecological themes of such movies, but contemporary audiences were much more interested in prurient titillation than they were a cheap sermon on the dangers of playing God.”

For additional information:
Cochran, Robert, and Suzanne McCray. Lights! Camera! Arkansas! From Broncho Billy to Billy Bob Thornton. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2015.

Boll Eevil.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0093051/?ref_=nv_sr_2 (accessed March 4, 2019).

Dougan, Michael B. “Deliver Us from Weevil.” Oxford American (Winter 2018): 17–20.

Anthony Grandis
University of Arkansas at Monticello

 

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