A most unjustly overlooked American independent production
from director Frank Perry. An eccentric cold war drama, LADYBUG, LADYBUG (1963)
is a superbly made film boasting flawless performances and a uniquely chilling
atmosphere of creeping doom.
As 60's cold war thrillers go, LADYBUG, LADYBUG
stands alongside better known classics like FAIL-SAFE, THE BEDFORD INCIDENT and
even DR. STRANGELOVE. It's certainly the most unique of the bunch, being set
amidst a group of school children caught up in a possible nuclear attack.
Anyone at all familiar with the eccentric filmography
of the late Frank Perry, one of America's pioneering independent filmmakers,
shouldn't be too surprised. LADYBUG, LADYBUG was only Perry's second film
(following his successful debut DAVID AND LISA), but it's definitely the work of
developed talent further
showcased in subsequent sleepers like THE SWIMMER, LAST SUMMER, PLAY IT AS IT
LAYS and MAN ON A SWING. The sad thing is that, despite such auspicious
achievements, Perry is better known nowadays for later flicks like the
Christopher Reeve mess MONSIGNOR, the Shelley Long turd HELLO AGAIN and the
infamous MOMMIE DEAREST (ironically one of his most memorable films, though for
all the WRONG reasons).
LADYBUG, LADYBUG was superbly scripted, like most of
Perry's early work, by his (then) wife Eleanor, from a story by Lois Dickert
that was in turn inspired by a real incident. A nuclear alarm is set off in a
secluded provincial school, (this was back in the days when American schools had
such things), lights that flashed different colors corresponding to various
In this case the
flashing light is yellow, meaning a nuclear attack is imminent. After much
panicked discussion, the principal decides to take the alarm seriously, calling
an assembly and ordering the teachers to walk their students home.
These walks take the form of nightmarish treks over
miles of country roads, with the children following the teachers in groups of
fifteen or so. We follow one such group, as the teacher grows increasingly
exhausted in her high heels and the children succumb to panic. We also look in
on the children as they return home: one of them hides under her bed after her
parents refuse to believe her frantic warnings of an impending attack. Another
locks himself in his basement with his schizophrenic grandmother. Most
memorable are a group of children who hide out in a bomb shelter owned by the
parents of a callous adolescent girl, who runs the place with an iron fist,
leading to a disturbing LORD OF THE FLIES-type situation.
Of course, the alarm is eventually found to be false,
the result of faulty wiring, but that doesn't stop the panic from running its
horrific course. The heartbreaking finale is possibly the film's most effective
sequence, involving a deserted junkyard, an abandoned refrigerator and the
unnerving specter of bomber planes flying overhead.
One of LADYBUG, LADYBUG'S most effective aspects is its
lazy country setting. Frank Perry, in direct contrast to the type of hysteria
one would expect, utilizes deliberate pacing and a disconcertingly quiet
atmosphere to enhance the aura of mounting fear. The very stillness of
the well-chosen, mostly outdoor locations only adds to the general disquietude.
So effective is Perry's subtle touch that when the film's single bit of violence
(hopelessly tame by most standards) occurs toward the end, it seems as shocking
as any bit of celluloid brutality you'll ever see. The crisp and shadowy black
and white photography is superb, as is the acting--Perry has always been great
with actors, and coaxes some of the finest child performances ever.
Quite simply: a great film that MUST be rediscovered!
Director: Frank Perry
Producer: Frank Perry
Screenplay: Eleanor Perry
(Based on a story by Lois Dickert)
Cinematography: Leonard Hirschfield
Editor: Armond Lebowitz
Cast: Jane Connell, William Daniels, Estelle Parsons, Doug Chapin, Bozo Dell,
Linda Meyer, Jennifer Stone, Donnie Melvin, Christopher Howard