I have the sad duty of bidding farewell to two of our roundtable members. For personal reasons, Andrew Borntreger of Badmovies.org and Nathan Shumate of Cold Fusion Video have elected to part ways with the B-Masters’ Cabal. Their presence is and shall be sorely missed.
Nathan, like all those I’ve been lucky enough to associate with here, brought a keen intelligence, cheerful good will and, needless to say, a marked amount of humor to both our roundtables and our regular inter-Cabal e-mailings. These qualities I will continue to find from those who remain. What can’t be replaced is his voice and his unique perspectives, his very, dare I say it, Nathan-ness. Keep well, sir, and I still hope for the pleasure of meeting you in person someday.
Andrew’s presence I’ll miss even more. (No offense to Nathan, and I hope none taken.) First, I’ve been in contact with him on a much more regular and personal basis, especially during long phone calls that are always on Andrew’s dime. I’ve also had the happy opportunity to spend time with him during the B-Fests and NOWFFs we’ve attended together. Meeting my fellows is the best thing that’s come out of running my site, and Andrew is one of the primary reasons that’s so.
As much as it might rankle him to hear it said, Andrew is one of the best people, and certainly among the most generous, I’ve ever been privileged to meet. When he’s come in for the yearly B-Fests, rather than relaxing like a guest as he had every right to, he would instead work like a dog at my merely request. Indeed, even without my request. To be honest, I abused his goodwill something frightfully, but with never a complaint on his part. Objectively, I’ve spent a bare couple of weeks’ time on a face-to-face basis with him. Subjectively, I’ve come to consider him a close friend, and frankly, I haven’t too many of those.
That’s the personal side. Then there’s the Cabal side. His site was one of our powerhouses; both in terms of the audience it brought us and the influence of his work. As even our most casual shared readers know, I find myself ‘borrowing’ from Andrew’s writings in about everything I post. Moreover, both Andrew and Nathan represented an ever-shrinking pool of Cabal founders still contributing to our roundtables. With their departure, of the seven sites that took part in our initial roundtable, only three remain active members.
It’s a credit to Nathan and Andrew, and to Apostic of B-Notes and Rob and Al of Oh, The Humanity, that the structure of the Cabal has proven sound enough to survive their departures. Perhaps someday it will go on without the input of any of us who started it. I’d like to think so.
Still, one can take comfort in one thing. Those who left us before did so because they’d decided to cease actively running their sites. Nathan and Andrew’s sites, happily, continue to be as vibrant and compelling as ever. And while I’ve been a colleague of theirs, on a more basic level I’m just a reader and a fan like so many others. This I don’t lose, and I’m thankful.
And so the Cabal stumbles on. With the addition of our most recent member, Greywizard of Unknown Movies, we continue to offer what I hope will remain an extremely high caliber of product. (Readers will also be pleased to note Joe Bannerman’s continuing contributions from his sojourns in Europe.) Even so, I wish to salute my departed comrades, Andrew and Nathan and those that went before them, and let them know they are missed and their absence mourned by all of us. God keep you, gentlemen.
— Ken Begg
As a discrete genre, the Big Bug film was kicked off by 1954’s superlative Them! While giant insects and arachnids appeared in films decades prior to this, they were typically minor elements. I’m sure there are numerous such instances I’m unaware of, but here are some examples.
Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula opens with a tour of the Count’s subterranean lair. Aside from the infamous armadillo — actually, I have a reasonable explanation for its presence â€“ there’s a bizarre shot of a bee extricating itself from a (patently miniature) coffin. I’m not sure why the Lord of the Undead would have a five-foot long insect buzzing around his lair, but there you go. Rumors that this same bee was the one who terrorized the feverish young Paul in Irwin Allen’s The Swarm remain unconfirmed.
In a famous ‘lost’ scene from King Kong (1933), car-sized spiders and scorpions attacked men knocked into a gorge by the titular beast. Special Effects director Willis O’Brien later did the stop animation sequences for 1958’s bug extravaganza The Black Scorpion, purportedly using one of the models from this sequence.
Big bugs hit the sci-fi genre with cameo appearances in 1953’s Cat-Women of the Moon and Mesa of Lost Women. The former features a marionette moon spider that briefly menaces the cast. About the size of a greyhound, it sports a bony horn to emphasize its outer-spaceyness. In the film’s trailer this creature is described as the “black terror that threatens the Earth.” This remains an odd claim in that
a) It’s on the moon, and sans any apparent space traveling technology that would get it here, and
b) Is quickly dispatched with a .38 revolver.
Mesa of Lost Women features Mad Scientist Jackie “Uncle Fester” Coogin creating a race of invulnerable spider-women. This requires a serum made with the help of another giant spider puppet, one even more inert than Cat-Women’s specimen.
Both puppets reappeared in later cheesy sci-fi flicks, including Cat-Women’s remake (!) Missile to the Moon. Other appearances by these or other puppet/plush spiders occur in films ranging from World Without End (1956) to Queen of Outer Space (’58). The World Without End spider appeared as well in 1961’s Valley of the Dragons. Horrors of Spider Island (1962), aka It’s Hot in Paradise, also featured such a beastie, one smaller yet sillier than most. Photographically enlarged spiders had their day in the sun as well. Such pop up in The Lost World (1960), 1961’s Journey to the Seventh Planet and, rather more memorably, 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.
In any case, the Big Bug movie came spectacularly into its own with Gordon Douglas’ Them! Aside from being one of decade’s finest genre films â€“ quite a feat during an era that produced The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still and many others â€“ Them! went on to sire more knock-offs than almost any other film of its vintage.
The format of Them! was often slavishly replicated. We’d begin with a series of inexplicable events: People missing or killed in bizarre fashions, the unexplainable destruction of cars and/or houses, mysterious noises. Eventually investigators would stumble across some gigantic bug or a nest of them. The most humorous tendency was to follow Them!‘s ‘mystery’ format while announcing the nature of the menace in the film’s title: The Deadly Mantis, The Black Scorpion, etc.
Oddly, given Them!‘s extraordinary box office success â€“ it was Warner Brother’s top moneymaker for 1954 â€“ the rip-offs were slow in coming. The first, 1955’s Tarantula, appeared a full year and a half after Them! hit theaters. 1956, meanwhile, was bereft of big bugs entirely, save for your typical giant spider cameo in the aforementioned World Without End.
In 1957, however, the big bug genre exploded with The Deadly Mantis, Beginning of the End, The Monster That Challenged the World (actually giants mollusks, but close enough), Rodan and The Black Scorpion. This and subsequent years abounded with elephantine insects and arachnids. These were the result of atomic bomb testing, exposure to cosmic rays from outer space, the ingestion of coelacanth blood and experiments to grow both gigantic plants and animals to alleviate world hunger. Reawakened prehistoric specimens were also popular.
The radiated fruits and vegetables causation led to monstrous grasshoppers attacking Chicago in The Beginning of the End. (The climax of which was recycled as the ending of The Swarm.) Liz Kingsley’s review of that film is her contribution to this roundtable. Beginning of the End was also the first foray into giant bugdom for ’50s gigantism maven Bert I. “BIG” Gordon. Twenty years later, Mr. Gordon produced and directed the subject of this article as well.
Fans of golden age bug movies can search out the above titles, as well as Earth vs. the Spider (another Bert I. Gordon classic!), Cosmic Monsters, Monster From Green Hell, Killers From Space and Attack of the Giant Leeches.
Want more? A giant dragonfly made a quick appearance in Monster on the Campus (1958). The Three Stooges (!) meet up with a flame-throwing giant spider in 1959’s Have Rocket, Will Travel. Nor should we forget Toho’s Mothra (1961) and its numerous sequels. Rodan (1956), meanwhile, featured Them!-like sequences in which miners are attacked by subterranean buggies.
Completists could even include human/insect hybrid films like The Fly, Return of the Fly and The Wasp Woman. (Not The Leech Woman, though, who doesn’t actually become a leech.) Even William Castle’s The Tingler features what looks like a cat-sized earwig.
After the early ’60s, Big Bug movies waned in popularity. Following the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1963, bugs of ordinary size became a more favored screen menace. (The Bees, The Deadly Bees, The Savage Bees, Terror Out Of the Sky, The Swarm, Bug, Frogs, Kingdom of the Spiders, Squirm, etc.) One obvious advantage of this was you didn’t require as many practical or photographic special effects.
