Empire of the Ants/Jaws of Satan Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Empire of the Ants (1977)
Mr. BIG, Bert I. Gordon’s Food of the Gods (1976) follow-up was another loose H.G. Welles adaptation for AIP. Empire of the Ants concerns the wacky antics of a colony of ants that are enlarged when a corrupt sugar refinery dumps toxic waste barrels in the ocean near their island home. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it has plenty of schlock appeal. It opens with a Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures-style description of the scientific facts of ants that slowly turns into an ominous warning of their many monstrous superpowers. The narrator informs us that their pheromone communication causes an obligatory response, then repeats himself:
“Did you hear that? Obligatory. Pheromones give an order that cannot be disobeyed! It’s a mind-bending substance that forces obedience. But we don’t have to worry about it. That’s business better left to the ants.”
It’s probably the first and last instance of a film using the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ technique, but replacing ‘gun’ with ‘ant pheromones.’ From here, it turns into a more prototypical eco-horror movie. Joan Collins (on the verge of Dynasty super-stardom) plays an entrepreneur who tries to hock real estate to a cadre of saps and yuppies. The group finds themselves trapped among the giant ants and their relentless pheromones. Jack Turley’s screenplay (based on B.I.G.’s story treatment) is apparently engineered to ensure that we don’t feel bad for any of the human victims. They’re either ruthlessly ambitious, ruthlessly horny, or ruthlessly stupid with the exception of the chartered boat captain (Robert Lansing), who is forced into the role of a reluctant hero. Empire of the Ants wins points for its ensemble cast of people over 30 and for attempting to bring this older point-of-view to a genre normally reserved for bumbling college coeds (the actors really do their best with the material, too). The sudden third act reveal of a small-town conspiracy also comes as a nice surprise. Still, it would’ve worked better if we were concerned with their survival.
Empire of the Ants popped up on an MGM ‘Midnight Movies’ double feature (alongside Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Tentacles, 1977) and this particular HD transfer made the rounds on TV before landing here on Blu-ray. The 1.85:1, 1080p image is consistently grainy, but rarely distressed. Complex textures are well-represented, though contrast levels can be harsh enough to crush some of the shadows. Details are generally tighter than the SD counterparts could manage and edges are sharp without notable haloes. The harsher contrast and swampy environment isn’t congruent to its particularly vibrant base greens, browns, and flesh tones, but the blue skies and acrylic costumes still manage to pop. Unlike the [I]Frogs[/I] transfer, there isn’t a whole lot of noise in these brighter hues, either, except during some dusky images that pulse (not including the understandably grainy effects shots).
The LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack is a bit crackly during its sharper moments and dialogue tracks are often muffled into near silence. There isn’t a lot of damage to the track, it’s just that all of the location noise (wind, traffic, ocean waves, et cetera) proves too excessive for the production’s recording equipment. I’m not sure why they didn’t employ more ADR. Dana Kaproff music bounces back and forth between typical horror motifs (including a variation on John Williams’ Jaws theme) and easy listening piano that underscores expositional sequences. The score and the screaming cicada-like noises that the ants make both sound good on the uncompressed track, even at high volume levels.
Commentary with director Bert I. Gordon – Gordon and moderator Kevin Sean Michaels return for another labored (often awkward), but generally informative behind-the-scenes discussion.
Trailer, radio spot, and trailers for other Scream Factory releases
Jaws of Satan (1981)
Bob Claver’s Jaws of Satan (also known as King Cobra in the UK) isn’t really an eco-horror movie as much as a particularly cheap, animal-themed Exorcist/Omen variant. You see, Satan has come to our realm in the form of a traveling carnival’s cobra and he’s determined to possess a small town preacher (Fritz Weaver) whose ancestors were cursed by Druids. The film was clearly made in the ‘80s and retains a meaner edge – More of a grindhouse mentality, as opposed to the semi-family-friendly, drive-in appeal of the other three movies discussed here. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are also playing it safe at every turn. Minus some nude pinups, a couple of relatively gory snakebites, and a pointless, completely unmotivated scene where the heroine is sexually assaulted, it could’ve played on afternoon television. More distressing is the fact that a movie about a telekinetic snake with the soul of the Devil that can force other snakes to do his bidding is so…ordinary. James Callaway and Gerry Holland’s screenplay does have some amusing exchanges (“Your motel is up the road.”/”What’s it called?”/”Motel. It’s the only one in town.”) and some of the supposedly frightening scenes are quite funny (the heroine literally telephones the hero to drive across town to save her from a rattlesnake that is coiled only three feet away from her), but there’s little indication that anyone involved was really interested in the product. They’re all just going through the motions. Once again, I also find it difficult to root for an evil animal movie that kills real animals on film.
Not surprisingly, Claver was a successful television producer and director throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and even the early part of the ‘90s. His credits include (almost) exclusively multi-camera sitcoms (with laugh tracks) – from Welcome Back Kotter and The Facts of Life, through Small Wonder and Charles in Charge. Jaws of Satan is his only feature film credit. His sitcom roots show in the worst way during the blandly conceived expositional sequences, the stiff action direction, and completely inept use of suspense. However, Claver was working with the extraordinary Dean Cundey as his DP. The balanced, clean, and evocative photography brings weight to the otherwise routine proceedings.
It seems that Jaws of Satan didn’t get an official stateside DVD release, but there is evidence that a streaming version was available on Netflix for a time. I don’t know if that was an SD or HD version. That means that, for all intents and purposes, this double-feature Blu-ray marks a kind of digital home video debut. This 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is probably the weakest of all four of the movies included here. I assume the scan came from MGM, because they still own the distribution rights. There aren’t many signs of overt print damage, but the whole image is a bit dingy with some inconsistent grain formations and a load of minor compression artifacts. While better than a DVD (and much better than the VHS copies that were going for hundreds of dollars on eBay), details are sometimes smudged and wide-angle shots often appear flattened. Though the whole print seems a too dark, black levels are relatively subtle, so at least there isn’t much crush. Colors run a gamut from genuinely vibrant to yellowed and dull.
The original mono LPCM 2.0 soundtrack is also in slightly worse shape than some of the other movies discussed here, yet the more recent vintage ensures a better all-around mix. Despite a couple of pops and fizzles, the depth of field is effective, ambient noise is subtle, and the sequences that feature a lot of overlapping sounds don’t become overcrowded. The lack of compression assures that the dialogue remains consistent and clear as well. Roger Kellaway’s score is mostly symphonic with big, string-heavy scare and suspense cues, but also dabbles in electronic melodies.
Extras include only a trailer.
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