Bert I. Gordon's films have never been any good, but they have earned themselves a cult appeal that has cocooned their “so bad, they're great” cheapskate charm. He has always liked to warp size, revelling in the fierce juxtapositioning of the normal with the frighteningly outlandish. Titles such as Earth vs The Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, War Of The Colossal Beast and Attack Of The Puppet People had played to those easily pleased by simply-told tales of sensational scenarios. But in the fifties and sixties, this pattern of out-sized melodrama was happily lapped-up alongside the likes of Gordon Douglas' seminal Them! (see my DVD review) and both Jack Arnold's Tarantula and then his critically acclaimed adaptation of Richard Matheson's The Incredible Shrinking Man, all three classics of the form, of course, but then, in their wake, Hollywood increased the size and ferocity of virtually every animal and insect they could find, via atomic fall-out, scientific experimentation or just prehistoric reawakening. Most were terrible - The Deadly Mantis, anyone, or, worse yet, the monstrous turkey in The Giant Claw? - and the cycle seemed to have run its course until Mr. BIG, as Bert would come to be known, found a way to unleash them upon jaded 70's audiences whom he perceived wanted a bit of daft hokum back in their lives after The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Omen had shattered their psyches and played heavily into the cynical and downbeat attitudes of the times. So, bouncing back to the genre he knew and loved, he unleashed Food Of The Gods in 1976 and followed it up with Empire Of The Ants the year after. Both were adaptations of H. G. Wells' stories and both did reasonably well - comparatively speaking, of course - at the box office.
Boasting glam-queen Joan Collins amongst an otherwise completely forgettable cast, Empire told the tale of a Florida resort becoming terrorised by a strain of toxic ants, whose own glam-queen exerts a powerful hypnotic vapour that enables her to control human minds and keep her and her minions happy with a constant supply of sugar from a handy local refinery. There are plenty of messy deaths and some ridiculous set-pieces, yet there is also an undeniably juvenile and grungy quality about the film that leaves a strangely satisfied smirk on the face. But most of this satisfaction is bestowed, in no small part, by Dana Kaproff's skin-crawling and exciting score.
Way before you've heard even the halfway point in Kaproff's itchy, piano-hammering music for this generally risible (but still guilty fun) mutant critter opus, Empire Of The Ants (very loosely based on the tale from H G Wells), you begin to realise that it is not only much, much better than the film probably deserved, but also quite a fantastic score in its own right. Produced on an absolute shoestring, just as the movie, itself, was, this first-time theatrical score for the composer, who had previously only worked on television, generates a fair bit of excitement and a weirdly compelling momentum. Influenced massively by the likes of Jerry Goldsmith - particularly his classic experimental music for The Planet Of The Apes - Kaproff hits the ground running, determined to rake beneath the skin and evoke the macabre mood of the titular creepy-crawlies, grown large on a typical B-movie diet of irradiated toxic waste. Thematically sparse, but delightfully propulsive and strictly driven by a repetitive staccato rhythm that evokes memories of John Williams' equally simplistic shark motif for Jaws, the score is brief but exciting. Written for a very limited ensemble, this is mainly piano-led, but reinforced with ethnic percussion, woodblock, xylophone, some wild electronica and occasionally widened-up with ribald use of more conventional brass and strings. Kaproff cannot resist the inclusion of a couple of jazzy moments, the like of which often wormed their gentle, lounge-style into pictures of the era and certainly dominated TV shows. But, make no mistake, this amazingly clear and sharp presentation is a horror film score, through and through. Kaproff rarely lets up with the tension and even if the film, itself, was largely kitsch and stuffed to the gills with lamentable special effects (of real ants naffly superimposed over the action, or of large-scale props that looked, if anything, far worse), its music was strong and serious and took no prisoners with a startlingly savage approach.
