PATRICK STEPHENSON

Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“King of the Ants”

by Patrick Stephenson,
disturbed, sledge-carrying badass

BLOODY DISGUSTING // The title of Stuart Gordon’s King of the Ants, a 2003 STV adapted from a Charlie Higson novel, implies a film akin to Crispin Glover’s Willard. In such a film, the wronged anti-hero would seek revenge with aid from a CG army of ant disciples. In one scene of that (hypothetical, mind you) film, said pale-skinned, black-suited title character would darken a backlit doorway, with millions of ants swarming around him King of the Antsonto the corpus of his enemy, leaving behind a meat-free skeleton. Long live the King of the Ants!

Fortunately, that isn’t the film Gordon made. In addition, unlike many of his past releases, it isn’t even straight-up horror. King of the Ants doesn’t, for instance, belong to the Lovecraftian universe of Gordon’s recent STV success, Dagon, nor beside his goofy, classic horror-comedy, The Re-animator. [1] Instead, King of the Ants, like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is horror that scars and traumatizes. Unlike the re-animated guts of Gordon’s former films, the gore in King of the Ants isn’t goofing around. Instead, it’s rooted in reality, and is, as a result, all the more horrifying. King of the Ants is NOT escapist horror. You won’t cheer on the killer.

The film concerns Sean Crawley (Chris L. McKenna), an average anybody who does odd jobs for cash and dreams, like any kid raised on James Bond, of working as a detective or a spy. His life is directionless. Understandably, then, he immediately takes advantage of a chance to work with Duke (George Wendt, of Norm-from-Cheers infamy), and Ray Matthews (Stephen Baldwin, a weathered, more paunchy version of brother Alec), a pair of local, literal heavies. The job they want him for—following a local official—is admittedly immoral, but it doesn’t put Sean in any danger, and he doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone.

But then, Ray offers Sean $13,000 in exchange for murdering the official. Sean vacillates, but eventually, after tense and drunken negotiation, he accepts. What seemed like an innocent way to earns money has transformed into a dark and inescapable duty that knocks off an obviously good person. Post-murder, Sean wants his cash, but the heavies refuse: Sean wasn’t supposed to murder anyone, they say; he was only supposed to scare the guy, and he isn’t getting anything. They want him gone, and they’ll do whatever it takes to put him there, including bringing a golf club to one side of his head. Over, and over.

King of the Ants is filled with absolutely brutal scenes that rely far more on suggestion than explicitness. As well, there are dream interludes that are just as disturbing. In one, a woman Sean’s loved from afar become a green blob of flesh who eats material picked from her ane. Gradually, the innocent, house-painting Sean from the beginning of the film becomes a merciless killer who lights his enemies aflame and chats derisively with decapitated heads. None of this is meant to excite or amuse. Ultimately, Sean deems all humanity as meaningless as an ant hill: living, shitting and fucking without any purpose or reason; dying without consequence or effect.

That’s not a very philanthropic message to leave a movie with. For that reason, and for the gore aforementioned, I can’t recommend King of the Ants to the suicidal or squeamish among us. I’ve got a pretty strong constitution, but I was truly disturbed by the film. If the world of King of the Ants is in any way a reflection of the real world, it won’t convince you life’s worth living. Nevertheless, Stuart Gordon fans should check it out. I was expecting to hate it, and was genuinely surprised I didn’t. That doesn’t mean I’ll ever watch King of the Ants again.

— P.S., in Bloody Disgusting, November 2004

[1] I received an e-mail from J. Stephen Garrett in response to my claim that King of the Ants is not Lovecraftian: “Pat: You said that King of the Ants doesn’t belong to the Lovecraftian universe of [Gordon’s] recent successes. No? Later you say “he concludes that humanity is as meaningless as an anthill: living, shitting and fucking without any purpose or reason; dying without consequence or effect.” That, my friend, is the very undiluted message of Lovecraft: there is no meaning in the cosmos, there is no good or evil; in the words of Sean Crawley “why does there need to be a reason”? This is partly the horror of King, but the other part is the way in which Crawley elects to emancipate himself of the constraints of the human world: you can do anything when you realize nothing has meaning. Brrr.” To which I responded I meant only that the main character isn’t running from beasties, and that was completely sober when I watched the film.

Garrett responded: “I have said before that King of the Ants is possibly Gordon’s *most* Lovecraftian film, in that the point Lovecraft made throughout his writing was that the beasts of the Mythos—Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, etc.—were neither good nor evil, but hungry, impossibly alien entities spawned in the uncaring, meaningless void of time. It wasn’t until the hack August Derleth got into the picture (i.e., post Lovecraft’s death) that morality intruded into the bleak nihilistic vacuum of the Lovecraft Universe: then, suddenly, you have guys hauling out the Elder Sign to defeat the (now Satanic) beasties. Zzzzzzz. Since you had such an unpleasant reaction to King cold sober, maybe you should try it blasted: consult the good bottle of Dr. Jack Daniels and take another look. Of course, King isn’t for everybody, just as the work of David Cronenberg isn’t for everybody (I have a good buddy who is a gorehound and absolutely refuses to watch Dead Ringers ever again).”

Written by patiomensch

March 2, 2007 at 12:45 pm

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