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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Lansing’

Bert I Gordon’s 1977 film Empire of the Ants kicks off with some close-up footage of leaf-cutter ants going about their business, while a basso profundo voice-over does its best to make them seem menacing. The nature-documentary tone of most of the commentary doesn’t help its cause much, and it winds up by pushing the dangers of ant pheromones particularly hard, which initially seems like a stretch. To anyone not familiar with the Bert I Gordon oeuvre it gives the impression that we’re in for one of those nature-strikes-back eco-horror movies.

Indications that things may be a bit more out there come during the opening credits, which depict barrels of radioactive waste being dumped into the sea off the Florida coast. At more than one point the credits stress that this movie is based on an H. G. Wells story, which is technically true, but also in a very real sense completely fraudulent. One of the barrels of gunk (which resembles silver paint) washes up on beach, where the local ants clearly find it very tasty.

From here we find ourselves pitched into what feels like a very different kind of story. Joan Collins, in the midst of the career slump to end all career slumps, plays Marilyn Fryser, a thrusting young property developer intent on attracting new investors for her new project Dreamland Shores, a resort community on the Florida coast. (All incredibly authentically Wellsian, I think you’ll agree.) Various people duly turn up to be shuttled about by Collins, her assistant, and grizzled old boat captain Robert Lansing, and it gradually starts to feel like a conventional disaster movie, albeit one made on a punitively low budget with a cast of obscure and generally uncharismatic performers working with a pedestrian script.

A lot of horror and SF movies have to negotiate this kind of slow start and they generally do it by establishing the characters and building up atmosphere, or at least a sense of mystery. Empire of the Ants fumbles this (although I think the low budget may be at least partly to blame), which makes the opening section of the movie pretty hard going. I was rather put in mind of Frogs, another American International horror movie from a few years earlier which also concerns itself with nature getting stroppy while rich people squabble dully in the foreground.

However, this being a Bert I Gordon production (the man behind Beginning of the End, Earth Vs the Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, and other works in a similar vein), when Empire of the Ants finally kicks into gear it does so with an insane level of ambition for a low-budget film from the late 1970s. After various badly-done POV shots of compound eyes balefully watching the bickering potential investors, two of them wander off only to find themselves confronted by ants the size of horses with appetites to match. The ants themselves are realised by a mixture of composite shots mixing blown-up footage with the live actors, and – when some close-up mauling is required – giant ant puppets which are waggled in the direction of the cast.

The results are bad, but quite often not nearly as bad as you might be expecting, and the sheer guts of the film for attempting this kind of storytelling do deserve a grudging respect of sorts. In any case, I would say it’s still the case that the script and acting in this movie ends up letting down the special effects – though you should take that as more of a sign of just how awful the writing and performances are than any indication of genuine quality in the visual effects department.

Collins and the other survivors end up staggering through the jungle trying to reach a boat that will take them to safety, and at this point I did find an icy sense of horror beginning to consume me – not because the film was particularly frightening, but because I’d just looked at my watch and realised this sucker still had the best part of an hour to go.  However, the script has a bizarre left turn up its sleeve, which you might consider Exhibit B in defence of Empire of the Ants – it may be a terrible, trashy movie and an unrecognisable travesty of Wells, but it’s not entirely without some interesting ideas.

The investment party survivors pitch up in a small town not far from ant territory, where they tell their tale to the local sheriff (the ubiquitous character actor Albert Salmi) and the other townsfolk. They seem strangely unconcerned and tell them all to just calm down and relax. When they attempt to leave town under their own power, a police roadblock is in their path. The sheriff orders them dragged off to the local sugar refinery, which appears to be working flat-out.

Yes, here’s where all that opening guff about ant pheromones pays off: the queen ant of the giant brood has installed herself in a booth at the sugar refinery where she is spraying chemicals at the local people (they queue up obediently) which turn them into brainwashed slaves of the giant ants. The townspeople are producing sugar by the ton, which the giant ants turn up to munch several times a day. The ants have this in mind for Collins, Lansing and the others, of course.

Of course it doesn’t make sense in any coherent way, but it at least takes the film off in a new direction, and it sets up the conclusion – without going into details, there is a lot of running around and screaming and ant puppets on fire, and while a handful of our heroes manage to escape it is still not really clear what actually happens to Joan Collins (beyond her miraculously getting a second act to her career courtesy of Dynasty, of course). It’s a trashy ending to what’s essentially junk cinema – I suppose you could argue this is another of those cautionary tales about not messing with the environment, but that’s hardly touched upon throughout most of the story. Most of it has no moral premise or depth to it; it’s purely and simply about people running away from unconvincing giant ants.

There is surely a place in the world for stories about people running away from giant ants (convincing or otherwise). I like to think there is also a place for films which don’t let things like budget shortfalls or lack of special effects equipment get in the way of their storytelling. But Empire of the Ants is not really a great advertisement for any of these things. There is something undeniably impressive about the film’s uncompromising approach to a task for which is manifestly very poorly equipped. But that doesn’t mean the resulting movie is any less staggering to watch.

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