The percussive woodblock and the associated exotic instruments that aid it in providing a cadence for the march of the ants and the ghastly clicking of mandibles is, in many ways, an evolution of the awesome “stridulation” sound effect for their monstrous New Mexico predecessors in the vastly superior Them! From 1954. As I write this, Gordon Douglas' eerie and portentous 1954 super-chiller is actually playing on DVD downstairs for my daughter - after a week of shark films, she has now discovered bug-pictures, something that was no doubt spurred along by her questions to me regarding the music (this score) that I'd been playing lately - and that incredible and haunting sound is piercing the air on a regular basis. Insectoid music has long held something of a fascination for movie-composers who, when tasked with providing it, have sought to come up with a variety of ways to capture it. The best evocation though, I would say is from Bernard Herrmann, with his fantastic work for the giant bee in Ray Harryhausen's Mysterious Island (see CD review), but Kaproff does exceedingly well at locating a musical appreciation for such super-enlarged, antennae-quivering, fang-wobbling beasties as seen cavorting like family-sized pipe-cleaners throughout Mr. BIG's swampy-romp.
Shrill brass delivers a fanfare at the very start of Track 1 for the Main Title, and then we move into Kaproff's ominous 8-note refrain that will announce the antsy-angst that will issue forth throughout much of the score to follow. Primarily played on piano, this also gains a terrific “shunting” impetus via percussion and Kaproff will often up the tempo as the monsters get closer and more threatening. Once we get into the third track, Ants In The Plants, he will develop this motif into a much faster variation, with appropriate rises and falls in the beat, tuning marvellously into the tried and trusted Jaws approach, so primal a progression that it cannot fail to quicken the pulse and catch the breath. A variation also comes in, here, with a slightly altered note construction and the cue gets even more mysterious with the inclusion of glacial, angular strings and some wacky synthesiser elements. Just listen to that sudden lurch in tempo - it really gets you going! The electronica that flutters wildly about like a million 70's computers all chattering together works surprisingly well amidst this barren and foreboding soundscape, triggering SF associations and a crystalline, otherworldly quality.
Well, serving just as a tiny breather for our jangled nerves, Kaproff then lets us off the hook with a jazzy little number in Track 4, Buffet and Tour. But he is back on the ball with the next piece, a rollicking action-cue that may be brief, but brings in all the ant-elements that we've heard so far in a veritable barrage of rushing terror as we bear witness to The First Attack. Track 6 then adds some more traditional strings, violin and cello, to layer-in a texture of dread and suspicion. Only a small motif, again, but very effective. It is not hard to see the influences of Herrmann and Goldsmith on the young Kaproff, but this is how any composer learns, and what counts here is the sheer dynamism that is on display and the absolute musical depiction of the story. Kaproff, who was only 24 at the time, exudes considerable power and dexterity with such material and guarantees that the listening experience is an exciting one.
Drums and percussion punch chaotically at you in the furious and hectic Track 7, Big Ants On The Boat. Strings stab repeatedly and, counter-struck with cymbals, form a swirling pincer-like attack. A delightful touch comes as the cue slides out to its fade, with little mysterioso notes on the piano and a mournful echo on chimes and bell. The tracks are only short, but they blend into a cohesive and exhilarating whole. Listen to the main ant motif rise up again in the next cue, Ants In The House, but marvel how the small brass section then comes in with a vigour that would make even the great Leonard Rosenman cower. Woodblock and ethnic percussion hurtle their way into the relentless assault. Close-miking and a small studio lend each component a sharp and aggressive immediacy and the track becomes yet another tour-de-force of scuttling, flesh-rending violence. Strings and brass sizzle and clash over the tiny following cue, Old Couple Get Antsy, punctuating this insectoid maelstrom with a shrill fury, before Track 10, Old Ant River, presents us with yet another gripping set-piece of all-out desperation. After descending spirals from percussion and strings, we are pummelled by heavy piano notes that sound as though the keys are being hammered down with a mallet. Then the pace quickens, the piano really coming over with a possessed vigour that feels almost psychotic.
