Empire of the Ants
For they shall inherit the earth... sooner than you think!
Year of Release: 1977
Running Time: 89 minutes (1:29)
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Joan Collins ... Marilyn Fryser
Robert Lansing ... Dan Stokely
John David Carson ... Joe Morrison
Albert Salmi ... Sheriff Art Kincade
Jacqueline Scott ... Margaret Ellis
Pamela Susan Shoop ... Coreen Bradford
Robert Pine ... Larry Graham
Edward Power ... Charlie Pearson
Brooke Palance ... Christine Graham
Tom Fadden ... Sam Russell
Irene Tedrow ... Velma Thompson
Harry Holcombe ... Harry Thompson
Jack Kosslyn ... Thomas Lawson
Ilse Earl ... Mary Lawson
Poor Joan Collins! How will she ever be able to sell phony real estate to a group of vacationers when they discover that the remote island they're visiting is inhabited by giant killer ants? It's no picnic when the little insects, smothered with radioactive waste from a leaking container, grow into hungry mega-munchers in search of someone for lunch!
Empire of the Ants, remindin' us that Bert I. Gordon never fails to wipe that smug look off the Orkin man's face.
An speakin' of guys who don't know when to give up, I managed to duck Blaine Schwartzberg for a little over a month, but somewhere along the line he managed to get ahold of my schedule at the Videodome an finally tracked me down; reason #1497 not to get saddled with a regular gig - people figure out how to locate you when you'd really prefer they didn't. Anyway, I guess the patrons at the Rural Mural started complainin' about the aquarium selection (evidently the carp Billy Hilliard an I caught for their ambiance/wildlife exhibit that stretches around the seatin' area have ceased to wow the schmucks who come in an lay down $50 for a plate of varmint chunks), so Blaine wanted me to go fetch somethin' fresh for the big city suckers to gawk at while they savor the flavor of whatever carcass Aesop Marlin managed to drag into the kitchen that day.
"Blaine you can't just buy me off with a ten spot anymore - as you can see, I've found gainful employment," I explained while searchin' for the store's missin' copy of The First Time, which'd *somehow* made its way into the soft-core porn section - fuggin' church people.
"I understand that your time is valuable," he lied surprisingly sincerely, "but I'm willing to double your usual fee," he offered.
I won't bore ya with the details, but eventually he spit out a dollar amount in the high two figures an I just couldn't refuse that kinda scratch, so I agreed; "you're a real pain in the ass, Blaine," I reminded 'im as I locked up the shop.
"I'll have your fish by tomorrow night, an if Edgar Mastrude asks, you were only here to rent Fiddler on the Roof, got it?"
"That's racist," he chided.
"Fine, how about Xtro then?" I ventured.
"Fiddler on the Roof is fine," he winced. Big stuck-up, that guy.
So the next day Billy Hilliard an me loaded up our gear an hit Lake Gunkamucka right around 6 in the AM - took a few hours, but by 9:30 we had a decent batch of bluegills, crappie, a few bass, an a coupla cranky catfish who really weren't lovin' bein' stuffed into our little Igloo cooler. So we figure that's prolly good enough for a guy who's too squeamish to bait his own hook an start reelin' up, only about that time I hooked somethin' on the way in, an when it jumped we could see it plain as day - a goddamned LAKE trout. Somebody musta dumped it in there, cause I've been fishin' Gunkamucka since guys used to dress up like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever at every high school dance an I ain't never seen one hauled outta there. So I'm reelin' it up thinkin' we can get somethin' extra for it on account of it bein' a 50 mile drive to Swine Lake, which's the closest place I know has 'em, when all the sudden this osprey comes flyin' overhead, swoops down, grabs my catch, an next thing I know I've got a tug-o-war on my hands.
"Fish ain't gonna survive this wear an tear for long, do somethin'!" I yelled over my shoulder.
"'Ike wha'?" Billy snarked, cause apparently I gotta think of everything.
"I dunno, anything!" I hollered back at 'im tryin' to let out enough line to keep the fish in one piece without lettin' the bird escape - it was a demand I'd come to regret almost instantly, cause the shot rang out just as Amos Anderson was passin' by on the access road, an danged if he didn't find us before the carcass'd even hit the water.
