EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)/JAWS OF SATAN (1981) Blu-ray
Directors: Bert I. Gordon, Bob Claver
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

Scream Factory unleashes an HD double feature of “creepy crawlies” from the MGM vaults, both presented here on Blu-ray for the first time.

During the 1950s, producer/director Bert I. Gordon made his mark (and the appropriate title "Mr. BIG") with giant monster epics like THE CYCLOPS, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, EARTH VS THE SPIDER and WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, most of which were produced for AIP. After a decade-long hiatus from colossal critters, Bert was back with FOOD OF THE GODS, a screen version of the H.G. Wells novel made again made for AIP. Learning that you can't keep a good man down, an immediate follow-up surfaced the next year using another Wells story for inspiration — EMPIRE OF THE ANTS.

After an obligatory documentary-like introduction on the subject of ants, we learn that canisters (with typical warning signs all over them) of radioactive waste have been dumped in the ocean by some morons in bright orange jumpsuits. One of the canisters washes ashore and leaks silvery ooze all over. The intelligent little buggers have a picnic feeding on the stuff, and if Mr. BIG is to live up to his reputation, you know that something bad is going to happen. In the meantime, a pre-"Dynasty" Joan Collins (TALES FROM THE CRYPT) plays a shady realtor named Marilyn Fryser who guides a group of potential investors on a tour of a property development in the Florida Keys. Most of guests are misfit types — a washed-up alcoholic (John David Carson, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAKE), a young beauty breaking away from a hopeless affair (Pamela Shoop, HALLOWEEN II), a middle-aged career woman who got fired (Jacqueline Scott, TELEFON), a womanizing gigolo (Robert Prine, MUNSTER GO HOME) and his tolerating wife (Brooke Palance, Jack’s daughter), an elderly couple along for the free food and drink (Harry Holcombe and Irene Tedrow), etc. We become well-acquainted with these characters in what appears to be a twisted episode of "Love Boat" or "Fantasy Island," but trouble starts a brewing as one of Marilyn's employees is found mutilated.

Our group is soon faced with ants — mutated ants of tremendous size. They struggle to get away from them by running through the swamps, at which point it's decided to eliminate some of the disposable cast members, including the cowardly womanizer (played sleazily by Pine, soon to go on to playing the captain on TV’s "CHiPs") who watches his wife get eaten alive, and the old couple who foolishly stray from the rest of the pack. After re-grouping, they escape in a boat, led by Dan Stokely (Robert Lansing, 4D MAN), the reluctant hired hand who quickly becomes the film's hero. After fighting off biggy ants left and right, our friends make their way to a nearby township and report what they encountered to the redneck sheriff (Albert Salmi, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES). Detecting that the sheriff is not going to do anything, they make a botched escape (an abrupt car chase), but are apprehended and escorted to a sugar refinery. It is there that they learn that the bugs have control of the peoples' minds after individually being sprayed with pheromones by the queen ant in an isolation booth. Marilyn gets shoved into the booth and has an orgasmic experience. The others flee thanks to some quick thinking.

Very loosely based on the short H.G. Wells story of the same name, the most notorious thing about EMPIRE OF THE ANTS is its special effects, which can be awkward in a welcomed retro kind of way. Remember the grasshoppers in BEGINNING OF THE END that climb off the building and walk straight on into thin air? Well some of the visuals here compare to that, only keep in mind, a full 20 years later. Real ants are superimposed with the actors, and for close-ups, large rubbery models are used, but in most shots they actually look quite creepy. Even though Joan deemed this as her worst acting experience, and this looks extremely rushed when compared to the previous year’s THE FOOD OF THE GODS, this really is a helluva lot of fun (and quite action-packed) for a “bad movie”, with the authentic Floridian locations, a cast that seems game, and more than a few continuity flubs. All in all, EMPIRE OF THE ANTS should suffice for 1970s B movie fans of the popular “nature strikes back” variety.

