Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 15, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (2003)

13. King of the Ants

I vaguely recall seeing “King of the Ants” on video store shelves around 2003. At the time, judging from the DVD cover art, I assumed it to be a low budget horror movie about killer ants. Cheaply produced killer animal films like that were flooding the home video market at the time. “King of the Ants” was even the very first production from the Asylum, the low budget company that would soon become infamous for features like “Trans-Morphers” or “Sharknado.” At the time I had no idea that “King of the Ants” was the latest feature from Stuart Gordon. Gordon, in fact, spend a decade trying to make the movie. George Wendt read Charlie Higson's novel in the nineties, loved it, and brought it to Gordon. It took them that long to find a production company willing to make it.

Sean Crawley is a young guy just looking for work. After a house-painting gig, he meets a guy calling himself Duke. Duke, taking a liking to Sean, tells the kid he'll call him if he has a job for him. That call soon comes. Sean is paid by an amoral stranger named Ray Matthews to spy on a family man. Soon, Matthews asks Sean to kill the man. Which he does strictly because the pay was so high. Matthews and Duke, however, have no intention of paying Sean. After Sean threatens to blackmail them, they attacked him, imprisoned him, and brutally tortured him. Sean, however, isn't dead. He'll soon have his chance for revenge.

Among the small group that saw “King of the Ants,” some critics took issue with the film's tone. “King of the Ants” does, admittedly, belong to several different genres. Is it a dark crime thriller? A nihilistic neo-noir? A weirdo horror movie? Yes to all of the above. “King of the Ants” leaps all over the place, its story going in many unexpected directions and strange digressions. However, the film is held together by an extremely dark sense of humor. There's an absurdity to the early scenes of Sean chatting with his veterinarian friend or being escorted around a zoo. Even when unspeakable things are happening to Sean, his captors are cruelly sardonic. The hallucinations are surreal, with an odd humor of their own. This through line connects the entire film, allowing Gordon to do whatever he wants with this crazy story.

As a crime story, “King of the Ants” does something really clever. In fiction, hitmen are usually depicted as efficient professionals that can take out anyone with ease. There's an entire industry of films devoted to the topic. In real life, experts believe there's actually no such thing as professional hitmen. Most contract killers are actually normal people performing a hit for the first time. They stumble, they screw-up, and they make a mess of things. “King of the Ants” portrays this accurately. Sean stumbles into being a paid killer. He does it strictly for the money. When the murder comes, he bumbles through it. It takes three tries to kill his target. Afterwards, he is shaken and disturbed by his actions. This is a gritty, and welcomed, subversion of usual film cliches.

“King of the Ants” really reminds of 2003. Not just because I remember seeing it in video stores around that time or because of the fashion in the film. Gordon photographs the film primarily with handheld digital cameras, in the manner that was common among low budget films at the time. Yet there's a method to Gordon's approach, presumably behind budgetary reasons. “King of the Ants” is not a fantastical story. There's none of the zombies or Lovecraftian abominations, as in his previous features. This story is closer to reality. His decision to shoot in a grittier style reflects this. This, admittedly, is a bit ugly. But “King of the Ants” is an ugly sort of story.

“King of the Ants” stars Chris McKenna. McKenna is a character actor who has had a decent career, mostly in television. He's been in a few things I've seen but I don't really recall him in it. McKenna isn't the most memorable looking guy, appearing like a regular joe you'd find in any city. This actually works for “King of the Ants.” At first, Sean seems like a normal, almost foolish, young person. He's struggling for work in a recession and jobs are hard to come by. This unassuming quality works for the film, as Sean seems exactly like the kind of guy who is in way over his head. As the story progresses, and Sean's journey becomes darker, a strange strength emerges from Sean. McKenna is good at playing this too. By the end, he's a cold-blooded killer and the audience totally buys it, McKenna slowly stripping the emotion from his delivery.

