Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Ants! (USA, 1977)

Originally made as an ABC television movie titled It Happened at Lakewood Manor, Ants! received its new moniker upon re-release during the video age. Our DVD ended up in our hands as part of a cheap, two-DVD nature-gone-wrong package, vacuum-packed with the indefinitely inferior CBS movie of the same year, Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977).
Ants!, like Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo, includes a bevy of familiar faces, but the sub-par CBS spider film definitely lacks any names even half as big as three found here: Myrna Loy ([2 Aug 1905 – 17 Dec 1993] of Thirteen Women [1932, the only film of the legendary Peg Entwistle (5 Feb 1908 – 16 Sept 1932)], The Mask of Fu Manchu [1932 / scene], The Thin Man [1934 / trailer] and so much more), who in her day was one of the most distinctively beautiful actresses of Hollywood; the hunka-hunka of BBC that was Bernie Casey ([8 Jun 1939 – 19 Sept 2017] of Boxcar Bertha [1972 / trailer],  Hit Man [1972 / trailer — see: Babe of Yesteryear Marilyn Joi],  Cleopatra Jones [1973] and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde [1976 / trailer]), whom we just recently learned was a talented painter (below is an example of his artwork); and TV-land's T&A Queen of the last half of the 70s, Suzanne Somers, just a few months shy of jiggling her way to national stardom in Three's Company (1977-81 / original credit sequence), whence she was eventually dropped for being uppity enough to ask for equal pay to that of her male co-star John Ritter (he earned $150,000 an episode to her $30,000 because, hey, men are men and women are women and men — especially white men — are worth more than women).
Interestingly enough, both the previously mentioned CBS flick, Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo, and ABC's Ants! share something in common aside from their year of release and nature-gone-wild plots: both movies involve the writing talents of Guerdon Saltonstall Trueblood (2 Nov 1933 – 3 Mar 2021), a man who later helped regurgitate the utterly ridiculous Jaws 3-D (1983 / trailer) and, a decade earlier, wrote and directed the cult exploitation thriller, The Candy Snatchers (1973 / trailer). We are happy to say, however, that aside from the shared plots points of tiny poisonous critters and "a nice amount of familiar faces known either from better films or the hazy, lazy, rose-colored happy days of childhood", Tarantulas and Ants! are miles apart in terms of quality.
While hardly a masterpiece and never even close to losing its "This is a TV movie" sheen, Ants! actually works as a film. Sure, there are many scenes and points along the way that instigate a loud snort of unintended laughter, especially now, some 45 years after the flick's first airing, but Ants! remains watchable and involving from beginning to end and even manages to have some tense and/or memorable sequences, despite being hampered by buggies so small that they are close to impossible to truly make terrifying. More than one scene of tension also involves some pretty nifty stuntwork, though the events leading up to those sequences are often rather ridiculous. (The only thing about Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo that is notably better than Ants! is that the spider film had the balls to do that which Spielberg says never do: kill the child.)
Trailer to
Directed by Robert Scheerer (28 Dec 1928 – 3 Mar 2018), whose only non-TV project of note would be the entitled-yuppie-white-women-deserve-to-win comedy How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980 / trailer), Ants! displays a relatively workmanship eye in terms of visuals, but if the direction is in no way exceptional it is at least clear and concise. 
To the film's advantage, the unembellished professionalism of the direction is echoed in the acting: while no one in the movie would win an Emmy Award, they all do a serviceable if even more than adequate job giving their mostly one-note characters a sense of believability — although it really must be noted that every time Myrna Loy (that's her below from her Golden Days) shows up to do her lines, however short they might be, in her perfectly clipped and enunciated, classic Hollywood "mid-Atlantic accent", she comes across as more real and natural than any of the others stars, with the possible exception of the movie's two assholes you want dead, health inspector Mr. White (formerly ubiquitous character actor Steve Franken [27 May 1932 – 24 Aug 2012] of The Time Travelers [1964 / trailer],  The Reincarnation of Peter Proud [1975 / trailer], Avalanche [1978 / trailer], The North Avenue Irregulars [1979 / trailer], Transylvania Twist [1989 / trailer] and more) and asshole alpha business man Tony Fleming (Gerald Gordon [12 Jul 1934 – 17 Aug 2001] of Hell Up in Harlem [1973 / trailer] and Driving Force [1989 / trailer]).
Although the film occasionally exudes a sense of innocent days of yesteryear, it is surprisingly woke in some of its attitudes and statements, to the point that were it a product of today it would surely be banned from broadcast in anti-common-sense places like Planet Florida or Planet Texas, where humans and their actions have no effect on ecology and people have no brains. 
The titular ants, for example, are a product of our own doing, as Tom (Bruce French of Dark and Stormy Night [2009 / trailer]), a Board of Health ant expert — every Board of Health has one, of course — who functions as the movie's Mr. Exposition, explains: them thar' critters "have been living in earth that soaked up [our] poisons for years" and "became immune to wastes and poisons in the air, then used them themselves as a deadly weapon".
