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EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)

Bert I Gordon, director of such vintage extravaganzas as 1958’s Attack Of The 50ft Woman briefly returned to cinema screens in the 1970’s with a couple of films which were, nominally, adaptations of H G Wells stories, though B.I.G. (note acronym) was only interested in retaining one aspect of Wells’ original ideas: giant-sized animals.

Food Of The Gods has some kind of gloop oozing out of the earth that results in overgrown chickens, mosquitoes (particularly unconvincing), and – above all – rats. While soi-disant ‘female bacteriologist’ Pamela Franklin seems mostly concerned with making eyes at hero Marjoe Gortner, Ralph Meeker offers the film’s best performance as a cynical businessman hoping to exploit the food for commercial gain, just like Bert I. Gordon would probably have done, given the opportunity.

Commerce is also (ostensibly) frowned upon in Empire (ilc Pictures DVD), which has estate agent Martha (Joan Collins) taking a boatload of prospective buyers around ‘Dreamland Shores’ (‘A place where people can begin to live’), a stretch of Florida swampland with nothing on it but signs saying ‘Future Tennis Club’, ‘Future Swimming Pool’ and so on.

In this eerily provisional space the characters exchange banal back stories – if it weren’t for the giant ants this could almost be Gordon’s shot at being Antonioni.

But of course there are the giant ants. In fact, the film begins with a spiel about how alarmingly intelligent ants are, and soon afterwards, as if to prove it, we see them enthusiastically lapping up radioactive waste from a leaking drum washed up on the beach – which may not seem particularly clever, except that it has the effect of turning them into unstoppable monsters, and in what seems like a matter of seconds.

Gordon is not noted for his ability to direct actors, and he doesn’t have much luck with ants either, as the real ants magnified to giant size often seem distracted, and spend a lot of time scrabbling around chaotically on top of each other and not fully engaging with the scenario.

For closer work they are replaced by models (well, heads and legs are what we mostly see), enabling them to savage the cast, though their main interest is in sugar. Indeed, they have gone so far as to take over the local sugar refinery, as the surviving cast members discover when they arrive at the nearest town.

The fact that the ants seem to have established themselves so thoroughly, entirely subduing the townsfolk, suggests that they have been around rather longer than the film has previously suggested – surely when the prospective buyers arrived earlier that day the ants were still tiny creatures? Oh well, perhaps they are fast workers. Perhaps they built the sugar refinery themselves that afternoon.

Whatever, the place is now definitely run by the queen ant, who controls humans through pheromones, a process explained by the town sheriff (Albert Salmi) in a voice which oddly recalls the cracked drawl of William Burroughs (‘See how easy it is… we can all do what the ants want us to…work for them, feed them… that’s the way it should be for they are superior…’)

Subjected to the pheromone treatment, Martha immediately starts urging her companions to help the ants as determinedly as she was once trying to sell them dodgy real estate. It doesn’t seem that she has been ‘taken over’ so much as that she has finally found her true calling.

Luckily surly boat captain Dan (Robert Lansing), who has been engaged in a sort of power struggle with Martha throughout, manages to throw a spanner – or more accurately a distress flare – into the works, and one of the potential punters, Joe (John David Carson) finishes the job by crashing an oil tanker into the refinery and setting it on fire.

Perhaps there is an underlying message here – women are not to be trusted with power. Or at least, Joan Collins isn’t. Which is neither in the spirit of progress nor of Wells, a well-known supporter of the suffragette movement. Though it might be slightly more in the spirit of Burroughs.

CONTAMINATION (1980)

Luckily other SF films of the time were more progressive. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) even had a female hero – or heroine, as they are more commonly known.

At the same time you can’t help noticing that, as the franchise moved on, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley increasingly became ‘twinned’ with the alien. In Aliens the alien was specifically designated as female, as Weaver battled ‘Mother’, and in its sequel Ripley had alien embryos implanted in her, and so became ‘Mother’ herself.

Perhaps something of the dynamic seen in 1955’s It Came From Beneath The Sea applies here then: the ‘unnatural’ fact of the woman coming to the fore is expressed by the monster. Evoking the ickiness of the reproductive process, the alien is the ‘monstrous-feminine’ itself – a shadow-self imposed upon Ripley.

Naturally such a dynamic is easier to discern in cheap Italian rip-offs like Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (Arrow Video).

Here our powerful woman is Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau). Just the idea of a female colonel is enough to get Brooklyn cop Tony (Marino Masé) all in a tizzy, stuttering: ‘Yes sir… Ma’am…’ and she subsequently becomes the object of playful competition between him and ex-astronaut Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) largely expressed in banter about her perceived frigidity, with McCulloch suggesting that Holmes would be quite at home ‘in that snow-cave on Mars’.

The cave in question, seen only in flashback, was where the film’s alien was first encountered, though it was Hubbard’s companion Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch), now believed dead, who (it turns out) brought the alien to Earth… somehow.

Its presence on Earth first becomes apparent when a ship turns up in Brooklyn harbour with all its crew dead and a consignment of green eggs on board. Although they are referred to as eggs throughout, we are told early on by a (female) scientist that they are ‘not eggs’, and they don’t seem to have any reproductive function – they explode and if you happen to be standing next to them, so do you. That’s about it.

