Back in the Paleolithic Era, when we had these ancient establishments called home video rental stores, I would often drop in to check out the new releases each week and being a horror movie guy my first instinct was to search and find the new horror releases first and foremost. On this particular day in June of 2004 I was on my routine hunt when I came across a dvd cover of a man’s head without a face. There were ants crawling all around it and stitched into the blank visage of this man’s head was the title; “KING OF THE ANTS.”
The top of the box read “From the Director of Re-Animator—A Stuart Gordon Film.” Now to me, Stuart was that wild and crazy master of adapting H.P. Lovecraft stories to screen as I honestly was not a huge follower at the time. I had no idea of his history with the stage, first starting out in Wisconsin then literally being ran out for his controversial, experimental theater—for instance, the production of his in 1968 called “The Game Show” that was meant to attack everything secure within the audience itself and make them physically, emotionally, violently react to what they are seeing in the theater. The audience were locked inside the theater—I might add this particular stage was at the University of Wisconsin—and to attack their apathy while humiliating, beating and raping them. Note: they used plants in the crowd. This is the same person who gave us “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” twenty years later.
The tag line for Ants was “Everyone Has a Breaking Point” and the cast listed was Chris L. McKenna, Kari Wuhrer, George Wendt of Cheers fame and Baldwin brother Number Four, also known as Daniel. Flip the box over and the first thing I notice is a rectangle image of what looks to be some queen ant, Jabba the Hutt looking creature with dirt or shit on its chest with red glowing eyes. Couple that with the awful box art and other factors, I put the box back down and moved along.
Over the next few months I’d pass this same box up again and again and again. Always noticing, always overlooking—and apparently most people did the same thing with King of the Ants. But let’s go back to where this all started for a little retrospective.
Charles Higson was a British writer of comedy, writing for several comedians and sketch shows which he also performed on in the early 1990’s. From Somerset, England, Charles had his toe in many different art forms and in the 90’s he also turned to writing several novels. Higson’s first novel was published in 1992 and was called, you guessed it, “King of the Ants.” Higson’s novels led the long-running London magazine “Time Out” to refer to him as “The missing link between Dick Emery and Bret Easton Ellis.” Ellis, to us horror nerds is the cat who wrote, “American Psycho” just so it’s clear who we are dealing with here.
Since this is a movie retrospective and not a book retrospective I’ll go ahead and hop along about ten years. Somehow the book ended up in the hands of comedic actor George Wendt, best known to the world as Norm, the beer chugging, wife dodging lovable drunk on the long-running and arguably greatest sitcom of all-time known as “Cheers.” Or shall I say, to those of you who only wear horror on your sleeves, Harold the neighbor in the 1985 horror/comedy “House.” Wendt contacted Higson to talk about acquiring the film rights to which Charles mentioned there had been several attempts to adapt it to film with nothing every becoming realized. George took the book to his friend Stuart Gordon whom he had recently worked with ion stage in what he referred to as “A demented version of The Three Little Pigs.” He felt Stuart was the right match for “Ants.” The story had elements that fit within Gordon’s cinematic wheelhouse but at the same time would tread on new territory as it was almost more of a neo-noir/thriller. They hired Higson to adapt his novel to script and began shopping it around.
Wendt asked his wife one day to read the screenplay and when she was finished, he was eager to get her reaction. In the wake of reading the tale, she said to her husband, “I don’t know who you are anymore.” This sentiment led one producer to tell George that her response tot he material should be his pitch for the film. Well, pitch aside, the filmmakers had one hell of a time getting the film backed. Everyone loved the script. It was a real page turner and literally blew readers away but no one had the balls to put it on film. It was just too brutal and out there. For those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the film, are you sold yet? No? Well, stick around as I, Pinhead, have such sites to…describe…to you.
Don’t let this put you off dear readers but the studio who finally gave them the green light on “King of the Ants” was The Asylum. Wait! Come back! The sites!
