Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nature's Fury Blogathon: Ants (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor, 1977)

Network: ABC 
Original Airdate: December 2nd, 1977 

Before I start any review, I always conduct cursory research on my chosen film and hope for the best. Some of the most famous TV movies have little to no information, and sometimes the most obscure movies pull up all kinds of stuff (Dude, I can read all about Sorority Kill even if I can’t watch it). Associated Press was a fickle beast is all I will say about it. And then, I’m just Googling-along all innocent-like for info on Ants, and one of the first returns is SUZANNE SOMERS BREASTS ANTS! Well, that just about sums up what is arguably the most iconic scene in Ants (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor). But let’s be honest, Ants ain’t exactly rife with “iconic” images; however, it is certainly well regarded, and well remembered by those who caught it when they were young enough to accept some of the more ludicrous moments. Upon a recent rewatch of Ants for this review, I found that the film is even more delightful than I remembered. Crazy and inconceivable for sure, but also a bit darker in tone than I was expecting and a little icky too.

The plot is as straightforward as they come: When a construction site accidentally unearths a swarm of poisonous ants during a dig, nearby Lakewood Manor is overrun by the little guys. Chaos ensues.

Well, OK, so there’s a lot of melodrama in there too. This is what we call character development, and some of it is clunky and awkward, especially anything with Ethel, played by the great Myrna Loy. Now, I’ve seen Myrna in a few TV movies and she’s generally a treat (Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate and The Elevator are two great examples), but it’s obvious that she was not into the material. However, the main stars Lynda Day George and Robert Foxworth make the most of what’s been given to them, and I actually felt invested in watching them crawl out of that hotel shaped anthill with all their lovely bits intact.

Most of the subplots are romance driven, which is always a plus for my starry-eyed inclinations. For example, Valerie (George) and Mike (Foxworth... or Foxy-worth as I have been known to call him), who make one of the most gorgeous made up couples ever, are interested in getting Valerie’s mom, Ethel to sell Lakewood Manor so they can move to San Francisco and live happily ever after... and send her mom packing to Florida. There’s also a pretty and hippie-ish drifter named Linda (Karen Lamm) who is tired of life on the road and hooks up with OMG gorgeous Richard (Barry Van Dyke), and love instantly blossoms. Heck, even the construction inspector (Anita Gillette) seems to have a bit of chemistry with the ant expert (Bruce French)!

And, if it isn’t about falling in love, it’s about the end of love, such as the story with Marjorie (Barbara Brownell) who is staying at the Manor with her son, Tommy (the forever adorable Moosie Drier) as she recovers from a divorce. And, of course no epic TV movie about insect invasions is complete without a little sinful love, and we get that with Miss Antsonbreasts herself, Gloria (Somers) and the evil Tony (Gerald Gordon) who is obviously lecherous and easily tagged as the guy who’s going to mess everything up. He does it in a spectacular fashion though, so all is forgiven. See, TV movies have never been about subtlety, which works in the favor of this compact, and economical little disaster/insect amok flick.

But, despite all of the romantic shenanigans, audiences really showed for the creepy-crawly treachery, and it is done very well. While I miss the Empire of the Ants ant-cam, there’s plenty of up close vermin shots, and lots of brave actors let those buggers crawl all over them (the above referenced Somers to name but one). And no one is safe from potential victimization. There’s a great scene with Tommy frantically jumping into a pool even though he can’t swim because he’s covered in coffee grounds… er, I mean... ants. Yikes.

There is also a fantastic firetruck ladder stunt, which leads to an OK helicopter stunt that ends with a horde obnoxious stunt onlookers finding themselves in the line of fire. At this point, I was definitely rooting for the ants.

The ant expert gives us the lowdown on why the ants are out for blood: buried for years, these insects have sucked up all of the toxins we humans have tried to entomb and hide away within the earth. Yes, humans are pretty much to blame for everything, so I’ll buy it. But, then we are told these ants, which have already killed at least two people and injured a few more, aren’t aggressive if you are just real still. So, then we get a shot of three actors sitting motionless with little tubes (made out of 1970s wallpaper!) in their mouths so they can breathe. I remember when I first saw this as an adult and I wondered if it was really so hard to step on them and just leave? But, ludicrous is part and parcel for our little insect amok flicks, and I’ve learned to take my ant havoc with a grain of salt. Wait, doesn’t salt kill ants? Hmmm, maybe they could have done that?

In the confident hands of journeyman TV director Robert Scheerer (Changing Scene, Poor Devil and tons of episodic fare), and with a script by TV movie veteran Guerdon Trueblood (The Love War, Sole Survivor, and Ants' companion Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo), and thanks to the actors who wanted to be there (and also to Myrna for just showing up cuz I still love her so), Ants is a good reminder that even if a telefilm doesn’t get under your skin (ha!) television factory filmmaking was often much better than it should have been.

This review is part of Cinematic Catharsis's excellent Nature's Fury Blogathon! Check out more of the reviews here and here