By now, Kaproff realises that we need another little breather. So he gives us a couple of seconds of high strings and slow notes from the synth to provide an emotional and psychological overview of the degenerating situation that our harassed protagonists - Collins' beach-property con-woman and a motley assortment of potential marks and other survivors - find themselves in, before then plunging us straight back onto the musical roller-coaster of sheer panic as Track 11, Antisocial (how very droll), morphs into a fast-paced escape and evasion chapter with energetic piano playing that even manages to capture the motif that Goldsmith had been toying with since his early days, but would only seal as a proper trademark once he ran alongside Johnny Rambo in First Blood. Track 12 offers some slight variations on the ant theme - listen to the early cue that builds quiet menace and unease with strings and piano, very reminiscent to Elmer Bernstein's pre-battle jitters in the epic Zulu Dawn - and then brings in some exotic tribal sounds mixed with whistling effects and bizarre, unsettling electronic swoops and whirls to form a deeply unnerving soundscape. It is great to see that Kaproff was unafraid to experiment. He clearly loves his remorseless main ant themes, but his ability to twist them around little assorted refrains of doomed dementia and high anxiety are remarkably assured for someone working on his debut feature, albeit one that he probably knew would only have a very limited drive-in appeal. And, if anything, it is this willingness to provide something so aggressive, inventive and exciting for a project that was clearly hammy and unintentionally ridiculous from the get-go that makes him so vital a voice in the medium. It is a shame, then, that he didn't then go on to score many more action thrillers or horror films, as he has such a distinct sense of pace and violence that future projects would surely have been something to savour.
But, on with the show.
The ants ape the shark as the viciously short Track 13 hurtles, Jaws-like, across a few heart-stopping seconds of intensity. After some gently blade-twisting worries from the strings, the drum and cymbal then syncopate with a suspense-filled new theme for the piano as it becomes clear that there may be No Escape. This little piece is perhaps the most era-flavoured of the score, if you discount the jazzy moments. Kaproff brilliantly ups the tempo until the final harsh and brittle notes stem the tide. The true powers of the ants, and their grand plan, are revealed in The Refinery/Sugar, Sugar. The exotic mystique of early portions of Goldsmith's Planet Of The Apes figures here until the score then brings with it a great new flavour that finds the violins now scratching out a gothic, gypsy-laced cadence that loiters just behind the ant theme. Although it doesn't last all that long, this expands the repertoire and truly gives the monsters a more considered and intelligent aura, the score's ambience appreciably enhanced. The piano then goes into overdrive again, really displaying the ghastly lurching scuttle of the creatures with that full-on danger motif.
Track 16, pun-entitled The Queen and I, contains more violin-work set against the ant theme, at first rapid and then slowing-down into sinuous, sliding layers that ooze menace and a dark agenda. Spidery hands keep the piano going, the score having boasted what amounts to a virtuoso performance at the ivories. But the following piece, You Will Obey/Flaming Queen, becomes action-orientated once more and, perhaps, even a touch more traditional in its composition. Certainly the early section - full of drum ripples, snares and whirlwind violins - is less fundamentally unusual than anything Kaproff has delivered until now. But this is still great stuff - fast, propulsive and full of a diving, ducking, pell-mell energy that surges ever-forwards. Spine-tingling strings and chimes glisten at the midway point and then a more strident, deeper brass note commences with a heavy, ripped brogue from the trombone. Drums then back this new and monstrous beat, woodblock and percussion and high strings reaching a crescendo as the track battles its way to the end. And if all this isn't exciting enough for you, then Kaproff launches his final assault with Track 18, fittingly called Final Escape. Interestingly coming-in at the point of the last crescendo with one of its own, the cue then becomes a blitzkrieg of rapid instrumental melees and a vortex of main theme and clashing cymbals ensues, percussion pounding away with a new and increased intensity. Martial drums ripple out and the full ensemble collide with anger in one of the most dramatic and dynamically written pieces in the score.
Kaproff ends the soundtrack with two cues, Freedom and End Titles, that bring this explosion of action motifs and skin-prickling suspense to a close. Thankfully, with this closing epitaph, he doesn't do that horribly common thing that composers during this period were so prone to provide - by dumbing-down the aggression and the dramatics with a relaxed sort of “Hey, gee, folks, I guess we're all gonna be okay. Thanks for coming, though!” style of soft thematic underscore-platitude. No, he may slow things down a bit, but the emphasis is still on agitation and unease. In fact, I would even go as far as to state that there is hint of early Howard Shore in here too, that surfaces during the first cue, something akin to his work for now-vintage Cronenberg. And how could he not then go on to round things off with a veritable overture for the ants, themselves? The main march, capped with high brass sustains, pensive synth and exotic percussion is recaptured and then the cue closes with ominous and muted brass.