After months of passing this DVD on the shelves at the now dead as deadites Hollywood Video, I threw down my cash and walked out of the store with a rental copy of this movie Norm Peterson felt was a great movie waiting to happen. NORM! The film begins with a very low budget look. I was not able to determine the budget but Gordon explained it as being well under a million dollars. I see this shaven head young man painting a red wall white in an empty house. This actor is Chris McKenna, who landed the job of playing the film’s lead character Sean Crawley only 36 hours before he was on set filming. McKenna is good looking, athletically built and has a bit of a baby face. There is something innocent about his look and presence. This quality really helps sell everything needed for the role and is a great bit of casting. You like Sean and thankfully because he is about to go on one hell of a character arc in the next hour and forty-three minutes.
Another worker enters the empty house, a contractor named Duke—a nickname given to him because of his last name, Wayne. Duke is played by Wendt who given his career, we the audience already love and trust. Duke notices that the kid has no idea what he is doing looking at his shoddy paint job and after a brief discussion discovers that Sean is a bit of a loser who is doing whatever he can to get by living in Los Angeles. Taking whatever odd jobs he can muster up to make his rent and eat plenty of top ramen. On their way out, Duke asks Sean to pass along his contact info so if anything were to come up, he could throw him a bone now and then.
A few days pass and Sean gets a call from Duke in his bare bones apartment. Sean is introduced to Ray Mathews, Duke’s boss, a constructor who has the District Attorney breathing down his neck and is at risk of losing everything he has worked for. Ray, played by Daniel Baldwin offers to pay Sean if he were to help him out with this problem. It’s a simple task. Just follow the DA’s assistant for a few days and let Ray know what he’s doing. Sean, on his ten speed bike, trails the assistant Eric Gatley who is played by Ron Livingston of “Office Space” fame. Livingston also auditioned for the role of Sean. His snooping leads him to Gatley’s suburban home where Sean gets a glance at his family and especially his gorgeous young wife, Susan, played by Kari Wuhrer (Anaconda, Thinner, Sliders). Sean and Susan throw one another sultry glances from across the street before she follows her family back inside.
Sean returns home to find Ray sitting in his car drinking heavily and asking him to get inside and talk. Ray tells Sean, who joins him in the drinking, about this time he was trying to get laid with a hot, young woman whose dog kept yapping and distracting her from him getting what he wanted. After several attempts to quiet the dog Ray tells Sean that he went into the other room and bashed the dog’s brains in. The point of the story is to ask how far is a man willing to go to get what he wants when something or someone is getting in the way. It is at this point that Ray begins to negotiate with Sean to see if the young man would be willing to remove Eric Gatley from the equation as the investigation is obstructing Ray getting what he wants. What would it take for Sean to murder the DA’s assistant? Sean is not a violent person. He’s never killed anyone before but in his drunken state begins to set some conditions on what would have to happen and what he would need to go through with it. The two settle on about ten thousand dollars. Not a lot of money but to Sean Crawley, enough to get him by for quite a while.
Sean finds himself walking down Gatley’s suburban street in Michael Myers coveralls, large leather gloves that come up to the elbow and wearing a motorcycle helmet on his head: the very definition of incognito. Did I mention the film is at times a very dark comedy? He removes the helmet, rings the doorbell and Gatley answers wearing a ridiculous sun hat as he was doing some gardening. Sean tells him that he is there to see Susan and that he is from the homeless shelter that she works at. He wants to leave a message which sends the nerd in the goofy hat into his kitchen to get a pen and paper. Sean follows him in, grabs a statue off a living room shelf and enters the kitchen. Gatley notices the statue in his hand and asks him to put it down as it is valuable. Sean swings and connects with the man’s skull sending him face first into the refrigerator full of photos of the smiling faces of his family. With a large gash and blood leaking out, Gatley is confused and asks the emotionally stressed Sean what he is doing. Sean bashes away again knocking the man to the floor. He grabs a flower pot and crashes it over his head. Then pushes the refrigerator over on top of him. The whole thing is messy as Sean is far from a professional killer. Richard Kuklinski he is not. Before leaving he opens Gatley’s briefcase and finds important investigative papers on Ray’s business and case and leaves the scene of the crime.
