Empire of the Ants (1977)

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Empire of the Ants
Dir. Bert I. Gordon
Premiered June 29, 1977

What’s stupider than Jaws with an octopus? Jaws with ants! Produced by drive-in b-movie stalwart American Independent Pictures, and based on and having nothing to do with the H.G. Wells story of the same name, Empire of the Ants is a glorious first: the first so-bad-it’s-good flick of 1977.

The film opens simply enough, with the first of several long, lingering shots of slow-moving boats. This particular boat is off the coast of Florida, where some people– it just occurred to me that we never know who they are– dumping radioactive waste into the sea. One drum of waste floats onto the beach, leaks, and attracts ants.

The same day, a con artist (Joan Collins) has arranged for a party of speculators to check out her beachfront property with the promise of turning it into a small community. The land is worthless, but bigger problems arise when the irradiated ants grow to tremendous size and begin killing the party off one by one. With the help of the group’s boat captain (Robert Lansing), they escape to a town. Unfortunately, the local population has already been enslaved by the ants through the power of pheromones.

Let’s be clear: none of that makes sense. Radioactive waste doesn’t float, for one. Nor are ants telepathic, as shown here, occasionally screaming like human women. And there’s no way they could show up on the beach and take over a town miles away instantaneously. Far weirder is Empire of the Ants’ habit of having its characters constantly reference conversations that weren’t in the movie, but logically should have been, although said conversations still wouldn’t make sense in context, making it seem like there was no script. Each character is such a stereotype that you can tell the order in which they’ll be killed off.

But you’re not here for story; you’re here for effects, and you won’t be disappointed. The ant effects come in several different flavors. Sometimes the actors are placed in a split-screen with blown-up footage of real ants, albeit in visibly grainier film stock. At other times, live ants are placed on models, where they appear way larger than in any other form. Then there’s the puppets, which are lovingly detailed but can barely move, forcing the actors to stand patiently still in order to be slowly, gingerly gored. The most sublimely ridiculous gimmick, though, is when the ants appear to be drawn onto the film itself with black Sharpie.

At the very least, however, the film leaves plenty of dialogue-free moments to riff on. Mystery Science Theater 3000 take note!

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The men and women all wear variations on the same respective outfits, and they are disco-tastic.

How Did It Do?
Empire of the Ants grossed $2.5 million against an unknown budget– unknown, but probably tiny considering its shoddy effects and reckless production. It also earned an impressive-for-all-the-wrong-reasons 0% rating on RottenTomatoes.

Next Time: The Spy Who Loved Me

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