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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Empire of the Ants (1977) review


Robert Lansing (Dan), Joan Collins (Marilyn), John David Carson (Joe), Albert Salmi (Sheriff, Art Kincade), Jacqueline Scott (Margaret), Pamela Shoop (Coreen)

Directed by Bert I. Gordon

Disreputable real estate saleswoman, Marilyn Fryser, invites a varied group of possible investors to a new development; a secluded island getaway called Dreamland Shores. Shortly after there arrival, it is discovered that thousands of ants have grown to enormous size after feasting on drums of toxic waste dumped into the ocean and washed ashore on the island. The survivors attempt to make it to civilization alive while being eaten one by one by the marauding ants. They make it to a small town where they are about to make a frightening discovery.

Mr. B.I.G. strikes yet again in this, his last hurrah of the 1970's. The enterprising director makes it count with one of the most memorably awful, yet hilariously fun movies of the creature feature era. Gordon's double KO of rampaging Rattus norvegicus and flesh eating Formicidae make a perfect double feature of movie monster mayhem.

Note John David Carson (just behind Lansing) swinging in the opposite direction as if something were supposed to be onscreen

As with the previous years FOOD OF THE GODS, the special effects are of the macro enlarged variety featuring humans reacting to rear projection of the overgrown monsters. A handful of ant "money shots" appear to be footage of ants inside of an aquarium, or ant farm of some sort as the glass is visible. During the river sequence where the survivors try to move a tree blocking their passage, the ants attack and you can see one of the actors wildly swinging an oar at nothing! Apparently, B.I.G. forgot to insert some real ant footage in that shot, but since Lansing is in the cameras center, he probably figured nobody would notice.

Some of these shots (very few) are actually slightly effective, but lose what (very) little substance they possess during the scenes wherein totally lifeless giant ant mock ups "attack" the cast. These shots are very distinguishable as the camera shakes wildly to keep the viewer from noticing just how flimsy the "live" ant effects really are. The rat mock ups in FOTG are much more convincing. This is probably the one and only time you will ever read the word convincing being used in the same sentence with Bert I. Gordon.

To say the effects are terrible would be a serious understatement. They rival the awful wasp footage from FOOD OF THE GODS. In addition to occasional transparent optical effects, we have actors (and offscreen technicians) hopelessly manipulating the ant models to give them the appearance of motion. But the total inertia of these ants is unmistakable. I can only imagine what must have been going through the actors minds while they were filming this riotous cult favorite. The sheer audacity that AIP would give this and the more (surprisingly) successful FOOD OF THE GODS a theatrical release is a joke in itself.

The similarities between Wells' short story and B.I.G.'s movie are minor. Some of the locations are similar (a river) and the notion of intelligent ants outsmarting their human enemies is the other which is explored to a ludicrous degree during the last half of the picture.

This is where the film takes a turn towards full blown absurdity once the now dwindled band of humans make their way into a town seemingly unaffected by the ant onslaught. The last thirty minutes, as outrageous as it is, is nonetheless creative and deviates from the usual monster movie mold. Another film that is far more cerebral and much more rewarding is the 1974 movie PHASE IV. It kind of follows the trajectory laid down by Wells' short story. Ants also figured into the TV movie ANTS! (1977) aka IT HAPPENED AT LAKEWOOD MANOR. Inarguably the best killer ant film would be THEM! from 1954.

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS will always be fondly remembered by fans of no budget monster movies, even though many involved with the film would say it was best forgotten. Joan Collins has nothing but contempt for the production citing it as one of her worst experiences ever. She and the other actors had to perform their own stuntwork in the crocodile infested Florida swampland. She says this in her autobiography among other humorous highlights...

"The water was absolutely disgusting, foul green slime. It probably hadn't moved in two thousand years and it was thick and warmish. I tried to keep my head above the loathsome liquid while acting convincingly terrified. I swam as fast as possible to the sanctuary of the camera barge. Under the water my legs and feet became entangled in the submerged giant roots of a swamp plant. I thought of swamp snakes and kicked with all my might, trying to untangle my legs from this moving mass of God knows what. I crawled onto the barge like a beached whale, blood oozing from at least a dozen cuts on my legs and from the gash over my eye. I'd swallowed some of the putrid water and felt definitely ill."

