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King of the Ants   A

First Look Pictures / The Asylum

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Stuart Gordon
Writer: Charlie Higson (based on his novel)
Cast: Chris L. McKenna, Kari Wuhrer, George Wendt, Vernon Wells, Lionel Mark Smith, Timm Sharp, Daniel Baldwin.

Review by Jim Harper

First, a word of warning: if you're looking for the latest slice of gory, over-the-top horror from Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon, you've come to the wrong place. You won't find anything Lovecraftian in King of the Ants, nor will you find zombies, tentacled things, or secret cults, although there is a severed head. What you will find is extreme violence, black humor, and a twisted tale of love and revenge.

The central figure is Sean Crawley, a typical waste-of-space, mid-20s slacker with no ambition and no direction. He's making a living painting houses, although he isn't particularly good at it. One afternoon he meets Duke, a deceptively friendly character who invites Sean to take care of some less-than-legal business for him and his shady friends. Being the perfect patsy, it isn't long before he's sent off to kill someone. It's all a setup, but Sean is just dumb enough to think he can come out of the situation on top. Unfortunately, Duke and his friends have some fairly firm ideas about what to do with this troublesome loose end.

The most prominent aspect of King of the Ants is the violence; the grim, relentless, and exceptionally cruel violence. Unlike Gordon's other films, which generally contain fantastic elements that reduce the impact of the violence, King of the Ants is extremely realistic. Even hardened viewers might well find themselves taken aback at the brutally on display here, while lesser stomachs should probably avoid the film entirely. However, King of the Ants is not just some exercise in protracted violence. The story is genuinely compelling, aside from a few misplaced hallucinatory sequences. Even though Sean is a loser -- and a murderer -- he's a likeable one, and it's hard not to sympathize with his plight. This is due primarily to Chris McKenna's great performance as Sean, in particular his seamless transition from a genial, ordinary Joe to the confident, forceful, and highly motivated individual he is by the end of the film. This transformation is central to the film, and McKenna pulls it off perfectly.

The rest of the cast is great. Daniel Baldwin looks born to play a heavy, but George Wendt (best known as Norm in Cheers) is a real revelation as a sadistic construction-site boss. It's nice to see Kari Wuhrer in something that isn't a cheap direct-to-video genre film, and she actually gets to demonstrate some acting ability. B-movie veterans Lionel Mark Smith and Vernon Wells take on their usual tough-guy roles, but they're given a bit more depth here.

King of the Ants isn't perfect. It drags a little around the 60-minute mark and Sean's pain-induced hallucinations seem gratuitous and pointless. Even so, it's still a good indication that there's plenty of life left in Stuart Gordon. It's not as good as Re-Animator, but it's probably his best film since. Don't expect the same gore-soaked laughs as his earlier works, but King of the Ants is well worth seeing.

* * *

Editor's Note: King of the Ants is one of many neglected genre gems spotlighted in the new William Shatner DVD Club. For an annual fee of $47.99 (or $3.99 per DVD), the Shatner DVD Club will send you a DVD every month -- an overlooked sci-fi, fantasy, or horror film that has Shatner's personal seal of approval. Other featured titles include Ginger Snaps, Immortal, and Close Your Eyes. The club even has a 30-day free trial, which will score you a free DVD whether or not you decide to stay on as a club subscriber. For fans of genre fare outside the mainstream, the William Shatner DVD Club could be a real bargain.

Review published 07.07.2004.

Read our interview with Chris L. McKenna.

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