“If a movie makes you
happy, for whatever reason, then it’s a good movie.”
REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*******
Giant bug movies have always been a favorite
of mine; Tarantula, Black Scorpion, The
Deadly Mantis, Earth vs. The Spider, etc. The best of them all has to be Them!, the 1954 classic about atomic
testing causing ants to mutate to gigantic proportions. It was the first and
best of the 1950’s cycle of big bug movies.
In the 1970s, bugs and just about every other
form of nature, struck back against irresponsible humans who were poisoning the
planet in a plethora of nature-runs-amok films such as Frogs, Kingdom of the Spiders, Squirm, etc. They may not have been
gigantic like they were in the 50s, but they were just as deadly. However, Mr.
B.I.G. himself, Bert I. Gordon, the man responsible for entertaining, 1950s
giant creature classics like The Amazing
Colossal Man, Beginning of the End, Village of the Giants and the
aforementioned Earth vs. The Spider, had
already brought back giant wasps and worms in 1976’s Food of the Gods,and felt
that 1977 was the time to bring back the best giant insects of them all…the
ants. Using the great H.G. Wells’ popular short story as his inspiration, Empire of the Ants was born.
The movie begins when a canister of toxic
waste, which was dumped and supposed to sink into the ocean, washes up on shore
and leaks its toxic sludge into a neighboring ant hole.
Nearby, con woman Marilyn Fryser (Joan
Collins) and her lover/partner Charlie (Edward Power) attempt to sell some
worthless land called Dreamland Shores to a large group of potential buyers
including nice guy Joe (John David Carson), middle-aged Margaret (Jacqueline
Scott), beautiful Coreen (Pamela Susan Shoop), two-timing Larry (Robert Pine)
and his poor wife Christine (Brooke Palance).
As the group surveys the land, a few members
break off on their own. Cautious Margaret, while flirting with boat driver Dan
(Robert Lansing), asks him if he thinks the land is a good investment; Larry
gets Coreen alone, puts the moves on her and gets a knee to the groin for his
trouble, and Coreen eventually hits it off with Joe. All the while, the ants
silently watch them.
The entire group is gathered and taken on a
leisurely tour of the area. The tour doesn’t last long though as the dead body
of one of Marilyn’s crew (Tom Ford) is found. Joe and Coreen volunteer to check
things out and find the remains of a married couple (Jack Kosslyn and Ilse
Earl) that were originally part of the group. To their horror, they also find a
horde of giant ants and all hell breaks loose as the intelligent insects attack
and destroy Dan’s boat. With no way off the island, the terrified group starts
a campfire in order to keep the ants away.
The next morning, a storm begins and the rain
puts out the fire. The group frantically decides to make a run for it with the
ants hot on their tail. An elderly couple (Harry Holcombe and Irene Tedrow),
who can’t keep up, hides out in an old shack. Christine falls, sprains her
ankle and is killed by the ants, and, while helping a tangled Marilyn escape
from a tree branch, Charlie also meets his demise. As the rain stops, the
elderly couple, thinking that it’s safe, emerges from the shack only to find an
army of ants waiting for them. The remaining group members stumble upon a
rowboat and slowly take off down the river. The ants attack again, turning the
boat over and killing Larry.
The group realizes that the ants are leading
them toward a specific destination upstream and, as they continue to move
along, they come across an old couple (Tom Fadden and Florence McGee) who
contact the sheriff (Albert Salmi) for them. The sheriff drives them into town,
but the relieved survivors soon realize that something still isn’t right. They
can’t seem to find a working phone and everyone in the small town acts very suspiciously.
The group decides to hotwire a car, but while
trying to escape, they’re captured by the authorities and taken to the local
sugar refinery. While there, they discover that the queen ant is using her
pheromones to control every human being in the town and forcing them to feed
the giant ants. Marilyn is the first to come under the queen’s control, but
when they try to control Dan, the clever boat captain burns the queen with a
road flare he took from the abandoned car. Dan escapes with Margaret, Joe and
Coreen, but Marilyn, who snaps out of her trance too late, is killed by the out
of control queen.
Knowing that if the gigantic ants aren’t
stopped they will multiply and eventually take over the world, Joe drives a
leaking fuel truck into the refinery and blows the insects to kingdom come. As
the entire place goes up in flames, Joe, Coreen, Dan and Margaret reach a
speedboat and drive off to safety.
Filmed in Florida and released on July 29th 1977 by Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures, Empire of the Ants, while not the greatest giant bug movie in cinema history, deserves a little bit more respect than it gets. First of all, its story by Gordon and Jack Turley is well written enough for the audience to suspend disbelief.Second, the veteran cast in this film is top notch and they take their roles seriously thereby convincing us that the threat is real. Also, Bert I. Gordon’s direction is more than competent and even the ant sound effects are pretty effective.