Fire Chief (Brian Dennehy)
The structure of Ants! is that typical of a disaster film, which means that the plot features the normal collection of minor subplots that come together in the end with all the surviving main characters trapped in a seemingly inescapable and deadly situation. Here, the situation is Lakewood Manor, which is faced by an attack of pissed-off ants with a deadly bite: a few bites are harmless, more than a few might make a grown man numb, and a lot will kill. But up until they attack, the diverse tales are told to make you, the viewer, either root for or dislike the next possible victim.
Marjorie (Barbara Brownell of Mark of the Witch [1970 / trailer]), for example, shows up with her young son Tommy (Moosie Drier of American Hot Wax [1978 / trailer] and The Hollywood Knights [1980 / trailer]), in need of relaxation to come to terms with her freshly broken marriage. Bubbly businesswoman Gloria (Somers) arrives with her alpha-asshole boss/business partner/lover Tony Fleming (Gordon), the latter of whom wants to bamboozle the hotel's elderly owner Ethel (Loy) into selling the place so that he can raze it and open a casino. Ethel's daughter Valerie (Linda Day George and her forehead, of The Devil's 8 [1969 / theme], Day of the Animals [1977], Beyond Evil [1980 / trailer], Pieces [1982, with Farley Granger], Mortuary [1983 / trailer] and Young Warriors [1983 / trailer]), is in a relationship with Mike Carr (Robert Foxworth of The Astral Factor [1978 / German trailer], Damien: Omen II [1978 / trailer] and Prophecy [1979 / trailer]), the blue-eyed, manly man and somewhat hot-headed foreman of the building site next door; Valerie would very much like her mother to sell so that she and Mike can move to San Francisco. And even as stud-muffin lifeguard "Six-Pack" Richard (Barry Van Dyke) is hooking up with free-and-easy Linda (Karen Lamm [21 Jun 1952 – 29 Jun 2001] of Coming Attractions a.k.a. Loose Shoes [1978 / full film] and The Unseen [1980 / trailer]), two construction workers at the next-door building site get attacked by ants and then inadvertently buried due to some sloppy tractor work on the part of Vince (Casey).
It isn't long before Vince himself almost turns from man meat to ant meat, which helps Mike figure out the tiny insects are behind the sudden spate of deaths and near deaths, the latter of which includes the normal expendables: a minority (the Mexican cook Luis [Rene Enriquez (24 Nov 1933 – 23 Mar 1990) of The Evil That Men Do (1984 / trailer) and Blood Bath (1975 / trailer)]), diverse construction workers, and others. When no one believes Mike, he pitches a man-fit and obliterates the ants' habitat, which causes the ants to attack the manor en mass, resulting in more deaths — like that of Gloria (Somers), who looks good in a one-piece but is substantially less pneumatic than in our childhood memories — and suddenly the surviving characters of importance are trapped in the hotel and in danger of imminent ant-induced death as the invading ants force them, one floor at a time, into a dead-end situation. Unluckily, although help arrives in the form of a fire chief (Brian "War Hero" Dennehy [9 Jun 1938 – 15 Apr 2020] of First Blood [1982 / trailer], Silverado [1985 / trailer], F/X [1986 / trailer], F/X2 [1991 / trailer] and more), insurmountable problems arise that hamper the rescue efforts.
Ants! obviously had a somewhat bigger budget than, say, the obviously lowbrow Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo with which it was packaged — and it shows. As a result, and as previously said, Ants! isn't all that bad for a TV movie, although it is (as normal for the small screen at the time) occasionally a bit slow and does draw out scenes to pad the running time. The insects might not scare, but some tension is occasionally achieved in the buildup to the various attacks that kill one or the other peripheral or minorly important character (or at least sends them to the hospital). 
The effects are pretty cheesy across-the-board, especially when the ants attack en mass, but for that none of the stunts rely purely on editing, which makes them notably fun to watch/see. There is a bit involving a rescue helicopter that is truly ironically funny and results in a great hosing-down scene, and the last scenes of the final trio trapped in a room trying to remain stock still as the ants swarm over them does tickle everyone's innate distaste of cribbling creatures on the skin.
Needless to say, some real nudity and gore would have definitely improved the Ants! by more than just a double-DDT mouthful. (Double D and DDT – you get it? Hah-hah-hah.) Nevertheless, if you're a fan of vintage TV flicks, you cannot go wrong with Ants! For the younger set, one or two scenes might even induce a nightmare (at least, that is, if they are not yet fully of the internet age). The movie, in any event, works successfully in every way that Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo fails, even as it delivers almost as many age-induced, unintentional laughs.*
* Haven't read enough about Ants!? Then we suggest you go over to the article on the film and all its stars, minor and major, found at the excellent blogspot Poseidon's Underworld.
Postscript: As fun and cheesy as Ants! is, we here at a wasted life would be doing the bad-film newcomer a disservice not to point out that 1977 also saw the release of a much "better" feature-film disasterpiece that definitely outdoes Ants! in every way. We are talking about the monster-sized
killer ants movie that is...
Empire of the Ants:

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