Empire of the Ants (1977)

Joan Collins is assaulted by a giant ant!
Joan Collins is assaulted by a giant ant!

A group of potential investors visit a stretch of Florida coastline to check out plots of land being offered to them by a bogus land developer (Joan Collins), but they soon find themselves under attack from masses of giant ants, which have mutated after coming into contact with a leaking barrel of radioactive waste.

Don't buy any land from this woman!
Don’t buy any land from this woman!
A wonderful US 1 sheet poster boasting Drew Struzan artwork
A wonderful US 1 sheet poster boasting Drew Struzan artwork
Giant ants! I repeat: giant ants!
Giant ants! I repeat: giant ants!

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS tends to be looked down upon by many critics and horror/sci-fi fans, but I think it is a very enjoyable creature feature!

An ant's eye view of a victim
An ant’s eye view of a victim
Ants attack the boat that the characters used to reach the beach, so everyone must head through the swamp to escape
Ants attack the boat that the characters used to reach the beach, so everyone must head through the swamp to escape

The story starts like a 70s disaster movie, with the various quickly-sketched characters being introduced in a series of scenes. This bunch includes a kindly couple, a callous, self-serving, sexual predator dude (Robert Pine), an initially misanthropic boat captain (Robert Lansing), a disillusioned, recently divorced heroic guy (John David Carson) and a sparky young woman out to start over again after finishing an affair with a married man (Pamela Susan Shoop).

John David Carson, Pamela Susan Shoop and some ants
John David Carson, Pamela Susan Shoop and some ants
Everyone rapidly gets wet and dirty in this movie
Everyone rapidly gets wet and dirty in this movie

These people aren’t the most in-depth personalities ever committed to film but, by the time they’ve battled their way through miles of mega-ant-festooned swampland, I got to like the handful of characters that survive long enough to reach the relative safety of a local town.

And it’s here at the town, in the third act of the movie, that the plot nicely twists: it stops being a survival horror monster movie and becomes a people-being-taken-over sci-fi story, as the protagonists discover that the giant ants have purposefully herded them here to be mentally controlled, like the rest of the townsfolk, by the huge queen ant lurking in the nearby sugar factory.

I love this story development! The local sheriff (Albert Salmi) and everybody else are compelled to do the ants’ bidding, forcing victims to be subjected to regular doses of pheromones, sprayed into their faces by the queen ant. But our mud-smeared heroes won’t be subjected to mind-control without a fight!

The queen ant prepares to spray a husband and wife with a cloud of pheromones to keep them under her control
The queen ant prepares to spray a husband and wife with a cloud of pheromones to keep them under her control

There’s also an interesting scene where the characters witness a fight between the giant black ants and another type of not-so-big, lighter-coloured ants. This is a cool idea (different creatures grow in size but continue to feed on each other), though this story development isn’t delved into, because the protagonists must continue their escape through the muddy swampland and we never see this other species of ant again.

After the success of his previous creature feature, THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976), Bert I. Gordon moved onto this movie, which also claimed to be based on the work of H.G. Wells, though it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the original short story at all. But who really cares? So long as using Wells’ name gave Mr B.I.G the opportunity to unleash more optically-enlarged critters for us to enjoy… I’m happy!

Gordon, the man behind such low budget, black and white 50s sc-fi monster movies as THE CYCLOPS, EARTH VS THE SPIDER, KING DINOSAUR and THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, famously created his own special effects for his films. These efforts are often derided, such as BEGINNING OF THE END’s shot of grasshoppers crawling over a photograph of a building, but I have always found his productions to be lively and watchable. Anyway, Bert, as usual, provided the special effects for this film too.

The characters try to escape danger in a boat, but the ants are everywhere!
The characters try to escape danger in a small rowboat, but the ants are everywhere!

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS was shot in the autumn of 1976 and the swamp locations look overcast, rather than sunny, despite this being in Florida, and this helps the look of the movie, I think. The dark tones add a gloomy, grim quality to the proceedings and also maybe helps the live action footage merge better with the ant photography: brighter, sunnier photography would probably have made the composited images look much more obvious.

An old couple find out that the shack they've been hiding in is surrounded by the massive ants!
An old couple find out that the shack they’ve been hiding in is surrounded by the massive ants!

I’m not saying the special effects are the best I’ve ever seen (this movie came out the same year as STAR WARS), but within the constraints of Bert’s budget and technical abilities, I think the use of a combination of large model ants for close-ups and magnified shots of real ants for the rest of the scenes works well enough.

Bert also jiggles the camera around a lot during scenes featuring the prop ants, giving the shots more energy and hiding the immobility of the models.

A big prop ant in action
A big prop ant in action

Joan Collins, in fine uber-bitch form, is fun to watch as heartless con artist Marilyn Fryser, but I think the best performance comes from Robert Lansing, playing the boat captain Dan Stokely, who goes from unsociable, dour observer to tough, heroic ant-fighter!

Jacqueline Scott, Robert Lansing and Joan Collins
Jacqueline Scott, Robert Lansing and Joan Collins
The 'Bitch' meets the queen...
The ‘Bitch’ meets the queen…
Ants march into the sugar factory for a sweet snack
Ants march into the sugar factory for a sweet snack

Despite the shortcomings of some of Bert’s FX (there’s a scene, later on in the film, where the ants are shown lining-up to enter the large sugar storage shed… and a couple of the insects look like they are crawling off the building and walking vertically into the sky), I think this is a solid 70s monster flick that manages to draw you into the story. You soon find yourself hoping that some of the characters will survive their monstrous ordeal… although I admit I was very pleased when the selfish, despicable Larry Graham (Robert Pine) finally runs out of luck and is savaged by a killer ant! Never was a character more deserving of being scrunched between giant mandibles!

Larry gets what he deserves! Yay!
Larry gets what he deserves! Yay!

Here are some very, very nice posters for the movie…

UK quad poster
UK quad poster. This is a good ‘un!
German A1 poster
German A1 poster
French grande poster. Another fine poster!
French grande poster. Another fine poster!
Italian poster, which includes 'ant's eye view' imagery!
Italian poster – which includes ‘ant’s eye view’ imagery!
US half sheet
US half sheet
Australian poster
Italian poster... suggesting that the ants attack a city!
Italian poster… suggesting that the ants attack a city!

ANTS IN HER PANTS
A short, sharp interview with Joan Collins!

Publicity shot of Joan posing with a couple of the giant ant props
Publicity shot of Joan posing with a couple of the giant ant props

On Saturday 10th November 1990 Joan Collins attended a book-signing for her new novel at a store in High Street Kensington, London.

Greg Lamb, an intrepid contributor to my fanzine ‘IMAGINATOR’, decided to join the queue and ask her about EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, a film she had called the worst moment and film project of her career.

Joan doesn't seem to mind being in the company of a huge insect in this publicity still!
Joan doesn’t seem to mind being in the company of a huge insect in this publicity still!

Joan, as this interview will show, had not changed her opinion concerning Bert I. Gordon’s giant ant opus… and she becomes quite irritated with Greg!

This is the interview, which was printed in issue #7 of IMAGINATOR….

Greg: ‘Ms Collins – here you are signing your new book, you have a successful play in the West End, and DYNASTY is behind you. I wonder if you could tell me about this…’

(Greg hands Joan a video sleeve for EMPIRE OF THE ANTS)

UK VHS sleeve for Empire of the Ants
UK VHS sleeve for Empire of the Ants

Joan: ‘Oh my God! Oh no!’

(Joan turns the video sleeve over and views the whole cover)

Joan: ‘It’s disgusting’

Greg: ‘You once said that it was the lowest point in your whole career – why was that?’

(Joan gives Greg one of her most bitchy looks)

Joan: ‘Apart from being neck-high in a swamp full of leeches, and covered in mud, as well as being killed at the end by a 12ft papier-mâché ant, nothing, I suppose.’

Joan suffers from a giant ant flashback...
Joan suffers from a giant ant flashback…

Greg: ‘So, you didn’t like filming it?’

Joan (snapping): ‘No, I did not!’

Joan didn't enjoy the filming, it seems...
Joan didn’t enjoy the filming, it seems…

Greg: ‘If you could say anything to Bert I. Gordon, the director, what would it be?’

Joan: ‘I wouldn’t want to say anything in front of these people.’

(Greg points to the video cover she’s still holding…)

Greg: ‘Could you sign the video sleeve for me, please?’

Joan: ‘No, I will not. That is not my scene, love.’

(Joan hands the cover back to Greg and turns to a very tall, very wide man standing next to her…)

Joan: ‘Can you please show the young man out.’

Greg: ‘Thanks, bye…’

(Greg is grabbed by the right arm, led to the door of the store, and pushed into Kensington High Street by the security goon!)

End of interview!

Here’s the final comment from Greg Lamb, after his brief chat was over: ‘I’ve always liked Joan Collins for her balls and down-to-earth attitude, as well as the image that she puts across on screen. But I can say that, seeing her from two feet away, she looked only about 5ft tall. She should really learn to love EMPIRE OF THE ANTS!’

Joan had some good days on the shoot, I'm sure
I’m sure Joan had some good days on the shoot…
...but maybe she had more bad days!
…but maybe she had far more bad days!

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