Giant Monstershow: Empire of the Ants

It’s a melancholy day for the October Horrorshow Giant Monstershow, for this is the last film of the month from giant monster auteur Bert I. Gordon. His peak days as a filmmaker were in the 1950s, but while Gordon’s pace of work slowed, he never went more than a few years without directing something. In 1977, that something was Empire of the Ants, also written by Gordon, loosely adapting the H.G. Wells story of the same name. Something of a follow-up to Gordon’s Food of the Gods, Empire of the Ants tells the story of a Florida real estate pitch gone wrong.

Joan Collins stars as Marilyn Fryser, a real estate developer who is trying to unload a bunch of worthless land on the Florida coast. Worthless land on the Florida coast, you say? Does such a thing exist? Yes, it does, and Fryser has a lot of it. It’s swampy, buggy, isolated, and has no utilities, but Fryser is selling her marks hard. She’s convinced a gaggle of couples to take a trip out to the land, with the promise of a free vacation. It’s a common high-pressure sales method, and I have to wonder if Gordon got the idea for the plot from personal experience.

The would-be buyers are a collection of TV talent from the era, including Robert Pine, Robert Lansing, Pamela Susan Shoop, and John David Carson, whose character looks like he was the inspiration for Eric Forman. This is a film whose characters inhabit the 1970s to a ridiculous extent. Sure, it was made in the ’70s, so that’s to be expected. But, was it necessary for every single male character in the movie to be wearing a leisure suit? I was alive for many years in the ’70s, and while my memories of those days are few and dim, I can’t recall ever seeing that much polyester in one room.

Besides being a poor location for a housing development, the land has other problems. Some evil entity has been dumping barrels of radioactive waste offshore, and not all of it stayed put. Some made its way to shore, where some enterprising ants found it. The waste causes the ants to grow to enormous size. It’s a familiar formula Empire of the Antsfor Gordon, and although he made this flick more than twenty years after he first used the formula, he’s barely changed a thing. Gordon still uses his own homecooked special effects, and those effects aren’t any better than they have ever been.

Mattes and process shots are the order of the day. Gordon used live animals, zoomed in to match the size of the actors on screen. For closeup shots where the ants attack cast members, Gordon worked up some not-unconvincing puppets. If a viewer was ever curious what the special effects from Gordon’s Beginning of the End would look like in color, this movie provides the answer.

The ants work their way through much of the cast in a swift, tense, and somewhat frightening 2nd act. I was surprised at how well this part of the film worked, especially being as familiar with Gordon’s work as I am, and after having to endure a glacial setup. Pace is one part of storytelling that Gordon never came close to mastering, but he had flashes here and there.

This 2nd act takes place in the Everglades, where cast members could be isolated and picked off whenever Gordon thought it was convenient. Gordon moves the plot back to civilization for the finale, and it’s here that the movie really descends into silliness. It turns out that the gigantic ants have aspirations beyond setting up shop in a Florida swamp. The remaining survivors must find a way to kill all the ants, or the human race itself is at risk. What follows is climax, denouement, fin. How does it go? It doesn’t matter.

Uneven pacing, poor dialogue, bad acting, bad special effects, a ridiculous plot, and more, both doom this film and make it a good shitty movie watch. It’s a hard one to find, but if one does happen to be a fan of Gordon’s crap from the ’50s, Empire of the Ants is a nice coda to his career. Still, it’s no Alien: Resurrection.

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