Real Estate Lessons in Movies: Empire of the Ants (1977)

This is not a good movie. It aspires to mediocrity and fails. The acting is generally bad, the dialogue is forgettable at best, the characters aren't very interesting, and the special effects are so bad they're the highlight of the film.

Empire of the Ants Poster

Before I rant further, a synopsis is in order. Filmed in 1977, under the direction of Bert I. Gordon (creator of such classics as Satan's Princess, Earth vs the Spider, and Attack of the Puppet People, just to give you fair warning), Empire of the Ants takes place on an unnamed island off the Florida coast, where the unprincipled Marilyn Fryser (Joan Collins) is trying to sell pieces of beach to a boatload of would-be land owners. For reasons never even remotely explained, this area is the dumping ground for mysterious, sinister silver toxic waste, which has somehow transformed some of the local ants into gigantic, moderately intelligent monsters intent on either enslaving or devouring any human beings who cross their path.

But they don't manage to devour all the right people.

Marilyn Fryser's 'Dreamland Shores' development is the latest in a series of scams. She's hard on her employees, tricks customers into deeply inconvenient contracts, and every one of her anti-ant ideas turns out to be wrong. By the rules of most monster movies, Fryser should die a particularly gruesome and humiliating death about halfway through film.
Here, she makes it all the way to the end without any apparent character development or redemption.

Empire of the Ants - Ant Attack!
Plastic ants with beards are attacking!

It has to be said though, that while they're not so blatantly amoral, the other main characters are no more interesting than Fryser. There's Joe (John David Carson), the dull young guy with 'designated hero' stamped on his forehead, Coreen (Pamela Shoop), the hysterically screaming blonde, Dan (Robert Lansing), the quiet, practical tough guy, and Margaret (Jacqueline Scott) the thoughtful, sensible woman who clings to him whenever the bugs show up.

On top of their badly-acted blandness, these characters aren't gradually revealed and developed, but are dropped on us in a heap over the course of one long beach-picnic scene. A few scabs are bared, chemistry fails to happen.., and then the ants show up and none of it matters very much for the rest of the movie.

I could wail and nitpick my way through Empire of the Ants for ages, but since it is a giant-bug movie, priority ought to be given to the special effects. The term 'special' here is extremely euphemistic.

Empire of the Ants - Ant Attack! 2
Notice the smoothness and professionalism of the transition between the
backgrounds behind the ant and the people on the boat.

Groan all you like about the modern fondness for CGI, a little computer magic would have gone a long way in this film. The ant effects come in two main flavours; the fairly lifelike, but not very menacing footage of real ants, which vaguely wave their legs around, climb up invisible walls, and sometimes face the wrong way, and the close-quarter model ants, which look a bit silly, don't move like insects, and are inexplicably furry in places. It doesn't help that the real ant footage has been blown up to look much larger than the physical models, so that the ants keep changing size. They can also pop up out of thin air. A tangle of huge, noisy ants can apparently teleport into any scene, even when the characters really ought to have seen them from a distance (or heard them. Not only do they emit a sort of fantasy-insect buzzy shriek, they also scream now and then. I don't know why. Maybe Coreen inspired them).

Enough kveching. Time for Bert I. Gordon's real-estate tips for beginners.

Tip 1: Beware the not-yet-built.

Dreamland Shores is just a chunk of semi-wilderness with a road, one run-down beach building, and a collection of signs directing people to the "future marine", "future golf course", and other amenities that will probably never be built. Of course, most real-life developers are more honest than Marilyn Fryser, but it doesn't hurt to do a bit of background research. Find out how their past projects have fared. Were they built as advertised? Were people satisfied? Were there any lawsuits of any kind? Any deaths?

Empire of the Ants - Ants on the Pier
A scene full of serenity of the endless ocean and gigantic mutated ants.

Tip 2: Check the plumbing, wiring, and other necessities.

If you find a collection of exposed wires or water pipes (as one of Fryser's hapless guests does), see if they're connected to anything, or are just there for show. Then run, because the ants are sneaking up on you while you do this.

Tip 3: Examine the neighbourhood.

Does it appear utterly deserted? Are there leaking cans of toxic waste lying around? What about corpses? If the answers to at least two of these questions are both 'yes', you might want to hold the moving vans. At the very least, consider tip 4...

Tip 4: Get a second opinion.

Margaret actually does this, and is rewarded. Not only does she get an honest answer, but she makes it to the end of the movie.

Tip 5: Agents and developers, be honest about what you're selling.

If you aren't, you may be chased by giant mutant ants.

Tip 6: Agents and developers, listen to your employees.

If you don't, you may be eaten by giant mutant ants.

Tip 7: Everyone, wear sensible clothing, especially footwear.

Yes, you want to look nice to make a good impression, but if it all goes south and the giant bugs come for you, you don't want to be like Marilyn Fryser staggering through the forest in high-heeled boots. If you trip, people will either leave you behind, or get eaten trying to rescue you.


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