Although this was her last horror movie, Collins definitely wasn't afraid of appearing in genre movies whether good, or bad. She also featured in the first story of Amicus' TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), the mostly dull TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973), the silly devil movie I DON'T WANT TO BE BORN (released here as THE DEVIL WITHIN HER;1975) and the Italian crime film FEARLESS FUZZ (1977) where Collins got naked on several occasions.

Robert Lansing was a familiar face on dozens of television shows. I remember him mostly from his role as Gary Seven from the season three episode of the original STAR TREK, 'Assignment: Earth'. This was supposed to have been a springboard for a spin off series that never happened. His performance shows him to be a bit grumpy and a bit ashamed for having done this turkey. According to Collins' memoirs, none of the cast were happy to have participated during the November-December of '76 shoot. Lansing takes control of the movie, but at the same time, appears to not be enjoying himself at all.

The remaining five cast hot wire a car and try to escape the town. The police set a trap for them....

....which results in a nicely captured car stunt, only you can clearly see the five occupants have now been reduced to one despite overdubbed screams of women on the soundtrack.

The one area where EMPIRE is successful are the moments leading up to the ants first appearance. Here, Gordon truly doesn't falter. These scenes do generate suspense aided by the music of Dana Kaproff. The eerie sound effects, reminiscent of those heard in the far superior B/W horror science fiction classic, THEM! (1954), also add to the ambiance. Once the ant attack scenes begin, it's a fast ride down a steep hill. However, Gordon does manage to briefly pick things up a bit once the remaining characters reach the town where they encounter strange and odd behavior from some of the locals. Then, things again drop off dramatically once the preposterous final ten minutes arrive.

Joan Collins about to be indoctrinated

A mainstay of weekend horror shows such as 'Shock Theater' (which is where I first saw it), it's easily one of B.I.G.'s best remembered and most trashed movies. EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977) will never be mistaken for a truly classic monster movie. But taken as a thick hunk of American cheddar, it will surely delight lovers of good cheese.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD. EMPIRE OF THE ANTS is available either by itself, or on a double feature DVD with TENTACLES (1976).


The Igloo Keeper said...

Ha! Weird, I'm literally watching this movie as I'm writing this. The wife has gone to bed unimpressed. I'm lovin' it.

venoms5 said...

Yeah, it's not a very impressive movie even for the time it was made. But it does hold a lot of goofy appeal for bad movie buffs. B.I.G. could definitely do BAD very well.

dfordoom said...

I adore this movie. I'd probably love it even without Joan Collins, but she really is awesome. She may have hated making bad movies, but she gave such gloriously entertaining performances.

Her performance in I Don't Want To Be Born is a particular favourite of mine, but I'll watch her in absolutely anything.

venoms5 said...

@ D: I totally forgot to link the FEARLESS FUZZ review mentioned above in the review which features Joan stripping off on two different occasions. I just remedied that, D. If you like Joan, you should see her in this Italian crime movie.

I never got to see all of I DON'T WANT TO BE BORN. What I did see of it was quite nutty.

I Like Horror Movies said...

You know Im a sucker for killer animal flicks, I wanna add this and The Glass Trap to my next round of animal movies

venoms5 said...

I had to look up THE GLASS TRAP, Carl. I'd not heard of that one. I see it's a Fred Olen Ray movie.

Unknown said...

'Yeah, it's not a very impressive movie even for the time it was made.'

For those who saw it on the small screen, correct. However, all the effects proving most laughable on the tellie were *not* half as laughable on a 1970's cinema/theatre screen for which those effects were intended, and designed. Having seen this film first in the theatre, then later on TV, I can vouch for this.

Also, the theatre version with had the dismembered foot shot, which added impact.

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