Even so, Bert I. Gordon didn’t want a decade to pass without throwing at least one big bug at us. And so a photographically enlarged tarantula pops up in his comedic sci-fi flick Village of the Giants (1965). Rather more competently executed giant bees were featured in Ray Harryhausen’s Mysterious Island (1961). Toho added the fearsome giant arachnid Spiega to the mix, meanwhile, in Son of Godzilla (1967). This also featured some pretty cool giant praying mantises. Spiega returned in Destroy All Monsters.
Cheesy Big Bug movies occasionally hit drive-ins in the ’70s as pollution replaced nuclear power as the prevalent sociological fear. Bert I. Gordon again led the way with 1976’s Food of the Gods (giant wasps) and the following year’s Empire of the Ants. Another ’70s misfire was Bill Rebane’s gloriously silly Giant Spider Invasion (1975). Giant scorpions, meanwhile, made a desultory cameo in the lame sci-fi actioner Damnation Alley (1977).
The ’80s proved a fallow period for the genre. One of the few contributions to the roster was 1987’s Blue Monkey. This revolved around giant insects slithering around a hospital. (Not a fact easily inferred from the title, as you may have noticed.)
During the ’90s things picked up a bit. Direct-to-Video features included the surprisingly effective Ticks. One species making their debut was the mosquito — a variety of bug mysteriously absent from earlier efforts â€“ who made up for lost time with dueling features, Mosquito and Skeeter.
Actually, giant mosquitoes first hit theaters in 1991’s Popcorn. Set during a sci-fi film fest, the movie featured various film spoofs. One is “Mosquito”, a pre-“Mant” take-off on ’50s bug movies. “Mant”, of course, was the much more elaborate spoof of giant insect movies found in Joe Dante’s Matinee. Fans will find these films worth seeking out for these elements alone, although the “Mosquito” spoof is rather short.
The ’90s also saw the thoughtful Mimic (1997), one of the more solid additions to the genre. This was followed in 2001 by Mimic II, which again beat expectations by proving a quite decent entry. A third chapter is due out on video next year. We’ll see if the series can continue defying the odds.
And we shouldn’t forget the giant space bugs in 1997’s Starship Troopers. Despite the lackluster box office for the film, a fairly well done CGI animated series was subsequently produced and is available on DVD.
With CGI effects becoming affordable for low-budget productions, the 2000s have witnessed a minor resurgence in such fare. I’ve already mentioned the second and third Mimic films. Lame Giant Monster movie specialist Nu Image tossed their hat into the web with Spiders (2000) and the inevitable Spiders II (2002). Meanwhile, an alien giant spider and sundry other bugs threaten an expeditionary team in 2001’s Arachnid.
Schlock specialists Cine Excel, meanwhile, threatens to produce a film wittily entitled GiAnts. This has been listed as “in production” for some time, however, so I’m not sure if it’s actually going to get made. Trailers and experimental CGI footage can be found here.
As well, the superlative Eight Legged Freaks (2002) proved a comparatively big budget effort that garnered an increasingly rare theatrical release. In my opinion, and at least I’ve seen pretty much all the competition; this is the best big bug movie since Them! Appallingly, though, the film bombed at the box office. One can only hope that it does extremely well on home video and DVD and gets into the black.
Say what you will about Empire of the Ants. Heaven knows I plan to. However, you must admire the boldness of its folly. As noted above, many films have nakedly aped genre progenitor Them! Still, these at least had the sense to feature spiders or mantises or scorpions or whatever. Empire, however, by making giant ants its focus, not only invites but positively demands being compared to Them! Exacerbating this problem is the laughable nature of EotA’s special effects. When filmmakers have the advantage of twenty years of effects advancements at their disposal, we expect their beasties to look better, not much, much worse.
Things begin well as the ‘a’-in-a-circle logo of veteran schlock providers American International appears on the screen. The movie proper, assuming that’s the correct term here, opens with nature-type footage of ants. “This is the ant,” a Solemn Narrator obverses, no doubt to the great benefit of the entomologically challenged viewer. “Treat it with respect,” he commands, “for it may very well be the next dominant life form of our planet.”
“Sound incredible?” he continues. “Impossible? Have you ever taken a good close look at what the ant is all about? Like these [Latin name of some sort of bug], one of the 15,000 different species inhabiting our planet. This one cultivates crops of fungus for food. Others herd aphids, just as man herds cattle. And what about the warriors? The builders of bridges, roads, tunnels. Frightening, isn’t it, that a creature as small as an ant is able to have a fair claim to rank next to Man on the scale of intelligence [!!].”
There’s more of this malarkey, but I imagine the above will suffice for our purposes. This spiel is intended to serve two purposes. (Well, three, if you count ‘eating up running time’.) First is to establish ‘traits’ the ants will exhibit in the events to follow. Second is to convince us that ants, especially were they not so limited in size, would pose a serious threat to mankind’s dominance of Earth.
Unfortunately, the narrator’s assertions are not only faulty in achieving the latter goal, but actively counterproductive. I don’t think anyone doubts that car-sized ants would be, uh, problematic for us humans. Hell, look how nasty fire or army ants can be as they are. So it’s not like we require a lot of groundwork in this area.
Still, such speeches are a standard sci-fi trope, especially in Giant Animal pictures. (For a prime example, see The Killer Shrews.) Like many such clichÃ©s, this one was introduced in Them! There entomologist Edmund Gwynn also discourses on basic ant sociology, this time to government officials. Of course, Gwynn’s oratory was more credible. Rather than emphasizing the ant’s putative mental acumen, he discussed their great strength, savagery and aggressiveness. Admittedly, he names ants as the only animal besides man to wage war, and highlights the intricate construction of their anthills. Still, that’s a far leap from positing them as our intellectual equals. And that’s true even if we’re just talking about the folks who made this film.
The Narrator ends by discussing pheromones and how ants use them to communicate. Moreover, he explains, they are used to command. “Pheromones,” he intones, “give an order that cannot be disobeyed.” This concept is expanded upon later, and in a highly dubious fashion.
His sinister intro completed, the Narrator takes his leave. We cut to a wailing siren on a freighter. Over this image appears the name of venerable master schlockmaven Samuel Z. Arkoff. (Maybe that’s what set the siren off.) With both him and Gordon involved in the film, you know it has to beâ€¦something.
We pan down to several barrels. These are helpfully marked “Danger Radioactive Waste” and, apparently in the spirit of ‘better safe than sorry,’ “Do not open.” Sage advice, I imagine. Lest we miss the import of these tidings, however, we cut up close to them. Ah. “Danger Radioactive Waste.” Now I get it. Given the sort of affair this is, we remain distinctly unamazed as the barrels are dropped overboard. Meanwhile, veteran crapologists will note in this set-up echoes of Horror of Party Beach.
Watching barrels roll off a ship’s deck and splash into the waters below is heady stuff. I guess. Anyway, we’re treated to nearly two minutes of this as the opening credits continue. Eventually we see a credit explaining that this picture is “Based on the Story By H. G. Wells.” (Talk about a ‘toxic waste’!) Anyone who’s read Well’s short story will surely wonder on what possible basis this statement is being made. Gordon also had assigned the author with the ‘credit’ for the previous year’s equally woeful Food of the Gods.
Wells, by the way, passionately hated the brilliant Island of Lost Souls, an adaptation of his The Island of Dr. Moreau. So it’s a good thing he was safely dead before he could witness what director Gordon — not to mention John Frankenheimer and Marlon Brando a few years down the line — were doing in his name. If Wells had lived to see his name attached to any of these pictures, he’d have keeled over in a state of apoplexy.
The credits continue. One reads “Special Visual Effects BERT I. GORDON”. Presumably they mean ‘special’ as in ‘Special Olympics.’ As was usual for Gordon’s pictures, Empire of the Ants was virtually a one-man show. This can be inferred from his name appearing a full four times during the opening credits. These include a proprietary one (A BERT I. GORDON Film), as well as for the effects, the “screen story” and a final “Produced and Directed By” card. His screen story credit is for the plot he invented from whole cloth after appropriating the title of Well’s short story. John Turley, however, wrote the actual script.
