Empire of the Ants

Character development as time-killer
Bert I. Gordon
Joan Collins, Robert Lansing, John David Carson, Pamela Susan Shoop, Jacqueline Scott
The Setup: 
Radioactive waste turns ants huge. They attack people on a real estate tour.

When it came to my attention that this movie was about giant killer ants, it went immediately to the top of my list. I think previously I thought it was about regular-sized ants. As any regular reader of this site knows, any movie that features giant mutated killer animals will be immediately considered by Cinema de Merde. This one is directed by Bert I. Gordon, who delivered the classics The Amazing Colossal Man and Earth vs the Spider, as well as his movie just before this one, Food of the Gods, also a loose adaptation of an H.G. Wells story. In fact, I knew this movie was by the same director as Food of the Gods not from reading it anywhere, but simply the similarities in look, story, structure and tone. This one is, however, marginally better.

We open with a short informational film that delivers reams of exposition about ants in general, while showing us leaf-cutter ants—those are the ones that carry bits of leaf around over their heads—which are undeniably cool, yet have nothing to do with the ants we’re about to see. While this is going on we have a verging-on-hilarious voice-over giving us ant facts and prodding us all to consider the deadly efficiency of ant societies. It shows us ants that enslave aphids, and tells us that ants must obey the chemical signals of pheromones, “a mind-bending substance that forces obedience.” Um, I’m not sure that is entirely true, but just go with it—and please keep all this in mind, as it will obviously come into play later in the film. By the way, if you’re ever interested in finding out about real ants and their societies, there is a wonderful science-lite book called Journey to the Ants by Edward O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler that is FUCKING FASCINATING. Really one of the most enthralling books I’ve ever read, actually. But wait—JOAN COLLINS?!!?!

That’s right, the star of this film is Ms. Joan Collins, appearing here a good five years before her legendary reign on Dynasty, but with her supercilious bitch persona already locked in place. I wonder how she came to be pigeonholed that way. Anyway, we cut straight from the mini-documentary at the beginning to a ship dumping egregiously-labeled toxic waste barrels. Uh-oh, I can see where this is headed. One of them washes ashore almost instantly, as the credits play and the “score” repeats an ominous piano line over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. We see that the barrel is leaking a silver substance—metallic paint, basically—and that there are ants [still small-sized] nearby. In fact, some of them are obviously just stuck in it and flailing for escape. Given the fact that Gordon actually killed several rats on camera for Food of the Gods, I think it’s a fair assumption that several ants were tortured or died for their moment of cinematic glory here. Buddhists, look away.

This is Dreamland Shores, a swampy, virtually deserted and ludicrously remote area of Florida [I think] that Joan Collins as Marilyn Fryser is trying to sell plots on. She has arranged this boat trip to the place as a “free vacation,” essentially like one of those time-share trips where you have to listen to a presentation in order to get something for free. We are introduced to an ensemble cast that immediately lets us know this movie is going to follow the disaster movie mold where our diverse cast is picked off one by one. You have your cheap young couple doing this instead of paying for a real vacation, your older single woman who’s got a story to tell [and does she ever], your sleazy salesman-type and wife, a hot girl, a hot guy, and Dan, the grizzled and laconic old grouch hired to drive the boat. Also present is Marilyn’s boy toy Charlie, who she superciliously reminds is “always on call” and says she wouldn’t keep on the payroll is he wasn’t such a fabulous lay. This guy is played by someone who looks familiar, which is immediately explained when clicking his name on IMDb brings up pictures of Charlie’s Angels. This entire sequence, from the hairstyles to the types to the clothes to the filmmaking, reminds us why 1977-1979 was the apotheosis of American culture and all that was ever good about human existence.

