Empire of the Ants (1977) **½
Bert I. Gordon is very much a “Whatever happened to that guy?” sort of filmmaker. Most people remember him primarily for his hilariously cheap and stupid 1950’s monster movies— The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People, Earth vs. the Spider, The Beginning of the End, etc.— but he didn’t stop making movies after 1958. When the monster-rampage genre dried up, Gordon fell silent for a couple of years, then entered an extended period of creative flailing about, trying his hand at a succession of new things that never quite managed to bring him back into whatever limelight he might ever have claimed. He made a kiddie pirate movie, a pair of interesting but seriously flawed thrillers in approximately the William Castle style, a handful of little-seen witchcraft movies, and even some silly softcore skin-flicks. One suspects his heart was never really in any of those projects, though, for whenever the opportunity presented itself, Gordon went rushing back to the big-ass monsters. In the 60’s, he first climbed aboard the fantasy bestiary bandwagon with The Magic Sword, then made what might almost be seen as a creature-embiggening variation on the AIP beach-party formula with Village of the Giants. Gordon got yet a third chance to do what he apparently loved best in the late 1970’s, for the environmentalists who were just beginning to make their voices heard in that decade introduced a new term to the American lexicon— toxic waste— and suddenly, movies about radiation-spawned monsters became popular again. The difference was that, whereas the atomic monsters of the 50’s were usually created as a side effect of nuclear weapons testing, those of the 70’s would mostly be the products of carelessly handled waste from nuclear power plants.
Which brings us to Empire of the Ants. Theoretically, this is an H. G. Wells adaptation, like Gordon’s slightly earlier Food of the Gods. I, for one, don’t buy it. Granted, I’ve never been an avid reader of Wells’s work, but I sure as hell don’t remember him writing a story about giant, radioactive ants menacing dishonest real estate developers and their hapless clients while enslaving the population of a small Florida swamp town! So let’s think of this instead as the belated outgrowth of Gordon’s almost certain irritation that somebody else thought of Them! before he did.
The shyster real estate developers are Marilyn Fryer (Joan Collins, from The Devil Within Her and Tales from the Crypt, who probably wishes people like me would join the rest of the world in forgetting about this phase of her acting career) and her husband/boyfriend/fuck-buddy Charlie Pearson (The Stuff’s Edward Power). They have acquired a large tract of the proverbial Florida swamp land, which they intend to transform into Dreamland Shores. You can tell Fryer and Pearson are crooked because their sales contract stipulates that the buyer of a lot in Dreamland Shores is not permitted to resell the property for two full years— long enough for the developers to pull up the stakes and split before their victims discover just how badly they’ve been screwed. Fryer and Pearson have hired boat pilot Dan Stokely (Robert Lansing, from 4D Man and The Nest) to ferry a clutch of those victims over to the island where Dreamland Shores is being built, so that the suckers can take a tour of the land they’re thinking of buying.
What nobody realizes is that somebody— the script never bothers to identify them— has been dumping drums of radioactive waste in the water just off what will become Dreamland Shores. One of those drums has washed up on the beach, and has been discovered by the local ant population. That can’t be good. And this is apparently some pretty fast-acting toxic sludge, too, because surely no more than a couple of weeks can have elapsed between the arrival of the drum on the beach, and the moment when the first two of Fryer and Pearson’s prospective buyers— Mary and Thomas Lawson (Ilse Earl and Jack Kosslyn, the latter of whom appeared in several Gordon films in the 50’s)— are waylaid and eaten by man-sized ants. Everybody heads back toward the boat pretty quickly after that, but the ants have gotten there first, and Stokely accidentally sets the boat on fire while trying to drive the creatures off with magnesium road flares. Stokely barely has time to get away before the boat’s gas tanks explode. Now that’s a pretty good way to cause a panic, and sure enough, the rest of the party flips out and starts fleeing like mad into the marshy woodlands around Dreamland Shores.
What a good idea that was. Those woodlands happen to be where most of the ants live, and our cast is whittled down to more manageable proportions quite swiftly. Christine Graham (The Killing Hour’s Brooke Palance), Harry and Velma Thompson (Harry Holcombe and Irene Tedrow), and Charlie Pearson himself all fall in rapid succession before the surviving characters are able to find a rowboat to carry them down the river (ants can’t swim), and Christine’s cowardly husband, Larry (Robert Pine, from “CHiPs,” who later showed up in Independence Day), dies not much later, after his insistence on taking the left fork in the river leads straight into a deadfall and a pack of giant ants. That leaves Fryer, Stokely, and three people who will now surely not be buying land in Dreamland Shores: Joe Morrison (Creature from Black Lake’s John David Carson), Coreen Bradford (Pamela Susan Shoop, of Halloween II), and Margaret Ellis (Jacqueline Scott, from Macabre and Duel). (And yes, most of these folks have somehow found the time to pair off into couples while fleeing from the ants; Joe has hooked up with Coreen, Margaret with Stokely.)
