The title of Stuart Gordon’s “King of the Ants,” a 2003 straight-to-video release adapted from a novel by Charlie Higson, implies you’ll be watching something akin to that recent revision of Willard. In such a film, the main character would, in some way, be wronged, but would survive and then avenge himself with help from a CG-enhanced assortment of ant disciples, over whom he would rule as King, and one of whom would have a nickname and act really, really well—for an ant. In one scene of the same (hypothetical, mind you) film, said pale-skinned, dark-suited title character would darken the middle of a backlit doorway, while millions of the film’s aforeimagined ants swarmed past him and onto the prone body of his enemy, leaving only a skeleton in their wake.
Fortunately, however, 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 his recent success, “Dagon,” nor does is belong beside his goofy, and classic, horror-comedy, “The Re-animator.” Instead, “King of the Ants” launches Gordon’s work into an entirely different plain of being. Like the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Gordon’s newest is a film that scars and traumatizes. Unlike the re-animated guts of his former films, the gore in “King of the Ants” isn’t distanced from reality. It is, instead, rooted in it, and is, as a result, all the more horrifying. This is NOT escapist horror.
“King of the Ants” concerns Sean Crawley (Chris L. McKenna), an average, anybody character who bikes instead of drives, because he can’t afford a car, who works at odd jobs, and who does as best as he can at each, despite inexperience. As well, he has vague, unrealized dreams about being a detective or a spy. Essentially, his life is directionless, but he works hard at what he can find. Understandably, then, he immediately takes advantage of a chance to work with Duke (George Wendt, of Norm-from-Cheers semi-infamy), and Ray Matthews (Stephen Baldwin, a weathered version of brother Alec, and a veteran of Homicide: Life on the Street), local (and literal) heavies. The job they want him to do—following a local official—is admittedly immoral, but it doesn’t put him in any danger, and he doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone.
But then Ray offers Sean $13,000 in exchange for murdering the target of his observation. Sean vacillates, and visibly sweats, over the decision, but eventually, after tense and drunken negotiation, he decides to accept. What seemed like an innocent way to make money turns into a dark and inescapable duty that knocks off an obviously good person. Post-murder, Sean wants money in return, but his bosses refuse to give: 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, in order to turn him into a vegetable, bringing a golf club to one side of his head.
I won’t reveal any more of the film’s story, except to say that what follows thereafter is filled with absolutely brutal scenes of torture that rely far more on suggestion than explicitness. The dreams that Sean has in between are just as disturbing. In one, a woman he’s loved ‘from afar’ is transformed into a green blob of flesh who picks out and eats shit from her own ane. The rest of the film doesn’t provide any relief. The innocent, house-painting Sean of its introduction gradually transforms into a merciless killer who sets his enemies aflame and chats derisively with decapitated heads. Again, though, none of this is meant to excite or amuse. Instead, that progression is, with its tiny descending steps, scarily understandable. Sean’s stability goes farther and farther into decline until, ultimately, he concludes that all humanity is 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 among us. If the world as it’s presented in this movie is in any way a reflection of the real world, it won’t convince you that life is worth living. Still, though, Stuart Gordon fans should check it out. I was, to be honest, expecting to hate it, and was genuinely surprised when I didn’t. Still, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever watch “King of the Ants” again.