King of the Ants (2003): The Gordon Dynasty

Matty contemplates this wickedly nasty thriller’s place within its director’s oeuvre. 

Upon completion of his long-gestating Dagon (2001) — which was originally set to follow Re-Animator (1985) — Stuart Gordon turned his attention to another passion project, KING OF THE ANTS (2003). Gordon had been introduced to Charlie Higson’s titular 1992 novel over half a decade earlier by Cheers star George Wendt, who Gordon had known since his theatre days in Chicago. The helmer, Wendt, and Higson — the co-creator of iconic sketch comedy The Fast Show — then spent the best part of the ‘90s and early ‘00s trying to get a movie version going. Success was perpetually out of reach: studios and producers loved Higson’s script and Gordon’s gusto, but they were deterred by its dark subject matter and amoral, albeit blackly comic, tone. According to Gordon, “it’s brilliant but we could never make it” was what they’d frequently hear. Of all places, it was The Asylum who finally bankrolled King of the Ants, prior to them getting into the mockbuster business [1]. It was budgeted at $400,000 and shot on 35mm short ends. 

At their core, Stuart Gordon’s films are about people and the consequences of their actions, which usually range from the selfish to the psychotic. Witness: the ambitious and driven Herbert West, raising the dead and raising hell, in Re-Animator; the maniacal Dr. Pretorius, opening the door to another world and twisting into a gooey, transdimensional mess in From Beyond (1986); the assortment of meanies who get their just desserts at the hands of murderous marionettes in Dolls (1987), while the only two genuinely virtuous characters are allowed to walk away, scot-free; and the eponymous Castle Freak (1995), a broken man-child reduced to savagery after a lifetime of abuse. King of the Ants is rooted in the same conceptual terrain, and boasts a close kinship with Castle Freak in particular. Like Castle Freak, King of the Ants is a frightening yet perversely human story; an unflinching rumination on the nature of cruelty as Gordon probes how often and how casually a person can inflict pain onto someone else, presenting another world where cause and effect are inescapable. 

“They wanted a fall guy. They created a monster,” screams King of the Ants’ tagline, underlining Sean Crawley’s place within its narrative. A chump with a whiff of the nice-but-dims to him (a trait amplified by the excellent Chris L. McKenna’s deceptively complicated performance — despite all the horrible things he does, you continually find yourself rooting for him), Crawley is working as a (not very good) decorator in L.A. when a chance meeting with a burly electrician, Duke (Wendt, merrily subverting his nice-guy image), results in him being recruited by a shady property developer, Ray Matthews (a chillingly brusque Daniel Baldwin), to tail a city hall accountant (an uncredited Ron Livingston, in a small but pivotal role that Higson was slated to play [2]). 

A deft blend of noir, revenge caper, psychological horror and character study, to say much more would ruin several of the plot’s richest surprises — but Crawley being accosted by a drunken Matthews sets the stage for a vicious and disturbing second and third act, as our ‘hero’ evolves from dolt to clumsy assassin and, then, to a surprisingly efficient killing machine thanks to a protracted torture sequence infinitely ickier and more wince-inducing than any Saw (2004) or Hostel (2005)

Alongside the idea of repercussions, a recurring motif in Gordon’s cinema is that of the odyssey; of a journey that leads to the discovery of hitherto unknown information or skills. It’s there in The Pit and the Pendulum (1991) and Castle Freak, where their protagonists learn they’re in possession of supernatural powers and are related to the tragic cellar dweller, respectively. Gordon made it literal in Daughter of Darkness (1990), Dagon, and Edmond (2005), where an actual voyage through a foreign land, a mysterious township, and a city’s underbelly reveals either the lineage of their central characters or, in the case of the ranting and raving Edmond, their true selves. Gordon used it metaphorically in his final movie masterpiece, Stuck (2007), wherein the poor sod at the mercy of Mena Suvari’s reprehensible behaviour, Stephen Rea’s luckless Thomas Bardo, shares his name with the Buddhist term for the transitional state between death and rebirth. Skewered on the windshield of a car and left to wilt in a garage, Bardo’s crusade is, of course, the most perilous Gordon quest of the lot. 

As with Stuck, in King of the Ants Gordon positions Crawley’s transformative trek as one initiated by the arrogance and entitlement of others. Like Rea’s predicament — the result of Suvari’s fear that owning up to drug-driving will thwart her pending promotion — Crawley’s metamorphosis is launched by the utterly despicable Matthews and a golf club (changed from the cricket bat in Higson’s London-set novel). The kicker, mind, is that Higson’s adroitly penned script flirts with the same notions of chance vs. fate — of destiny vs. sheer bad luck — that Gordon explored in Dagon. And as the perfectly paced and impeccably structured King of the Ants rattles along Gordon relishes the writer’s ambiguities, teasing multiple interpretations of what actually happens on screen by assuredly mixing and matching various styles, moods, techniques and textures: from the gritty realism fostered by frequent collaborator Mac Ahlberg’s vérité photography (another Castle Freak holdover), to the surreal and nightmarish flourishes that suggest that maybe — just maybe — the whole thing is simply the warped fantasy of an idle dreamer ultimately doomed to do nothing of worth at all.

[1] At the time, The Asylum were primarily distributing and co-producing run-of-the-mill horror pictures, notably Scarecrow (2002) and Scarecrow Slayer (2003) — the latter of which was directed by the company’s co-founder, David Michael Latt. King of the Ants was mounted as their first prestigious venture, and, reportedly, Gordon was disappointed by their subsequent shift in M.O. Though he understood why from a monetary perspective, Gordon believed they should have continued creating edgy indie fare.
[2] He couldn’t because King of the Ants’ shooting clashed with the filming of the first series of his Fast Show spin-off, Swiss Toni. The rest of King of the Ants’ ensemble includes Gordon stalwarts Vernon Wells, Lionel Mark Smith and Ian Patrick Williams, and, in an especially interesting dramatic stroke, Kari Wuhrer as the physical embodiment of Crawley’s inner turmoil.

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