“Attack of the Murder Hornets” just might be the scariest documentary you’ll see this year. But the Utah-born filmmaker who directed and produced it has been through scary before.
When he was growing up in Utah, Michael Paul Stephenson starred in what some consider the worst movie ever made — “Troll 2.” Director Claudio Fragasso brought an Italian crew to Utah and cast locals in a tale of vegetarian goblins determined to turn humans into plants and eat them. The direction was terrible, the acting was wooden, the effects were atrocious and even the title was ridiculous — it has absolutely nothing to do with the 1986 horror film “Troll.”
Stephenson was humiliated. And “Troll 2” wouldn’t go away. It became a cult classic, celebrated for how bad it is. He eventually turned that into his 2009 documentary “Best Worst Movie.”
And now he’s the filmmaker behind “Attack of the Murder Hornets,” a documentary chronicling the efforts to eradicate what some consider the scariest insect ever to hit North America. (It starts streaming Saturday on Discovery+.)
Stephenson admitted that it’s “very strange to go from child acting, appearing in horror movies about vegetarian goblins when I was 10 years old, to making a character-driven film about people who are embarking on a full-scale hunt against a gigantic hornet.”
But maybe there is some link between “Troll 2” and “Attack of the Murder Hornets” — they’re both about characters facing impossible odds. Although the former is fiction and the latter is fact.
Asian giant hornets are enormous — their bodies are up to 2 inches long, with a wingspan of 3 inches and stingers a quarter of an inch long. If enough of them sting you, their venom can be deadly. And they can also squirt it at you.
But the biggest threat they pose is to honeybees, which are vital to our ecosystem and are already dying in huge numbers because of a viral disease and climate change, according to a story in The Washington Post. Honeybees in Asia have a way to protect themselves against the murder hornets — it’s fascinating, but no spoilers here. North American honeybees, however, have no defense. “Attack of the Murder Hornets” opens with beekeeper Ted McFall mourning the murders of 60,000 of his bees, whose heads were chewed off by the hornets.
“The bees provide for our family. I do everything for our bees. They’re more than just an insect for us,” he said. “And so whenever something happens to them, especially in such a terrible and brutal way, it’s very upsetting.”
Stephenson said he was struck by how the arrival of murder hornets in North America “became a nationwide phenomenon and there was a lot of fear. And it was interesting to look at this story through the lens of a fun science fiction/horror film.”
McFall said the documentary “does kind of play like a horror movie, even though everything in the film is totally accurate and totally authentic. … It is scary.”
The documentary will teach you more than you ever wanted to know about the insects and what they can do — there’s some horrifying footage of Chinese victims who were stung repeatedly — but what draws you in and keeps you engaged is the people whose lives Stephenson chronicled.
Beekeepers aren’t the only ones fighting the murder hornets — entomologists and Washington state officials are trying to find the insects and eradicate them. Stephenson said that when he first read about the murder hornets, he was “immediately drawn to just the character story and the odds being seemingly impossible against these beekeepers and these entomologists.”
Discovery exec Howard Swartz, who’s an executive producer of the documentary, saw “Attack of the Murder Hornets” as a “metaphor” for the horrors of 2020. “You had the pandemic. You had civil unrest, earthquakes, fires, and now murder hornets,” he said. “And it really became a pop culture moment.” And he was excited about the “opportunity to take a pop culture moment, infuse that great level of entertainment that Michael brings to it but show in real time how science gets done from various perspectives.”
Until you see the documentary, it’s hard to understand how it could be, in Stephenson’s words, “a fun film that still says things that are very important.” But it is. “I am a big fan of entertainment first and using entertainment to smuggle in themes that you really care about,” he said.
He’s already gotten a couple of rave reviews, from his 10- and 13-year-old daughters, who said they thought he was “just making a boring science film.” But they deemed the final product “a weird version of ‘Stranger Things,’” Stephenson said.
But unlike demogorgons, murder hornets didn’t arrive in North America by traveling from another dimension. The film speculates about how the insects, which are believed to have originated in Japan or Korea, could have ended up in the Pacific Northwest.
“It was humans that brought them here, either accidentally or on purpose. ... Now they’re threatening the food supply and the consequences could be catastrophic,” said McFall, who reacted strongly to a question about whether there’s anything good about the murder hornets. “It’s kind of like we’re being invaded by Nazis or something. No one would look at the Nazis and say, ‘Well, maybe they’re going to get the trains to run on time.’ No, it’s evil and we have to get rid of it.”
Like a lot of horror movies, the end of “Attack of the Murder Hornets” leaves open the possibility of a sequel. To date, no more nests have been found — just one in the state of Washington and one in Canada.
“We did pick up some late-season sort of stragglers up in Canada,” said Washington entomologist Chris Looney. “They’re pretty far from this nest. That does give us pause that there could be a few more.”