Friday, May 22, 2015

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977) Blu-ray Review

Empire of the Ants (1977) d. Bert I. Gordon (USA)

A random batch of civilians charters a short boat trip to investigate and potentially invest in time-shares for Dreamland Estates, a soon-to-be-opening beachside resort. Meanwhile, just up the shore, a discarded but clearly labeled barrel of RADIOACTIVE WASTE (heedlessly cast overboard during the opening credits) has washed up and been picnicked upon by the titular insects, causing them to balloon to enormous size. Seizing their moment, the giant bugs lay waste to their former antagonists as payback for all the stomping and magnifying stunts throughout the ages....

Hot off the financial success of the previous year’s The Food of the Gods, AIP’s Samuel Z. Arkoff recruited filmmaker Gordon to once again work his gigantism exploitation magic with another H.G. Wells “adaptation.” But, warning to high school students everywhere: should the original Wells story show up on the syllabus, don’t think you’ll be able to fake your way through that pop quiz by watching the movie. This giant brick of mozzarella is so far removed from its source material that only the title and the animal species remain intact. Rather than “Mr. B.I.G.” tackling the task himself, as he did with Food, television writer Jack Turley was recruited to spin out the details of Gordon’s screen story, which basically amounted to “Ants get big, attack people, try to take over world.” (The ants get smart, but not big, in the Wells story.)

The film’s real coup lies in its casting of Joan Collins as cold-blooded real estate tycoon Marilyn Fryser, pitching worthless Florida swampland to the suckers with a bitchy smile whilst chastising her charter’s taciturn captain Dan (Robert Lansing) and her lover/assistant Charlie (Edward Power) in the same breath. Collins seems wildly inappropriate for such schlock, which gives the fanciful premise a surprising amount of juice; the awkwardness of seeing Dynasty’s future Alexis Carrington Colby splashing around in mucky waters and river scum is more tense and discomforting than any shoddy optically printed effects. Even if her American accent comes and goes, we forgive, because she’s just too much fun to watch.

Ah, yes, let us discuss the effects, which range from fake to obscenely fake. The blown-up shots of insect menace – shot in an Panama hotel room against a blue-screen and then crudely matted onto the live-action scenes with the human actors – are painfully obvious, although it's on the rare occasions where a single bug crawls toward its "prey" that the real magic takes place. Enter the silver-eyed ant puppets, which mercilessly, hilariously attack the victim in question. These antennaed props are so ridiculous that DP Reginald Morris (back again) and Gordon elect to wildly swing the camera around with abandon such that we never get a good look. (Strangely enough, there is no screen credit given to the creator, although IMDb lists Dave Ayres as “creature lab - uncredited”).

The ear-shattering ant screeching and omnipresent insectal purr – courtesy of Angel Editorial – provides some compensatory measure of frisson, as does the multi-lensed “Ant-Vision,” lifted wholesale from Kurt Neumann’s 1958 The Fly. The evocative electronic score is by Dana Kaproff, who delivered the excellent tones for When a Stranger Calls two years later (as well as arguably inspiring the THX-logo theme in the process) before immersing himself in a lucrative career within the network television grind. But veteran editor (and Robert Aldrich’s go-to cutter) Michael Luciano doesn’t fare as well in trying to match the shoddy optical effects to the shoddier physical effects. There are a lot of times where there are clearly no ants nearby and then suddenly there are dozens of them RIGHT THERE next to the actors. One can only imagine the heavy drinking that took place behind the Moviola in the spring of ’77.

Outside of Collins and taciturn character man Lansing (The 4D Man, The Nest), this is not as star-studded an affair as Gordon’s previous effort, with Jack Palance’s daughter Brooke playing the unhappily married wife of Robert Pine (father of future Star Trek captain, Chris Pine). Fourth-billed Albert Salmi shows up for a glorified cameo in the third act as a duplicitous lawman, and everyone’s favorite hot time hot tub poster girl from Halloween II (1981), Pamela Susan Shoop, handily wins both the wet T-shirt and “Best Screamer” awards.

I’ve already duly expressed my disappointment in the audio commentary for Shout! Factory’s recent Blu-ray presentation of Food of the Gods, so it should come as no surprise that the track here, once again featuring the oil-and-water comedy team of Gordon and Kevin Sean Michaels, will be winning no end-of-year awards either. After listening to both attempts, it’s clear that these two personalities do not work well together, and that the blame lies equally with both participants. Gordon keeps giving one-word responses (although he does at least liven up to reveal how he charmed Orson Welles for 1972’s Necromancy) and Michaels keeps making stupid, obvious comments regarding the onscreen action and Collins, then laughing at them himself.

The director’s no-nonsense attitude seems wildly at odds with the fantastic scenarios he is famous for, and where the table is set for colorful anecdotes aplenty, he simply shrugs off opportunity after opportunity. Truth be told, it’s just as likely the 93-year-old veteran simply can’t remember anything - of interest or otherwise; obviously hard of hearing and tired, one can’t help but sense that he wishes the whole thing was over just as badly as we do.

I’ll give Michaels credit for trying harder this time (I’m assuming both commentaries were recorded the same day) with his reluctant subject. He asks a lot of the right questions (and a lot of the wrong ones as well), but his booth partner just isn’t giving him anything to work with. He does persist and wheedles out a few answers, even if the responses are occasionally dubious in content. (For example, Gordon states that he shot the opening scene in northern California, even though the film is obviously set and shot in Florida. Is this true? Who knows? Michaels never bothers to find out.) Even so, the constant “joke” about whether Collins’ character can "still close the real estate deal" is just as unfunny the 10th time as it is the first. Likewise, his tactic of asking, “So, what’s going on here in this scene?” is lame, considering we already know that Gordon is not going to roll out some great story. Michaels would have been better off just taking the lead and telling us the stories himself (or giving us info about the actors, or the crew, or anything....)

Case in point: Gordon teases us early on with the famous anecdote of how Collins was unwilling to get out of the boat and into the alligator-infested waters for a river scene, and then says he’ll tell us the full tale once we get to the scene in question. Now, I’ve read the B.I.G. man’s autobiography, as well as his recent Rue Morgue interview with Preston Fassel (RM #153), so I know how the story goes. (After Collins adamantly refused to get in the water, Bert surreptitiously told the cameraman to roll, then dumped the boat so that the reluctant actress toppled into the water. Pro that she was, she stayed in character, swam to shore, and waited for Gordon to yell “Cut” before letting him have it loud and long.) Michaels, unfortunately, does not. So, when Gordon neglects to finish the story at the moment of truth, Michaels has no way of helping, and his clumsy attempts to get the director to recount it later go unrequited.

Oddly enough, there is a strange, almost imperceptible break in the commentary just after the hour mark, just after Michaels asks “So, what about Joan and the alligators?” for the umpteenth time. The track resumes and they are suddenly talking, much more animatedly, about Gordon’s new book on filmmaking. I have to wonder if someone in the studio didn’t call a time out, walk in, and slap ’em both around a little, because things definitely pick up and Gordon seems much more awake and lively... for a while at least.

It’s another missed opportunity, and it makes me sad for future generations looking to find out a little something more about the flick. And, unlike S!F's Food of the Gods release, there is no redeeming interview with one of the stars. (Was Pamela Susan Shoop busy or something??) While the movie remains as cheesily entertaining as always, the supplements leave a bad taste in the mouth, like the silver paint foisted upon the unsuspecting ants in the opening scenes.

Empire of the Ants is available on Blu-ray May 26 – paired with the joyoussssssssly zany snake attack flick Jaws of Satan – from Shout! Factory and can be pre-ordered HERE:

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


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