Sean is not dealing with the murder very well. A moral person up to this point, he is haunted by what he has done. When he attempts to collect his money for the job, Duke begins to ghost him. He finally gets hold of him and they meet at a zoo where they enter a darkened area filled with reptiles and other creepy, crawly things. Sean wants his money and tries to threaten Duke. Duke knocks him on his ass, grabs him by the face and points him to a case where ants are crawling around in the dirt. Duke tells Sean he’s just an ant and leaves him. But it’s when Sean decides to tell them about the incriminating papers he stole from Gantley’s briefcase and that he will take them to the police and news channels to expose him, Ray and his gang of four that include Duke and two worker thugs played by Vernon Wells (The Road Warrior, Commando) and Lionel Mark Smith (Edmond, Stuck) kidnap Sean and drive him out to one of Ray’s unfinished development sites. It is here, in a shed, that Ray begins to unfold his plot on what is to be done with Sean to make him disappear. And it doesn’t involve killing him. It involves much, much worse.
I have come to discover that most people never saw King of the Ants. Maybe, like myself, they never got pass that terrible box art. So to save you who have not seen it, I will stop right here because what happens beyond the shed is not to be ruined or missed. I poked fun at Daniel Baldwin at the top of the piece but let me say that the role of Ray Mathews is arguably the actor’s finest performance. The scene in the car making the deal with Sean is easily one of his best moments. The whole cast is truly impressive and the film deserved better attention. McKenna has become a friend of mine and I can tell you that the film being so overlooked really disappointed him as he put so much of himself into the film and Stuart became a mentor for the young actor.
King of the Ants knocked me out when I finally gave it a chance and it became one of my very favorite films of 2003 and of the entire decade. It has a home on my 100 favorite horror films list and I declare it to be Stuart Gordon’s best film. I know that’s a big declaration for a filmmaker who made Re-Animator and From Beyond but I said it and a mean it. And I am not alone in my claim. Film Threat magazine called King of the Ants, Gordon’s best film as well. Ain’t it Cool News said it was Gordon’s best film since Re-Animator. King of the Ants even influenced my debut film, “Girl Number Three” which I wrote about a year after seeing it. Girl Number Three involved a young college student being abducted on Halloween night by a gang of masked men who force her and a group of young women into a ritual in an abandoned building. Only she manages to get loose and has to decide whether to escape or fight for the lives of the other women being held captive who she hears calling for help, echoing through the hallways. None of that reflects King of the Ants but the theme of “Everyone Has a Breaking Point” as the dvd cover read, definitely did.
Stuart would go on to direct only two more feature films after King of the Ants and both like Ants fell more under the genre of crime/noir and in many ways the films act as a thematic trilogy for the filmmaker. The second part of this trilogy was another overlooked monster of a film called “Edmond.” Edmond starred William H. Macy in a film adaptation of the David Mamet (Glengary Glen Ross) play from 1982. Mamet and Gordon go back a very long time and finally collaborated on film here in this dark and disturbing character portrait that also starred Julia Stiles and many Gordon regulars like Joe Mantegna, George Wendt and naturally, Jeffrey Combs. Fans of the Michael Douglas thriller “Falling Down” will find it extremely satisfying. The third and last film was “Stuck” which was based on the true story of a young woman who in 2001 hit a homeless man with her car in Fort Worth, Texas. The man was wedged in the windshield and instead of reporting it or taking him to the hospital, the woman chose to drive home and leave him there where the man died after several days. Mena Suvari (American Beauty) stars as the young woman with Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) playing the unfortunate man stuck in her windshield.
Whether it’s his best or Stuart’s best film since Re-Animator or not, the truth is that KING OF THE ANTS is the best Stuart Gordon film that most fans never saw. And you definitely owe yourself the gift of checking it out. The next time I see a dvd cover with a faceless man covered in ants in a video store will be when Doc Brown pulls up in a Delorean and takes me back to 2004 I suppose but theoretically speaking, the next time it happens, I’m renting that bitch on the spot. Rest in Peace, Mr. Gordon.