The credits end as we watch a barrel wash up on the shoreline. I realize guys dumping toxic waste are sleazy, but must they be incompetent as well? How about weighing down your barrels so they sink rather than float? How about dumping them out farther, so if they did float they wouldn’t end up back on shore? (In fact, leaving our territorial waters might be a good idea.) Also, will somebody please invent a toxic waste or biohazard container that doesn’t spring open at the slightest provocation? Hell, if these things were as secure as a bottle of aspirin we wouldn’t constantly be up to our butts in horribly mutated flora and fauna.
Cut back to the beach, presumably some months later. I’m basing this on the now corroded nature of the waste barrel, which was brand spanking new when it went in the water. I found it kind of funny that a barrel with all these warning labels would sit unobserved on what appears to be a public stretch of shoreline for all this time. If nothing else you’d think one of those metal detector guys would have come across it. But no. And now the barrel is leaking icky stuff onto the sand.
Cut to a station wagon driving down a highway. In the forefront of the shot is a sign warning of a $500 fine for littering. I assume this is meant to be ironic. Or funny. Or something. The car turns into the parking lot of the Pelican Yacht Club. (I don’t mean it transforms into the parking lot. It turns off the road and parks there.) A close-up reveals the wagon’s company logo, for Dreamland Shores. With this established the door swings open andâ€¦By Jabootu’s Horns!! It’s, it’s horrible!! The man’s attire, I mean. We’re talking a long sleeve plaid shirt with a collar so big it was presumably mutated by toxic waste, worn under a light blue polyester three-piece leisure suit. Gaaak!!
The man removes a box of groceries and carries it down the pier. Reaching a cabin cruiser, he steps aboard andâ€¦By Jabootu’s Ebon Brow! It’sâ€¦it’sâ€¦Joan Collins!! (Indeed, when Collins’ career later revived with her role on Dynasty, this film was released on video, flogging her name for all it was worth.) Joan is playing Marilyn Fryser and wearing tan slacks and a darker brown sweater. Unfortunately, she’s chosen to accessorize this comparatively tasteful combo with a scarf worn like some giant bandana that’s been mutated by toxic waste. Even so, this will prove about the more refined outfit we see here.
A little expository dialog establishes that he’s Marilyn’s man toy. (Well, of course he is. She’s being played by Joan Collins.) She’s kind of a bitch â€“ see parenthesized note â€“ and he sort of resents his position. Then we meet the yacht’s owner and Captain. He’s manly and bearded and wears and earring, because he’s a sailing man you know, and doesn’t look like he’ll be taking any guff from Marilyn. We can tell she doesn’t like that because, well, she’s played by Joan Collins. The Captain is assayed by Robert Lansing, perhaps best remembered as Edward Woodward’s old boss on The Equalizer. Genre fans will also remember him as the titular menace in The 4D Man and as the hero of the uninspired giant crab pic Island Claws.
Marilyn is running a real estate venture. The boat’s been hired to ferry prospective buyers to the area where a housing development is being planned. Soon the first two attendees arrive. They’re an older couple, and other than the man wearing a shirt and cardigan sweater over shorts and knee-high socks, all in blue, their clothes aren’t too bad. We can tell they’re sort of rubes because the man stops to take a picture of the boat. Then a couple in their thirties arrives. She’s dressed OK, although his white slacks and long-sleeve matching safari shirt leave a little to be desired. Like in The Love Boat, the arriving characters will be broadly sketched in as they approach the vessel. Here the man’s cynical and sarcastic, the woman more optimistic.
The next character we meet â€“ could we have some names here, people? â€“ is a blonde woman who arrives by cab. She’s wearing a tight orange blouse with some buttons undone and tight jeans. Her worst fashion offense is a gigantic knit purse. Cynical Guy pauses to look her over, so he’s a masher, too. Optimistic Woman notices what he’s doing, so she’s the woman who puts with a jerk. Blonde Woman pays her fare, resulting in this sparkling display of screenwriting wit:
Blonde Woman: “Here’s a ten. Keep the change.”
Cab Driver: “But, lady, the fare’s $9.80!”
Blonde Woman: “Don’t mention it!”
[Cab Driver executes slow burn.]
In other words, Blonde Lady is broke. By the way, if you ever watch this movie, focus on the guy playing the cab driver here. His ability to take such a nothing part and really suck at it is quite impressive.
The next guy to appear stops and takes a hit off a pint bottle before he gets out of his car. See, this cleverly establishes him as a drinker. Drinking Guy wearing a white safari jacket that’s much like Jerk Guy shirt. They’re also about the same age, have longish brown hair and generally are wearing sunglasses. The only I could tell them apart was by their slack. Jerk Guy’s are white, Drinking Guy’s are tan.
Let’s recap. Bitchy Ms. Fryser. Her Gigolo Guy. Blue Collar Captain Guy. Old Rubes. Cynical Jerk Guy and Wishy-Washy Woman. Broke Blonde Woman. Drinking Guy. I don’t know, I don’t see many of these people getting out of this movie alive.
Oh, and now we meet our next couple. They’re in their fifties, and impressively are sporting the worst clothes yet. If they expect to scare us with mere giant ants after subjecting our eyeballs to this, they’re off their rockers. His trait is that he’s really cheap. Her trait is that she’s Cheap Guy’s Wife. Lastly, there’s Middle-Aged Bland Woman. That’s about the best I can do to sum her up.
Again, these don’t seem like characters with a high survivability rating. OK, Blue Collar Captain Guy is undoubtedly going to be our hero. After all, his competition is a gigolo, an old fart, a womanizing jerk, a drunk, and a cheapass wearing the worst polyester leisure suit I’ve seen outside of a Blaxploitation film. That probably means that Blonde Woman will be our heroine, or at least our female protagonist. After all, she could be broke because she’s honest. Besides, she’s the only unattached woman other than the somewhat chunky Middle Aged Woman and Joan Collins. And you know Joan’s not getting out of here.
By the way, we’re now ten minutes into the movie. We’ve met an even dozen characters, and only one of them has so far been assigned a name. Thank you, screenwriter John Turley. You’re doing a hell of a job.
Speak of the devil, though, they now bother tossing everybody’s name around. By doing this all at once they insure we won’t remember any of them. Luckily, I can refer to my notes here. Middle Aged Woman is Miss Ellis. Wow, middle aged and frumpy and no husband. Yep, she’s toast. Cheapass and Wife are the Lawsons. Jerk Guy is Larry Graham, andâ€¦oops, that’s all we’re getting now, I guess.
The boat casts off. This kind of reminded me of the opening of Gilligan’s Island, especially since this movie seems to last three hours. Ominous music plays, perhaps foreshadowing the giant ants seen on the video and DVD cover art.
Cut to the plot of land everyone’s heading to. Two workmen are hastily erecting a Dreamland Shores sign. They stop for a beer and hawk up a wad of exposition so undigested that it’s frankly embarrassing.
Workman One: “What a rip-off. She’ll bring a boatload of slobs down here and convince them it’s paradise.”
Workman Two: “You know, it wouldn’t be so bad around here if it was close to somethin’. A road, a town, anything.”
Workman One: “What about Diamond Springs?”
Workman Two: “That’s practically next door. All you got to do is walk two miles to the river and swim upstream another ten.”
Workman One: “You oughta read the contract she makes ’em sign. You know the jerks that buy this swampland can’t even sell it for two years?”
Workman Two: “Dreamland Shores won’t be here in two years!!”
Their expositional task accomplished, the men walk off-camera and out of the picture. As they do, we get a suspense music cue while the camera image zooms down the beach, where we seeâ€¦*gasp*! Why, it’s one of those rusty old toxic waste barrels from the beginning of the movie! Who knew?! By the way, the above dialog wasn’t just so we understood Marilyn’s running a con â€“ of course she is, she’s being played by Joan Collins â€“ but to establish that once here the characters will effectively be stranded. You know, for when the ants show up. (They’ll have to do something to the boat, but that shouldn’t be a problem.)
By the way, if this ‘swampland’ is so isolated, why is there an elaborate dock/bridge about fifty yards away? It’s kind of a big structure to be built in the middle of nowhere.
Anyway. To make sure we ‘get’ it, we then cut to a close-up of the barrel. It’s still leaking goo, a puddle of which is covered with ants. As sinister music plays the camera zooms in on these. I really hope they’re not implying that these ants are the giant ones from later in the movie. Even this movie’s not that dumb, you hope. Instead, I think they just really want to be sure we connect ‘toxic waste’ and ‘ants’ together. Still, I’ve seen silent movies that got their points across more subtly than this.