"Boys, I think you already know that was a protected species of raptor, so I'll save you the spiel. Now, would you mind tellin' me why you saw fit to end its life?" Amos asked in his usual subdued, Andy Griffith way.
"Oh come on Amos, you saw it - that booger was tryna take our fish. He started it!" I explained in what shoulda been an open an shut case.
"True, but he didn't shoot you, now did he?" Amos questioned like we'd just made our little sister eat a grasshopper.
"Oh, so it's my fault he ain't got thumbs?" - I wasn't winning thus far.
"Amos, what's going on? We've got dinner with the Skinners at 5 and I need to get my roast into the crock pot," came the voice of Carol Maynard from Amos' passenger seat.
I saw my one chance an grabbed it quick as I could; "Hiya Carol!" I yelled, "how're you an Amos gettin' along these days?" I asked with my winningest politician's smile.
"Oh! It's you! I've been meaning to thank you for bringing Amos into my life young man; we've been inseparable ever since you left the poor dear on my doorstep after that terrible incident with Nan at the Videodome," she smiled.
"Happy to help ma'am, I just knew you two kids'd get together eventually," I pandered.
"Now Amos," I whispered, "you wouldn't wanna go draggin' the nice kid who got you an Carol together off to jail, would ya?
"It'd break her sweet ole heart," I added.
Amos assessed the situation by scrunchin' up his face like he was de-shellin' a sunflower seed an eventually let out a chuckle like the old man in the Werther's Original commercial - "Spoze it would... just don't let me catch you boys pullin' anything like this again. It's only a fish for cryin' out loud," he scolded before turnin' an headin' for his rig.
"Just a snake, dear - they got it though," he explained, an off they went down the road.
Soon as they were outta sight I slapped Billy in the shoulder with my pole, " are you insane?!"
"Wha?! 'ew faid anyfing!" Billy growled, so I just quit arguin' with 'im. Bad policy to argue with your ride anyway, particularly when they're big enough to bench press a Buick Skylark.
"Let's just get the heck outta here before he comes back," I said, an we did.
The lake trout didn't survive the fight, but Blaine an the yuppies got their guppies, Billy an me got paid, an I didn't hafta get Skunky Hernandez to bail me outta the crossbar hotel again, so I guess I should thank Drive-In Jesus for small victories.
I don't mind tellin' ya - we enjoyed a bountiful feast of Chester's Chicken an Fernando's Authentic Mexican Burritos fresh from the Jiffy Mart heat lamp that night before settlin' in to watch giant radioactive ants eat their way through the Florida Everglades an a whole slug of television actors who were between gigs during the winter of '76. Now, as mosta you already know, Bert - aka Big Bert, aka The Inglorious B.I.G., is revered by just about everybody within a 50' radius of the Grime Time concession stand, an this's probably his most famous flick since he blew Glenn Langan up to 60' tall an made 'im wear a sumo diaper in The Amazing Colossal Man. I don't mean to get sentimental on ya, but we're runnin' dangerously low on movie legends from Bert's era an I intend to keep 'im around as long as possible, so once you've finished my sparklin' review of Bert's big monster swansong I expect every last one of ya to get out there an buy a copy to help fund the man's next hip replacement. In the meantime, I'll hold up my end of the bargain with a few cinematic morsels to whet your appetite for the main course. First, I woulda never thought it possible, but apparently bein' cornered by Erik Estrada an forced to listen to stories involvin' CHiPs groupies *isn't* the worst thing that can happen at a timeshare presentation. Second, the Coast Guard can't react fast enough when some guy named Jorge tries smugglin' Acapulco Gold into San Diego by bass boat, but when pirate ants start burnin' an pillagin' tourist vessels they're nowhere to be found. An third, givin' a horde of ants a sugar refinery right before bedtime is just askin' for trouble.
