FANTASIA OBSCURA: Empire of the Ants

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, you regret asking some small questions, such as what the opposite of what “dressing for success” would look like…

The Empire of the Ants (1977)

(Dist: American International Pictures; Dir: Bert I. Gordon)

The last time we looked at one of Gordon’s works, Attack of the Puppet People, one could not ignore how nice the man with the shrinking ray was. We had these victims who let their fear get the better of them as the nice mad wacko turned them into action figures with no collectable value.

Come 1977, and a whole new attitude permeates the production; and boy does Gordon overcompensate the other way!

Based very loosely on an H. G. Wells story with that title from 1905, the film opens with some fear mongering against the ants with some narration read by Marvin Miller, followed by a bunch of quick introductions to characters that we hate on sight right from the beginning.  Top of the list is Marilyn Fryser (Joan Collins), the woman who is selling suspect swampland in Florida and has commissioned a boat trip to see the property. She’s gotten to join her on this fateful voyage her underling/boy toy Charlie (Edward Power); a sleaze ball in a leisure suit named Larry (Robert Pine) who lives down to his successor namesake’s bad behavior; an ingénue here-for-no-real-purpose, Coreen (Pamela Susan Shoop), who Larry quickly makes the moves on; a down-on-himself Joe (John David Carson), who Coreen ultimately goes for; and a whole set of other folk we really don’t feel anything for. Aboard their boat captained by Dan Stokley (Robert Lansing), they make their way to way to “Dreamland Shores” to see what opportunities await them if they get in on the ground floor.

Folks, only the S. S. Minnow had a more foreboding sense of doom clearly emanate off her hull…

We watch this leisure suited crew in earth tones and off patterns make their way past swamps Walt Kelly would never let his characters go to, where Marilyn mixes spite and salesmanship while overseeing this batch. The disposable (literally) cast have a few moments to share observations with each other like a low rent rendition of The Ice Storm before the ants come, and when they do, their arrival spells doom for these dummies as their ride out of there goes below the waterline:

Thanks to the suckers’ bad decisions when it comes to whether to zig or zag here and there, the ants continue to pick them off one or two at a time as they make a run for a rowboat on the river a few miles over. Yes, they do kinda explain how they know there’s a boat there, but no, it doesn’t help. Ultimately a core group is left to make their way out of the swamp and away from the ants.

A less ambitious movie would have mercifully ended here. But no, we stay with these people until they make their way to a small town with a sugar refinery in it, where the giant ants have managed to mind control everyone with formicidae pheromones. The clumsy effort to shift from Deliverance to Invasion of the Body Snatchers changes the tone of the film, but doesn’t make anyone any more likable as this open house becomes one of the worst real estate showcase disasters ever caught on film.

In many ways, “disaster” is actually an appropriate term, as the characters we watch suffer could easily have been part of some B-string plotlines in Earthquake or The Towering Inferno. After our intro to them, they start getting peeled off in the manner we’d see in a slasher film like Friday the 13th. If one were desperate to find anything kind to say, the assumption could be made that this film tried to be something of a missing link, a way to tie together two sub-genres as the audience’s tastes morphed from one into the other.

The less merciful, however, will not find anything to love here. Gordon’s attention to detail in setting up live shots of ants and meshing them with regular-sized actors and sets is woefully absent, with actors flailing at open air and ants climbing against invisible sets in front of a clear blue sky. Even then, he shows more skill in that aspect than in his directing the humans to try and follow the horrid script. Albert Salmi’s performance as sheriff of the ant-overrun town, unable to convince us he was on set and paying attention to the film, is indicative of the lack of oversight Gordon had on his shoot, which took place in Saint Lucie County in Florida and was verging on chaos at times as discussed in Shoop’s recollections of the shoot.

Gordon earned the nickname “Mr. B.I.G.” thanks to his focus on the theme of size differentiation in his films. But in this instance, from the bad costuming on forward, he ended up with what could be called, at best, diminished returns on his investment…

NEXT TIME: Let’s go back to a time before Warren Beatty went up against PriceWaterhouseCooper and lost…

About James Ryan 129 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…