Cut to the party, gathered in a catering tent on the Dreamland Shores site. Cheapass Mr. Lawson, of course, is hovering over the buffet table and stuffing his face with the free hors d’oeuvres. Marilyn circulates and schmoozes. We learn the old fart couple are the Thompsons. (Gee, that’s imaginative.) Then Marilyn goes over and chews out Gigolo Guy â€“ another fine opportunity to provide him with a name, squandered â€“ just so we remember she’s a bitch. (Yes, yes, Joan Collins and all that.)
More time-wasting stuff. Larry leers at Blonde Woman, Larry’s Girlfriend looks worried. I think we have this character dynamic down now, thank you. Then Drinking Guy calls Gigolo Guy ‘Charlie.’ C’mon, Charlie, you can return theâ€¦no, I guess that’s too much to hope for. Charlie explains how a certain percentage of the people they bring up here just come along to mooch. He pegs Drinking Guy for one of these, but laughs it off. He’s not nearly as much of a jerk as Marilyn, but you still know he’s going to buy it.
Blonde Woman heads for the snack table, given Larry an opportunity to make his move. (Please, where are the stupid ants already?) Meanwhile, Miss Ellis is now yakking with Mrs. Larry. Ellis pathetically is trying to exaggerate the importance of her secretarial job. Apparently she’s the designated Person Who Tragically Dies Without Even Having Lived. (Ants! Get those damn ants out here!)
It says something about how pointless all this is that I remain excited when I can get another name. Mrs. Thompson, for instance, is Velma. Then we cut to Larry and Blonde Woman. (A name, dammit, a name! Or an ant! Something! Throw us a bone here.) They’re off somewhere and Larry’s glomming all over here. She’s resisting. Perhaps this is meant to establish her as a ‘good’ girl. But c’mon, then why would she sneak off with an obvious letch like Larry. It’s not like he was very subtle about his intentions. Still, this probably enhances Blonde’s chances of surviving the picture.
They continue to struggle to the point where Larry’s on the verge of being portrayed as a rapist. By the way, where’s Mrs. Larry during all this? Hasn’t she learned to keep on eye on her husband by now? You’d think so. In a scene telegraphed a mile off, she pretends to calm down only to knee him in the groin. Wow, didn’t see that coming. First, though, she allows him to unbutton her blouse (!!), apparently to give the audience a good cleavage shot.
Oddly, Larry reacts to her attack by groaning and bending over and clasping his abdomen. From what I recall of a similar experience (a good kick to the groin, not a near-rape), he should be rolling on the ground and either gasping for air or vomiting. Instead, he’s talking in a normal voice like twenty seconds later. In any case, Marilyn shows up and Blonde heads back with her.
Finally something, well, not interesting, but something anyway starts to happen. Staccato music chords â€“ with a certain, dare I say it, Jaws-like quality — and electronic trilling are heard over some POV shots from nearby bushes. Next we get the film’s patented Ant POV Shot. (See picture.) Of course, Larry has decided to investigate said noises. However, my hopes that the film would start whittling down on its large roster of Designated Victims were dashed when he turned around and ran back to the others.
Unfortunately, this means we have time for more ‘character’ stuff. Miss Ellis searches out the Captain. He acts all gruff, but we can tell he’s vulnerable inside. Miss Ellis has been such a sad sack that I couldn’t imagine she’d be the film’s heroine. However, now that Blonde Woman â€“ a name, dammit, a name! â€“ has allowed herself to be molested I’m not sure. Plus, Ellis is closer in age to being right for The Captain. Not in movie terms, of course, since male leads often get chicks twenty years their junior. Still, I have to admit, I’m not sure which woman is going to survive this movie. Maybe the film will surprise me and kill them both. On the other hand, while that would surprise me, I’d be positively flabbergasted if they both finished the picture alive. These things just don’t work that way.
By the way, Miss Ellis finally coughs up the Captain’s name. It’s Dan. Great, now we know the (presumed) hero’s name. And only eighteen minutes into things! We learn that Ellis wants to open her own small business, but can’t afford to fritter away her small savings. So she’s trying to pump Cap’n Dan for info on Dreamland Shores. He’s annoyed, wanting to stay uninvolved in these people’s problem. Hey, Dan, it’s not that hard. I’ve been watching them for a while now and I couldn’t care less about them.
Sigh. We cut away from Ellis and Dan. This allows Blonde and Drinker Guy to share a scene. (WHERE ARE THE FRIGGIN’ *@+$^%~ ANTS?!) By the way, have I mentioned the bad lounge piano music playing in the background during all these scenes? Anyway, the suspense is killing me. Will we learn either of these character’s names before one or both die the horrible pointless deaths I’ve been wishing on them?
Blonde, we learn, has amazing emphatic powers that allow her to see the pain that lurks in Drinker’s soul. (This ability to read others, however, doesn’t exactly gibe with her shocked indignation at being pawed by a guy who had just spent ten or fifteen minutes making lewd suggestions to her.) She instantly discerns that he drinks because he’s a tragic loser at the Game of Love. Gee, that’s fresh.
I became somewhat conflicted here. On the one hand, I felt I should applaud the film’s efforts at making these people actual characters. On the other, the nature of these attempts was inciting a fervid internal debate as to the merits of scooping out my eyes with a melon baller.
As I pondered, however, I came to realize what was occurring. Given when this movie was made, it became obvious that Gordon was following the then-popular Disaster Movie Template. In other words, bring together a cross section of thinly sketched people and then introduce some deadly happenstance that kills most of them. Only here it’s not an earthquake or burning skyscraper (or, more to the point, killer bees) but giant mutant ants.
The reason this didn’t immediately register, however, was because a central element of that genre was ignored. Which is that Disaster Movie got away with populating their films with ciphers because they got well known celebrities to play them. (I discuss this idea in my Dante’s Inferno review.) Audiences didn’t respond to the sharply etched characters these actors are playing. They reacted to their perceptions of who these stars were. If Chuck Heston or Paul Newman played a character, he was heroic. If George Kennedy or Ernest Borgnine played him he was a blue-collar straight shooter. And so on.
The problem here, as you may have gathered, is that there are few such stars on display. There’s John Collins, of course, and she plays into the above idea perfectly. By which I mean she’s typecast as the sort of bitchy, control-freak character she ended up playing the last three decades of her career. That’s about it, though. I suppose some people might have known Lansing enough from TV appearances to accept him as a George Kennedy substitute, but that’s about it.
Thus the film’s largely unknown â€“ and, frankly, not overly talented â€“ cast inherently augurs failure for this type of movie. Now, an all-star cast in and of itself doesn’t guarantee a good movie. This The Swarm pretty effectively demonstrated. Still, would even folks like us be watch that picture so avidly if you replaced Michael Caine, Henry Fonda and Fred McMurray with rank nobodies? And even if this imaginary Empire of the Ants otherwise continued to suck, imagine the difference even a low-grade celebrity cast would make. Robert Wagner is Charlie! Carol Lynley is Blonde Girl! The Guy Who Played Schneider on One Day At a Time is Larry!
Yet all dreamers must eventually return to earth, and I to the movie as it actually exists. Worse the luck.
And so the wait continues. For the record, I was sort of wondering if Blonde would really be chatting this guy up minutes after being molested. I’m not saying this couldn’t happen, I’m just saying that it makes her a lot creepier. Despite this the two seem to be hitting it off. Oops, now Blonde Girl’s a Tragic Lover. She’s definitely toast.
Then it’s back to Miss Ellis and Cap’n Dan. She’s, yep, baring her soul. Turns out she doesn’t have an important secretarial job. In fact, she’s recently been fired. Thus her nest egg is all that stands between her and ruin. That’s why she’s feeling Cap’n Dan out for whatever he knows. I guess I’d care more if she didn’t have the words ‘Purina Ant Chow’ written all over her. Oh, wait. No I wouldn’t. In any case, Cap’n Dan eventually breaks down and advises her not to buy.
Cap’n Dan splits. Miss Ellis walks off in the other direction. All of the sudden the Jaws theme as played by a fifth grader on a home piano is heard. This inevitably heralds the Ant POV Shot looking upon her from a distance. Then we cut back to Marilyn, who’s giving the entire group the five-cent tour. This even involves a ride in a little red tram. Wheeeee! Occasionally this is seen through the APOVS (so I don’t have to type “Ant POV Shot” every three minutes). Now we hear sound effects that sound like a mix of the old Them! ant sounds â€“ I was about ready to puke at this moment â€“ and bullfrog calls. Let’s just say that I didn’t become so petrified that I couldn’t type.