The trio of Holmes, Hubbard and Tony go to Brazil, where the eggs come from, and find the supposedly-dead Hamilton in thrall to the alien ‘Cyclops’, a big green creature with a single hypnotic eye. The creature, though male, ‘creates’ the eggs, we are told, though at the same time they appear to be growing in a plantation staffed by men in Hazmat suits. They are then shipped out all over the world in what is presented as a kind of invasion.

How the invasion will work is unclear – the ‘eggs’ don’t propagate the alien species and they don’t make very effective weapons either, as you have to be in close proximity to them when they explode in order to suffer any ill-effects. There is a sense that some of the imagery from Alien has been borrowed without incorporating any underlying logic.

Still, if an arthouse film defies logic we still have recourse to symbolic meanings – why not here?

You only have to look back at Alien to work out that our female colonel is the crucial figure here. It’s as if the heroes’ confusion at the collision of the (traditionally masculine) military with the feminine has been incarnated in a male alien that produces eggs (which are bombs).

At the end, Colonel Stella, mesmerized by the gaze of the Cyclops, is drawn towards it and its telescopic maw, which has already consumed Tony – but perhaps what really transfixes her is her own distorted mirror-image.

Hubbard, mysteriously resistant to the alien’s influence, is able to save her. When we first met him he was depressed and uncooperative, having been judged insane for insisting that he had seen the alien on Mars. Holmes, who was one of the people who originally condemned him, snapped him out of his funk, restoring his manhood by deliberately goading him into slapping her.

Thus his identity is reaffirmed – is this what (symbolically) makes him immune to the alien? The important thing to remember is that Holmes’ role here is to consolidate Hubbard’s identity, not her own, which remains in question: and maybe is the film’s fundamental, unresolved question.

ALIEN 2: ON EARTH (1981)

Actually purporting to be the sequel to Alien Ciro Ippolito’s film (88 Films DVD) is in fact a cheap rip-off, which is apparent right from the start. So scrappy and desperate is it that it seems less like calculated exploitation than something which has spontaneously assembled itself from assorted bits of footage in imitation of its predecessor, like a shape-changing alien attempting to pass as Earth product.

Despite the brazen presumption of the title Alien 2 is peculiarly sheepish – the very fact that much of it takes place underground suggests a film in hiding, presumably from Ridley Scott’s lawyers. It begins in a TV studio that looks as underfunded as the film, where the heroine, Thelma (Belinda Mayne), is being interviewed on the subject of speleology – meanwhile, a space probe is returning to earth, the object of much excited speculation.

The contrast between the widespread interest in outer space and the subterranean subject of the interview is presented by the interviewer as a deliberate irony. However, despite Thelma’s insistence that the really interesting stuff happens underground rather than in space, the film is more effective when it stays on the surface.

After the interview Thelma visits a bowling alley, where the rest of her crew are hanging out prior to exploring a cave system. The return of the space probe is like ominous background noise, generating an unforced sense of unease which culminates in a scene where a little girl playing on the beach turns to her mother to reveal that she no longer has a face.

Underground, the film fails to generate the claustrophobic terror that you might expect, and which later films like 2005’s The Descent or 2014’s In Darkness We Fall exploited so readily. These caverns are really rather spacious, although the glistening chalky deposits on the walls usefully remind us of the textures in Alien. The alien itself, which has joined them underground, doesn’t. We never get a clear idea of it aside from some flailing tentacles and bits of pulsing offal.

There is an equivalent of the Jon Hurt ‘chest-burster’ scene where toothy alien spawn emerges not too clearly from a corpse’s face, yet the most remarkable thing about this sequence is the extraordinarily prolonged pan across the cave floor and the dead body that leads up to it. Any idea that this was ‘generating suspense’ dies long before the camera reaches its destination, leaving us in the realm of the abstract.

This sense of abstraction never quite leaves the film – when the survivors return to the surface to find that everybody has vanished the bowling alley continues to function regardless, the machinery clearing and resetting pins all by itself, in a scene which reminds me that Antonioni once wrote a book called That Bowling Alley On The Tiber.

None of the characters exactly leap off the screen, and Thelma seems no more resourceful than anyone else. Nevertheless she survives, perhaps due to the fact that she seems to be in some sort of psychic contact with the alien, as close as this film gets to ‘twinning’ heroine and alien.

In fact, she is the only one to survive, possibly the only human being now left in the entire world. Thus the film manages the feat of turning Ripley’s original triumph into a disaster: survival now apparently means eternal isolation. Thelma doesn’t even have a cat to turn to. That’ll teach her.

However, she does survive. None of these films are unswervingly misogynistic – even Empire Of The Ants features a well-aimed and perfectly justified kick in the balls dished out by a female character to a male scuzzbag early on.

Rather it might be said that they retain a sense of puzzlement, or even quasi-scientific curiosity, about their female protagonists that isn’t much different from that discernible in films of the 50’s like 1959’s The Angry Red Planet – decades later, woman continues to be confused with alien.

That’s progress for you: slow.