This Made-for-TV Infestation is Quite the Picnic!
DIRECTED BY ROBERT SCHEERER/1977
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JULY 5, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
The threat of ants may not seem like much compared to birds, sharks, orcas, zombies, bees, dinosaurs, all manner of spiders, or even rabbits. But anyone who’s had to battle an ant infestation can tell you that those little buggers are not so easy to exterminate. Add homicidal vengeance to their usual crumb-gathering/sugar attraction modus operandi, and you’ve got a legitimately scary situation.
Okay, maybe that’s also a preposterous situation. But isn’t that part of the fun of a movie like Ants!, a.k.a. It Happened at Lakewood Manor? The hopping vacation resort Lakewood Manor is both a venerable family business (under the current ownership of a wheelchair-bound Myrna Loy) and an expanding venture currently undergoing construction on the property. The build is headed up by the gruff and upright Mike Carr (Robert Foxworth; The Black Marble), who is secure enough in his considerable masculinity to admit inferiority to the invasive collective of the true stars of Ants!. He will emerge as our hero. Lynda Day George is his main squeeze. Brian Dennehy, who looks exactly like he does year later in the F/X movies, turns up as the token law enforcement representative as things get increasingly out of control.
The construction project isn’t any further than a basement-sized hole in the ground when an angry colony of the title insects living down there decide that they’ve had quite enough of this kind of disturbance. Understanding that there’s strength in numbers and that the number of ants is always limitless (the same could be said of old made-for-TV movies), they begin taking down anyone who crosses them. As Ants! plays out, they seem to favor killing ruthless land developers and uncaring capitalists. But no one is safe as things just get worse and worse and then even more worse. Even the always-welcome Bernie Casey gets attacked.
Made for broadcast television by the prolific and adventurous Alan Landsburg Productions, Ants! could only ever go so far in terms of gore and whatnot. But that’s okay- the premise is served perfectly well contained to this single property as it’s overrun by primarily scads of painted-black beads of rice doubling for actual armies of ants. And, it works! Just try coming away from this film without momentary sensations of hyper-aware itchiness and head-scratching. Perhaps that’s not the finest selling point in the world, but after ninty-plus minutes of watching actors covered in busily crawling real ants (including an infamously unclothed Suzanne Somers, of TV’s Three’s Company), something’s clicked.
Film Historian Lee Gambin has done commendable legwork for this very fine release, not just providing an audio commentary, but also chatting up an impressive list of cast and crew members. Gambin’s all-new audio-only interviews include actress Barbara Brownell, actor Barry Van Dyke, actress Anita Gillette, actor Moosie Drier, and production assistant and daughter of producer Alan Landsburg, Valerie Landsburg. Some of these conversations run fairly long, so bonus-feature-completists will need to make some time for working through this KL Studio Classics’ special edition Blu-ray.
Gambin begins his audio commentary by launching into a verbal flowchart of his breakdown of the “nature-run-amok” horror sub-genre. It’s all quite smart and solid, though without a PowerPoint slideshow to go with it, it requires a certain intense concentration to fully follow along. That level of necessary focus thankfully does not persist, though one wouldn’t label this a breezy listen. At one point in all of this, Gambin mentions that in his outreach to Suzanne Somers, he was told that despite her prominence on the overtly racy Ants! video cassette box, making this movie was the low point of her career, and she didn’t care to revisit it. An unfortunate but understandable position.
Ants! looks terrific as it’s trotted out here in a new 2K master. In an unusual move, the disc contains the entire movie in two separate aspect ratios. We get the 1.33:1 TV version, which defaults to simply not cropping for excess headroom and footroom, and the more visually disciplined 1.85:1, which was utilized theatrically. It appears that KL simply took its new 2K master, lopped off the top and bottom, and pumped it up to 16:9. This educated guess is based upon having watched both versions back to back, and spotting no difference in the presentation aside from the framing. The included photo comparison should be considered non-conclusive. Of the two, the 1.85:1 version plays as a more accomplished film, while the “looser” 1.33:1 TV version recreates the initial experience of most people with Ants!.
It’s cool that KL Studio Classics is not only giving its all to fondly-remembered (even as they’re also half-remembered) titles such as this one, but going as far as to commission new cover illustrations. Ants! new art looks particularly terrific as it adorns the Blu-ray’s slipcover and is the “B-side” of the reversible case insert. The A-side? That would be the aforementioned ant-filled bare cleavage of Ms. Somers! It’s a fine tribute to this experience which she hates so profoundly. In this case, there’s no doubt what “A” in “A-side” stands for: As a horrified Mike Myers’ Deiter once reacted to on his reoccurring SNL German TV sketch “Sprockets”, it stands for “Aaaaaaunts! Aaaaaaunts! Aaaaaaunts!!”