The movie begins with one of those nature films they made ya watch in high school Biology class in 1961, only this one was apparently made by Green Peace or somethin' cause the general theme is that we must respect the ant or else they'll evolve into the ones from Phase IV an force us to work their farms like illegal aliens in Amarillo. Next thing we've got a barge out in the ocean dumpin' drums of toxic waste into the drink one barrel at a time for dramatic effect, an damned if one of 'em doesn't wash up on the beach an start dribblin' nuclear goo inside an ant hill. We know it's some real nasty crud inside too, cause the barrels have the word "radioactive" printed on 'em in Stencil, an Stencil's a font that commands respect - it's like the R. Lee Ermy of fonts, where Times New Roman is more Colonel Klink. Elsewhere, Joan Collins's chartered a boat with Robert Lansing to schmooze a buncha dopes into buyin' real estate packages out in banjo country even though there ain't been no through access ever since Pablo Escobar bought up all the adjoining parcels an blocked off the road with wild hippos. So Joan starts doin' this psychological chameleon routine where she plays off the various insecurities of 'er prospective clients when she's not emasculating her manwhore (Charlie), only while that's goin' on Sgt. Getraer from CHiPs goes off into the woods with some airhead (Coreen) an starts squeezin' 'er cantaloupes til she hasta crack his walnuts. Then Coreen goes an spills 'er guts to this dude who looks an acts like Eric Forman with a drinking problem (Joe) while Charlie drives everybody around on one of those tourist carts that royally hack off the taxi driver's union so Joan can bark into a bullhorn until everyone's deaf. Meanwhile, Pee Wee's mama from Porky's an 'er husband're pullin' all the fake plumbin' up outta the ground to prove that Alex Jones was right about the Shysters from Outer Space, an next thing you know this noise like a cricket on a Jolt Cola bender crops up an a pack of elk-sized ants come pourin' outta the woods to munch Ma 'n Pa Whistleblower.
The tour eventually gets interestin' when it comes upon the corpse of the groundskeeper, an needless to say - when the ants start comin' outta the woodwork everybody's just a little bit P.O.'d that Joan never bothered to mention 'er would-be resort town is only five miles off the coast of Monster Island. Then the ants hit the dock an board Rob's boat lookin' for illegal RAID contraband an he ends up havin' to ignite a five gallon can of Code Red Mountain Dew an turn 'em all into Bangkok takeout before they can pinch off his manhood in their mandibles. This was a truly sad day for the ants' commandin' officer, as he was later forced to tell the larvae of the deceased that their parents went to live in a nice farm in the country to spare them the horrors of what really happened that day. But anyhow, the survivin' humans decide to build a bonfire to keep the creepy crawlies at bay - or harbor, I guess it is - only the next mornin' it starts pourin' down rain an they hafta haul their pampered little fannies through the woods en route to a boat Joan's got stashed away on the river, an the old folks (Harry an Velma) end up havin' to hide out at Jason Voorhees' shack when they get left behind like a coupla crippled water buffalo. Then Sgt. Getraer heroically ditches his doormat of a wife to certain chewage at the hands of the colony, while a short distance away Charlie makes like Meatloaf an proves he'll do anything for love when he frees Joan from bondage in a Willow tree, only to find 'imself with ants in his pants. Thankfully this is a Bert I. Gordon movie an not a David Cronenberg movie or else we'd literally have ants in people's pants by this point, an I for one do not wanna see insects wearin' leisure suits. But like I was sayin', Joan and the Lacksmarts hop in this boat any sane person'd be afraid to sail down a street gutter an Rob rows upstream while everybody mumbles about their failings in life like a buncha hobos livin' under a freeway overpass, til they come to a snag where they're attacked by Ant Jemima an forced to proceed on foot after the SS Widow sinks an the Sarge is slowly devoured by an army of ravenous Mandible Lecters. It's just as well that Getraer ain't never settin' foot in Heaven, cause that'd be one heck of an awkward reunion after what happened with his wife back there.
