King of the Ants
review by KJ
Doughton, 20 June 2003
the most grimace-inducing scene ever committed to a feature film? Is
it the sight of Ned Beatty’s pudgy, soft, manflesh being savaged
by love-starved mountain men in Deliverance?
The human pincushion finale of Takashi Miike’s vicious Audition? What about
the casual ear amputation dished out by Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs? Or the
sadistic root canal performed by Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist
in Marathon Man?
so many intense, revolting movie moments to choose from, it’s
unlikely that a single cringe-worthy image looms dismembered head
and shoulders among the rest. With King
of the Ants, however, Stuart Gordon adds a few celluloid shock
tactics that will no doubt have viewers placing one hand over their
eyes and the other across their mouths to stop the ensuing
barf-o-rama. One such scene involves a body that simply refuses to
die. The other is a
prolonged image of torture at a macabre driving range where human
heads take the place of golf balls. And that’s only a small
sampling of the unsavory, jaw-dropping morsels on his latest mayhem
been down this path
before. His Re-Animator
remains one of cinema’s all-time over-the-top horror classics,
with its villainous severed head performing unwanted oral acts on
scream queen Barbara Crampton.
In successive films, the prolific independent
filmmaker has simulated onscreen burnings, beheadings, and
beatings. Pineal glands sprout from foreheads and are bitten off in From
Beyond, a kind of Altered
States for hardcore gore hounds.
Naked women are devoured by hungry fish gods in Dagon.
Hell, Gordon’s real-life wife, Carolyn, even appeared in one film
getting her brain sucked out of an eyesocket.
King of the Ants, however,
Gordon has abandoned the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired monsters of such
previous movies in favor of film noir as dark and messy as black
tar. Stripping away the
fantasy elements that mark his other offerings, the filmmaker has
adapted Charlie Higson’s intense, British crime novel of the same
name. Meanwhile, this lover of doomy, nocturnal themes retains his
ability to curl our toes and elicit moans of geeky, "oh,
the film’s first scene, we’re immediately cued in to the dirty
deeds that will accent King of
the Ants and raise it to a level of pulpy crime edginess that
brings to mind Blood Simple or Red Rock West.
Handyman Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna) is a young punk going
nowhere fast, seen slathering white paint over a crimson-colored
wall. The foreboding
image makes us certain that Crawley will have more than paint on his
hands by the time King of the
Ants has wrapped up.
this temporary housepainting stint, the friendly drifter meets a
portly, beer-inhaling electrician named Duke.
Played by the massive, rosy-cheeked George Wendt as a salty,
foul-mouthed alcoholic, Duke is an intimidating presence who also
provides King of the Ants
with much of its comic relief.
Draped in a tacky Hawaiian silk shirt, his sad, puffy face
oozing south like the jowls of a bloated Saint Bernard, Wendt is a
hoot when he introduces himself as, "Duke Wayne, cowboy
that Crawley leave the small stuff behind for a shot at more money,
he refers the naive twentysomething to Ray Matthews (Daniel
Baldwin), a local construction guru and business partner.
An avid golfer with the gel-coated hair of a slick insurance
salesman, Matthews peppers his veiled conversation with cryptic
towards Crawley, his body language confrontative and arrogant,
Matthews asks the impressionable young apprentice to follow a City
Hall accountant currently investigating his shady company.
"If this guy takes a piss," the scuzzy homebuilder
instructs, "I wanna know what color."
is a novice stalker, tracking his white-collar query with a bicycle
and taking Polaroids to document the bureaucrat’s every move. Things get nasty when Matthews drunkenly approaches his
inexperienced private investigator with a more lucrative offer.
"Sometimes you’ve gotta be a little bit ruthless," he
suggests to Crawley. "How far are you willing to go?"
Soon, the two men are talking murder, with Matthews offering
to pay Crawley $13,000 dollars to knock off the pesky accountant.
of the Ants then
morphs into a disturbing, ferocious revenge picture.
Crawley finds himself carrying out the hit, in scene of
awful, ugly violence perpetrated against a completely innocent
victim. In a recent
interview, McKenna likened the moment to Saving
Private Ryan’s nearly unwatchable duel to the death between
Adam Goldberg and a bayonet wielding German soldier.
It’s an apt comparison, as Crawley acts out his mayhem with
an assembly line of blunt objects including a clay flowerpot and a
Duke makes it clear that the clique of criminal contractors had
never expected Crawley to carry out the crime.
Meanwhile, they aren’t about to pay this seemingly harmless
screwup. "You’re clueless," Duke exclaims, "and
about as good a detective as I am a ballerina. We’ll crush you
like an ant."
by such bravado talk, Crawley blackmails the group of contractors by
threatening to expose a file connecting Matthews to some potentially
devastating corruption if they don’t pony up the dough. Matthews,
however, has other ideas.
film enters man’s heart of darkness in a way few movies have. Its
brutal second half echoes Straw
Dogs territory, showing Crawley’s transformation into a
scarred, calculated assassin several notches removed from humanity.
There are nightmarish hallucinations, an illicit romance, and
a gory finale that pushes King
of the Ants into surreal depths seldom plumbed by genre
actors are first-rate, assembling a string of complex characters
from a stripped-to-the-bones, low-budget production that reportedly
took a compact twenty-four days to shoot.
As a latent psychopath, McKenna initially conveys an everyman
likeability, best shown by the youth’s many chuckle-inducing
searches for a cordless phone when attempting to answer incoming
calls from his cluttered apartment. He’s a New-Millenium Travis
Bickle hiding behind the inviting grin of Tom Cruise. Daniel Baldwin
provides the film’s most commanding performance as a desperate,
morally bankrupt crook. Mathews’ drunken monologue concerning his
disposal of a girlfriend’s noisy canine is a perfect example of
this antisocial creep’s ruthlessness.
make this uncompromising story more watchable, Gordon lightens his
load with liberal doses of black humor.
Rather than letting King
of the Ants sink to the depressingly unbearable level of, say, Henry:
Portrait of a Serial Killer, he throws in some inspired comedy
that makes us stick around for the entire ride.
In one scene, the bear-sized Duke is seen sitting on Crawley
to restrain the lad. In
another, a paranoid Crawley approaches his apartment and notices a
red liquid pooling at his feet. But lo and behold, it’s merely a
cherry Popsicle melting in the summer heat.
Gordon continues to churn out projects that major studios are
terrified to touch. Like
his other grisly treats, King
of the Ants is an uncompromising tunnel into the dark underbelly
of life, hatched by one of filmdom’s most fertile imaginations.
It’s a "hatchet job" that the director can feel
Seattle International Film Festival: