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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Empire of the Ants
Empire of the Ants
MGM // PG // November 20, 2001
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 19, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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The Notorious B.I.G. -- the prolific Bert I. Gordon -- wrote, produced, and directed some of the most memorable schlock in cinematic history. A mainstay at Sam Arkoff's American International Pictures, I believe Gordon's name is attached to more episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 than any other director. Eight of his films -- King Dinosaur, The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth Vs. The Spider, War Of The Colossal Beast, The Magic Sword, Tormented, The Beginning Of The End, and Village Of The Giants -- were riffed upon throughout the series' run on Comedy Central, an impressive feat considering that Gordon's directorial ouvre consists of just twenty-one movies. A few years before AIP shifted towards the bigger budget movies that would eventually bury the company, it only seemed natural that Bert I. Gordon would follow up the success of his H.G. Wells adaptation Food Of The Gods with another Wells work. (As a completely random aside, Food Of The Gods was followed by a sequel fifteen years later, and I'm currently working on a project with one of its assistant directors.) Empire Of The Ants was one of the last titles from my days of sifting through cut-out bins, and it's among the only videos that's tagged along after I graduated from college, thinking that its chances of making it onto DVD were infinitesimal. I sorely underestimated MGM, who released Empire Of The Ants as part of their budget-priced Midnite Movies line alongside such fine films as At the Earth's Core, War Gods of the Deep, The People that Time Forgot late last month.

I admittedly have never cracked open Wells' original short story, but apparently the forward-thinking author anticipated the mutagenic properties of atomic by-products. After a brief Discovery Channel snippet informing viewers of the impending dominance of our six-legged scavenging buddies, Empire Of The Ants begins with a bunch of workers clad in loud red protective wear dumping drums of radioactive waste into some unspecified body of water. To allay any doubt on our part, the canisters are clearly marked 'Danger: Radioactive Waste' and given several lingering close-ups. Just a few short minutes later, we're treated to a shot of ants feasting on some white liquid slowly leaking from a container that's washed upon Dreamland Shores, just as a couple of misfit workers comment on how remote the island is from civilization. Dreamland Shores is the brainchild of superbitch Marilyn Fryser (Joan Collins), who with pud monkey Charlie Pearson (Ed Power) and gritty captain Dan Stokely (Robert Lansing) shop the desolate swampland to dimwitted clients on the auspices of a luncheon getaway. Little do these red shirts know that Dreamland Shores is soon to become...(gasp!) Nightmareland Shores as hideously deformed insects of superhuman size and strength treat themselves to the newly-arrived buffet. Bert I. Gordon would never stoop so low as to rely solely on stalk-and-slash creatures, and there is an irrepressibly goofy sci-fi element introduced in the last half hour as the true motives of the ants and their empire are uncovered.

Empire Of The Ants is inept on virtually every level, which is, of course, the only reason I'd be interested in owning this disc. The movie is a hodgebodge of elements lifted directly from previous works, from the faux-Jaws score to the entirely interchangable dialogue. Joan Collins may have spent the past fifty years rehashing the same role, but no one can pull off a generic bitch in quite the same way. It's obvious from the moment she trots on camera that Marilyn is going to meet a grisly end as the film comes to a close, and awaiting her demise builds more interest than anything else in Empire Of The Ants. None of the cast is given the opportunity or dialogue to develop to any extent. Their motivation consists entirely of "free boat ride", "free food", "and "run from ants". Watching the cast ham it up with the ants is a treat, considering the hysterical special effects. The intercutting of tiny ants skittling across the frame with a shaky camera focusing on actors duking it out with fuzzy brown puppets consistently left me in stitches, as did the poorly-executed matte jobs. Though not quite as much fun as a movie like A·P·E, I've managed to willingly sit through Empire Of The Ants five or six times over the past few years and haven't been driven hopelessly insane. An entertaining 89 minutes from one of the masters of camp, Empire Of The Ants is required viewing for anyone with the faintest interest in no-budget suspense/horror.

Video: As far as I'm aware, this DVD marks the first time on home video that Empire Of The Ants has been presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This being one of the astoundingly rare occasions where I have a point of reference, I was wowed by the significant improvement this 16x9-enhanced image offers compared to my soft, muddy VHS. Detail wavers depending on the shot, but is generally very strong. The level of grain is hardly a surprise considering the Z-grade film stock, tending to be moderately tight and rarely becoming a distraction. The color palette is still unmistakably '70s, though noticeably stronger on this DVD than on my well-worn video. Some portions scattered about exhibit some softness, and the optical effects haven't aged particularly well. The usual flecks of dust are present to a far lesser extent than I was anticipating, and assorted print flaws are kept to a bare minimum. The source print must've been in immaculate condition, and the exceedingly high quality of this anamorphic presentation belies its $14.95 list price.

Audio: It's evident from the Dolby Digital mono soundtrack that twenty-five years have passed since filming began on Empire Of The Ants, but the quality of the audio is passable. The level of background hiss isn't terribly intrusive, and no clicks or pops seemed to skwawk from my center speaker. Dynamic range, not surprisingly, is limited, particularly at the lower frequencies. Dialogue occasionally sounds a bit muffled, but the astoundingly high chirping of the mutated ants is reproduced well. This is your basic vintage mono track, far from disappointing but wholly unable to make my toes curl. With the wide international appeal of Empire Of The Ants, MGM has seen fit to include both audio and subtitles in French and Spanish as well.

Supplements: As is the case with the majority of MGM's Midnite Movies, the only snippet of supplemental material is the theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Conclusion: Empire Of The Ants is a classic nugget of '70s camp and a boundless source of unintentional humor. As the 'Midnite Movies' banner emblazoned across the cover art suggests, this is a movie well-suited to whip out at 2 AM to watch in a sleep-deprived stupor. Empire Of The Ants holds up respectably to repeat viewings, and the $10 asking price at most retailers is reasonable. Recommended.
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