So they take off on the boat and soon arrive at Dreamland Shores, currently little but a pier over a depressing beach, a dilapidated beach house, and a sign. Oh, and a rather prominent barrel of washed-up toxic waste that no one happens to notice. Marilyn has had a pathetic tent set up with some nibbly bits, and is running around talking up the benefits of the place. In here is a strange scene in which Charlie has a subtly intimidating talk with… I believe it was the Ken-doll like sensitive man-hunk Joe, in which Charlie smilingly but relentlessly wears away at him until Joe admits that he has no money and there’s no chance he might buy a property. Why Charlie does this and what purpose it serves is left to conjecture… and there’s a lot of that in this movie.

Meanwhile, Coreen, clearly the “babe” of the group, is persuaded to go on a walk with Larry, who wants to get some nookie and will not take some gentle protestations—or some unambiguous and forceful ones—for an answer. Coreen is nearly raped, but finally puts a stop to it all with a knee to Larry’s crotch. That’s old hat, Coreen—I say go for the eyes. Coreen then grabs a finger sandwich or two and starts to hit on Joe. It’s just a bizarre love triangle of losers here. Recall that Joe has just been exposed as a lowlife who accepts tours of vacation properties he doesn’t intend to buy, and he is not in the mood to hear whatever Coreen has to say. And, like Larry who just tried to rape her, she remains blind to the unmistakable signals of disinterest Joe is sending, chattering on about herself until he finally has to bark “Hey what is this, group therapy?” to shut her up. But he’s not the only one forced into conversation against his will. Poor Dan, who has removed himself from the group because he’s the hired boat pilot who finds them all insipid, is cornered by redheaded middle-aged woman Margaret, who wants the inside scoop on whether this property is any good. Dan makes clear in no uncertain terms that he does NOT want to talk to Margaret, which causes her to launch into her sob story about how she was let go from her job of X years and really has to make a good investment and was jilted in love… it was enough to motivate me to shout at the screen things such as “No one asked to hear about your personal trauma, lady!”

And by the way, is someone going to get slaughtered by a giant fucking ant here, or am I in the wrong movie? Someone finally does. The salesman-type and his wife walk off to inspect the lots more closely, and he discovers that the water pipes protruding from the ground are not actually connected to any plumping system—the whole place is a fraud. Which is not even to mention the giant mutated ants, which soon appear and tear the guy to ribbons. The ants are usually accomplished by cutting between a fake giant ant head and arm that actually interacts with the actors [in footage so shaky you can’t actually see much of anything], and split-screens between full-sized humans and ants in a miniature [see photo way below of Dan in the boat swinging an oar at an ant]. It looks… well, let’s be nice and say that it looks better than you might think. Only there is clearly a big difference of focus between the two areas of footage… and one other problem. You see, the ants were placed in front of still photographs of the background [and I am prepared to believe that some nefarious means were used to secure them in place], so when one of them climbs UP the surface of the rear photograph, as often happens, it appears to be climbing straight up into thin air. There’s also the issue that the ants are usually just kind of sitting there, not attacking. But whatever—could have been worse. The ant dispatches the husband, and then we get a refracted-lens “ant’s eye” effects as it walks slowly, slowly, ever so slowly up to the guys’s wife, who helpfully just stands perfectly still and screams. Like an idiot.

So it’s not long before the whole group get a load of these giant ants and, you know, scream and shit. The ants promptly head out on the pier and get directly on the boat, where they start bouncing up and down shouting “Ride! Ride!” Actually they don’t. Dan swims out to the boat to preserve it, ending up fighting off the ants with an axe. The axe bursts through the side of the gasoline can, and the next thing Dan reaches for is the flare gun. I’m sure you can see where this is headed. Now, Dan doesn’t seem like an idiot, and I’m sure it has occurred to him that the boat is their only way out of there, but… what can I say, the demands of plot dictate that we all must do stupid things sometimes.

