Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The B.I.G. Bugs of "Empire of the Ants"

Bert I. Gordon isn't known as Mr. B.I.G. just because of his initials. This low-budget director established his reputation by specializing in movies about giant people (Village of the Giants), big rats (Food of the Gods), and over-sized spiders (The Spider). But today, we are focusing on ginormous ants, which are on prominent display in Gordon's 1977 cult opus Empire of the Ants.

Let me be clear that we're not talking about Them-sized ants nor a movie that can be compared in any way to that 1954 sci fi classic. Still, this is the kind of movie I would have watched at a movie theater as a college student in 1977. To my credit, I did see Food of the Gods, but, hey, it had Marjoe Gortner and Ida Lupino fighting the kind of people-eating rats that would put Willard and Ben to shame. Yet, somehow I missed Empire of the Ants on its original release and never caught it on television.

Jacqueline Scott and Robert Lansing.
Thus, I was pleased to find it on the movie schedule at the 2016 Williamsburg Film Festival. Even better, the showing included an introduction by Jacqueline Scott, who co-starred with Joan Collins and a bearded, almost unrecognizable Robert Lansing (who, of course, could still be identified because of his distinctive eyes...which really deserved to be the subject of a pop song).

Jacqueline Scott introduced Empire of the Ants by telling a funny story about Joan Collins crying over something in her trailer. Jacqueline overheard it, walked over to Robert Lansing's dressing room, and suggested that maybe he check on Joan. Lansing disappeared for a moment. He reappeared and handed Jacqueline a box of candy. "Give this to her," he said...and closed his trailer door.

Joan Collins looking very 1970s-ish.
Joan stars in Empire of the Ants as a real estate developer trying to induce unsuspecting folks into buying a lot in Dreamland Shores, which is apparently located in isolated Florida "swamp land." She takes her potential clients on a tour of the properties--completely unaware that nearby ants are munching on radioactive waste that has washed ashore.

Before long, giant ants (I'd estimate them at five feet in height) are eliminating extraneous characters like the elderly couple and the coward who left his wife behind during a bug attack. But the ants don't kill everyone and Robert Lansing, who pays the boat captain, wryly observes: "My god, they're herding us like cattle."

A giant ant confronts Joan.
Sure enough, the final third of Empire of the Ants evolves from a big bug movie into a variation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was an unexpected plot development and, for that reason alone, I'd classify Empire of the Ants as one of Bert I. Gordon's best movies (that's not saying a whole lot...but, honestly, it was kinda interesting).

The screenplay was loosely based on a 1905 short story by H. G. Wells. In Wells' tale, a gunboat captain discovers species of large (but only five centimeters), intelligent ants in the Amazon. He tries to destroy them, but fails. At the end of the story, the narrator speculates that the ants will reach Europe by 1950 or 1960.

Bert I. Gordon's Empire of the Ants was one of many later 1970s movies about nature taking revenge on humankind. Other films in this mini-genre included Grizzly, Day of the Animals, Squirm, and--the best of the bunch--John Frankenheimer's Prophecy.

Of course, Empire of the Ants had one thing none of these other movies had. It has an ant coordinator. Really. I saw it in the closing credits!


  1. There's also a funny shot of Collins off camera nuzzling up to one of the ants. Would've thought she'd be in her "Collins Bitch"(TM) mode thruout.
    Gordon said he couldn't get her to go into the filthy water, but that seems minor.

  2. How does a person get a job as an Ant Coordinator?

    This sounds terrific! You sold me!

  3. RIck, I can tell you had a lot of fun with this "Empire," from the clever title through the closing line. The festival sounds like the perfect place to have caught this, especially with Jacqueline Scott present. Fun post!

  4. My mom was actually an extra in this movie (!), and we just happened to catch it on TV tonight. Is there any possible way to obtain a "still" from this movie; my mom passed away a few years ago, and it would be so great to have a picture of her from the movie.