The tram ride goes on a while, eating up both running time and my brain cells. It also allows for more character moments. For instance, Larry’s marital problems are partly due to his resentment of Mrs. Larry’s interfering father. Oh, yeah, now I’ll be sorry when he gets killed. Eventually they end up at another tent â€“ well, OK, it’s the same one moved to another location, only we’re not supposed to notice â€“ and disembark. “If we’re really lucky,” Marilyn gushes, “we may get some glimpses of some of the fascinating wildlife that’s in this area.” Oh, I get it. It’s IRONIC!!!
The group is served lunch on paper plates and stuff. It’s like a picnic. GET IT??!! This provides yet further opportunities for yet other combinations of characters to jaw at one another and Expose Their Souls. Mrs. Larry talks to Mrs. Cheapass. Blonde Girl and drinker walk off on their own to engage in more brain-numbing blather. My only hope was that we might finally be far enough into things that this was so they could be the first victims. However, Blonde just kept on talking and then, to my vast horror, they turned around and headed back to the picnic tent. Cripes, somebody, spread some sugar around or something and get those bleedin’ ants out here!
Cheapass Appalling Polyester Suit Guy is approached by his wife, who *gasp* calls him “Thomas.” Why, only half an hour in and we’ve already given names for almost two-thirds of the cast! Anyhoo, this Thomas is of the Doubting persuasion, and he’s doing a little investigating. To be exact, he yanks on the pipes that supposedly will act as the underground plumbing system. However, the one he tugs on pulls free, proving that the so-called pluming system is fraudulent.
Thomas’ moment of triumph, though, is — YAAAAAY!!!! â€“ short-lived. Cue APOVS and sounds effects and faux Jaws music. Realizing that his wife is about to die, Thomas actually decides to provide us with her name. I know you’re waiting with baited breath, so it’s Mary. Then, finally, FINALLY, we’re treated to a shot of some photographically enlarged ants. Thomas yells for Mary to run. Then he just stands there. Good strategy, moron.
The actual attack on Thomas is perpetrated with a couple of large mock-up ants. I won’t say these are the worst giant bugs I’ve ever seen, because they’re not. Still, they suggest not mutated insects so much as, well, mutated puppets. Despite seeing ants scurry through spilled toxic waste before, I suspect that another barrel went awry and ended up contaminating the cast of Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Heaven help us if this stuff ever finds it’s way to King Friday’s kingdom. What this stuff would do to the Purple Panda, no man can say.
Apparently the filmmakers were aware of the patently inert quality of the Prop Ants. To help disguise this during the attack on Thomas, the camera is rapidly tilted back and forth and the lens zoomed in and out. This attempt at obfuscation proves less then completely successful, however. Let’s just say that the creatures aren’t likely to erase too many memories of Them! Meanwhile, no little amount of stage blood has been expended to convince us of Thomas’ demise.
Oh, and Mary buys it too, standing there screaming as another APOVS slowly approaches her. (If the ant’s attacking her out of an instinctive revulsion to her lime green pantsuit, I can’t say I blame it.) Her fate is no big surprise, since it’s a little too early in the game for the rest of the party to be apprised of their danger.
Following lunch, the tram tour continues. This might sound really boring, andâ€¦it is. Still, they probably blew a good five percent of the budget renting the thing and intended to get their money’s worth. Anyway, Mrs. Thompson â€“ or as I like to call her, Velma â€“ notices that the Lawsons have been left behind. “Why didn’t you say something,” an exasperated Marilyn groans. Yeah, sorry, guess it’s too much to have you do a headcount of the entire nine people you brought out here.
The group suddenly hears the Ant Noise from the surrounding woods. However, trams have historically been considered impregnable from puppet attacks, and so the ants bide their time. However, Miss Ellis soon lets out a scream, having seen the mangled body of one of the workers seen earlier. Rather than getting the hell out of Dodge, they just sit there a while and allow the cast to employ the expressions of Shock and Horror they learned in college drama classes.
Drinker â€“ could we get a frickin’ name here?! — demands that someone goes back to look for the Lawsons. He looks around for someone to join him in doing so, but Larry and Mr. Thompson turn him down. “I’m an old man!” the latter bravely offers. Dude, you are so dead. Thenâ€¦breakthrough!! “It’s OK, Harry,” Drinker replies. Two down andâ€¦ “Joe, I’ll go with you,” Blonde offers. Whoohoo!! Now only she and Mrs. Larry remain unmonikered! You go, movie!
By the way, I should mentioned that the guy playing Joe — Joe! Joe! Joe! How the word doth roll off the tongue! â€“ is giving a very weird and oddly mannered performance. This doesn’t make him a better actor than the rest, but at least he’s managing to draw attention to himself. Although, to be fair, and believe it or not I always try to be, the cast isn’t really bad. They’re just sort of colorless. Not that the script or direction are helping them much.
So Joe and Blonde (Will she prove a Susan? A Joan? A Kathy?) head back to the parade area. Meanwhile, the others stay in the tram and push on. Joe and Blonde find some bloody clothes and then see a rear projection shot of several PE â€“ photographically Enlarged â€“ ants. Of course, in this state they’re relatively harmless. It’s only when they transform into Prop Ants that they’re deadly.
Back to the beach. The tram arrives to find Cap’n Dan watching, in a hilariously nonchalant fashion, some PE Ants running down the dock towards his boat. Given that the ants so far have been (more of less) Shetland pony-sized, the ones shown here are wildly out of scale. This is because the dock they’re on is in the background of the shot. Which means if they were sized properly we wouldn’t really be able to see them. As it is, for one moment the ants appear if anything to be as big as the cabin cruiser itself.
“What are they?” somebody cries. Now, I know they’re big and all, but still, they’re clearly ants. Meanwhile, Cap’n Dan’s blasÃ© observation of the beasts turns to consternation as he (duh) finally figures out the creatures are heading for his boat. He stops to remove his shoes (!) and jumps into the surf, apparently hoping to head the ants off. Which is plainly impossible, since the ants were mere yards away from it when last we saw them. (Again in a spirit of fairness, let me note that the effects showing the PE Ants running down the dock are pretty good. Not the far shots, because they weren’t. But the regular shots are pretty decent.)
Somehow, Cap’n Dan manages to swim four or five hundred meters before the huge ants can run the remaining ten yards of dock. A crew guy pulls him on board, and they prepare to get the craft to safety. Cap’n Dan uses an axe to cut the anchor line, but it’s too late. A couple of PE Ants â€“ and these ones are not well realized â€“ have gotten on board.
Using a goodly amount of the Hero’s Death Battle Exemption to his benefit, Cap’n Dan manages to engage an ant without injury. Crew Guy, needless to say, fares not so well. Still, and you pretty much saw this coming, an errant axe blow ruptures a rather poorly placed can of petrol sitting on the deck. (Actually, the can appears to be filled with apple cider or something similar.) Oh, wait. Cap’n Dan spilled the fuel on purpose. This is so he can use â€“ what else? â€“ a very pistol to set the boat afire. Man, if you’re in a sci-fi film and have a very pistol and a fire extinguisher, you’re golden. And so Cap’n Dan sends the only means of escaping the mutant ant infested-island up in flames. That’s not the strategy I’d have gone with, but there you go.
Anyway, the burning of the boat allows the cast to ham it up big time with their horrified reactions. Then we cut to that night. “They don’t like fire,” Cap’n Dan observes. Well, not when they’re stuck on a boat going up in a massive conflagration, anyway. Whether a campfire would keep them off seems to me a rather more dubious proposition. Still, that’s what we’re meant to believe.
Cut to the morning. The fire is still going, although I had to wonder why the ants didn’t pick off those who presumably had to step away from it to gather wood. Or maybe we just weren’t supposed to think about how there isn’t a lot of firewood to be found on a beach. Anyhoo, ominous thunder is heard, so apparently the cast won’t be allowed to loaf around forever. However, they are allowed to loaf around a while longer, curse the luck, which means more *sigh* character moments. “All we wanted was to enjoy what was left of our lives,” Velma muses sadly. Yeah, makes you think.
