Bert I. Gordon is an American success story. He grew up during the Great Depression, and in Wisconsin, where everything is always a little more depressing. Then he made his way to Hollywood and became a prolific film director. Note that I do not say “good” or “skilled,” but prolific. He was best known for making movies about regular people or animals that grew to monstrous sizes, generally due to a nuclear mishap: “The Amazing Colossal Man,” “Earth vs. the Spider,” “Village of the Giants,” and so forth. What is interesting is that even though he worked in the genre of Giant Things, he possessed no talent whatsoever for making things appear to be giant. They always looked like regular-sized things that had been filmed up close and put next to other regular-sized things that were farther away.
It’s pretty impressive if you think about it. Bert I. Gordon wasn’t content to make any old kind of movie. He wanted to make a specific kind of movie — a kind of movie that would require a skill that he didn’t have. What’s more, he did it. He had a long, successful career doing something he was terrible at. (You want to make a joke about Nickelback, Arby’s, or Andie MacDowell here? I won’t stop you.)
Among the many bad movies he made was a bad movie called “Empire of the Ants.” It is about giant ants. If you have been paying attention so far, you will have inferred that the giant ants in “Empire of the Ants” do not look at all like giant ants. This is accurate. They are normal ants photographed crawling against small drawings of foliage and buildings. For scenes in which an ant attacks a person, Gordon painstakingly spent two or three minutes crafting a bunch of black rags into a shabby “giant ant” stuffed animal, then made sure to jiggle the camera a lot and do a lot of fast editing. The effect is clear: It looks like the person is being beaten with a stuffed animal by someone standing just off screen.
Does 90 minutes of this sound awful? Don’t worry, because “Empire of the Ants” isn’t all ants, all the time, until the end. Before that it’s primarily a dull soap opera punctuated by occasional ant attacks. The premise is that a horrible woman named Marilyn (Joan Collins, pre-“Dynasty”) is attempting to scam yokels into buying worthless property in Florida by convincing them it’s the future site of an upscale condominium village. Marilyn is renowned for being a major pain in the neck, if you know what I mean. (I mean she is a bitch.) She berates her employees, including Charlie (Edward Power), whom she’s also sleeping with. “You’re so terrific in the sack that it almost justifies the excessive salary that I have to pay you,” she says, because she is horrible.
What this horrible person doesn’t know is that some barrels of radioactive waste have washed up on the shore of her property, and that ants have eaten it (there’s nothing an ant loves more than radioactive waste) and have subsequently grown to the size of ponies. This has happened very quickly, too: We’re shown a bunch of ants nibbling on silver-colored radioactive waste on the same afternoon of Marilyn’s tour, and then giant ants attacking Marilyn’s potential clients later that day. You have to resist the urge to make an objection on the order of “Hey, I can accept ants becoming giant mutants, but in one afternoon??” because that way lies madness. Just close your eyes and think of England.
As luck would have it, a lot of the suckers on Marilyn’s real estate junket are also horrible, like her, and while maybe you wouldn’t say they deserve to be killed by giant ants, it would not fill you with consternation if you learned they had been. Most of these rubes have no intention of buying any property; they just want the free boat ride and refreshments. One married couple, Larry (Robert Pine) and Christine (Brooke Palance), are serious buyers, but they hate each other. Larry cheats on Christine constantly, and even tries to make time with a pretty blonde named Coreen (Pamela Shoop) who’s also on the tour. He gropes at her until she knees him in the groin. Traumatized by the assault, she immediately starts flirting with a different guy, Joe (John David Carson), who at least is single. There is also a cheap couple who mooch all the free food and booze they can, then complain about the quality of it. Ugh, never mind, they all deserve to die, by any means possible.
Oh, you know what? I will say this much for “Empire of the Ants”: All of the deaths are the result of ant attacks. No false advertising here. Not like that stupid “Frogs,” where not one person was actually killed by a frog. That was bogus.
Anyway, you know the routine: someone wanders away from the group, gets killed by ants, the others wonder what happened to the first person, they investigate, etc., etc. It’s a tale as old as time. Marilyn continues to be horrible through most of it, becoming slightly less horrible only after she sees her beloved employee/sexual partner Charlie murdered by ants. The property is not an island, but they did have to take a boat to get there — I guess it’s across a marina or harbor or something? What am I, a sailor? — and once the boat is destroyed they’re stuck. Oh, how did the boat get destroyed? Well, a couple of giant ants crawled aboard. Oh, and the ants damaged the boat beyond repair? No, no, nothing like that. They were just crawling around on it, and the captain decided the only viable option was to set it on fire. This act of stupidity is unfortunate, as the captain, Capt. Dan (Robert Lansing), was heretofore the only character who seemed to have a lick of sense and whose ant-based demise could possibly produce feelings of sadness. Now he’s in the same category as the rest of them.
So the people who have not yet been killed by ants have to trudge through the forest a couple miles to the nearest town. Along the way, some more of them get killed by ants. Obviously. For some reason — I say some reason, but I really mean no reason — the elderly couple, the Thompsons, split off from the others and go their own way, and are soon lost. They’re afraid that they might be attacked by huge ants, which is normally the kind of fear you attribute to the onset of dementia but which in this case is quite reasonable. They find an old shack that’s missing an entire wall, and the husband says, “We’ll be safe in here!,” even though they will clearly not be safe in there, on account of it’s missing an entire wall. They are slain.
Remember Larry the adulterer who hates his wife? They are being pursued by ants when Christine trips over a log and twists her ankle, as is customary in these situations. Larry leaves her to be destroyed by terrifying insects. This is terrible of him, and we do not condone it. That being said, Christine just kind of sits on the ground and lets the ants kill her. I mean, she only twisted one ankle. She can’t stand up and hop? I say someone too lazy to stand up and hop deserves what she gets.
Where the movie grows interesting is when the survivors make it to town and find that the town is run by — wait for it — giant ants. A narrator told us at the very beginning that ants secrete pheromones that cause their fellow ants to obey their will. The narrator didn’t tell us that this would be on the midterm, but we should have guessed. Now these giant ants are spraying their gases on the townspeople so that they (the townspeople, not the gases) will do what the ants want, which is to keep running the sugar refinery and providing the ants with sweet, delicious sugar. This all probably makes perfect sense as far as the narrator is concerned. My only complaint is that the town’s ant-based government seems to be well-established, yet the ants have only been this size for something like 24 hours. That doesn’t feel like enough time to invade a town, round up the citizens, administer mind-control farts, etc. I’m not one to criticize, but I suspect this film’s premise has some holes in it.