Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog, and the continuing two week spotlight on writer/director Stuart Gordon. Next up is “King of the Ants,” Gordon’s take on the crime thriller genre.
“King of the Ants” is based on a novel by Charlie Higson, who also adapted it into the screenplay used for this film. The novel has a 3.87/5 star rating on GoodReads.com, which is generally pretty solid score. It was his first novel, of which he has currently written over 15, and is rapidly pushing 20.
The cinematography on “King of the Ants” was provided by Mac Ahlberg, one of Stuart Gordon’s most steadfast collaborators, and a man who Gordon affectionately referred to as “The Professor” since their first project together on “Re-Animator.” “King of the Ants” would be their last work together, as Ahlberg would pass away in 2012 at the age of 81.
“King of the Ants” was produced and released by The Asylum, a production company that is now best known for the “Sharknado” films and a long series of “mockbusters,” made to imitate larger-budget contemporary blockbusters to leech off of their secondary market sales. However, back in 2003 The Asylum was a pretty typical b-movie studio, years before they made their name with CGI monster movies and legally dubious imitation flicks.
The music in “King of the Ants” is provided by Bobby Johnston, who also worked on “Edmond” and “Stuck” for Stuart Gordon, making him one of the most consistent elements in Gordon’s more recent film efforts.
The cast of “King of the Ants” includes a handful of recognizable faces, including George Wendt, Daniel Baldwin, and Ron Livingston. The lead was given to a relative unknown in Chris McKenna, who has since popped up in a good number of television roles. The accessory cast includes Lionel Mark Smith (“Edmond,” “Stuck”) and Vernon Wells, who provide some some of the comic relief as enforcers beneath Daniel Baldwin. In the background, you might spot Ian Patrick Williams (“Dolls”) in a small role, similar to his ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ part in “Re-Animator.”
The story of “King of the Ants” follows a house painter who becomes a low level criminal after a happenstance encounter leads him to consider new professional options. He ultimately kills a federal investigator over a mistaken assassination order, which lands him in hot water with his criminal employers. From there, things get more than a little out of hand, ultimately leading to a climactic, revenge-fueled rampage.
As with most films backed by The Asylum, “King of the Ants” was released straight to video, meaning it didn’t get a theatrical run. It subsequently didn’t get much attention, but what it got was generally positive. It currently holds a 100% critic score and a 57% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a 6.3 rating on IMDb. The critics’ score is a little misleading, given only 9 critic reviews were counted, but that is still undoubtedly solid.
“King of the Ants” is outside of Stuart Gordon’s usual style, but this film works astoundingly better than either “Edmond” or “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” as far as experimentations outside of his comfort zone go. This film is also a little more down to earth and relateable than “Stuck,” but the atmosphere feels very similar. Given what Stuart Gordon’s films have looked like in the 2000s, I can’t help but wonder if he has been trying to have a Cronenberg-esque late career change of style. The two film-makers have always had some similarities, though Cronenberg has certainly accrued more critical acclaim over his career. Whether intentional or not, it is probably a good thing that Gordon has tried some different kinds of movies, though I think his skill set at this point is very well catered to the horror genre over any others at this point. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing him take on a couple of more thrillers like “Stuck” or “King of the Ants” in the future.
I particularly enjoyed the accessory cast in “King of the Ants”: shockingly, even Daniel Baldwin isn’t too bad here. Ron Livingston is always nice to see, even though he doesn’t get a whole lot of time on screen. However, the person who steals the show the most is probably George Wendt, who leads a sort of motley crew of odd enforcers under Daniel Baldwin.
As far as negatives go, there was one sequence that really didn’t fly with me. During a sequence where the lead character is being repeatedly hit in the head, a weird nightmare scene pops up periodically. It didn’t really work for me, and it seemed thrown in for the sake of a gross out gag (a grotesque humanoid monster eats its own poop at one point). It just wasn’t necessary in any way for the film, particularly given how realistic and harsh the rest of the violence was in the movie. Also, given how low-budget this film was, I can’t help but wonder if the money spent on those effects could have been used better elsewhere.
There is arguably an issue with the main character not behaving like the average Joe he is supposed to be. Personally, I think he just declines rapidly in regards to his morality, and is not a character that you are supposed to be behind or supporting by the end of the film. I do think that a couple of staged of his moral degradation were missed, but the audience also isn’t exactly privy to his moral standards when the story starts: we just assume he is an average Joe, because that is what he appears to be.
Probably the biggest issue with “King of the Ants” is the low production quality, which makes it look particularly cheap. Oddly, even when working on a shoestring budget, this is an issue Stuart Gordon hasn’t ever had before. However, if “King of the Ants” had the production quality of either “Stuck” or “Edmond,” it would be one of his best films without a doubt. It might be a petty criticism, but appearance matters in a visual medium, and I have to dock it some points for its lackluster presentation.
Overall, I thought that “King of the Ants” was a pretty solid flick, particularly for a movie coming out of The Asylum. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to people despite its handful of flaws, because it mostly makes up for the problems that arise. I definitely wish that the production quality was higher, but it is still entertaining and impressive in spite of that issue.