Charlie offers Mrs. Larry a Baby Ruth bar â€“ take that, Reece’s Pieces! â€“ but she’s the designated Catatonic Chick. Suddenly a stock footage downpour begins in the sky, although oddly the rain doesn’t hit the ground for ten seconds after. The rain manages to revive Mrs. Larry, but also puts out the fire. Then the ants run out and kill everyone and the movie ends. Well, that wasn’t as bad asâ€¦
OK, OK. (Jerks.) Instead, the party decides to head for the previously established river. There’s a halfhearted go at the old “We should try to save ourselves!”/”We should wait for help!” debate, but it’s pretty perfunctory. You’d think they’d at least try to arm themselves, but now, they just head into the woods. Except for Marilyn, who wants to ignore the Hero’s Advise â€“ like that ever works — and hide in the beach house until help arrives. So she runs off, accompanied by the most blatant riff of mock-Jaws music yet.
She makes it inside, somehow not noticing the giant ant sitting about (and I’m not exaggerating) six feet in front of her. Of course, actress Collins was just doing what the script said, and probably had no idea that the humongous ant would be matted directly in front of her. Assuming she ever bothered to see the movie, I’m sure she winced at her how stupid this makes her look. In any case, it’s obviously too soon to knock off the film’s ‘name’ actor, and so Charlie pops in and drags her to safety.
Actually, I think they missed a bet here. I found the idea that a stationary little fire would protect the group a tad risible. However, it would have been easier to establish that the ants would remain hidden during the heavy rainstorm. Ants breath through gills in their sides, and probably really wouldn’t like such weather. So the rain could have been used to explain why the group wasn’t instantly slaughtered as it entered the woods. Moreover, the eventually slackening of the rain and emergence of the ants from their hiding places could have been milked for much suspense.
‘Tis not to be, though, for the ants are shown leaving the beach house to chase after Charlie and Marilyn. Still, they manage to rejoin their fellows. (It was here that I noticed Marilyn wasn’t wearing a skirt, but culottes. Even so, she still has by far the least embarrassing outfit.) Hearing the Ants Noise, the group stops in a clearing to survey the area. Suddenly they notice a big group of PE Ants bunched up at best maybe ten feet directly in front of them. (!!) Again, the insertion of the ants in these shots isn’t exactly helping the reality of the situation.
Of course, there’s only one reason the script gave us all these characters. So Harry and Velma start falling behind. Rather than asking for help, Harry suggests, “Let’s go this way!” Ah, the seldom-employed “safety in fewer numbers” idea. (Actually, now that I think about it, this theory is used in horror movies all the time!) At this point I noticed that the ants didn’t really appear to be pursuing them, and I wondered if they were supposed to be stymied by the rain. If so, you think they could have had somebody toss in a line to this effect for the audience. “Keep running!” Cap’n Dan might have yelled when they encountered the ants a minute ago. “They don’t like the rain!” See. That was easy enough.
The group continues running. Mrs. Larry is trailing behind everybody, and when she’s seen approaching a small fallen tree trunk we know she’s a goner. Sure enough, she trips over it, albeit a little clumsily. Apparently the actress playing her didn’t want any skinned knees or anything. She calls for Larry to help, especially â€“ are you sitting down? â€“ she’s twisted her ankle. Man. Woman’s ankles in these things twist easier than cars explode when rolling down a hill.
Of course, some PE Ants quickly make the scene. (Although they’re still changing size from appearance to appearance.) Cowardly Larry, needless to say, leaves the Mrs. to her fate. I’d point out that this is sure to seal his fate, but c’mon, he’s toast already. I should also note that despite making it about halfway through the movie, this character’s name was never uttered once. Of if it was, I missed it. And remember, I’ve been trying to keep track.
Back to Charlie and Marilyn. Running between two trees (for no real reason), Marilyn has a branch jabbed through her sweater. This cuts her and also entangles her to the tree. Cue PE Ants â€“ obviously I was wrong on the rain thing â€“ and Marilyn is freed at the cost of Charlie’s life. By the way, this isn’t exactly helping to make Larry look bad. I’m not saying he isn’t a disgusting coward. Yet he’s still tickin’ while Good Samaritan Charlie’s kickin’. The bucket, that is. These death scenes go on for quite a while, too. While really doesn’t add very much, since we’re just talking actor writhing around whilst grips poke them with prop giant ant heads.
By the way, if I’ve ever accosted by giant ants â€“ and I’m not saying I will — I hope I don’t just lay on the ground and let them swarm me. Jeez, people, at least grab a stick or something. Show a little pride, that’s all I’m saying.
Meanwhile, the Thompsons have found a convenient shed and been hiding inside of it. When we cut back to them, Velma is commenting on the rain stopping. “It’s a good omen,” she whimpers. Don’t see a lot of horror movies, do we Velma.
Back to Ellis, Marilyn and Cap’n Bob. The others are bringing up the rear. Noticing Mrs. Larry’s absence, Cap’n Dan asks “What about Christine?” Forty friggin’ minutes the woman’s in the movie and they don’t name her until five minutes after she’s killed. Stupid script.
They reach the rowboat the workers used to get down here. Marilyn must paid them a good buck to row ten miles down here and then trek through two miles of swampland and jungle to reach the jobsite. Still, the script requires the presence of the boat, so here we are.
They start down the river to civilization. Marilyn has a moment where she tries to assert control over Cap’n Dan. This obviously doesn’t fly. Even assuming a normal state of affairs, Marilyn was never his boss. She’d just chartered his boat, and that doesn’t even exist any longer. Still, it reminds us that she’s kind of bitchy, which was the point I think. So they row down the river. This is when something truly bizarre and nearly insane occurred: The film came dangerously close to being good.
I know it sounds unlikely, but it’s true. As they paddle downriver, they begin to hear the ants somewhere behind the brush. Looking about nervously, the actors ably manage to project everything from unease to outright terror. The film takes it’s time with this stuff, and it’s strangely effective. (Although I was a bit distracted by Blonde’s constantly shifting degree of unkemptness.)
Eventually the ants start crowding around the riverbanks. At this point the poor special effects do diminish the mood. Even so, the only bits that really wreck the ambiance are the increasing tiresome APOVS. These looked laughable to start with. Now that the movie is almost finding its rhythm they’re infuriating. Every time they pop up they remind you you’re watching a Bert I. Gordon movie.
The entire river sojourn runs nearly fifteen minutes and can be broken down into rough segments. First is the aforementioned sequence with the terrified passengers being tormented by the ant calls emanating from the woods. Here I was forced to admit that the cast was actually pretty decent. No one is even close to embarrassingly bad, which is hardly a given with this sort of thing. Most, in fact, prove surprisingly competent. Lansing, meanwhile, is downright good. He knows how to communicate a lot with a little and provides a nicely subtle performance.
Back to the special effects. Gordon’s technique largely (ha ha) involved shooting close-ups of small things, like ants or grasshoppers, and then matting them into the image. Here he’s obviously built a little forest set in an aquarium and films his (admittedly impressive) macro-photographic images through the glass. This footage would then be composited with a shot of the actors, or whatever was needed.
For instance, think of those old films where an actor would play twins. The actor might be filmed on both sides of the film, the images sliced down the middle, and then joined together to create the illusion that he was appearing in two places at the same time. This is roughly what Gordon does here. One problem, though, is that the one part of the film can’t really interact with the other part, since each is actually discrete. The practiced hand can usually tell where the ‘join’ is, if they bother to search for it.
Another problem endemic to the shots here is that, as mentioned, the ants were shot on miniature sets contained by a glass plate. Well, especially given the digital clarity offered by DVD — and yes, MGM has made a very nice transfer of this available on disc — you can see enough specks and such that the glass is to varying degrees visible. This somewhat diminishes our ability to suspend disbelief. I want to be fair to Gordon, however, and point out that on non-digital copies this aspect would presumably be reduced, although probably not entirely absent.
Another problem is that the ants are much of the time obviously pressed up against the glass. This means even when the glass remains invisible, you can see the ant resting its body weight against what’s supposed to be nothing.
In fact, the film more than once replicates the most famous boner from the much earlier Beginning of the End. As Liz will no doubt explain, Gordon filmed the supposedly giant grasshoppers climbing Chicago skyscrapers via the economical expedient of shooting down on regular bugs walking over photographs of said buildings. The problem being that eventually one particularly recalcitrant insect decides to walk off the building part of the photo and completely out onto the ‘sky.’ Needless to say, this somewhat ruined the overall effect.
