Empire of the Ants (1977)
"For they shall inherit the Earth... sooner than you think"
A sleazy scam artist tries to sell fake real estate-deals on a small island in the Florida Everglades. But no one realises that the island is populated by giant ants which have grown to enormous size thanks to illegally-dumped radioactive waste.
From the man who brought us such genre tragedies as The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End and Earth Vs The Spider comes this possibly even worse piece of bottom-of-the-bin science fiction rubbish. Bert I. Gordon made a name for himself in the 50s with a slew of terrible low budget sci-fi flicks which have gone on to become cult classics and popular source of mockery on things like Mystery Science Theater 3000. Even in the 50s, his films were laughable, filled with 'special' effects which have become renowned for their dreadfulness. But the guy was back in the 70s to make the same sort of films, using the same sort of effects techniques and in full colour this time around. As well as The Food of the Gods released in the previous year, Gordon brought to life Empire of the Ants, apparently based on short story written by H.G. Wells (I use the term loosely as there's no doubt he simply borrowed the title and junked the rest). When you think of Wells, you immediately think of classic cinematic adaptations like The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, and rightly so. To even consider Empire of the Ants in the same light as such classics would have the writer turning over in his grave.
Empire of the Ants takes the concept of the old 50s films and tries to just rehash the same formula, only this time in colour. But there's a reason that they fell out of fashion and this film does nothing to address any of the inherent weaknesses or just lack of interest that such a genre film would have twenty years down the line - Gordon simply does what he did back in the 50s and expects different results. Genuinely inept in just about everything it does, Empire of the Ants is the ultimate trash flick. Perhaps if Gordon had decided to poke a bit of fun at the genre and include a few laughs and knowing winks then the film might have been entertaining. But unfortunately he plays it totally straight, keeping everything deadly serious even in the most ridiculous moments of disbelief. I guess most of the preposterous goings-on are made more hilarious by the fact that everyone is so straight-laced and deadpan about it.
There's also a distinct lack of pacing and energy throughout the film. It takes way too long to get going and even when the ants do start picking off the characters, there's no real sense of urgency about proceedings. What is really laughable about Empire of the Ants is that it starts off being a silly little 'giant monsters on the loose' flick reminiscent of the cheap 50s sci-fi flicks but then towards the end it turns into some ridiculous 'ants out for world domination' flick as the queen sprays victims with pheromones in a glass booth which turns them into zombie-like slaves who toil in the ants' sugar mines. It's a nice twist to the story but it just tacks on another twenty minutes or so when the film could quite easily have ended around the hour mark. And the eventual execution of such a twist is pathetic at best.
Empire of the Ants is most notorious for some of the most embarrassing special effects you're ever going to see. Photographically-enlarged ants are superimposed in front of the actors in some scenes. In others it seems that they just consist of matte shots of real ants scurrying over photographs of the sets. Oh and not forgetting the stupid-looking puppets used in close-ups and attack scenes. The special effects never mesh well with each other. At times, it's as if the screen is seemingly split into two - one half is footage of the actors and the other half is the photograph with the ants crawling over it. The clear distinction between the two with varying colours and saturation obviously wasn't noticed or no one in post-production believed that anyone would notice. It sticks out like a sore thumb.
The first time that the ants attack looks laughable and is good for a chuckle but Gordon just repeats the same process for each successive encounter, with no variety at all. So by the time the ants are on to their seventh victim, you'll know exactly what to expect from the attack scene, killing all potential suspense and intrigue. But the victims won't die quick enough for your liking, no matter how dull the process is. That's because it's such a lifeless cast, full of cardboard cut-out characters. Joan Collins has said that Empire of the Ants was the worst film she ever made and there wouldn't be too many people arguing that. Collins is terrible as the slimy realtor but her performance is matched by the equally-as-abysmal supporting cast. I bet it was a relief to everyone when principal photography finished.
Empire of the Ants is unintentionally lame, extremely laughable and downright terrible. It would have looked out of place in the 50s but it stands out a mile in the late-70s when the likes of Star Wars and Jaws were hitting the big screens and pushing cinematic boundaries in both special effects and animatronics. They don't make them like Empire of the Ants anymore....in fact it's hard to say whether they ever did in the first place!
Empire of the Ants
Director(s): Bert I. Gordon
Writer(s): H.G. Wells (story), Jack Turley (screenplay), Bert I. Gordon (screen story)
Actor(s): Joan Collins, Robert Lansing, John David Carson, Albert Salmi, Jacqueline Scott, Pamela Shoop
Duration: 89 mins