Empire Of The Ants (1977), ah, yes, this one takes me back to 1st or 2nd grade, which ever one you’re in at eight years old. I vaguely recall seeing the trailer on TV and being half excited, half scared by it, and mostly disappointed it was a theatrical movie and not some TV flick. The more concrete memory of it happens in school, though, when it’s airing on HBO. I remembering feeling left out because so many of the guys had HBO and I didn’t. Resident dick, Bill Morocco, (we started out as friends on his first day, then during lunch I realized he was basically going to be a dick) turned to me and asked if I had seen it. I lied and said, ‘yes,’ but he knew I was lying so he tried something I’m sure his cop father was used to trying on many of his perps. He lied to me and said, ‘remember that scene where the Queen was running through the field?’ I said, ‘yeah, I do,’ and then he said, ‘You never saw it.’ It wasn’t till a second after that I realized what a clever douche he was.
The day I actually saw it was many years later, early 80s, I think, when it aired on TV one morning as part of Science Fiction Theater. But I may be wrong about that. I do know it aired late morning when SFT generally came on, but I’m not sure if it was still around in the early 80s. What makes this airing memorable is that basic cable ran it uncut, and for a PG movie there is some mild swearing and two gruesome shots of ants mauling humans that freaked me out. One I thought involved some guy getting his eye poked out by one of the ant jaws and another on the boat who takes an ant head to the gut and when the ant pulls away, he falls down clutching his guts as blood leaks all over the boat. Later on when it hit DVD for the first time, with the pristine clarity of digital media that eye gouge never happened, and the leaking blood on the boat was gasoline actor Robert Lansing dumps all over so he can set the ants on fire.
After that Saturday airing was over I was shaken by the misperceived gore, genuinely shaken by that accurately perceived albeit brief scene of gore on the boat, (the dude’s bloody stomach) and equally shocked by basic TV’s unedited airing of it. So, yeah, all the ingredients were there to make this a die-hard memory movie.
Of all the ‘Big Bug’ movies to ever exist it’s a shame only two of them are about giant ants, with the better of the two being Them! (1954); having said that I still love Gordon’s flick. Bert I. Gordon directed Empire Of The Ants and he also directed another ‘Big Bug’ flick that also made a big impression on me during childhood—Earth Vs. The Spider (1958).
One of the things I like about this giant ant movie is that it tries to more “realistic” when it comes to the ant attacks. Think about it, if an ant were to ever become big enough to take down a human it would be like facing off against a pair of giant shears, and a short sword. Ants have stingers, so not only would you be sliced to pieces you’d also being run through by their giant stinger. The ants in Gordon’s flick don’t use their stingers but they do use their jaws every chance they get and as you’ve already read of my memories the carnage gets certainly more bloody than Them!.
Speaking of the ants, Gordon is known most for simply shooting real life ants and/or spiders and matting them into the movie. In Empire Of The Ants he also uses practical puppet ants and I find those to be more aesthetically pleasing to look at than the real life matted in ants. Even if the FX doesn’t quite measure up, this movie is anchored primarily by the decent acting and characterizations. Every one plays the ant encounters earnestly and the terror is believable.
Just like Ghoulies II (1988), which I recently reviewed, this movie also has some noteworthy actors in it, if you’re a genre fan you’ll recognize their other credits: The late Robert Lansing (Star Trek: TOS episode, “Assignment Earth,” Monsters episode, “The Vampire Hunter,” Island Claws, The Nest), the late John David Carson (Creature From Black—incidentally Synapse Films is prepping this one for blu-ray and DVD), the late Albert Salmi (Superstition), the still living Joan Collins (Tales From The Crypt) and the also still living Pamela Shoop (Halloween II).
Loosely based on the H.G. Wells short story, (so loosely the only thing the two share is the title), Gordon’s movie is about scam artist land developer, Marilyn Fryser (Collins) and her partner, Charlie Pearson (Edward Power), who organize this ‘meet-and-greet’ for some potential clients. Dreamland Shores is what they’re calling this useless piece of unmanageable land down in Florida they want to make money off of. Dan Stokely (Lansing) is the boat captain, who shepherds everyone out to the island. Among this group are our potential survivors: Joe Morrison (Carson), a down on his lucker who simply joined the group for the food and drink; Coreen Bradford (Shoop), a hot blond who just kicked her affair to the curb; Margaret Ellis (Jacqueline Scott), a woman who wants to start her own business but is leery of getting scammed; Larry Graham (Robert Pine) and his wife, Christine (Brook Palance). Larry’s a dick, who comes on to Coreen and gets kneed in the balls. These are your primary survivors. There are a few more, but they get taken out before the group flees for “higher ground.”
After Stokely’s boat gets “compromised” they come up with the idea of venturing deeper in the woods to a row boat where they plan to follow the river to civilization, the ants, however, have other plans. They herd the humans to a town they’ve taken over, which is where Sheriff Art Kincade (Salmi) comes in. The queen has doused everyone with her mind controlling pheromones, so now all humans in that town work for her and her brood. Thank God Stokely is there to fuck it all up though, and he fucks it up good as he takes on the queen with a road flare, which prompts all her workers to start slaughtering humans at random. Following up that “Stokely punch” is Morrison’s idea of ramming a tanker truck into the sugar refinery where all the ants have come for lunch thus blowing each and every one to kingdom come. A relatively happy ending ensures as Stokely, Morrison, Coreen and Margaret boat off down the river.
Just like the ants in Them! These massive buggers also have a weird chirping sound calling card that lets you know you’re about to come face-to-face and have your mind blown by simply seeing a giant ant, and consider yourself lucky if that’s all they do to you. We also get ‘ant-vision’ in this one, something Them! never did. Admittedly this falls under the bad movie category but goddamn if it isn’t a good-bad movie.
