Although genre fans mostly know him as a horror filmmaker, Stuart Gordon’s “King of the Ants” is most definitely not a horror film — at least not in the traditional sense. But if you were to delve deep enough, I suppose the film’s horrific interpretation of human nature gone amok (or is that liberated?) could be considered horror in its most animalistic terms. There’s certainly nothing un-horrific about a grown man using the head of a fellow human being to practice his golf swing. Oh sure, the guy might claim it’s all for the purpose of eliciting information, but one suspects the gratuitous torture has less to do with getting said information than it is a need to maim for the sake of maiming.
Chris McKenna stars as Sean, a young man drifting between jobs painting houses. After a chance encounter — or was it? — with Norm — er, I mean, Duke (George Wendt), Sean “lucks” into a job offer from shady construction businessman Ray (Daniel Baldwin). The job: follow a city official (Ron Livingston) around town. All goes fine, until one day Sean spots the official’s pretty wife Susan (Kari Wuhrer) and falls immediately in lust. It isn’t long before Ray comes to Sean with another officer: kill the official in exchange for cash. Being that he’s an aimless bloke without any prospects, Sean accepts, but only after stuttering his way to a meager cash settlement of $13,000.
At this point it’s next to impossible to talk about “King of the Ants” in any detail without spoiling its three acts. As a narrative, “Ants” is straightforward; if anything, writer Charlie Higson, adapting from his own novel, follows the 3-act structure almost to the “T”. Sean is recruited in Act I; the bad guys turn on him in Act II; and Act III provides a faux resolution before the real resolution — i.e. Sean’s retribution on his tormentors. So I don’t think I’m spoiling too much by saying that after he’s double-crossed by Duke and Ray, Sean is tortured for days. After escaping his captors, Sean manages to worm his way into Susan’s life, but predictably, this doesn’t last.
“King of the Ants” marks a departure for Stuart Gordon. The man who has given us wacky horror films like “Re-Animator” and some straight gothic-themed ones (“Dagon”) has found real human nature to be scarier than made-up goblins. “Ants” looks every bit like the independent film that it is, with no Hollywood gloss to be found. Gordon has elected to shoot the film almost exclusively with handheld cameras, which at times gives the movie a cinema verit’ feel. When the torture starts, the barebones look of the movie serves it well, bringing through the feel of dread and utter fear that the main character is suffering through.
If “Ants” is an “R” film, then it must be a strong “R”. “King of the Ants” is not only violent, but the violence is shown in such stark, in your face detail that it may unsettle some viewers. Most definitely benefiting from its lack of a Hollywood budget, “Ants” couldn’t have worked if the sets were too polished or the cameras too “steadycam’med”. This movie is not for children. Or anyone with a weak stomach for that matter. The tortures are graphic and the results on Sean are not the least bit pretty. By the end of the ordeal, you’d be hardpressed to recognize the “face” of our anti-hero.
A lot of credit for what makes “King of the Ants” work goes to relative newcomer Chris McKenna, who gives an excellent performance as Sean. McKenna does brilliantly as a character that is far from sympathetic, not to mention proving to be every bit as immoral when the price is right, or when something he wants is on the line. There’s very little doubt that Sean knows his own nature, even if it takes brutal torture to make him realize it. Although he was approached to perform his misdeeds, it’s readily apparent Ray and Duke are just enablers, and not the cause of Sean’s sociopathic urges.
Rounding out the cast is perennial B-grade players Daniel Baldwin (younger brother of Alec) and Kari Wuhrer (looking very natural these days). Of note is the villainous turn by George Wendt, who was so believable as the nasty and vile Duke that I quickly forgot his character from “Cheers”. Norm is dead, my friends. Of the supporting cast, Wuhrer has less to do, appearing briefly in the beginning and then disappearing almost completely until the third act. The same goes for Baldwin and his two employees-slash-hoods. Who knew over-the-hill construction workers were so ready to commit such terrible crimes?
“King of the Ants” is not your average Stuart Gordon film. If anything, it’s probably Gordon’s most ambitious movie in terms of characters. While some of the movie does seem unnecessarily gratuitous — Wuhrer’s sex scene and multiple full frontal nudity by McKenna comes to mind — much of the film really needs to be shot as is to be effective. It’s not a pretty movie by any stretch, but then again neither is its subject matter.
Stuart Gordon (director) / Charlie Higson (screenplay)
CAST: Chris McKenna …. Sean Crawley
Kari Wuhrer …. Susan Gatley
Daniel Baldwin …. Ray Mathews
George Wendt …. Duke
Timm Sharp …. George
Ron Livingston …. Eric Gatley