Friday, April 15, 2016

Empire of the Ants (1977)

… aka: Angriff der Nuklearmonster (Attack of the Nuclear Monster)
… aka: H.G. Wells' Empire of the Ants
… aka: In der Gewalt der Riesenameisen (Violence of the Giant Ants)
… aka: Killer-Termiten (Killer Termites)

Directed by:
Bert I. Gordon

After THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) became A.I.P.'s highest-grossing film of its year, executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff handed Gordon over some more money and proclaimed “More of the same, please!” And that's pretty much what we get here. Though this claims to be based on the 1905 H.G. Wells short story of the same name, it has almost nothing at all to do with the story. First published in 1905 in The Strand Magazine and later included in the collection The Short Stories of H.G. Wells (published in 1927), the source story takes place somewhere in South America and centers around a captain and an engineer sent to an Amazonian village to investigate reports of an ant plague and running across a new species of (slightly) larger than normal, super-intelligent, highly-evolved killer black ants. For this movie version, Gordon (who also wrote the screen story, produced and did the visual effect) kept the ant theme (though increased both the size and intelligence of them) but that was about it. This is basically a whole new tale and Wells' good name really shouldn't even be attached.

Heading this one up is none other than a slumming Joan Collins, whose career was on life support by 1977 and wouldn't be revived until her lack of warmth and likability could be correctly harnessed on TV's Dynasty in 1981. Going on record as calling this the worst experience she ever had filming a movie, Joan and the rest of the cast and crew endured filming locations swarming with fleas and mosquitoes as well as a director who was unable to get stunt people on location, which forced many of the actors to do their own stunts in bacteria-laden swamp waters. Doing such scenes ended up giving Collins a terrible infection in her legs. In later interviews, Collins stated that “Bert asked us to do things that actors usually don't do. We were hip deep in swamp water!” and concluded that she “... was never so delighted and relieved as when the last day of shooting arrived and it was finally my turn to be asphyxiated by the giant queen ant.” Regardless of all that, Collins' presence in this one is a plus if for no other reason than her bringing a glamorous and bitchy camp element (“I'm not running a charity organization!”) to a film desperately in need of it.

Marilyn Fryser (Collins), the no-nonsense president of “Dreamland Shores,” puts together a boat trip for potential buyers in hopes of wining, dining and attempting to sell off property in a future luxury resort community on a currently non-populated stretch of oceanfront swampland. It boasts a future 18 hole gold course, a future tennis club, a future beach house, a future marina, a future pool and current “fascinating wildlife,” which turns out to be more fascinating than the visitors probably imagined. With help from her assistant / lover Charlie Pearson (Edward Power), she charters a boat from unfriendly Captain Dan Stokely (Robert Lansing) and awaits her potential buyers. Most who show up, including two miserly and incredibly self-pitying elderly couples (“All we wanted was to enjoy what's left of our lives. Is that bad?”), aren't so much interested in buying property as they are a free trip, sight-seeing tour, booze and hors d'oeuvres. Actually just about all of this particular group is a bunch of duds.

Among the tag-a-longs ares are scrunchy-faced Joe Morrison (John David Carson), who's divorced, unemployed and pretty much just there to drink, friendly Margaret Ellis (Jacqueline Scott), a secretary fired from her job of 20 years who's on a limited income and outgoing Coreen Bradford (Pamela Susan Shoop), who's attempting to start a new life for herself after having been the mistress of a married doctor for years. Feeling emasculated because his father-in-law is a better provider for them than he is, scumbag Larry Graham (Robert Pine) enjoys being an ass and hitting on other women right in front of his clueless, simpering doormat of a wife Christine's (Brooke Palance, daughter of Jack) face. Actually he also seems to have no issue attempting to rape a woman about 20 feet away from not only his wife but the rest of the tour group.

As you've probably already guessed, giant ants end up spoiling everyone's picnic. Earlier, a ship's crew dumped a bunch of barrels of radioactive toxic waste into the ocean. Some of the barrels washed ashore, leaked some silver goo and the local ant population gobbled it all up, grew to enormous size and became MENSA eligible in the process. After they pick off the slower (i.e. all the old people) and dumber (i.e. the moron wife) among the group, the six survivors find a boat and decide to row two miles down river to the nearest town. Their trip is interrupted only by a few ant ambushes which leave Larry (who previously stood around and watched his wife get eaten) dead. Everyone else makes it to shore and find there way back to civilization only to realize many of the townsfolk acting somewhat strange. They soon discover some wacky slave “indoctrination” going down at the local sugar refinery.

Empire is dumb as hell, cheesy as hell and talky as hell... and yet it's slightly more enjoyable than Gordon's previous effort. While Food went pretty much right down the line as far as nature-runs-amok  / animal attack movies go and came off as bland and not even good for laughs in the process, this one at least boasts a little creativity in the final third. Of course the last 25 minutes or so are completely absurd but there's still no way you'll see it coming. This is also campier and funnier, even if all of that is completely unintentional. A few moments, like Collins' stud-for-hire trying to cheer a traumatized adult woman up by giving her a Babe Ruth bar like she's some 5-year-old, even made me laugh out loud. The attack scenes all feature shaky camera to distract from the immobility of the creatures and many also feature ant POV shots. The mock giant ants (which really don't look that bad) are combined with Gordon's usual rear project / superimposition effects of real ants, which are mostly awful but slightly better than what we saw in Food since a few border on being at least passable. Most of the characters in this one are also a bit more defined (and in a few cases, likable) than the ones in Food. I'm still going to rate the two films the same because they're both bad but not terrible. This just happens to bleep the SBIG radar more often.

None of the above really changes the fact that watching, or even re-watching, Them! (1954) or PHASE IV (1974) to get your killer ant kicks is time better spent, but sometimes we gotta take what we can get, right?

The cast also includes Albert Salmi, who manages to flub more lines than the entire rest of the cast combined in his short screen time, Jack Kosslyn (in his sixth film for the director) and Emmy-nominated TV actress Irene Tedrow. The Dana Kaproff score sounds an awful lot like John Williams' famous Jaws theme. This has received numerous VHS and DVD releases over the years and made its Blu-ray debut in 2015 courtesy of Scream Factory. It's rated PG.

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