Anyway, the remaining fivesome back up and take the other fork in the river, which they ultimately find blocked by its own deadfall and its own pack of giant ants. The strange thing about all this is that the ants seem content to swamp the boat and force the humans back onto the land; it almost seems like they want their prey alive for some reason. They do. The ants coordinate their attacks so as to herd Fryer, Stokely, Joe, Coreen, and Margaret back upstream. Eventually, the fleeing humans encounter an old farm couple, who offer to call Sheriff Art Kincade (Albert Salmi, of Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Dragonslayer) to pick them up. This seems mighty funny, considering how close the ants are on the Fryer party’s heels, and the almost zombie-like demeanor of the old man isn’t exactly encouraging. But Kincade does in fact come, and he does in fact drive them into town, set them up in the motel owned by the mayor, and agree to take a posse back into the swamp to hunt ants.
Except that Kincade is lying. While Joe and Stokely are out on the town trying to rent a car (having dealt with rental car companies myself, I can’t say I find the runaround they get at all suspicious), they happen to see Kincade strolling down the street, talking to one of his deputies. Then there’s the small matter of the phones. The operator claims that all the lines out of town are down as a result of the big thunderstorm the night before when Joe tries to call one of his friends in the state capital on a pay phone, but we’ve already seen the mayor (who also owns the sugar refinery that is the economic cornerstone of his town) frantically negotiating with a trucking company over the phone in his office. Wait a minute... sugar refinery? Okay. I get it. And sure enough, it is soon revealed that the queen of the giant ants (actually just another worker, but you’d have to be a really enormous dork to... wait— nevermind) has set herself up at the sugar refinery, where she forces the townspeople to work for her, zombifying them with her powerful pheromones. Kincade soon rounds up the newcomers and takes them to the queen for a pheromone treatment, but he hasn’t figured on Stokely’s resourcefulness. The boat pilot still has a few of those flares he’s been using to drive off ants all movie long, and when he gets locked into the pheromone booth with the queen, he lights one up and goes after her. The townspeople who are waiting in line for their weekly dose of pheromones are able to muster enough independent willpower to panic, and Kincade’s police are overwhelmed in the confusion. Meanwhile, Joe has snuck away and stolen a gasoline tanker, with which he hoses down the entire refinery, before driving it into one of the buildings to touch off an explosion. Joe leaps from the cab at the last possible moment, and joins Coreen, Stokely, and Margaret (Marilyn had already received her pheromone treatment before Stokely attacked the queen) in fleeing to the riverside, where they steal another boat and ride off into the closing credits— down a stream whose resemblance to a question mark is surely not coincidental.
More than anything else, Empire of the Ants points to the dangers inherent in using Gordon’s favorite special effects techniques. Insects don’t take direction very well, and the movie is marred by the consistent failure of the ants to behave as though they were following any real purpose. Considering how much time this film spends on people running away from ants, it would be useful if the ants ever appeared to be chasing those people. With the ants just sort of crawling around slowly and aimlessly (sometimes even wandering off into the sky...), Empire of the Ants is never able to develop a sense of urgency, which is something it desperately needs. And don’t even get me started on the full-scale ant puppets that appear every time the actors need to interact directly with their foes.
On the other hand, I like the way Empire of the Ants plays like a hybrid of Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I wasn’t expecting the ants to have chemically enslaved a town full of humans, and if you’re familiar with some of the more exotic ant species, this plot twist becomes even more satisfying for its basis in real-world science. There really are species of ants that use organisms of other species as livestock or slave labor. The aphid-herding Formica polyctena is fairly well known, but less famous and more relevant to the premise of Empire of the Ants are several species from the genus Harpagoxenus, which support themselves by capturing ants of other species, and forcing them to do the work that would normally be performed by the colony’s own worker caste. Did Bert I. Gordon know about Harpagoxenus? Perhaps not. But I do, and I kind of think that knowledge has a bit to do with why I appreciate this movie more now than I did when I first saw it in my early teen years. It makes the movie seem smarter than it probably is, and gives me something to think about beyond how wretched most of the acting and dialogue is, or how much better Gordon’s signature effects work looks in black and white.