Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Kieran Fisher and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s.
When people think killer ant movies from 1977 — and yes, some people do think about such things — the odds are that their minds go straight to Empire of the Ants. It’s understandable as those ants are the size of elephants and had the nerve to threaten Joan Collins. It wasn’t the only example, though, as the year also gifted fans of bug-themed eco-horror with a fun little TV movie called, wait for it, Ants! (It’s also known by a pair of wordier titles, It Happened at Lakewood Manor and Panic at Lakewood Manor.) It’s not all that flashy, but it sure does feature more than enough ants to leave viewers scratching at imaginary itches all over.
When: December 2, 1977
Construction in resort areas is always a nuisance, but the employees and guests at the historic Lakewood Hotel aren’t quite prepared for the deadly nuisance headed their way. A worker is attacked by ants in a recently dug pit, and when a friend attempts to help the two are unknowingly buried alive in dirt from a bulldozer. Their bodies are found soon enough — one is dead while the other is clinging to life — but the cause of their (near) demise remains unclear until more people fall victim to swarms of agitated ants. A chef is killed, although it’s really his own fault for cooking in flip flops, and a boy looking for treasure in a trash dumpster is left on the verge of death after being attacked. Theories from viral infections to poisonous gas make the rounds, but only construction foreman Mike Carr (Robert Foxworth) knows the truth.
“Ants!” he says angrily at one point… to the ants.
Carr and the others soon find themselves trapped in the hotel as the ants surround the building and begin their march for murder. Fire trucks, police, a local professor of entomology positing toxic pollution as the cause, a Coast Guard helicopter, and a small crowd gather on the outskirts to watch the disaster unfold — making for a fantastic bit where the chopper’s rotor wash sends ants flying all over the onlookers — and the fight quickly sees the body count rise between both ants and humans.
Like any good disaster picture, Ants! is an ensemble piece filled with recognizable faces squaring off against the threat. Foxworth, himself just two years out from going head to head with another mutated animal in the gloriously ridiculous Prophecy, is joined by Lynda Day George who had her own Day of the Animals (1977) nightmare as well. The rest of the cast includes the likes of Suzanne Somers, Bernie Casey, Myrna Loy, and Brian Dennehy, and they help make for a film that’s never dull even when the ants aren’t attacking.
Director Robert Scheerer is a television veteran with a varied filmography, while writer Guerdon Trueblood flexes familiar muscles as the screenwriter behind other animals run amok films like The Savage Bees (1976), Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977), and Jaws 3-D (1983). Their combined efforts never attempt to rewrite the sub-genre, and the medium’s limitations are clear at times including some wonky optical effects meant to simulate yards filled with ants, but they deliver an entertaining tale with a message. Surprise… humans poisoning the Earth are responsible when the Earth decides to fight back! As mentioned, it’s never dull throughout its ninety minutes, and scenes of the ants can’t help but raise pulses thanks to an excitable score and the fact that ants make you psychologically itchy.
There’s a drama element to some of this too as a shady developer tries to scam his way into purchasing the land — he misses the ant announcement and ensuing panic because he’s busy boning Somers’ secretary character — the old woman who owns it all has second thoughts, local authorities try to exert control to shut down the hotel, a saucy young backpacker seduces a lifeguard in exchange for a shower and fresh linens, and so on. They’re character beats meant to build up viewer concern for these people while deciding others are villains whose deaths we cheer. Don’t deny it… we all do it.
Ants! arrived three years after Saul Bass’ still-brilliant Phase IV (1974) and obviously can’t touch it, but it’s aiming for a different kind of experience. This isn’t interested in being all that thought-provoking — again, outside of the planet revolting against humanity’s shitty stewardship — and is instead only looking to thrill. On that front it succeeds well enough making for a fun little watch.
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