A young drifter discovers his true calling when he’s hired by a mobster to stalk and kill a prominent accountant, and then decides to seek revenge when the stingy thugs try to kill him rather than pay him.
Okay, first things first – yes, King of the Ants is directed by the Stuart Gordon. Now that we’ve addressed that, I want you to wipe that out of your mind. This is by no means meant to indicate that this is a bad movie; on the contrary, this is a pretty great movie. But I don’t want you going in like I did, thinking about Re-Animator or From Beyond and then expecting something. What you can expect, on the other hand, is quality. This is not a Lovecraftian horror story, but rather a pretty intense story written by (and based on the novel by) Charlie Higson, better known for his comedy writing for BBC television. Gordon takes a good story, adds in some second-tier actors and his own skilled eye behind the camera, and turns out what amounts to one of the better crime thrillers of the early 2000’s.
To keep things simple, King of the Ants is the story of a guy (Sean Crawley, played by TV actor Chris McKenna) who is offered money to follow after, and eventually kill, an accountant (Eric Gatley, played by Ron Livingston, aka Peter from Office Space) who has information regarding the shady dealings of a local construction firm. Once he goes through with it, the deal suddenly changes and he finds himself in the deep end and violently sinking fast. And just like that, our crime plot quickly moves into the realm of dark revenge when Sean decides his true calling may have been a violent one after all.
Let’s talk about the cast for a moment. Sean first gets roped into all the bad stuff after a conversation with electrician Duke Wayne, played by George Wendt (Norm from Cheers). Duke’s boss, the one who hires Sean to watch after Gatley, is the shady Ray Mathews, played by Daniel Baldwin (Born on the Fourth of July, John Carpenter’s Vampires, etc). Alongside Duke, Matthews’ crew also consists of Beckett (Vernon Wells from Road Warrior and Commando) and Carl (Lionel Mark Smith, RIP). Oh yeah, there’s one more important piece to this puzzle – while Sean is watching after the accountant, he can’t help but notice, and fall for, Mrs. Susan Gatley, a homeless shelter worker played by Kari Wuhrer (you know her from everything from Sharknado 2 to Eight Legged Freaks to MTV’s Remote Control). This is a cast full of competent actors who, while not often featured in starring roles, are more than able to get the job done.
I want to avoid spoilers as much as I can, but suffice it to say that Sean does what needs to be done, but when he tried to collect the money owed him he is stiffed and soon finds that these are not the type of people he should have demanded money from. Lucky for him, they don’t want to kill him, they just want to hurt him so badly that he forgets who he is, and so we get a series of brutal attacks that produce a bleeding, drooling, incoherent, delusional Sean…good thing he kept files from the accountant as blackmail. But for real, the abuse he has to go through is pretty rough, and the fever-dreams he has are almost as bad as the physical pain he endures.
There are a handful of effects in here to grab our attention, but for the most part, this is a different type of Stuart Gordon film, one that focuses more on story than anything else. And while there are no Jeffery Combs appearances, or monsters breaking through into our dimension, there is a style and a skill here that make watching King of the Ants effortless, even for someone who was hoping for more of the familiar from the director. There is also a good deal of tension and suspense built up, as we aren’t really sure what to expect from the climax of the story, especially once we see Sean making his way into the life of the woman whose husband he killed. And while the ending is not perfect, it is satisfying enough given all that we were treated to in the body of the film.
King of the Ants is definitely recommended viewing for fans of crime thrillers as well as die hard Stuart Gordon fans. There are some brutal scenes here, some good action sequences, and a well-written story to go along with good directing and a bunch of familiar faces. While many of us horror fans will probably prefer Gordon’s earlier works, there is still a lot of good coming through in his non-horror as well, and it’d be our loss to not keep up with this master of horror’s newer film catalog.