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS was first released on DVD as part of MGM’s Midnite Movies series back in 2001, and then re-released in 2004 as a double feature set with TENTACLES (which will also be out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory this year). For anyone who thought the previous DVD quality looked good, the HD transfer for this Blu-ray is more than a revelation. Presented in 1080p in the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, there's extremely sharp detail and distinct bold colors, and fleshtones also look life-like. Contrast is spot-on with deep black levels, and the picture quality never gets too noticeably inferior when optical effects are employed (helped by the film’s rapid editing style of such scenes). Heavier grain is only apparent in a handful of scenes, and specs/dirt/debris are virtually nonexistent. The English audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and it’s a strong, clean track with clear dialogue well mixed with the music and sound effects. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.

Director Bert I. Gordon is on hand for an audio commentary moderated by documentary filmmaker Kevin Sean Michaels. Gordon starts off by saying that he just went off and made these movies for AIP as he pleased, with no interference from Sam Arkoff or anybody else at the company. Gordon can be a man of few words, and at times the discussion can be repetitious (with no identification of any of the cast members except for Collins), but the director does touch upon the casting, the motivation of the characters, the screenwriting process, the special effects (a subject he elaborates most about) and even speaks a bit about directing Orson Welles (on NECROMANCY) and the thing he did to warm up to him. Other extras for EMPIRE OF THE ANTS are the original theatrical trailer, a radio spot, a still gallery (with some rare behind-the-scenes shots of a smiling Collins on the set) and trailers for THE FOOD OF THE GODS and FROGS.

Next up is 1981’s JAWS OF SATAN. On an animal cargo train, a King Cobra is mysteriously unleashed from his heavy duty lock, forcing one man to jump out, and biting another one on the cheek. The slithering menace is set loose in a small Alabama town (which is just about to open a dog racing track) and apparently it commands other snakes (mostly rattlers) to put the bite on a number of locals. The very strange bite marks on the faces of the victims leads Dr. Maggie Sheridan (Gretchen Corbett, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH) to become very suspicious of these attacks. She calls in snake expert Dr. Paul Hendricks (John Korkes, THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN) for further investigation (he is even baffled by the unusual wounds), and of course the two commence a romantic relationship (with him saving her life when one of the snakes gets into her bedroom). The mayor (Jack Gordon, LAS VEGAS LADY) and the big-shot developer (Bob Hannah, MOONRUNNERS) don’t want bad publicity and demand rumor control despite of what appears to be a deadly epidemic. In the meantime, local priest Father Tom Farrow (Fritz Weaver, CREEPSHOW), whose clairvoyant friend was also attacked by a snake on her way to visit him, is told by his monsignor (Norman Lloyd, AUDREY ROSE) about a satanic curse of biblical proportions now upon his parish, and that the serpent of Satan is after his soul.

Horror movies about snakes were something of a trend in the 1970s, and JAWS OF SATAN almost looks like a throwback, embracing characteristics of both JAWS and THE EXORCIST (it climaxes with a sort of snake exorcism in a cave!). Mildly amusing and at times unintentionally humorous (watching Weaver being chased through a cemetery by the satanic serpent for instance), it’s also easy to identify the clear plexiglass separating the actors and the King Cobra in some shots. This was photographed by Dean Cundey (who had just done HALLOWEEN and THE FOG) who does his best to prevent this from looking too much like a TV movie (a dark bedroom scene where a snake is pinned to a bedpost and has the top of its head shot off, is most effective). The film is also significant as being the first feature of Christina Applegate, who couldn’t have been more than ten at the time.

Never before available on DVD and long out of print on VHS, JAWS OF SATAN now finds its way on Blu-ray via a new HD transfer, done specifically for this release. The Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio and the picture quality is a sight to behold (the on-screen title actually reads BLACK COBRA, which is the alternate title). Seeing only the old Wood Knap Video VHS version and the cable broadcast versions in the past, the Blu-ray is more than a revelation, with the impressive detail, and well-balanced colors which are nicely saturated. Fleshtones also look natural, black levels are deep and textures are smooth throughout, keeping a filmic appearance that’s never excessively grainy. The audio comes in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track sounds very good, with dialogue, music and sound effects always being clear and free of any hiss or distortion. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. An original United Artists theatrical trailer (under the KING COBRA title) is also included. (George R. Reis)