“King of the Ants” does not fall strictly within the horror genre. Yet the film features a level of violence, pushing towards the horrific. “King of the Ants” would come a year before “Saw” caused the quote-unquote “torture porn” style to explode. In some ways, the film predates this style. After Sean is abducted, he's taken to a shack in the desert. He's stripped nude, tied to a chair, and bludgeoned with golf clubs. This happens repeatedly, over the span of weeks. By the end, Sean's face is incredibly bloodied. He has a bump the size of a baseball on his forehead, his face swollen beyond recognition. The film acknowledges the even nastier details of imprisonment as well. It's not long before Sean is covered in his own urine and excrement. This kind of brutality is shocking and unexpected.

At least one review of “King of the Ants” describes the film as being similar to an episode of “The Red Shoe Diaries.” This couldn't be more misleading However, the film does consider issues of sex and desires. While spying on the family man, Sean develops a crush on the guy's wife. When he's trapped and tortured, he has fantasies about her, masturbating. When you read accounts from survivors of torture, some say thinking about sex gets them through the worst of it. So including Sean's scattered fantasies is an interesting decision, allowing the audience further inside his mind during these brutal scenes.

Of course, not everything he sees while being tormented is so pleasant. Really confirming “King of the Ants'” status as a horror film are the bizarre hallucinations Sean has. Some of these are supremely strange. He imagines his dream woman as a bloated, hairy beast with snaggle teeth. She then proceeds to feed on her own excrement. Later, Sean imagines the same woman but with some, shall we say, incompatible equipment. These moments are effectively freaky. Not every nightmare scene in “King of the Ants” works as well. Another involves the woman screaming profanity, while the camera seizes around. That frankly feels like a move from a filmmaker of a skill level much lower than Gordon.

At this point in the story, “King of the Ants” is still not done shifting genres. The last act concerns Sean getting revenge on those that tortured him. And it's as brutal as the torture that was inflicted on him. A frozen body is rolled out of a freezer, decapitated, and then burnt. An ax is shoved into a gut, the man surviving the initial wound. Another man is beaten with a sludge hammer, leg and back shattered brutally. Lastly, Sean sets his most prominent torment on fire, the man burning in a ghastly fashion. In your typical hitman movie, this would be a glorious, crowd-pleasing moment. In “King of the Ants,” it's the final sign that Sean's humanity is gone, a frighteningly cruel conclusion to a frighteningly cruel film.

For a low budget production starring a relative unknown, “King of the Ants” has a pretty stacked supporting cast. George Wendt appears as Duke. Wendt is best known for his lovable turns on “Cheers.” Here, he plays a callous man who only cares about himself. It's a good bit of against-type casting for Wendt, who is effective as the hardened man. Daniel Baldwin is no one's favorite Baldwin. However, his innate greasiness is well utilized as Matthews, the slimeball who gets the plot rolling. Vernon Wells, by now a Gordon regular, shows up as the sole member of Matthews' squad who is mildly sympathetic to Sean's plight. Wells, known for playing unhinged villains, works well as an enforcer with a conscious.

“King of the Ants” is kind of funny but in the darkest way possible. A nihilistic heart beats at the center of this nasty tale. When Sean ends up reunited with his dream woman, seemingly finding a happy life with her, it's destined to be short-lived. Animals are repeatedly referenced throughout the movie. More than once, humans are compared to them. In the final scene, the meaning of the title revealed, the film states that humans are simply the most advanced animals. It's a cruel world and one must be cruel to survive it. In a universe this cruel, Sean's transformation into a cold-blooded killer is the closest thing we can get to a happy ending.

“King of the Ants” was widely overlooked in 2003, though a number of its reviews were positive. In some ways, it's a significant film for Stuart Gordon. He would continue to move away from the sci-fi/horror genre, making films more based in reality. His next two features even make an interesting trilogy with “King of the Ants,” each connection by a theme of man's cruelty to his fellow man. Though cheaply produced, “King of the Ants” is worth seeking out. The film is clever, visceral, well acted, and impressively uncompromising. [Grade: B+]

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