The reason this movie gets ridiculed is due to the ants themselves. As much as I want to defend the effects work, it just isn’t very good. The rear projection/enlarged photography used when the ants interact with humans never seems to work convincingly. The few shots of the ants alone work well enough and the puppet ants used for close-ups are somewhat effective due to the fact that they are never dwelt upon so as not to see their flaws, but any trick shot involving an ant and a human together unfortunately becomes laughable because the images never seem to match up the way Bert I. Gordon wanted them to.
The good news, as I said before, is that the rest of the film works and is quite fun. The script moves along at a pretty brisk pace, the direction is solid, the music by Dana Kaproff (1979’s When a Stranger Calls) is appropriately menacing and the characters are either likeable, quirky or, in Larry’s case, annoying in an amusing way. Kudos to the talented Robert Pine (CHiPs) for hitting exactly the right notes and making his character an entertaining jerk who we can’t wait to see become ant food.
The great Joan Collins (Tales From the Crypt, Dynasty) shines as the shady real estate agent, Robert Lansing (The 4D Man, Island Claws) and Jacqueline Scott (The Fugitive 1963-1967, Duel) are terrific as the flirty, middle-aged couple, John David Carson (Creature From Black Lake, Pretty Woman) carries his hero role very well and the gorgeous Pamela Susan Shoop (1981’s Halloween II, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders) gives an extremely likeable performance.
Ok, so the ants don’t look that great, but the cheesy effects just make the movie even more fun in a “so bad, it’s good” way. Speaking of “so bad, it’s good” (and “so good, it’s good”), there are plenty of other things that make this film enjoyable. Yeah, you know what that means. It’s time for the list:
1. An ominous opening narration warning us about the power of the ants.
2. Radioactive waste that looks like silver paint.
3. A sign humorously reads: “Dreamland Shores: A place where people can begin to live.”
4. Joan Collins is up to no good again.
5. Robert Lansing is wonderfully grumpy as the scruffy, earring-wearing boat captain.
6. A cheap dude annoyingly jots down every penny he spends, foolishly thinking that Joan Collins will reimburse him.
7. Larry, the two-timing louse, eyes everything in a skirt.
8. An old guy wears God-awful turquoise shorts and matching socks.
9. The ants sound like a woman screaming.
10. Larry flirts with a woman right in front of his wife.
11. Every so often, Joan Collins’ accent changes from American to British and back again.
12. Cool, multi-eyed ant POVs.
13. Lots of open collars, gold chains and tacky 70s leisure suits. Just the way H.G. Wells envisioned it.
14. Whenever someone looks even mildly interested in buying the land, Joan is always lurking right behind them.
15. For a second, we’re terrified that we might see Robert Lansing and Jacqueline Scott have sex, but thank goodness they’re interrupted by the ants murdering everyone.
16. A woman attacked by ants yells for her mom.
17. Although Charlie is nothing more than Joan Collins’ boy toy, we like him because he tries to make a frightened Brooke Palance feel better by offering her a Baby Ruth bar.
18. Larry strikes again. Not only is he a cheater, but he’s a coward as well. Larry panics and leaves his injured wife to be eaten by the ants. Ain’t he a gem?
19. The scene where the old couple emerges from the shack and find themselves surrounded by ants is pretty creepy.
20. A guilt-ridden Larry lies and tells everyone that he went back to look for his wife, but couldn’t find her. When they all buy his story, he gets all defensive and says, “You think I saw the ants kill her, don’t you?” Oh, Larry, you are a delight.
21. Jacqueline Scott has a terrific acting moment in the rowboat as she reminisces about her former employer.
22. Larry whines, “I’ve never done anything dangerous; never taken any chances. It’s not fair that this should happen to me!” Shut up, Larry.
23. Larry calls Coreen a bitch. I’m really reaching the end of my rope with this guy.
24. Dan and Joe continuously hit the ants with boat oars, but in the wide shot, Joe is swinging the oar at nothing.
25. Coreen screams, “Oh, my God! They’re herding us like cattle!”
26. Under the ants’ control, a weird old man yells an order at his wife, Phoebe, who quickly runs to obey him. The old guy robotically tells the group “Phoebe is a very good wife.”
27. Tense scene where we think we hear a giant ant coming, but the sound only turns out to be a kid riding a Big Wheel.
28. Fifty-six minutes into the movie, Larry is finally eaten. Thank you, ants.
I know you wanna watch this movie now. How could you not? It’s great fun.
C’mon. Don’t be ashamed.
All right, if you’re not gonna admit that you’re doing it for yourself, then lie and say that you’re doing it for Larry.
I’d like to dedicate this review to the entire cast and crew of Empire of the Ants and, also, to the memories of Robert Lansing, John David Carson, Albert Salmi, Samuel Z. Arkoff, H.G. Wells, Harry Holcombe, Irene Tedrow, Jack Kosslyn, Tom Fadden and Tom Ford…R.I.P.
1. As a fun, promotional gimmick, certain movie theaters displayed ant farms in their lobby.
2. The poster tag line read: “It’s no picnic!”
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