Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ants In My Bell Bottoms

Childhood is a fickle mistress. As a young lass growing up in the 80s, I spent many a day pitting Mr. Potato Head Kids against Smurfs, always with a VHS loaded and rolling in the background. One of those stalwarts of those recorded-off-cable days was Bert I. Gordon's Empire of the Ants, a 1977 monster movie loosely based on an H.G. Wells novel. Though I don't recall the film ever giving me nightmares, I had convinced myself that it was a well-done creature feature with a killer premise and frightening execution.
Wow. How our impressions change. Not that Empire of the Ants isn't enjoyable--my goodness is it entertaining....just not for the reasons I recall.
Quick Plot: Joan Collins divas it up as Marilyn Fryser, president of some land selling scam where wealthy fools are wined and dined in the hopes that they'll purchase a few acres of glorified swamp. Her Bruce Campbell lookalike boyfriend helps out while a surly sea captain huffs away with a no nonsense eye and even more no nonsense beard. The guests include a mildly would-be rapist, a penny pinching couple dressed in matching Kermit the Frog suits (not really, but kind of really), a drunken Joe David Carson, who seems like quite the catch to the spurned woman blond, a recently fired secretary fishing for sympathy and a lucrative investment, and a few other bodies tossed in to bland soap operatic effect. 

Oh yeah, and giant carnivorous ants that range in height from even with your knees to larger than a small yacht. By range in height, I don't mean workers vs. soldiers. Sometimes an ant approaches a character from a wide shot appearing to be the size of an RV trailer only to then shrink in closeup to be smaller than a yellow lab. This all depends on which effect is being used: are the ants actual live creatures climbing their way over, I kid you not, blown-up photographs of the set, or have the filmmakers switched back to the leftover animatronics used to much more terrifying effect in Them!?
For the first hour, our characters get some memorable chase scenes through a rainy jungle. Naturally, the caddish horndog leaves his wife to be eaten (because there’s no way a movie like this could resist featuring a helpless woman with a twisted ankle) while Bruce Campbell saves Joan only to then, well, be eaten. A guy can't win. A nice twist gets tossed in towards the third act when we meet the queen, whose talents are far more impressive than just laying eggs or doing the cupped hand wave. Sadly the film doesn’t quite capitalize on its human slavery/giant sugar bowl potential, but that’s not to say it doesn’t try.

Watching Empire of the Ants for the first time in probably 18 years, I can see why I would have loved this as a kid. The effects are ridiculous, but not dull. After a slowish opening that establishes every one dimensional character's sole dimension, the action is pretty steady, with a brief break to turn the story in a different direction. In no way is the film ever scary, but the cheese tastes good enough to melt over fries and enjoy with a beer. After all, this is coming from a director responsible for not one, not three, but EIGHT films (more than a few from the Gigantic Animal genre) prominently featured in memorable episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The fact that Empire of the Ants managed to evade this may be its biggest accomplishment.
High Points
This isn't exactly something to be proud of from the filmmaker's point of view, but every time I heard the blatantly Jaws-ish soundtrack cues, I laughed like a schoolgirl
Ants are inherently disconcerting, what with their socialist attitude and unionizing abilities. Despite the middle school project quality if the special effects, the mere sight of a few ant closeups does make even the Amazing Colossal Man wrinkle his nose in minor discomfort

Low Points
The ant attacks basically involve shaking the camera while an actor "wrestles" a giant ant doll. Do the ants eat the bodies? It's unclear. One character seems to die because she's poked by an antennae. A little more specifics (am I really saying this?) on the ants' abilities would have been useful
So ants’ vision is the equivalent of covering a camera lens with a mesh t-shirt?

The lack of English subtitles wouldn't be so annoying if the audio wasn't so muffled, which is even more frustrating when the ants’ screams and beeps (because apparently ants scream and beep) weren't so painfully shrill and loud
Lessons Learned
Being nearly raped by a stranger should not in any way discourage you from pursuing the kinder eyed alcoholic stranger standing alone in the corner

Favorite cuisines of the ant world include sugar, radioactive waste, and people
The best way to assert yourself is to bite into an especially crunchy piece of celery
Contrary to many beliefs, candy does not make everything better
This one's for the ladies: in order to survive an army of killer ants, hedge your bets and latch yourself onto the right man 

Only those that are great in the sack should expect a justifiably high salary, at least if your boss is Joan Collins

Why this DVD's sole special feature is a far too revealing trailer I don't know, but Empire of the Ants is a fun ride for those fans of 70s cheese and, well, giant killer ants. Best rented from your local library or streamed via Hulu and certainly not for those without a sense of humor about their insect politics. A double feature DVD is out there with Tentacles, a film I haven't seen nor heard any recommendations regarding. Empire of the Ants won't creep its way into your nightmares, but it will make you smile enough for 90 minutes to warrant a lower real estate valued place in your collection.

But remember the tagline warning: it's no picnic!
Man, sometimes I really wish I was alive in the 70s.


  1. i love this movie. thank you for the post!

  2. My absolute pleasure Mr. Jeffery. I'm glad it held up in its own way from my childhood memories!