So now they’re all alone in this nasty muddy scrubland, and needless to say, they’re fucked. They begin basically running to get across to where they think this boat might be. Now that the “tour” is over, let’s go back a bit and evaluate it. This was to be a TWO DAY free “vacation” that apparently was to consist entirely of Marilyn yammering incessantly about the future virtues of the place, as not a damn thing has been built. I also don’t see any evidence of anywhere that might house these people overnight, and have no idea what they could POSSIBLY look at for two days. Now, as you’re watching the movie, first you think the site of this future development doesn’t look all that nice maybe just because it’s an overcast day, but soon you start to notice that there is NOTHING but tall shrubs and mud around—it really is NOT a beautiful environment—and as the movie wears on you realize that it is MILES from even the closest 7-11! To the point that it’s kind of ludicrous. But I can’t tell if this is purposeful, like it’s supposed to come off as a total lemon piece of property, or if it’s all the filmmakers could get. Anyway, the flight through the woods is fairly tense, perhaps in spite of itself, and eventually the elderly couple [did I mention that there was an elderly couple? Of course, you might as well just assume…] decide they can’t keep up with the youngsters, and the guy says “Let’s go this way!” heading off in another direction. Oh right, because THAT direction WON’T be physically taxing. I see. They end up in a shack [“We’ll be safe here!”], where they hang out for a while, before hearing a noise outside and deciding that rescuers must have arrived. Seniors In Denial: Today’s Silent Crisis. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how it works out for our elderly delusionalists.

So the others make it to this other boat, which is more rowboat-esque but has a motor, and they head upriver hoping to find civilization. Now Larry has a long, fairly intense monologue of guilt over leaving the woman he came with to be munched by the ants, but as we know, he’s a piece of shit human being. Then Marilyn has her own guilt moment over watching Charlie die, and then she starts laying sass at Dan, saying she’s still his employer and he still has to do her bidding. At a certain point Marilyn says to Dan “You hate me, and it’s just because I’m a woman!” which is when you want Dan, or anyone, to say “No, I hate you because you’re a FUCKING BITCH!” but no one ever says this, here or elsewhere. Anyway, it’s about now that you realize that this film is taking the unusual tack of using character development as time-filler! Rather than have them look for something or make up some arbitrary errand, they fill up all the empty time with character monologues! It’s a welcome approach, I suppose, although one doesn’t really want time filler at all. Then there’s another ant attack, this time with ants falling in the water and killing people there. Around this time you notice that it’s only been about an hour, and the film is 90 minutes, and you start to think “HOW is this thing going to fill up another half hour? With just more and more ant attacks? Oh no, I have laundry to get done…”

Well, SURPRISE! This movie has some unexpected twists in store! But not so unexpected that it’s worth stopping reading for. By now you’ve noticed that sometimes the ants just stand there rather than killing the people—who also stand in place merely screaming like idiots. And the first, most normal response is to chalk this up to simple filmmaking ineptitude, but no, it’s turns out it’s actually SUPPOSED to be this way. They soon figure out that the ants are HERDING them in a certain direction [which then makes the seemingly indiscriminate slaughter that passed earlier rather incomprehensible, but let’s not quibble]. The group soon come to this creepy shack with an old couple behind barbed wire, who take them into town, first thing. Now we’re going INTO TOWN. For someone who thought this whole movie was just going to be in-swamp stalking, this is pretty major. Maybe we’ll have some in-town stalking! Sounds awesome.

Well, guess what’s in town? A SUGAR REFINERY. And if you’ve seen THEM!—which I’m guessing constituted the only research the filmmakers did for this movie—you know that ants LOOOOOOOOVE them some refined sugar! [OK wait—can I divert momentarily to tell you a little unrelated story? Soon after I moved to New York, apparently there was something that was going to cause business stress to Hostess Cakes, leading to the unforgettable FRONT PAGE New York Post headline: TWINKIE SHORTAGE LOOMS]. In here Joe makes a call from a phone booth, which is intercut with the Mayor inside making a call, causing much confusion as it certainly seems like they’re talking to each other. But no, the Mayor [who apparently also runs this sleazy run-down motel?] is insisting that some big shipment of sugar MUST get through! Of course, this has nothing to do with anything. Then Coreen says one of the classic lines with “You know, it’s the craziest thing, but the old woman took me aside and said ‘Whatever you do, don’t let them take you to the sugar refinery!’” Well, what do you know? And there’s a sugar refinery RIGHT THERE. But the woman must be bonkers… Surely the rantings of a crazed lunatic!

