Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.
I can’t think of another filmmaker with such a perfect set of initials than Bert I. Gordon. Mr. B.I.G., as he was dubbed by Forrest J. Ackerman, didn’t make big movies, he made movies about big things. When I say that Bert I. Gordon made movies about big things, I’m not talking about issues of social importance; I’m talking about movies where giant insects wreak havoc on a bunch of unsuspecting town folk. Earth vs. the Spider, Beginning of the End (both immortalized on Mystery Science Theater 3000), and this week’s entry into Revisiting the Reviled, Empire of the Ants. This 1977 adaptation is B-movie through and through, using giant rubber ants and few photographic tricks to attempt the laughable illusion of giant, man-eating ants.
Like a good exploitation picture should, Empire of the Ants claims to be based on the 1906 H.G. Wells story of the same name, though it has no actual connection. The story starts out simple enough before it goes absolutely bonkers in the final act. Real estate agent Marilyn Fryser (Joan Collins) is about to lead a group of broad caricatures on a boat ride to view some prospective ocean front property. “You were so terrific in the sack that it almost justifies the excessive salary I have to pay you,” she says to her bumbling employee as they board the boat, just to let you know she’s a real “working” girl. The boat ride is led by Dan Stokely (Robert Lansing), gruff and world-weary. He eventually strikes up a connection with Margaret (Jacqueline Ellis), a single woman looking for a sound investment. Then there are Joe (John David Carson) and Coreen (Pamela Susan Shoop), younger singles who arrive separately and form a connection of their own. The rest of the passengers, including an elderly couple and a philandering husband, are ant fodder.
After about a half-hour of mindless, boring, getting-to-know-you chit-chat, these gigantic ants make their laughably dramatic debut. In the aftermath of the first attack, the cast is whittled down with the survivors shuffled into a smaller boat. It’s the ideal B-movie trade down – a smaller cast in a cheap little row boat following the first “big” action scene. After their dangerous trip down the bayou, the handful of survivors find themselves at a quaint little town. But something is not right in the idyllic façade, as the horrors that they’ve experienced are casually brushed aside from the town’s police and other local officials. Here’s where Empire of the Ants morphs from a dumb little B-movie into a B-movie of wasted potential. It turns out the city has been placed under the control of the ants. Their queen uses pheromones, which are described as “a mind-bending substance that forces obedience,” to coerce the town’s citizens into complete subservience.
Even though Empire of the Ants squeezes in something interesting in its final 30 minutes, it’s a testament to Bert I. Gordon’s dubious honor of having the most movies on MST3K – King Dinosaur, The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. the Spider, War of the Colossal Beast, The Magic Sword, Tormented, Beginning of the End, and Village of the Giants. It’s safe to say that he’s not a good filmmaker and finds the least interesting way to engage with the material. Mr. B.I.G. is only interested with getting the large insects on screen and that’s it. Between Empire of the Ants and Beginning of the End, nothing has changed in Bert I. Gordon’s effects or filmmaking style.
The sexual politics onscreen within Empire of the Ants is very much a product of its era – Dan Stokely is the righteous and rugged man while Marilyn Fryser is punished for being a businesswoman, and a promiscuous one at that. It’s really quite tragic how similar some of this is to Jurassic World (you see, Joss Whedon had a point), though JW isn’t as regressive as Empire of the Ants. What really sticks out, however, is the manner with which every set of characters that have at any point had sex die. The elderly couple, the promiscuous man and his wife, Marilyn and her well-paid boy toy. Meanwhile, the two couples that were formed over the course of the movie are the only survivors. Produced by American International Pictures, well-known purveyors of amoral schlock, it is obviously Bert I. Gordon injecting this unconscious moralism – married or not, giant bugs will get you if you give into that hanky panky.
Empire of the Ants is pretty subpar even for Bert I. Gordon standards, which, again, are remarkably low. Like any low budget movie of its era, Empire of the Ants takes it sweet time setting up its broad stroke characters before killing them off with red paint and rubber ants. Where are Joel and the Bots when you need them?