June 8, 2017
British science fiction writer H.G. Wells was one of the most inventive and prolific writers of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, and it seems as if every one of his stories has been turned into a movie. Of course, there are the popular big name films, like The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man, but a deeper examination of the adaptations of Wells’ bibliography will bring up awesome fright flicks like the subject of this week’s Cinema Fearité: Empire of the Ants.
Empire of the Ants is about a shifty real estate con woman named Marilyn Fryser (Joan Collins from Tales from the Crypt and Tales That Witness Madness) who organizes a boat trip to an island in order to try and sell the participants some of her “beach front property.” The clients on the trip are just as conniving, mostly there for the free trip to paradise with no intentions of buying. Once on the tour, the group finds itself being stalked by giant ants, products of radioactive e pollution that has been dumped offshore and has found its way to the beach. When the ants destroy the boat, the boatman, a rough-and-tumble character named Dan Stokely (The Nest’s Robert Lansing), gathers the survivors and leads them through the ant-infested swamps in search of some kind of civilization. But what’s waiting for them in the nearest town may be worse than the ants.
Legendary B-movie director Bert I. Gordon (Attack of the Puppet People) and horror/exploitation uber-producer Samuel Z. Arkoff (The Dunwich Horror, The Town That Dreaded Sundown) had some success in 1976 with their H.G. Wells adaptation The Food of the Gods, so they teamed up again the next year, got Jack Turley (The Day the Earth Moved, Terror on the 40th Floor) to help Gordon with the script, and pounded out Empire of the Ants. It’s a classic low-budget sci-fi creature feature, almost a throwback to the monster movies of the fifties, a straight A to B storyline with more campy schlock than plot points. Just as a classic low-budget sci-fi creature feature should.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a message to it. Like other movies of the time such as Prophecy and Orca, Empire of the Ants was a pretty thinly veiled ecological warning about man’s pollution of the environment. After an introduction about ants that seems as if it was ripped right out of a high school biology film, Empire of the Ants rolls the opening credits over scenes of a ship dumping barrels of radioactive waste over its sides into the water. The containers make their way to shore, of course getting punctured along the way (when they are very clearly marked with the words DO NOT OPEN in plain stenciled lettering - right next to the warnings that the contents are radioactive). The ants on land are seen suckling up to the silvery goo that leaks out, so the origin of the mutant insects is proven to be man’s doing, turning the film into a shocking warning of things to come if humans don’t clean up their act.
Overseen by Bert I. Gordon himself, the visual effects in Empire of the Ants are nothing short of spectacular. Most of the ant scenes were created by superimposing footage of real ants on top of the actors so that the insects appear to be massively large next to the normal-sized people. In sequences where ants attack the characters, rubber giant ant prosthetics were used to torture and torment the actors. In some more static scenes, Gordon simply tossed some ants onto photographs of the sets and shot them scurrying around. Cinematographer Reginald H. Morris (Black Christmas, Phobia) also contributed some in-camera effects gags, most notably some ant POV shots which are reminiscent of the multi-image POV gimmick from The Fly. Between Gordon’s wild imagination and Morris’ technical ingenuity, the special effects in Empire of the Ants are very effective in the context of what the film is – campy and corny, yet still creepy and crawly.
The music score for Empire of the Ants jumps on the bandwagon of another seventies man-against-nature movie. Composed by Dana Kaproff (When a Stranger Calls, Death Valley), the main theme is very similar to the legendarily pummeling two-note motif that precedes each shark attack in Jaws. Kaproff uses his theme in the same way, essentially warning the viewer that the ants are on the prowl. The simple musical passage gets a lot of mileage, whether it’s being played by a single piano or an entire orchestra. It’s a fun little borrowed device from one of the greatest monster movies of all time, used (and overused) to great effect.
Empire of the Ants will not go down in history as one of H.G. Wells’ great triumphs alongside The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Time Machine, but it is what it is – a schlocky B-movie science fiction creature feature with an obvious-yet-oblivious message. What more do you want from a giant ant movie?