As you can tell by the photos the practical in camera ant FX work pretty well. The photo down there on the right with Joan Collins is a publicity shot. That’s not how she meets her demise in the movie. The one on the top right has a bit of a blooper within the movie. In the long shot from the other direction the matted in real ants are used, which is okay for Lansing’s acting since he’s aiming in the right direction so he looks like he’s actually tangling with the superimposed real ants, but Carson, who you can only see his leg and the corner of his face in the above shot due to that huge puppet ant head in the foreground gets screwed. Gordon never superimposed any real ants in place of that puppet head so in a couple of those long shots you can see him swinging his oar against nothing.
Now when it comes to the next movie on this double feature even though it technically falls into the memory movie category, I have nothing other than a ‘knowing’ that I saw this on cable when it first came out and I remember not being all that impressed by it. I have not seen it since and doing the requisite re-evaluation of it last night tells me my opinion of it has not changed at all. I’m still not impressed with it, in fact portions of it come off as an unintentional comedy. It’s an odd pairing with the more nature run amok aspect of Empire Of The Ants, but seeing as radioactive waste created the giant ants I’m not sure I can totally call it a “nature run amok” flick, nevertheless, it’s still an odd pairing with Jaws Of Satan (1981), which also gives you a temporary “nature run amok” vibe, but from the tragic events that happen in the prologue even though you’re dealing with a basic “snake on the loose” scenario, this particular snake comes equipped with “supernatural” abilities.
Two blue-collarites, one transporting dogs to this small town for their annual dog race and one transporting a king cobra to a circus get attacked by the sudden uprising of this cobra, one that uses “powers” to lock doors and forces the dog handler to fling himself from the train. It then gets loose and gives it’s handler a good old-fashioned death bite on the cheek. A real snake is used and you can see the clear partition separating human and reptile for their confrontation. This guy is bit on his right cheek, but later when we see his body in the morgue the marks are on the left cheek. Wow, even the bite marks exhibit “supernatural powers.”
We’re then introduced to a priest, Father Tom Farrow (Fritz Weaver), who doesn’t feel so priest worthy these days. At a party, we see a very young Christina Applegate in what I can only assume is her first appearance on screen, she looks, like, maybe, seven or eight, but that’s not integral to the story. Farrow bumps into the town’s local fortune teller, who tries to read his tea leaves but faints dead away instead. Those must have been some mighty tea leaves. Later on as he escorts her to her car she tells him something evil is coming for him, something like the Devil. Obviously, he doesn’t believe her, but in the next few days the town is plagued by a rash of snake attacks. We know they’re not normal because lurking in the background is the cobra, er, Satan, I mean, controlling the snakes. Those are some of the scenes that fall into the unintentionally funny category.
The local doctor, Maggie Sheriden (Gretchen Corbett) takes it upon herself to call in herpetologist, Paul Hendricks (Jon Korkas), who saves her from a Satan controlled snake in her bedroom. Dear Lord don’t get me started on that scene. Too late. The snake, real of course, slithers painfully slow up along her bed. She’s paralyzed with fear. Christ, I thought, just step off the bed quickly and you won’t be in danger. She calls Paul, he shows up and wrangles the snake with his snake stick, then for reasons unknown asks Maggie to hand him “the gun.” Didn’t know she owned a gun, but there it is being handed to him. Anyway he blows the snakes head off. Yeah, a bit excessive if you ask me. I didn’t know herpetologists were required to blow the reptile’s brains out once its wrangled. Well, you learn something new every day. Oh, and then she loses it. She just freaks out and he has to slap her to get her to come to her senses. She slaps him back, of course. Dear God…
Anyway, later on we learn from Father Farrow’s uncle, who’s also a priest, that his bloodline is cursed. It happened way back when a descendant fucked with some Druids. Yeah, druids don’t like to be fucked with. If there’s anything history and horror movies have taught us, you simply cannot fuck with druids. Anyway, these druids were definitely fucked with and now Satan is killing off every third descendant, or some such bullshit.
The transfer on this is the best I’ve ever seen this movie look. It hit disc for the first time back in 2001 through MGM’s Midnite Movies line and then got re-released as a double feature with Tentacles (1977) in 2005. The audio is roughly the same. I’ve always been annoyed by some of the audio, though, mostly in the first 5-10-minutes. There are some brief exchanges that sounds like they’re being broadcast over a radio, but this is inherent in the film itself. I remember those exchanges sounding like that on the VHS I bought in the late 90s, and they were also present in the 2001 and 2005 DVD and they’re still present in this new blu. Gordon simply made some horrendous audio recordings of those scenes, I guess.
Video/Audio/Subtitles (Jaws Of Satan): 1080p 1.78:1 high definition widescreen—2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio—English subs only
Even though I hated this flick, the transfer is pretty damn good looking. Incidentally, the print used for this transfer is titled, King Cobra. IMDB says King Cobra was its UK title.
Extras included on Empire Of The Ants…
- Commentary with Director Bert I. Gordon, moderated by Kevin Sean Micheals
- Theatrical Trailer
- Radio Spot
- Photo Gallery
Extras included on Jaws Of Satan…
- Theatrical Trailer
It’s obvious I sought out this double feature blu mainly for Empire Of The Ants. Jaws Of Satan did and still does absolutely nothing for me, but for the fans out there just know this is the first time it has ever hit legit disc, bypassing standard DVD all together in fact and going straight for the big leagues, and also keep in mind the transfer is damn good, both of these facts should give you incentive enough to buy it.