Joe’s Blog

Ants! (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor) (1977)

May 22, 2012 2:30 am

It’s funny the things that scare kids. As a nipper growing up in the halcyon days of the video nasty I was privy to all manner of eye gouging, limb severing and demonic possession you could shake a bloody stump at. Yet I very rarely had nightmares watching the likes of Zombie Flesh Eaters or the Evil Dead. My nightmares were much more mundane, caused by the faceless man in Sapphire and Steel, Julian Glover ripping his face off to reveal his true alien identity in Dr Who, and, most terrifying of all, The Incredible Hulk. Whilst kids the country over would propel themselves behind the sofa at the mere cry of “Exterminate”, I was cowering behind cushions hoping no one was going to upset that nice Dr Banner this week. At least I would get the warning of Bill Bixby’s green contact lenses.

One set of films did give me the willies, but probably because the threat seemed a tad more real and immediate than that posed by the Caribbean undead or hockey masked psychos: revenge of nature movies.

Whilst they had been a staple of cinema for decades, the 70s brought a whole slew of them, mainly thanks to the success of Jaws. All manner of cuddly (and not so cuddly) critters were wheeled out as the next big threat to humanity. Whilst cinema generally went big (Grizzly, Orca, the wonderful Alligator, um… The Giant Spider Invasion), US TV wanted in on the act too.

Their budgets obviously wouldn’t stretch to ocean filming, or expensive locations for exotic wild animals. So their threats were generally more mundane.

Enter Guerdon Trueblood, a TV movie veteran who managed to turn out FOUR creepy crawly based creature features in a year: The Savage Bees (and a sequel Terror Out of the Sky), Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo and Ants! (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor).

These seemed to play every week on UK TV in my youth, and I loved them all, even though they would all give me sleepless nights (and ruin sunny days, particularly the day I fell in an ants nest, convinced they were going to eat me alive).

It’s interesting how these stand up pretty well today (and compared to the mega-budgeted The Swarm, The Savage Bees is Oscar-worthy) … except Ants.

An ant yesterday

A group of TV regulars (Robert Foxworth, Barry van Dyke, Suzanne Somers) and out of work B-movie plodders (Bernie Casey, Lynda Day George) find themselves trapped in a hotel, beseiged by killer ants, driven psycho nuts by pesticides.

George runs the titular Lakewood Manor with her wheelchair bound mother (30’s screen legend, Myrna Loy). She’s also having it away with gruff Foxworth, foreman of the building site next door. He’s rather perturbed when two of his men end up in hospital, one later dying, after being buried in a hole. But they didn’t suffocate as expected. Instead they suffered severe nerve trauma, probably as the result of a venomous toxin.

(I should point out here, the film has a slapdash attitude to the difference between venom and poison, using both terms with gay abandon, even from the gob of a so-called expert who talks about poisonous ants, as opposed to venomous ants.)

This 'expert' doesn't know the difference between venom and poison

Of course the hotel is… half full of soap opera characters, and mute extras. There’s the sleazy businessman, and his mistress, who want to buy the hotel and turn it into a casino; there’s the single mum and her irritating son; and there’s a teenage runaway who falls for the pool attendant/desk clerk/handyman (he basically does everything).

The first half of the film very tediously takes us through all these interweaving ‘stories’, occasionally cutting to the hotel kitchen, to show the ants very very slowly making their way up the sink, whilst a jolly fat chef endlessly mixes something in a bowl.

The kid gets in next, and to be fair, it was an accident waiting to happen, what with him scrabbling around in the bins in just his swimming trunks. It’s amazing the ants got him before he severed his achilles tendon on a broken bottle. His leap into the pool (to cries of “Help, he can’t swim!”) to try and rid himself of the ants, is of course witnessed by our hero, Foxworth, who happens to be there snogging the missus. Taking charge, and ordering around the lifeguard, even though he doesn’t actually work there, he starts to wonder what’s going on.

When Bad Movies Attack!

He and buddy Bernie Casey go to investigate the hole where his men were hospitalised. Within a few seconds, Casey is spasming and swatting imaginary ants from his trousers.

At the same time, jolly chef has been got. Serves him right really for wearing open toed sandals in a food preparation area. Strangely, the health inspector isn’t bothered by that, and instead closes the hotel on the grounds that the kitchen must be infected with a virus. Obviously.

This is kick up the arse the film needs.

The extras have all been evacuated, but before our top billed stars can leave, they find themselves trapped by now a horde of ants which are slowly… very slowly, making their way inside!

Yes, this is the half way point. So you can probably guess just how tedious the build up to this has been. Thankfully the second half is so deliriously wacky and unintentionally hilarious you can almost forgive the first turgid 45 minutes.

A real actor arrives, in the shape of Brian Dennehy as a fire chief who shouts a lot and has a magic hi vis jacket which appears and disappears at regular intervals.

Brian Dennehy calls his agent

For some reason each attempt to rescue the remaining stars is only used to rescue one of them. A fire ladder is used for one, but then the truck drives away, happily honking his horn as he goes, with no explanation of why he left. A helicopter is utilised until they realise the updraft is spreading the ants all over the crowd of gawping extras who have now surrounded the hotel.

But the true highlight comes when just three survivors are left. It’s going to take half an hour to get some protective hazmat suits to them, but the ants are closing in fast. Well, not exactly fast, but … slow. Their best bet is not to move. And not breath on the ants.

This results in… well see for yourself. Any description would not do this scene the bad movie justice it deserves.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, mainly because I’m not entirely sure what happens. It’s not entirely clear if they manage to defeat the ants or not.

At the end of the day Ants is a cheap, knock-off TV movie. Thanks mainly to the interesting low-rent cast, it’s more watchable than the dreadful Empire of the Ants, and more accommodating than the widely praised, but desperately dull, Phase 4. It’ll pass the time on a wet sunday afternoon, but really it’s only recommended if you want to see Barry van Dyke fall into a digger, a naked woman covered in Ants, or you’re a Brian Dennehy completist (hey, you never know, they could exist).

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