Empire of the Ants
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A heavenly paradise becomes a nightmare when a toxic spill turns harmless ants into rampaging, radioactive reprobates. Stumbling into their lair, a sleazy land developer (Joan Collins) and her clients are horrified to find that the ants are having a picnic and humans are on the menu.
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It's swampland that Fryser has gussied up to look inviting. She's put up signs indicating where the golf course would go, the tennis and beach clubs, the pool area... Today, she's pitching a group of potential buyers, taking them on a fun-filled jaunt and tour of Dreamland Shores. In on the scam with her are the boat helmsman, Joe (John David Carson), and her assistant, Larry Graham (Robert Pine), who is apparently good in the sack. The makeup of their guests runs the gamut of old retirees and freeloaders and skeptics and a married Lothario who doesn't take no for an answer. "Most people are dishonest," grumbles one old man, and see him validated when he espies the unconnected water pipes, them pipes there just for show.
He also finds giant mutated ants. Or is that vice versa?
Empire of the Ants is based on a story by H.G. Wells, so, for sci-fi old-heads, this is already a curio piece. It's also got, the queen of mean, Joan Collins, in a significant role. She's the reason I tuned in to TCM when it broadast this 1977 schlocker not too long ago. And, yeah, Joan lives up to her rep as an onscreen bitch. I'm not one to normally side with man-eating ants, but maybe I gave a little fist pump when, at one point, a shocked Joan Collins blurts out: "Oh, my God! They're herding us like cattle!"
The opening of the movie feels like a documentary on National Geographics as there's grave voiceover narration that informs us of how sophisticated ants really are. Ants are broken up into various categories: the herders, the warriors, the queen ant. They have a sophisticated communication system. They secrete pheromones that can lull you into compliance. Tiny creatures that, were they given the advantage of equal size and dimension to humans, have the capability to eradicate us. As this movie demonstrates.
I don't know how well this movie was received when it was first released. Today, it's not as good. The acting is okay; some of the actors make themselves appealing enough that you root for them (not Joan Collins, though). But much of the movie is a slog, even the chase scenes. It's horribly dated. The f/x is super-cheesy, with superimposed work that was never more obvious than the scene in which behemoth ants skitter on the pier and clamber on the tour boat. The "ant-cam" is the one f/x element that I found mildly interesting.
The plot isn't confined to Dreamland Shores, thankfully. The panicked survivors do find themselves off that undeveloped property - no takers, sorry, Joan Collins - and end up in a weird tiny town inhabited by citizens who seem quite blasé about the extinction-lvel menace looming just a few miles yonder. And I had to smile because, yeah, it's only proper that the third act takes place in a sugar refinery. Pluses: it's got Joan Collins at her bitchy best and the "it's so bad it's good" factor. It's perfect fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. Ultimately, Empire of the Ants fails on several fronts, and I can't recommend it other than as a curiosity piece. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
The film opens with a narrator somberly intoning "This is the ant. Treat it with respect..." over closeups of an anthill. The narrator goes on to explain that ants are incredibly smart and that "some herd aphids, just as man herds cattle". The film then shifts to the credits and radioactive waste drums being dumped into the ocean in a scene extremely reminiscent of "The Horror of Party Beach". Of course a drum of waste immediately washes ashore and springs a leak, which ants flock to. By a stroke of luck, Joan Collins is an uppity real estate agent trying to sell lots of radioactive swampland in a development called "Dreamland Shores". If ever there was a role Joan was born to play, it was this one. Joan has chartered a boat skippered by Dan Stokely (Robert Lansing) who turns in by far the most competent performance in the movie. There is a cast straight out of any mid 70's disaster movie, and upon alighting at the island unfettered lust and emotion immediately breaks out in multiple unsavory subplots.
With the menacing theme music (which sounds very similar to a John Williams score that you may be quite familiar with) swelling portentously, the ants start to divide and conquer, ruining several ridiculous romances and making this into more of a soap opera starring Joan Collins and giant ants than an actual horror movie. The Lawsons (Jack Kosslyn and Ilse Earl), an unlikable couple, are the first to depart this mortal realm when they venture into the woods to inspect the fire hydrants on their own (honest). The rest of the tour group continues on their inspection of the property without even noticing they are gone. When their absence is noticed two other passengers go looking for them, finding something they really didn't want to in the process, and making everyone wonder if you are venturing into a swamp for commercial purposes, wouldn't you at least take the precaution of packing a radio? There's an advanced tram system after all, but no communication facilities of any sort.
After the insect mayhem commences in earnest, they have to decide whether to go on foot, stand their ground, or hike two miles to a boat and freedom (I should point out that the ants attacked the boat they arrived on; it burned and sank). The dialogue in the film is unbelievably inane, but my favorite line comes when the group is deciding what to do at this juncture and one woman shrieks "We're all too scared to vote!" Really? That's a new one. They decide to make a run for the boat, and despite lots of ludicrous excitement-inducing plot devices (Collin's sweater is snagged on a small twig. How will she ever get free?!) the majority of the group gets into a rowboat, and after the patently absurd and entirely predictable death scene of the old freeloading couple, Harry and Velma Thompson (Harry Holcombe and Irene Tedrow), they start to paddle down the stream. It doesn't take long to pick out the next to die, as the histrionics that emerge from Larry Graham (Robert Pine) are so over-the-top ("It's unfair this should happen to me!") It turns out the ants actually are smarter than the cast members, because they capsize the boat and start chasing the five remaining survivors in a single direction ("They're herding us like cattle!") Just in the nick of time, they encounter a homestead owned by a crazy old couple who solemnly intone "Whatever you do, don't let them take you to the sugar refinery", implying they know about the giant ant menace.
Suddenly in a jarring bit of direction, the survivors are in a police car, being taken to the station, lodging, and the sugar refinery (of course). After a subplot about the difficulties of renting a car, the survivors steal a car, and are quickly intercepted by police officers who take them to the refinery. This is no ordinary refinery. When a whistle blows giant ants swarm to get sugar, and the entire place is operated by zombies. Well, they aren't actually undead type zombies, but they are incapable of independent thought, and the sheriff and mayor are in on the ghastly mind-control plot in which the queen ant controls all the people to do her will by releasing pheromones in a big spray of stink at them in a phone booth. This is called indoctrination, and everyone needs a booster once a week. Naturally our survivors head straight for the front of the line. Joan Collins gets sprayed, and becomes an instant convert to the wisdom of the great ant. Next up is Captain Lansing, who lights the queen on fire with a road flare, while fellow hero-in-waiting Joe Morrison (John David Carson) escapes, steals a gasoline tanker truck and lights the whole place ablaze resulting in fiery chaos and a ludicrous burning ant puppet. In the end the sheriff joins the anti-ant forces and the four principals escape in another stolen boat, while the music swells.
"Empire of the Ants" is definitely one of Bert I. Gordon's most ridiculous projects, but it does have quirky moments of pure campy entertainment that make it worthwhile for any aficionado of cinematic cheese. The script is terrible, even for a movie of this sort, the acting is atrocious, the special effects look positively ludicrous, and Joan Collins playing it deadly seriously sends it over the top. If you want a scary horror film, do not even think about it; if you want to laugh at a spectacular Hollywood embarrassment, this is the film for you.