Friday, June 01, 2007

Movies: Fear travels on six teensy-tiny little legs.

Ants had two strikes against it going in. First, it had run afoul of the Screamin' Law of Multiple Movie Titles. The flick, originally a made for television jobber called It Happened at Lakewood Manor a.k.a. Panic at Lakewood Manor, now slinks around under it's Pilipino release title, like some beneficiary of a government relocation program meant to protect B-grade horror flicks from the complete financial murder they would suffer if they showed up on store racks under their real names.

Second, it is one of the eco-horror flicks in which mankind, or some stand-in subset of second tier celebrity, receives its violent comeuppance for our environmentally unbalanced ways at the hands of some insect or angry whale or pissed-off wallaby or whatever. Though there's many a fan of this once (back in the 1970s) mighty subgenre, even the most exemplary specimens of this sort of flick have left me a bit confused. Presumably the lesson we're supposed to take home from these flicks is "Mother Nature deserves respect and treating her like poop means that horrible animal armies will descend upon our homes and vacation areas, making us big-time miserable." In practice, though, the films always play out as a humans-versus-nature battle royal, with Mother Nature playing the villain. You can spout all the canned speeches you want about the dangers of mechanized farms and the importance of a sound nation-wide policy towards global warming – but when it comes down to a fight between Joe Character and savage swarm of killer insects, you can't expect Joe to be selected against without a fight. As Montgomery Burns once said: "Oh, so Mother Nature needs a favor? Well, maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys. Nature started the fight for survival and now she wants to quit because she's losing? Well, I say 'Hard cheese'!"

Naming and ideological concerns aside, Ants is a moderately enjoyable popcorn flick that manages to score some genuine squirms from the directors decision to, on several occasions, dump live ants on his actors. All the CGI in the world cannot make you cringe like the image of actual ants crawling across some dude's mug.

Like all good disaster/horror flicks, Ants starts with the obligatory gathering of the minor celebrity herd. In this case, the flock gathers at Lakewood Manor, a seaside California resort run by late-career Myrna Loy. In the interest of full disclosure, Ants made it into the DVD player because I once, in the heat of a schoolboy-like crush, added everything the incomparable Myrna was in to my Netflix queue. Seeing Nora Charles in what must rank as one of the worst wigs in cinema history certainly counts as one of the scariest things in this flick. Other cast members include the Thigh Master herself, Suzanne Somers; Falcon Crest soaper Robert Foxworth; Day of the Animals alumni and go-to animal attack victim Lynda Day; and Bernie Casey, who I most fondly remember as the cat who allows the geek protagonists of Revenge of the Nerds to join the Tri-Lamdb frat.

Things go fairly well at first, until a couple of construction workers disturb an outsized nest of ants. As luck would have it, these ants are not only ticked off – they've been made dangerously poisonous as a reaction to the stew of pesticides and whatnot that humans – foolish humans – have exposed them to. After dispatching the construction workers, the ants make some minor forays into the hotel, offing a cook and a young vacationer. Foxworth, who plays the foreman of the infested construction site, is certain the ants are causing the fatal and near fatal incidents that are suddenly plaguing the hotel. The health inspectors, however, are not convinced. To prove his point, Foxworth decides to drive his bulldozer into the ant colony, getting the ants so angry they march out in force. Sure, this dooms nearly everybody still in the hotel and leads to the unnecessary deaths of several characters – but it'll be the last damn time some egghead from the Board of Health tells this construction worker that he doesn't know a colony of poisonous killer ants when he sees one! Once the ants go to war, the movie kicks into full disaster mode. To sweeten the pot, Brian Dennehy shows up as the fire chief who comes to the embattled heroes' aid.

Ants isn't without its charms. There is an unintentional camp factor that is hard to resist and the story, while hardly original, moves along at a nice pace. This is the sort of thing that was made to kill some time on a lazy afternoon, though expecting much more than that will leave you disappointed. Using the ever-popular Infamous Forest Fires Film Rating System, I'm going to give Ants a slim, but not completely regrettable, 1871 Peshtigo Fire. Sure it was overshadowed by the Chicago Fire, which happened on the same day, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a blaze worth noting in its own way.


spacejack said...

I can't recall ever hearing about this movie. But it does bring to mind the movie "Squirm" from '76, about earthworms that get violent after being electrocuted by fallen power lines. I'm pretty sure it's got to be terrible, but it sure creeped me out watching it on TV as a kid. Maybe good for a laugh if you're exploring the genre.

Heather Santrous said...

Great review! Not a movie I have watched before but really enjoyed reading your review of it. This is one sub genre that is usualy fun when I watch a movie from it but I don't go out of my way to watch them.

Anonymous said...

Great review, as usual!
First, neat poster, and the tagline is amusing.
But I'm used to the much more prurient method of attracting movie-goers:

(I did a very quick google search, so only found a German (I think) version of this poster, but the photo is what's important and that's the image I usually associate with this movie, not having seen it).
Now, doesn't THAT make you want to check this film out?

The Monty Burns reference is awesome!
The idea of a bad movie relocation program is inspired, and should probably exist, if not for movies, then at least the producers and directors...

And the Myrna Loy connection was very cool.
Made me think of when I actually met Elke Sommer in Pittsburgh, ca. '79-80. I was previously so enamored of Ms. Sommer due to her work in A SHOT IN THE DARK and a Playboy pictorial from the 70s, that I was totally mute when I met her (she was the spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Light Opera and was actually on hand to show a small exhibit of her oil paintings at a local jewelry store).
Like your Myrna Loy example, superficially, the distance from point A to point B leads to unexpected results.

Terrific, entertaining review as always. Sorry I've been absent for so long.

Anonymous said...

CRWM -- so how about a review of Bug next to complete the animal tri-fecta ? Well, ok, toss in "Frogs" or "Skeeter" (or the sequel, ugh) to keep the man vs nature aspects, or what not, since Bug is alien related or somesuch.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Jackie,

I remember Squirm well. Especially the willies-inducing close-ups of this mandible-bearing slime worm thing that shows up a couple times in the flick. Nasty stuff. And proof that live insects make for solid filming.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

Good to see you again.

I'm sad to report that we never get the cleavage and ants combo. We do get ants crawling over the legs and side of an undressed, but still under strategically placed bed sheets, Suzanne Somers. Because the flick was made for television, that's about as hot as it gets.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Heather,

Don't go out of your way for this one either. If it comes on some rainy afternoon, then you won't regret the time it kills. But it isn't worth hunting down on your own.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I don't think I'm going to get to Bug in the theaters. I want to go, but She Who Must Be Obeyed isn't interested at all.

Anonymous said...

Hey, does your main squeeze know about this SWMBO chick?

You know, I wondered about that-- about the lurid-ity level of this film, because as I soon as I saw the cover art, my brain went straight to the gutter.
But I didn't know it was a TV movie-- I just figured, Suzanne Somers, I didn't think she was going to reveal too much, so THAT'S why I never actually rented it. Knowing it was a TV movie would have made the same decision a lot quicker.
And yeah, I know. For a supposed, serious cinema lover, my reasons for checking out a movie can be pretty un-sophisticated, and I'm being euphemistic here.
But, what's interesting is, that picture of the woman with a bosom full of picnic crashers looks like Chrissy, not just some generic babe that's ant-nointed (oh, man! sorry!) for poster use and prospective audience deception, so, what gives? A deleted scene? Or is there a much racier European version lurking out there, which isn't that far-fetched a question, I think.