It prolly goes without sayin', but everybody's just a teensy bit antsy after everything they've been through - fortunately they find their way to a dirt farm run by a coupla hillbillies who bear the look of a people whose family tree is among the palm variety, an they offer to call the sheriff to come pick 'em up. Unfortunately for the city folks the sheriff is Albert Salmi who's pretty much always up to no good in one way or another, an he ends up takin' 'em to the local motel where Innkeeper Bernie Sanders is yellin' at some guy on the phone about how if his sugar delivery shows up late at the refinery he's gonna sic Liz Warren on the CEO. Eventually everybody gets set up with a room while Joe an Rob try rentin' a car, only the counter broad won't rent to 'em cause they look like the kinda people who might stick an 8-track of AC/DC's Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap in the stereo an condemn the town to eternal damnation. This is discrimination an Rob is understandably P.O.'d, so he assembles the squad, hotwires a Chevy Caprice, an peels outta town headed for the freeway, only to find that the county mounties've set up a roadblock. Now Rob's got no choice but to try jumpin' the Caprice over an embankment like the Dukes of Hazzard, but ends up landin' in a bog Rosco P. Coltrane style, at which point the cops line everybody up against a fence an proceed to beat the tar outta Rob. It ain't all bad though, cause that gives Joe an Coreen the openin' they need to escape in hopes of findin' their way to a town that sells really, really big magnifying glasses, while the others are dragged away to the local sugar refinery. This's about as far as I wanna go lest I spoil the endin' on this sucker, an we wouldn't want that cause it's a doozy.
Alrighty, well, if there's one thing everybody can agree upon where it concerns the legendary Bert I. Gordon - it's that he found his niche in life. Folks'll certainly disagree about the quality of his films, but I'll tell ya one thing - it didn't take the man long to discover the thing he was put on this Earth to do, and he did a lot of it. Bert has the distinction of directing more flicks that went on to be riffed by the Mystery Science Theater crew than any other filmmaker in history, which a lot of people might cite as evidence of poor filmmaking prowess, but in reality is at the very least incontrovertible proof that his movies were always entertaining, after all, boring movies make lousy riffing material, and you don't land eight MST3K episodes by makin' coma inducing cinema. The thing I really like about Bert's movies is that no matter how chintzy they turned out he almost always managed to secure decent casting on his next film. Over the years Bert directed Peter Graves, Lon Chaney Jr., Basil Rathbone, Beau Bridges, Ron Howard, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Orson Welles, Chuck Connors, Ida Lupino, Joan Collins, Robert Lansing, Jack Carter, and Robert Forster, all while churning out movies the critics would pan mercilessly and without exception. And yet, so many fading stars/up-and-comers were willing to appear in his movies knowing full well what would happen if they were reviewed. So why would they do that? Why would anybody concerned with their future acting career appear in a flick they knew was going to be stomped on (if it was acknowledged at all) by the critics? One word: exposure - and fairly significant exposure at that, because despite the fact that the serious film critics wouldn't piss on Bert's movies if they were on fire (though they would very likely pour gas on them), the public loved a good rampaging monster, and Bert's flicks did well at the drive-in. Empire of the Ants may well be Bert's most beloved flick, and while I'm more of a Food of the Gods kinda guy, I think it's one of his most original scripts. The last 15 minutes is nothing short of insane, brilliant, and yes, a little bit hilarious when you examine the logistics, but the fact of the matter is: you'll never see it coming despite the early foreshadowing. Bert seems to like attributing his stories to H.G. Wells, but with the exception of large, fightin' mad monsters, the movies never bear much resemblance to Wells' work, and Empire owes its story far more to Ted Sherdeman of Them! fame than it does to Wells. The long and short of it is that, when Bert's gone, we're going to miss him, because frugality not withstanding - his flicks are fun, and at the end of the day the only thing that really matters when the credits roll is whether or not you had a good time.
Anyhow, now that we've got sap drippin' down the walls, it's time to put Bert's giant ants under the magnifying glass and see how big a fire we can ignite. The plot is standard 1950s Science Fiction fare, and the fact that it was 1977 never really deterred Bert much when it came to his movie plots. Generally speaking, it's the same premise as Them! right up until the last 15 minutes or so when the twist ending comes into play and people start throwing things at the screen. I think it's brilliant, but as a practical matter, if you'd somehow managed to take the movie seriously up to that point it'd probably ruin it for you. The acting is pretty good all around, anchored by strong performances from the Queen of Mean herself, Joan Collins, and Robert Lansing as the bitter, resentful ship's captain who'd clearly rather be catchin' crabs out in the harbor than haulin' Joan's bitchy backside up and down the coast. The casting director drew pretty heavily from the pool of available television actors for the supporting roles, yielding professional and entertaining performances from Robert Pine as the skeevy Larry, Abert Salmi as the sheriff with a secret, and Jacqueline Scott as the tough, middle-aged broad tryin' to get in Lansing's pants, but the end result is a cast almost completely comprised of competent, well rounded character actors.