This phenomenon occurs more than once in this picture, although the current example is comparatively subtle. There’s a shot where the ants on their set frames a projection shot of the rowboat, seen between two trees. This particular effect actually is pretty well executed. However, the illusion is slightly weakened when one ant, filmed on a miniature tree, pretty clearly starts climbing onto what is supposedly thin air. Even so, this one might get by you. Later on there are ones that probably wouldn’t.
Back to the Thompsons, whom I guess have supposedly been hiding in their hut the whole time. Having heard nothing for a while, they decide it’s safe to venture outside. Whereupon they find themselves literally surrounded by dozens of giants ants. The two actors silently cower in the little portion of the image that’s theirs. The camera stays on this shot for a good (well, bad) ten seconds and more, and then we finally cut away and leave the two to their horrible deaths. This is a great shot, especially given the sudden outbreak of comparatively decent filmmaking I mentioned. Here’s a list of thing obviously wrong with it:
Back on the river things have gotten quiet. Thinking they’ve escaped, we segue into a long stretch of character moments. Oddly, these are better than the more perfunctory ones from earlier in the film. Larry, not being a person who handles pressure well, starts blabbing. Apropos of nothing he begins vigorously asserting that he wasn’t there when the ants got his wife, and so there was nothing he could have done to save her. (Watch Lansing’s reaction to this â€“ his character is the first to recognize that Larry’s lying.) Of course, his attempts at self-justification serve instead to alert the others to his cowardice. Another odd moment is that all of the sudden Joan Collins assumes a think Southern accent, one not again heard anywhere else in the proceedings.
Then Miss Ellis â€“ could we have a first name, please? â€“ relates with bitter satisfaction how she was callously let go by the company and boss she’d served for many years. This is an odd little monolog, given the circumstances. Still, the actress playing her no doubt enjoyed the chance to take center stage, and she gives it a good read. Again, while earlier the characterizations were so broad you that could have just handed the actors cards to carry reading “DRUNK” and “WOMANIZING JERK”, here they’re finally fleshed out a little. None of this is brilliantly done, but you have to appreciate the effort. (Although it also provides a necessary lull from the no doubt strictly budgeted amount of special effect shots.)
Things get a little sticky when the boat approaches a fork in the river. One presumably leads to civilization, but who knows about the other. They take the leftward branch. Larry demands they do, so three guesses how this turns out. Although Cap’n Dan is rowing the boat, so I assume he agrees that’s the way to go. Not much later the ant noises start up again. After a short while, however, they seem to ride past them. Unfortunately, they then find a log blocking the waterway. (A tip o’ the hat to Creature of the Black Lagoon, me thinks. Or at least a stolen plot device.)
The boat stops to examine the situation and suddenly ants are filling their own detached portion of the screen. (The first ant, as if often the case, is way bigger than the beasts are supposed to be.) The actors pretend to be beating at them with oars, and occasionally a prop ant head is pushed at them to help *cough, cough* sustain the illusion. Amusingly, if you watch Joe when he first grabs his oar, he starts fending off an ant that isn’t there. I guess they didn’t block the shot correctly. Of course, as occurs every time the prop ants are used, they start flailing the camera around wildly to help disguise their somewhat suspect nature. This makes these scenes increasingly obnoxious for the viewer, and in a rare instance I actually wished Gordon had CGI to work with instead of the practical effects employed here.
Anyhoo, they manage to break free and row back the way they came. Blonde, chastened by their recent brush with death, apologizes to Larry for sniping at his earlier. As he’s the film’s Designated Prat, however, he rebuffs her efforts and calls her nasty names. This, of course, seals his fate. So we are unsurprised when an ant appears about thirty seconds later on an overhanging fallen tree and chooses him to make an example of. Despite the usual camera gyrations this is probably the best look we get at a prop ant and thus the most ineffectual.
During the attack the boat is capsized, and the survivors make their way to shore. At this point we have Cap’n Dave, Joe, Blonde, Miss Ellis and Marilyn still remaining. By now I thought maybe, this being an older picture, maybe two couples would be allowed to survive. Of course Marilyn’s doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance. By the way, as they climb from the water we can tell the actress playing Blonde isn’t wearing a bra. Take my word for it. Still, she’ll come in handy if anyone needs to hang up a hat or anything. This leads to a hilarious continuity error when the characters are drenched in one shot and utterly and completely dried off the very next moment. Not just their clothes, either, even all the ladies’ hair is completely dry.
Cut more bad ant effects, including the by now familiar ants-on-glass shots and the inevitable APOVS. Meanwhile, Marilyn, now clearly the Dr. Smith character now that Larry’s gone, decides to head off on her own. Who’d do this? In any case, she’s immediately confronted by a few matted-in sections of the screen containing some ants. These scream at her â€“ yes, the ants in this movie scream, and with some regularity â€“ but don’t attack. The others ponder this. (My theory involves the fact that they’re behind glass sheets.) Cap’n Dan is the first to put his finger on it. “They don’t want us to go that way, and they don’t want us to go back the way we came,” he explains. “Oh my god,” Blonde exclaims. “They’re herding us like cattle!” Give that lady a cookie.Soon follows the most distasteful part of the film. The party continues on and stumbles over a war between a bunch of red and black ants. This is shown at a fair bit of length. Gordon obviously provided this spectacle by tossing the ants in the aquarium together, knowing they’d go at it. Now, I’m still someone who hates bugs and continues to squash them when I find them running around my house. Still and all, though, this seems a tad cruel.
Now we get to the part of the film that, rather than being dumb, just gets weird. The party gratefully stumbles across a swampland house of an old hillbilly couple. The two initially act strangely, like they’re in a daze. The old lady softly speaks to Blonde until her husband notices. Fearfully, the woman then pulls away and is told to phone for the sheriff.
Soon they are in a squad cruiser and being driving to town. The sheriff expresses amazement at their tale, of course, but promises to take a posse into the swamp and check out their tale. They drive past the town’s job center, a sugar refinery. Smoke billows from the stacks. The sheriff mentions he’d better warn the plant, as it’s on the river.
The party is taken into town and treated well. The Mayor is consulted and they are given hotel room to grab some rest. As they enter, the Mayor is on the phone, angrily demanding a huge shipment of raw sugar for the refinery be delivery ASAP. Hearing this, Blonde tells the others that the old woman had warned her to stay away from the refinery.
The group, especially Cap’n Dan, remain frustrated in their attempts to communicate beyond the town. Joe is told by the operator that the long-distance lines are down. Cap’n Dan, however, wonders how the Mayor was making his call, then. He and Joe head off to rent a car. Having lost their ID, though, they can’t. Their unease grows as they note the Sheriff ambling around the town rather than going on the promised investigation. To their horror they hear the clattering ant sound coming from around the corner. They gingerly step forward to take a look (Cue Jaws music), but it turns out to be a kid riding a Hot Wheel. Comedy!
Acting proactively, the men gather the others and steal a car. (Movie Rule #47: In every group of characters, someone knows how to hotwire an automobile.) This achieved, they head out of town. Meanwhile, and this is a novel concept, Cap’n Dan scrounges the glove box looking for anything useful, like a weapon. Their escape is thwarted, however, when they come across a police roadblock. Joe tries to elude capture â€“ boy, they sure have a lot of squad cars for such a small town â€“ but a hail of bullets results in their car taking a Hal Needham-esque slow motion flying dive into a retaining pond.
Cap’n Dan tries to engage the cops in fisticuffs, but falls when one of them unfairly resorts to shotgun stockicuffs. Even so, the diversion allows Joe and Blonde to escape into the nearby cornfields. One deputy nearly shoots the fugitives, but the sheriff knocks his gun down. He orders the other brought into the refinery. In the complex, the sheriff watches calmly as a parade of giant ants â€“ way too gigantic â€“ enter the refinery’s storage silo. (One of these creatures is conspicuously standing up on ‘air.’) This is why the refinery has been running at full blast.
We see the ants enter the silo via the worst matting shots I’ve seen in a while. Well, OK, not quite as bad as the ones in A*P*E, but damn close. Basically, this entire end section of the movie is way beyond Gordon’s technical expertise, especially given the sort of budget he undoubted had to work with. He might have been better off sticking with the ants-in-the-woods thing. Then all the money he blew here could have been used to mock-up some more impressive prop ants. Yet while a more modest film might have technically been a better one, you just have to admire Gordon’s ambition. He really wanted to make something of scope here, even if he didn’t really have the resources to pull it off. If he’d have another half million dollars at his disposal, he might have really made this movie work.
