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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Empire of the Ants

The old-school style of sci-fi movie did not simply vanish after Star Wars rewrote the paradigm. Indeed, Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International already had a few old-paradigm projects in production when the New Age began. Empire of the Ants (EoA) follows quickly on the heels of another Arkoff production based on an H.G.Wells story, Island of Dr. Moreau. Unlike Island, EoA is a much looser adaptation, but clearly trying to cash in on Wells’ name recognition. Bert I. Gordon provides his usual “magic” as special effects expert and director. Joan Collins stars as Marilyn, the shrew-ish and shifty real estate developer. Robert Lansing stars as the heroic and taciturn boat captain. The rest of the cast are lesser lights and television actors. Of note, though, Christine is played by Jack Palance’s daughter, Brooke.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Under the credits, we are shown a boat dumping 55 gallon drums of nuclear waste. We know this because it says so on the drums in big red letter. One drum washes ashore and starts leaking. Ants swarm over the silvery ooze. Meanwhile, Marilyn welcomes aboard captain Dan’s boat, a group of would-be buyers for parcels in her Dreamland Shores development in a remote area of Florida and right where the ants are eating the ooze. The group of prospects is the usual social sampling for group-survives-ordeal stories. There is a retired couple, a middle aged couple, a younger couple. There is a middle-aged single woman, a curvaceous blonde and a liesure-suit single guy. Much of the early part of the movie is devoted to character development and drama. Christine and Larry, the younger couple have a weak marriage because he’s a total jerk. Larry tries to maul Coreen, the blonde, but gets kneed for it. The middle-aged single woman has a sad back story and takes a shine to single captain Dan. Liesure suit Joe has a sad back story too, and Coreen takes a shine to him. While touring the parcels, the middle aged couple discover that the development is a scam. They are, however, attacked and killed by giant ants. The ants then attack the rest of the group, who flee. A thunderstorm douses their protective camp fire, so they must flee again. The retired couple hide in a shed and get eaten later. Christine trips but Larry is too big of a wuss to save her. She is killed. The rest make it to a row boat and row up the river. Eventually, the ants jump on them, killing Larry. The rest are herded by the ants towards a small town with a sugar factory. The people in the town act strange and thwart the group’s efforts to leave. It turns out that the queen ant has set up shop in the factory and gasses the residents to bend their wills to hers. Thus, her army of human slaves feed her ants the sugar. The survivors resist indoctrination. Captain Dan uses road flares to set fire to the queen. In the pandemonium, the survivors escape. Heroic Joe opens the valve on a gasoline tanker truck and drives it all around the factory. He jumps from the moving truck, which crashes and explodes into flame, obligingly. The factory and (presumably) all the ants burn. The survivors escape in an outboard motor boat. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Some may enjoy EoA as one of those so-bad-they’re-good sorts of movies. Much of the fun is nostalgic. EoA is, at it’s heart, a mid-50s big bug movie, dressed up in leisure suits and bellbottoms. If shot in black and white, and the fashions adjusted, EoA would fit right into the 50s. Joan is her usual saucy self. Pamela Shoop (as Coreen) is easy on the eyes. Brooke Palance adds an understated pretty too.

Cultural Connection
Old Bogey Men — The roots of Gordon’s screenplay ring the old alarm bells about nuclear radiation. By the mid-70s, audiences had grown accustomed (weary) to pronouncements of ecological doom. The old bogey man of the dangers of nuclear radiation must have seemed almost quaint to audiences in 1977. As per the old magic, the radioactive waste manages to make the ants grow huge — which radiation was imagined to have the power to do — and it also made them more intelligent.

Based on the Book — Actually, a short story. H.G.Wells wrote “Empire of the Ants” in 1905 as a multi-chapter short story. James Turley and Bert I. Gordon’s screen adaptation is very loose, but does draw some elements from Wells’ original. In Wells’ story, a Brazillian gunboat is sent up the Amazon to investigate stories of ant infestations. He thinks he’s just being dissed by his superiors, but hears rumors and encounters a derelict boat with dead men aboard. The boarding party are killed by largish (a couple inches) ants which behave oddly organized. The captain burns the derelict. The gunboat comes to a deserted town near a sugar factory. Seeing more ant activity and no human survivors, the captain leaves. The narrator thinks it’s just a matter of years before the ants’ empire reaches civilization and there’s nothing anyone can do. Knowing the original story, various scenes seem less like non sequiturs. The burning boat. The trip up the river, the ant-controlled town. The sugar factory. Wells, however, did not have nuclear waste as his bogey man.

Ant Fest & Body Snatchers — Turley and Gordon’s story is a hybrid of Them! (’54) which has raditation-enlarged ants, and Phase IV which had intelligent ants (though not large) that work at controlling humans. Throw in a dose of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the mind-controlled townsfolk just for fun.

Bad Bugs -- Director Gordon tried to disguise the modest nature of his "giant" ant puppets by (a) not showing them very much and (b) making sure the camera is wiggling crazily whenever there is an ant attack close up. The technique is a bit overdone, almost to the point of inducing motion sickness in sensitive souls. But, what's a director to do with a low budget?

Touch of Noir — There is a hint of film noir in Turley’s characters. None are “clean”. Marilyn is a catty scam artist. Her helper, Charlie is her resentful “kept man”. Dan is a grumpy misanthrope. Coreen was a gold digger who got dumped. Joe was an out-of work divorcee. Thomas trusted no one. Mary was a nag. Larry was a loser AND a jerk. His wife Christine was milk toast and burdened with daddy's money. The old couple just mooch on tours like that one, for the free vacation angle. Margaret was the lonely, bitter spinster. Unlike classic noir, the misfit toys find future mates and leave the island. Dan and Margaret warm to each other. Coreen gets feelings for Joe. Presumably, things get better for the two couples.

Bottom line? EoA is clearly an old-school low-B grade film. After the high polish of Star Wars, EoA looks especially dowdy and cheap. The acting can be amusing for it’s weakness — such as victim #2, Mary, standing still and screaming a LOT, while the ants slowly crawl up to her. EoA is low quality entertainment, but not entirely a waste. It would make a fun tripe-feature Ant Fest with Them! and Phase IV.

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