Here's who matters and why (with the exception of Joan Collins whom you might've heard of): Robert Lansing (The Nest 1988, Island Claws, The 4D Man), John David Carson (Creature from Black Lake), Albert Salmi (Dragonslayer, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Superstition, Burned at the Stake), Jacqueline Scott (Macabre 1958), Pamela Susan Shoop (Halloween II 1981), Robert Pine (Helter Skelter 2004, Independence Day, Mysterious Two, Munster Go Home!), Edward Power (The Stuff), Tom Fadden (Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956), Irene Tedrow (The Amazing Spider-Man 1978), Harry Holcombe (Psycho Killer, The Resurrection fo Zachary Wheeler, King Kong vs. Godzilla), Jack Kosslyn (The Spider 1958, The Magic Sword, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, Attack of the Puppet People), Ilse Earl (The New Kids), Marvin Miller (Kiss Daddy Goodbye, Gremlins, Fantastic Planet, Invasion of the Astro Monster, The Phantom Planet, The Day the Earth Froze, The Deadly Mantis, Forbidden Planet, King Dinosaur, Godzilla Raids Again, Red Planet Mars).
Bert really went slummin' on this casting call and ended up landing a whole lotta TV actors, so if you're wondering who managed to step out of his forbidding shadow and make a name for themselves beyond the genre, here they are: Robert Lansing (Paul Blaisdell on Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Control on The Equalizer), John Davis Carson (the voice of Todd on the original Space Ghost), Robert Pine (Sgt. Joseph Getraer on CHiPs), Irene Tedrow (Lacy Elkins on Dennis the Menace), Harry Holcombe (O'Brien in The Fortune Cookie, Judge Fenton in Foxy Brown), Marvin Miller (narrated on the TV series The F.B.I., and played Michael Anthony on The Millionaire).
The special effects are vintage Gordon, which for the uninitiated means a lot of composite shots of actors with ants blown up to half the screen's capacity, regular sized ants crawling on miniatures, and some practical effects manipulated by whoever was available to puppeteer just off screen while the cinematographer jerks the camera around frantically to keep the audience from ever gettin' a good look at the props. In short - they're bad. They're primitive, cheap, and hastily constructed because that was all the budget allowed for in an era of film where you couldn't just throw something together with computers. That said, for every point the movies loses for the technical proficiency of its special effects, it gains one on the fun scale. The shooting locations are well scouted with principal photography taking place in the state of Florida. Not sure how they managed to secure a completely deserted beach, because even in November the temperatures on your average Florida beach is between 70 and 80 degrees, but the cinematography is excellent and makes good use of the idyllic scenery. The surrounding wooded areas are also attractive, particularly during the sequence where the group is rowing inland up a little river that drains into the ocean. Not much screen time is granted for the city scenes, but they were filmed in Belle Glade, Florida about 70 miles from Miami, and they paint a pleasant picture of a small-ish agricultural community. Sugar cane is the town's its primary industry, which no doubt played a big part in its selection as the sugar refinery was needed to complete the film's climax. The soundtrack is a bit uneven, but features some pleasant, low-key piano scoring during the opening credits. Unfortunately, a lot of the music is very in-your-face and tries too hard to enhance the flick's suspense, with much of the scoring overselling itself to the point of silliness. I wouldn't say it's bad, it's just average, and desperately wants you to believe you're seeing a whole lot more than you really are. Overall, Empire of the Ants fails on a technical level, though not as badly as you might think due to its solid acting and shooting locations, and is fairly enjoyable in a Sunday Afternoon Matinee way. Still, it's pretty dated and hokey, so I'd only recommend it to the "big monster" enthusiasts, but if that's your thing, you'll prolly dig it.