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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Empire of the Ants/Jaws of Satan  (1977/1981)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Films
    Empire of the Ants (1977)
    2.5 Stars
    Jaws of Satan (1981)
    2.5 Stars
(Release Date: May 26, 2015) – Nature strikes back with 1977's undervalued "Empire of the Ants" and 1981's little-seen "Jaws of Satan" (a.k.a. "King Cobra"), the latter never before released on DVD.

"Empire of the Ants" is a far better film than writer-director Bert I. Gordon's previous effort, 1976's "The Food of the Gods." Joan Collins headlines as the stylish, headband-wearing Marilyn Fryser, a real estate agent who has brought a group of prospective buyers to a future seaside housing development called Dreamland Shores. Unfortunately, their pleasant afternoon meet-and-greet and tour is interrupted by giant ants who have been nibbling on radioactive waste that has recently washed onto the beach. As the humans struggle to make their way back to civilization, the army of insects have cleverly begun herding them like cattle—all the better to stage their attack. Silly as a cautionary tale but pleasantly observant and character-focused, "Empire of the Ants" spends enough time individualizing its ensemble of players and giving them personalities that viewers may find themselves almost forgetting oversized killer ants play a part in the goings-on. The '70s-era optical effects work isn't always sound, but Gordon tightly directs as he puts his pretty constantly wet and dirty cast through a physical wringer. When the narrative makes a sharp left turn into "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"-type territory by the third act, its paranoid-thriller inspiration rejuvenates the picture once more and keeps it from becoming predictable or stale. "Empire of the Ants" may still be a B-movie, but it is a socially conscious and capably made one with just as much interest in its nicely shaded adult characters and their personal struggles as it is about enormous insects plotting to take over the world.

Having barely received a home video release—it certainly wasn't available to rent in any video store I frequented back in the 1980s—"Jaws of Satan" will be a surprise to many viewers. A hybrid of a killer-animal thriller and a supernatural horror flick about Satan taking the form of all the snakes (including a vicious king cobra) in a sleepy American town, the film is an odd duck in that it is professionally directed by Bob Claver, looks great courtesy of "Halloween" cinematographer Dean Cundey's lensing, and certainly grabs the viewer's interest, but also contends with off-the-wall narrative transgressions and at least one lead performance so stilted it is as if the actor was plucked directly off the street without an audition and plopped in front of the camera. That performer, bless his heart, is the surprisingly experienced Jon Korkes, a fairly steady character actor who derives unintentional big laughs from his work as Dr. Paul Hendricks, a herpetologist who comes to Greene County to help medical professional Dr. Maggie Sheridan (a charismatic Gretchen Corbett) investigate a rash of venomously fatal snake attacks. As they desperately try to get to the bottom of these deaths before the grand opening of a local greyhound dog park, spiritually conflicted Father Tom Farrow (Fritz Weaver) begins to suspect that the reptiles are being controlled by a dark and evil presence. "Jaws of Satan" features some suspenseful set-pieces as the slithering creatures stalk their unsuspecting prey, an adorable 8-year-old Christina Applegate in her film debut, a bizarre attempted rape that comes out of nowhere, practical snake effects that are strikingly good when the wires are successfully hidden, and a cop who says, "Natch!" Enough said.

Blu-ray Picture/Sound
Empire of the Ants: A-/B+
Jaws of Satan: A-/B+

"Empire of the Ants" and "Jaws of Satan" make their Blu-ray debuts with 1080p transfers that, for fans, are worth the upgrade (and for "Jaws of Satan," this is its first appearance on the home video market since VHS). Things kick off with a close-to-sterling presentation of "Empire of the Ants," its image detail (from the greens of the trees to the red paint on a fire hydrant) top-notch and its attractive, accurate-to-source colors especially vibrant. Early on, there are brief instances of frozen dirt in the frame and a few quick nicks and scratches here and there. By and large, though, the film looks terrific, certainly much newer than a modestly budgeted, 38-year-old film. Perhaps because the film hasn't been frequently seen, "Jaws of Satan" is in surprisingly great shape, with only minor specks and hairs sparsely popping up. Black levels fluctuate on occasion in darker scenes, but all in all the print looks to be well-preserved and has enough detail and clarity to also appear younger than its age. Both features come with 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks that have satisfyingly held up through the decades. Dialogue is clear if ever so minimally boxy in the front channels, while music is stirringly calibrated and ambient noise of nature and background voices bring a realistic feel to quieter moments.

Blu-ray Features

Empire of the Ants
  • Audio Commentary with director Bert I. Gordon
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:19, HD)
  • Radio Spot (1:00, HD)
  • Photo Gallery (3:12, HD)
Jaws of Satan
  • Theatrical Trailer (1:51, HD)
Bottom Line
"Empire of the Ants" and "Jaws of Satan" crawl and slither their way to Blu-ray with Scream Factory's double-feature release of two respectably entertaining entries in the "Nature Gone Wild" sweepstakes. "Empire of the Ants" is playing at a higher level than its schlocky plot may initially suggest, while "Jaws of Satan" is quite the find in its own right, rough around the edges but likable even in its goofier moments. Both films look and sound quite good and come at an attractive 2-for-1 price point. Recommended.

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© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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