So the others are taken into the main building. There they join a line of townspeople. (During all this, Joe and Blonde find their way blocked by ants. Forced from the cornfield, they also are taken prisoner.) We now learn the Awful Truth. The Queen Ant’s mutated state has enhanced her pheromones. By periodically spraying the residents of the town with them, she can telepathically order them around. This, needless to say, is a little suspect. And, as I mentioned before, just plain weird. As well, the scenes with the townsfolk entering an enclosed booth with the Queen so she can basically fart a big white cloud of pheromones at them are a tad risible.
Marilyn is forced inside. When she emerges, she goes all Invasion of the Body Snatchers on the others, assuring them of how great everything is. Then it’s Cap’n Dan’s turn. However, he had palmed a road flare he’d discovered in the glove box mentioned earlier. Road flares, of course, rank right after fire extinguishers and very pistols as useful gadgets in sci-fi movies. He threatens the Queen with it, while the Sheriff and the other townsfolk standing there kvetching in horror. It seems kind of silly that no one tries to stop Cap’n Dan. Still, it’s possible the Queen’s fear is keeping it from sending out coherent commands, leaving her zombie-like subjects unable to act.
As the Queen screams out in terror, the other ants go nuts. Suddenly they turn on the refinery workers and kill them all in a horrible orgy of death and bad special effects. (Killing the workers seems a bit harsh, given that they were being mind-controlled into aiding the ants.)
With the Queen and her lackeys diverted, Our Heroes flee. Marilyn, still in a fog, stumbles back into the enraged ant’s booth and is attacked. Meanwhile the sheriff has begun to shrug off her control. Drawing his pistol, he empties it into the Queen’s head. The Queen dies, taking Marilyn with her. I think there’s supposed to be some subtext here, with Marilyn like the Queen being a monstrous female who seeks only to control others and bend them to her will. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Maybe the Queen was just an ant and Marilyn the film’s big celebrity death.
As the townsfolk flee the plant, Joe spots â€“ what else â€“ a petrol tanker truck conveniently parked nearby. Opening the spigot, he drives all around the facility, spraying a trail of fuel behind him. Finally he smashes into the silo, which I guess is supposed to contain the remainder of the ants. This results in a big explosion (of Gordon’s model of the silo), although noticeably none of the gas-impregnated grounds catch fire. This presumably was another causality of the film’s budget. Still, we go see the prop ants burning up, meaning somebody forewent making a sizable sum on Ebay.
Joe shows up, and he, Cap’n Dan, Miss Ellis (‘Margaret’ Ellis, according to the end credits, although a mention of this during movie would have been nice) and Blonde (‘Coreen,’ and ditto) steal a boat and cruise to safety. Although the ominous music is again heard, lending the finish a “THE END â€“ OR IS IT?!” sort of vibe.
By the way, anyone who bothers to seek out the DVD of this really has to give the included two-minute plus (!) theatrical trailer a look. In it, they really beat the H. G. Wells angle mercilessly. This includes the following hilarious assertion: “In this fantastic tale [i.e., the one they took the title and little else from], Wells tells the chilling story of a colony of ants who feed on atomic waste, causing them to grow into large, voracious monsters.” Given that Wells composed the story in the 1920’s, you may be less than surprised to learn that “atomic waste” is not actually mentioned. Of course, neither are Ants of Extraordinary Size.
Other aspects of note include some dialog wisely removed from the final print. We again watch the scene where Cap’n Dan and Joe fend off some ants with boat oars. “Go on, get out of here!” one is heard yelling, as if the monstrous insects were overly affectionate pooches! As well, they utterly blow the “controlled humans” aspect of the film, thus blowing it’s entire surprise plot twist.
As the site enters its sixth year of operation, it’s something of a shock to realize that not once have we featured a film made by Bert I. Gordon. This to me is a startling, nearly inexcusable lapse. (Nor am I the only such culprit. Liz Kingsley of And You Call Yourself A Scientist! apparently made a similar discovery during her roundtable review of Gordon’s Beginning of the End.)
Some will point out the absence from our pages of, say, the work of Ed Wood Jr. That’s a bit different, though. Wood’s work is so well covered I’m not sure what I could add. Gordon’s voluminous contributions to the Bad Movie field, however, are comparatively obscure. Besides, Gordon’s films were filled with giants and giant beasties. This kind of thing is right up my alley, and I can’t begin to explain his previous nonappearance on these pages. Time to make a list, I think, of those whose work I’ve ignored.
To fans like me, the fascination with Mr. Gordon is that he’s an exaggerated, virtually archetypical example of his breed. If you were to create a fictional ’50s sci-fi director, chances are he would call to mind Gordon more than any of his associates.
The ’50s saw many specialists in low budget sci-fi and horror pictures. Roger Corman, William Castle, Jerry Warren, Nathan Juran, Richard Cunha, Phil Tucker, Ed Wood and many other such toiled in these fields. Even so, in many ways Bert Gordon is more emblematic than any of these storied individuals. It’s not that he exhibited any unique traits to set himself apart. It’s that he inhabited the regular ones more fully.
First, Gordon was, like many of those listed above, a one-man filmmaking company. He produced them. He directed them. He wrote the screenplays, or at a minimum would provide the story ideas. And, of course, he did the special effects for his gigantism-themed pictures, which were the majority of his output. Charmingly, he was often assisted by his wife Flora in this, as well as in other production aspects. Their young daughter Susan, meanwhile, acted in several of their pictures.
Another trait of Gordon’s was that he seldom stepped outside the sci-fi/horror genres, especially during the years he was something of a name. In this, too, he calls to mind several of the above names. And again, too, he stuck to this trait with even greater tenacity.
Although Gordon continued to work throughout the ’80s, making four films, it was during the ’50s to the ’70s that he was best known. Between his first film, King Dinosaur (1955) and Empire of the Ants in 1977, he produced and directed seventeen films. Of these, all but three are sci-fi, horror or, in one case, fantasy films. The remainder included a kid’s film, a cop movie and a sex comedy.
Even that doesn’t really mark him as unusual, though. No, the oddest thing about his output is that, of the fourteen sci-fi/horror/fantasy films, a full ten of them featured revolved around giant men or animals. (The fantasy, The Magic Sword, undoubtedly featured some macro-photography as well. Or so would be my assumption.) Actually, to be exact, Attack of the Puppet People had smallified people rather than embiggened ones. Still and one, the one normal person then basically functioned as a giant.
The reason for this focus was that Gordon had developed his own technique for matting enlarged images into his films. This process was undeniably crude. Still, if these effects rarely served to fool the eye â€“ his film The Amazing Colossal Man could have been entitled with equal accuracy The Amazing Translucent Man â€“ they were cheap. With a seemingly insatiable taste in the late ’50s for sci-fi movies of any seeming quality, ‘cheap’ was an advantageous characteristic.
In his most fecund period as a filmmaker (1957-1958), Gordon released six movies in two years (!!). All of these involved embiggening (or smallifying) themes: Beginning of the End, The Cyclops, Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, Earth vs. the Spider and Attack of the Puppet People. As well, these occasionally sported what were considered ‘name’ actors in sci-fi junk of the period: Peter Graves in Beginning of the End, John Agar in Attack of the Puppet People.
As well, his only previous film, 1955’s King Dinosaur, featured photographically embiggened iguanas to represent the title theropods. Even discounting his much rarer excursions in this direction later in his career â€“ Village of the Giants, Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants â€“ one can easily see how he become associated in the public eye with this sort of fare.
Gordon’s work, especially the six films made in ’57-’58, represent everything we think of when contemplating ’50s drive-in sci-fi pictures. Yet while undeniably junky, all of these half dozen remain enjoyable. This is more than can said of, say, Jerry Warren’s output. (Unfortunately, Gordon’s films outside this period are not as reliable.)
In fact, The Amazing Colossal Man is, once you get past the frequently awful effects work and some other ludicrous elements, a surprisingly meaty and often intelligent film. Probably the strongest element is a surprisingly effective turn by actor Glenn Langan in the title role. As with Michael Landon in Herman Cohen’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf, it’s a diamond found in very rough surroundings.