The album is then augmented with three humorously titled jazz source-cues that Kaproff composed for the film, although only a couple were partially used. Here, there are presented in full. Nice to have, of course, but they deviate massively from the score at large and are totally at odds with the pervasive mood of dread and fury that we have come to know and love. With the recording taken from the original two-track session masters, which were in excellent condition, this presentation is as full as can be and sequenced in film chronological order. Many of the cues had, typically, been rearranged, dropped or truncated in accordance with later editing of the film, but this album provides easily the most exciting and downright entertaining version of what Dana Kaproff wrote.
Released by Kritzerland in a severely limited run of only 1000 copies, this is a great little addition to the monster-bug genre of film scores, a brand of musical menace that takes in the likes of Brian Gascoigne's work on Phase IV (another ant saga) with Yamashta, Bronislau Kaper's Them! (the best big bug saga ever made, of course) and Henry Mancini's Tarantula, but really this slots in well with the whole slew of “nature fights back” movies, as well. Starting with Jaws and the wonderful scores for the first two films in the series from John Williams, we would then get the melodramatic music for Grizzly, from Robert O. Ragland, Jerry Goldsmith creating a buzz with The Swarm, Robert Prince's low-budget work on Squirm, Leonard Rosenman applying his strident discord and expert experimentalism to the, otherwise, exceptionally crass Prophecy (the long-awaited CD of which is coming out soon and will be reviewed in due course) and Ennio Morricone with Orca - Killer Whale.
This edition comes with an 8-page illustrated booklet with very personalised notes from Bruce Kimmel, who remarks more upon his fond association with Mr. BIG than with the actual score, itself, or even the film. Told with obvious affection, this is still perhaps a bit of a wasted opportunity to address the debut feature score from Kaproff who should, by rights, have been the main focus. However, it is just great to have scores like this actually getting a proper release, and in such good quality. Oh, and check out that wonderfully stylish cover art depicting the original poster. Class.
Full Track Listing
1. Main Title / Radioactive Waste
2. Welcome To Dreamland Shores
3. Ants In The Plants
4. Buffet and Tour
5. The First Attack
6. Dead Foreman
7. Big Ants On The Boat
8. Ants In The House
9. Old Couple Get Antsy
10. Old Ant River
12. Ant and Uncle / Cops on the Case
13. The Tricycle
14. No Escape
15. The Refinery / Sugar, Sugar
16. The Queen and I
17. You Will Obey / Flaming Queen
18. Final Escape
19. Freedom / End Titles
Bonus tracks - Jazz Ants
20. Ballad For An Ant
21. Ants Dance
22. Cool Ants
Whatever your opinion of Mr. BIG's laughable ant-exercise, you can't argue with the quality of the score that the fledgling Dana Kaproff created on such a minimal scale. Weird, wild, and wonderful, his music for Empire Of The Ants is a rough and rhythmic treat, driven by a mandible-centric staccato motif that is simply irresistible. Where many composers who come up with such a powerful and memorable motif simply end-up boring you with its over-use, Kaproff makes his ant theme so downright forceful and domineering that you can't help but be swept along with its primal march each and every time it comes barrelling out of the shadows at you. His creative inventions along the way also deserve credit - the extremely impressive piano playing, the evocative synthesiser effects and the tribal elements - and the score, at large, flows exceptionally well and provides a scintillating and well put-together album.
However, the unavoidable thing about listening to this score is that it makes you want to watch the film - but, believe me, it won't be worth the effort. Kaproff's contribution is, without a doubt, the best element of it and even if his music is incorporated well within it, the surrounding film - kitsch value aside - can only end up tarnishing it. So, Empire Of The Ants is an experience that is best presented through the ears and onto the mind's inner-eye. Trust me, your imagination will come up with a much better film with Dana Kaproff's score pounding away at your nerves than anything Mr. BIG could concoct.
Small score, big ambition. Empire Of The Ants marked a great transition for its composer to break away from TV and, although he would swiftly return to it, his developing musical maturity saw great scores like The Golden Seal, When A Stranger Calls (and Calls Back) and Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One come along in the wake of his ant-anthems.
Although horribly limited, this score is highly recommended, and lovers of big bug movie music and aggressive horror vibes would be well advised to seek it out.
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