Then, bizarrely, there are some things in here that start being kind of—and I use this word loosely—GOOD. For one, the movie has a good rising tension as our survivors start to realize that something is weird about this town, and maybe the police and government are NOT to be trusted. There’s a good suspense moment when Dan and Joe think they hear the ants roaming through the town—but it turns out to be something else. Suspicions mount when they can’t get a rental car and get out of town, and they decide to all steal a car. They are stopped at a roadblock after a relatively spectacular crash into the mud. They are captured and brought back to… the sugar refinery!

Ok, here’s where things take an unexpected turn… They are brought into a place where a bunch of the public is lined up, waiting to see the queen ant, who is in this booth. How they fit her massive white egg-laying packet in that booth isn’t explained, or why she would be doing anything but laying eggs… but I don’t think this film is really based on science, to be honest. They shoot a white mist at the people, who then emerge as total mind-slaves to the ants, wanting to feed and take care of the ants. You recall at the beginning how they said that pheromones act as an order that cannot be disobeyed… I think we’re also supposed to understand that the ants have enslaved humans like aphids. Meanwhile, many of the other ants herd into the refinery, where they climb up the big pile of sugar and eat, apparently.

I think one of the group gets mind-zonked by the queen, then Dan goes in the booth, and lights a flare! The queen ant freaks, and he waves it around for a while, although they don’t really seem to interact. She starts screaming, though, and this alerts the other ants, who start a killin’ and a runnin’. They group escape, and all of them run off except Joe, who’s got an IDEA! There just happens to be a large truck containing gasoline sitting right there, so he commandeers it and lays down a trail of gasoline in a circle around the facility. This takes what seems like a good five minutes, during which I guess the ants just politely hang out inside for a while? When it’s over he lights it, and all the ants burn! I beg you not to devote too much time to trying to make sense of this. The film also does not address the problem inherent in movies like this: So, ALL the ants were in that sugar warehouse? Because it really only looked like five at the most. Which would mean that the problem is not resolved at all by the end. Although I’m not sure the film claimed it was. The group escape in a boat, and Joe is only 30 seconds behind them, despite spending five minutes driving around with the gasoline. I guess he used to be on the track team. Anyway, they escape, and that’s the end.

It was… well, it was awful, but it has its virtues. If you enjoy watching Joan Collins be a bitch, that’s here. As I said, it finds relatively clever and surprising places to go that you might not expect at the beginning—unless you watched the trailer, which largely ignores the first hour and start divulging all the serious secrets of the last 20 minutes! The ant attacks are dreadful but kind of fun, as well as the whole concept of these people on this free real estate tour being shown this total lemon piece of nasty swampland. I don’t know… you could do worse, and if you need a mutant animal attack movie, this one can fit the bill, although there are many other good ones.

I ended up finding the story by H.G. Wells online and reading it [and you can too… it’s only 10 pages long] which was pretty good [I didn’t know Wells was such a good writer, although he does love the $10 words], but has NOTHING to do with this story… it takes place in South America, the ants do not get giant [the biggest is only 5cm long], but they suddenly get smart and deadly, and creepily move in straight lines [instead of helter skelter] and appear to sit watching the humans. It’s more a sketch than a real, finished story, but if you want to read something short and amusing, go for it. As for the movie, totally your choice. You won’t miss a thing.

Should you watch it: 

Up to you. Depends how bad you need a mutant animal attack movie.

THEM! Is the classic 50s giant ant movie, and is still surprisingly potent. You’ll also see how Aliens ripped it off big-time.
PHASE IV: Is an obscure 70s sci-fi film about ants that suddenly become intelligent and start attacking humans, and it has many evocative scenes.