What’s the most grimace-inducing scene ever committed to a feature film? Is it the sight of Ned Beatty’s pudgy, soft, manflesh being savaged by love-starved mountain men in “Deliverance?” The human pincushion finale of Takashi Miike’s vicious “Audition?” What about casual ear amputation dished out by Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs?” Or the sadistic root canal performed by Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist in “Marathon Man?”
With so many intense, revolting movie moments to choose from, it’s unlikely that a single cringe-worthy image looms dismembered head and shoulders among the rest. With “King of the Ants,” however, Stuart Gordon adds a few celluloid shock tactics that will no doubt have viewers placing one hand over their eyes and the other across their mouths to stop the ensuing barf-o-rama. One such scene involves a body that simply refuses to die. The other is a prolonged image of torture at a macabre driving range where human heads take the place of golf balls. And that’s only a small sampling of the unsavory, jaw dropping morsels on his latest mayhem menu.
Gordon’s been down this path before. His “Re-Animator” remains one of cinema’s all-time over-the-top horror classics, with its villainous severed head performing unwanted oral acts on scream queen Barbara Crampton. In successive films, the prolific independent filmmaker has simulated onscreen burnings, beheadings, and beatings. Pineal glands sprout from foreheads and are bitten off in “From Beyond,” a kind of “Altered States” for hardcore gore hounds. Naked women are devoured by hungry fish gods in “Dagon.” Hell, Gordon’s real-life wife, Carolyn, even appeared in one film getting her brain sucked out of an eye socket.
With “King of the Ants,” however, Gordon has abandoned the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired monsters of such previous movies in favor of film noir as dark and messy as black tar. Stripping away the fantasy elements that mark his other offerings, the filmmaker has adapted Charlie Higson’s intense, British crime novel of the same name. Meanwhile, this lover of doomy, nocturnal themes retains his ability to curl our toes and elicit moans of geeky, “oh, gross” glee.
In the film’s first scene, we’re immediately cued in to the dirty deeds that will accent “King of the Ants” and raise it to a level of pulpy crime edginess that brings to mind “Blood Simple” or “Red Rock West.” Handyman Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna) is a young punk going nowhere fast, seen slathering white paint over a crimson-colored wall. The foreboding image makes us certain that Crawley will have more than paint on his hands by the time “King of the Ants” has wrapped up.
During this temporary house painting stint, the friendly drifter meets a portly, beer-inhaling electrician named Duke. Played by the massive, rosy-cheeked George Wendt as a salty, foul-mouthed alcoholic, Duke is an intimidating presence who also provides “King of the Ants” with much of its comic relief. Draped in a tacky Hawaiian silk shirt, his sad, puffy face oozing south like the jowls of a bloated Saint Bernard, Wendt is a hoot when he introduces himself as, “Duke Wayne, cowboy electrician.”
Suggesting that Crawley leave the small stuff behind for a shot at more money, he refers the naive twentysomething to Ray Matthews (Daniel Baldwin), a local construction guru and business partner. An avid golfer with the gel-coated hair of a slick insurance salesman, Matthews peppers his veiled conversation with cryptic metaphors. Leaning towards Crawley, his body language confrontational and arrogant, Matthews asks the impressionable young apprentice to follow a City Hall accountant currently investigating his shady company. “If this guy takes a piss,” the scuzzy homebuilder instructs, “I wanna know what color.”
Crawley is a novice stalker, tracking his white-collar query with a bicycle and taking Polaroids to document the bureaucrat’s every move. Things get nasty when Matthews drunkenly approaches his inexperienced private investigator with a more lucrative offer. “Sometimes you’ve gotta be a little bit ruthless,” he suggests to Crawley. “How far are you willing to go?” Soon, the two men are talking murder, with Matthews offering to pay Crawley $13,000 dollars to knock off the pesky accountant.
“King of the Ants” then morphs into a disturbing, ferocious revenge picture. Crawley finds himself carrying out the hit, in scene of awful, ugly violence perpetrated against a completely innocent victim. In a recent interview, McKenna likened the moment to “Saving Private Ryan”’s nearly unwatchable duel to the death between Adam Goldberg and a bayonet wielding German soldier. It’s an apt comparison, as Crawley acts out his mayhem with an assembly line of blunt objects including a clay flowerpot and a kitchen refrigerator.
Afterwards, Duke makes it clear that the clique of criminal contractors had never expected Crawley to carry out the crime. Meanwhile, they aren’t about to pay this seemingly harmless screw up. “You’re clueless,” Duke exclaims, “and about as good a detective as I am a ballerina. We’ll crush you like an ant.”
Undaunted by such bravado talk, Crawley blackmails the group of contractors by threatening to expose a file connecting Matthews to some potentially devastating corruption if they don’t pony up the dough. Matthews, however, has other ideas.
Gordon’s film enters man’s heart of darkness in a way few movies have. Its brutal second half echoes “Straw Dogs” territory, showing Crawley’s transformation into a scarred, calculated assassin several notches removed from humanity. There are nightmarish hallucinations, an illicit romance, and a gory finale that pushes “King of the Ants” into surreal depths seldom plumbed by genre pictures.
His actors are first-rate, assembling a string of complex characters from a stripped-to-the-bones, low-budget production that reportedly took a compact 24 days to shoot. As a latent psychopath, McKenna initially conveys an everyman likeability, best shown by the youth’s many chuckle-inducing searches for a cordless phone when attempting to answer incoming calls from his cluttered apartment. He’s a New Millenium Travis Bickle hiding behind the inviting grin of Tom Cruise. Daniel Baldwin provides the film’s most commanding performance as a desperate, morally bankrupt crook. Mathews’ drunken monologue concerning his disposal of a girlfriend’s noisy canine is a perfect example of this antisocial creep’s ruthlessness.
To make this uncompromising story more watchable, Gordon lightens his load with liberal doses of black humor. Rather than letting “King of the Ants” sink to the depressingly unbearable level of, say, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” he throws in some inspired comedy that makes us stick around for the entire ride. In one scene, the bear-sized Duke is seen sitting on Crawley to restrain the lad. In another, a paranoid Crawley approaches his apartment and notices a red liquid pooling at his feet. But lo and behold, it’s merely a cherry Popsicle melting in the summer heat.
Stuart Gordon continues to churn out projects that major studios are terrified to touch. Like his other grisly treats, “King of the Ants” is an uncompromising tunnel into the dark underbelly of life, hatched by one of filmdom’s most fertile imaginations. It’s a “hatchet job” that the director can feel proud of.