Directed by: Bert I. Gordon
Written by: Jack Turley
Starring: Joan Collins, Robert Lansing, John David Carson, and Albert Salmi
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“This is the ant. Treat it with respect, for it may very well be the next dominant life form of our planet.”
As a kid, I watched numerous horror and science-fiction flicks on VHS. Being the son of video store owner parents, I pretty much watched whatever I wanted to watch. Sometimes, I was able to view a film that I loved so much, that I would take it home from the store many, many times… watching it with the frequency that today’s children watch videos of Spongebob Squarepants or The Wiggles. For whatever reason, one such film was Bert I. Gordon’s late 70s cheese opus, Empire of the Ants. Would it keep me entertained again after all these years, or would it simply have to remain a nostalgic relic from my childhood? Let’s find out.
Empire of the Ants’ story is pretty straightforward. Dreamland Shores is hosting a party on an island for prospective buyers of their seemingly idyllic beachfront property. Among the guests are an older couple, a man recently divorced from his wife, a middle-aged couple whose husband (somewhat resembling a cross between a young Jack Nicholson and David Carradine) has a roving eye for any female who isn’t his wife, and even a frugal couple who writes down all expenses to make sure everything on the trip is truly free. Little do they know that radioactive waste barrels have been recently dumped into the ocean, and that one of them has washed ashore Dreamland Shores’ property. We see a close-up of a barrel leaking a strange silvery substance, and once the cast arrives on the island, we see the same close-up some time later, only to find that several ants have happened upon the silvery substance. Later, as the party is touring the island, the ants (now giant) show up and attack members of the group. Eventually, only a handful of the group survives the ant attacks, but later end up kidnapped by humans under the mind control of ant pheromones. Will the ants take over the world? They’re off to a good start!
Empire of the Ants isn’t particularly a “good” film, but it sure is a fun one. This is mainly due to how decidedly straight the cast and director seem to be taking the material. The facial expressions and screams are so stern and deadly serious, you’d think these guys were in something the weight of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Exorcist. If the film played everything tongue-in-cheek, lines like “Oh my God, they’re herding us like cattle!” wouldn’t have near the entertainment factor. The lady who speaks this line means it. It’s in her eyes. It’s in her voice. She is dead serious. To me, this aspect makes for the most fun B-Movies. It’s not nearly as fun if the filmmakers want you to take everything tongue-in-cheek. It’s no fun if they’re actually trying to be silly. To me, it’s a great deal more fun to be presented with a silly situation and have everyone (including the director) playing it absolutely straight-faced. It gives the viewer a sense of “Are they for real, here?” that you just don’t get if things are done knowingly tongue-in-cheek.
So, making a film about killer insects, how do you compete in a marketplace filled with killer sharks, bears, and other large animals? You make them huge! This film takes the usual nature-runs-amok film and adds a much more sci-fi slant. Most films in the sub-genre take normal animals and simply turn them against humanity. This one takes normal insects and mutates them to an abnormal size. There have been many killer ant films over the years (Them, Ants, Phase IV, among others) and this one is far from the worst. The ever-sexy Joan Collins heads a solid cast as a shifty Dreamland Shores saleslady, trying her best to seem genuine but most of the characters can see through the façade. The characters of the film are truly its strong point. Early in the film at the initial party along the beach, there are many wonderful characters moments. Even the characters I didn’t care for much were given interesting subplots. I must say that not a single character was killed in this film in which I didn’t have some sort of reaction for their death. Not all monster movies can claim this, as sometimes characters are introduced solely for the purpose of their eventual demise.
This brings us to the ant sequences. Unfortunately, they seem to be a mixed bag. The child in me says that the magnified shots of the ants placed alongside the actors are really cool, but visually, the reviewer in me says they don’t quite work. The ants just seem to stay moving around in one confined area of each shot (surrounded by funky tree-like blobs which don’t quite fit with the surrounding forest scenery and are a dead giveaway that this is a shot that has been inserted into another shot), and only go in for the kill when it’s a close-up of a large ant head created by the FX guys. These close-up attack sequences worked the best, despite the ants being very obviously fake. They were frantically paced and exciting enough to hold my interest. The kills aren’t particularly gory, but I was surprised at the amount of blood that was shown, as this is a PG film. The good thing is that this isn’t one of the types of monster movies where you see a shadow in the first few minutes, a hand in the first half hour, an eyeball or tail in the next half hour, and finally the revelation of the monster at the main end. From about thirty minutes in, to the end of the movie, you get to see plenty of large ants. Some ant scenes look better than others, but on the whole, they were pretty fun. My particular favorite was seeing the ants running across the dock to attack a boat.
Things get a little silly (well, sillier) toward the end of the film, with the whole ant/human mind-control sub-plot, but not enough to hinder my enjoyment of the film. The music by Dana Kaproff was enjoyably (and sometimes laughably) heavy, aping more than a few moments from John Williams’ Jaws score. As I’ve mentioned, the script has a few cheesy stinker lines of dialogue aided by deadpan delivery (“I wish I hadn’t seen Charlie die like that,” was a fave of mine), but wasn’t nearly as bad as has been reputed to be. For a monster movie of its type, I felt it was adequate, and full of fun, enjoyable characters. Some you want to see die, some you want to see live. As for how close it comes to the original short story by science fiction master H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man) that it claims to be based on, I really couldn’t say, as I’ve never read it. Though, I have heard the term “loosely” thrown around when its discussed how closely it follows to the Wells work.
Empire of the Ants stands as an entertaining example of what happens when you try to make a 1950s drive-in movie with the sensibility of the 1970s drive-in movie. It’s not the best B-Movie around, but one well worth an evening of grin-filled entertainment and definitely a worth a look if you’re into the nature runs amok sub-genre. If you miss the days of wacky sci-fi sub-plots and giant radioactive monsters, this film should definitely be on your radar. If you’ve seen the film in years past, revisiting it again is likely to bring back more memories than shocks... and for my money, that can sometimes just as good. Rent it!
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