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MGM Studios DVD presents
"This has turned out to be one hell of a free vacation."
DVD ReviewH.G. Wells' short story Empire of the Ants (1905) was made into an okay little thriller starring Charlton Heston, entitled Naked Jungle. Having made a pile of money with The Food of the Gods the prior year, AIP and director Bert I. Gordon decided to see what they could do with the story, but they retained about as much of Wells as one might expect from AIP and Bert I. Gordon, which is to say, nothing beyond the title.
The always delightful überbitch Joan Collins stars as Florida real estate developer Marilyn Fryser, who hauls unsuspecting dupes out to her swampland project, Dreamland Shores. Assisted by Charlie Pearson (Edward Power) and boat captain Dan Stokely (Robert Lansing), she takes a group of prospects to scam them. Unfortunately, barrels of radioactive waste (helpfully labelled 'Radioactive Waste') have washed up on the shore and the local ants have gotten into it. Being that this is a picture by Bert I. Gordon (The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast), this results in colossal ants. They are of course voracious and driven and immediately begin picking off the visitors after Captain Dan stupidly burns their boat to escape the ants. Mayhem and gore follow.
There are plenty of holes in the story here that make one want to slap the hysterical participants. Even though they recognize almost immediately that the giant ants don't like fire, the characters make no attempt to shelter their fire from a sudden rainstorm, and after the storm they make no effort whatsoever to build another fire. Of course, people huddled around a fire waiting for help would not make for a very interesting movie, so the characters thus are required to be aggressively stupid. On the positive side, after a pedestrian first hour, the movie suddenly takes a 90-degree turn in the last half hour that actually has some merit (spoiled completely in the trailer included on the disc). I won't say anything more about it, but the picture does in fact get better as one follows along, turning into a truly paranoid and creepy little fantasy.
Collins pretty much plays her usual character here, but it's a fun one and the viewer constantly roots for the ants to give her a well-deserved death. The visitors are almost all unlikeable as well; Margaret Ellis (Jacqueline Scott), the ostensible heroine, is a liar and a fraud, as is supposed hero Joe Morrison (John David Carson). Nearly all the rest are freeloaders after the boat ride and meals. Pamela Shoop's character implausibly becomes romantically interested in Joe after he attempts to rape her. Lansing is slightly interesting as the reluctant participant in the Dreamlands real estate scam. But by and large one doesn't much care whether these characters get devoured by the ants.
As in any Gordon movie, the effects range from mediocre to abominable. Whenever the ants and humans interact (which is seldom), the practical ant puppets are barely seen; the handheld camera swings wildly, apparently in an attempt to hide just how bad the puppets are. Otherwise, there's a fair amount of iffy back projection and some very poor miniatures work. The end result is laughable much of the time and only passable the rest. On the positive side, anyone with a fascination for leisure suits and other fashion abominations of the 1970s will find much to enjoy here.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: The image is plagued by softness and lacking in detail, as if it were a laserdisc master. Colors are good but blacks lack impact, leaning only toward a medium gray. There are spots, specks and hairs present throughout. Bitrates are surprisingly high, causing me to suspect that the problems here are the result of using a poor master. It's a passable transfer but certainly nothing to write home about.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: The sound is surprisingly decent. Hiss and noise are at low levels. Although bass extension is quite lacking, the higher registers come through faithfully. In particular, the piercing chirp of the ants is almost headsplitting. The sound is dated but as good as this movie requires.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Extras Review: The sole extra is an anamorphic widescren trailer that is full of spoilers, ruining the only good parts of the movie. I therefore advise that viewers stay away. Chaptering is adequate. Although MGM announced many months ago that they would begin including English subtitles on all discs, there is none to be found here.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsAn halting sci-fi effort implausibly trading on Wells' name, the effects and the characters are pretty unlikeable. The last half-hour does have some merit, however, and sci-fi fans might be interested in giving this a rental.
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