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King of the Ants (2003)

Director: Stuart Gordon
Starring: Chris McKenna, George Wendt, Kari Wuhrer, Daniel Baldwin, Vernon Wells
Rated R Running time: 102 minutes
Released by First Look/The Asylum

As uneven a film as Stuart Gordon's King of the Ants shapes up to be, it makes for a logical transition from the black-humored horror films he became known for (From Beyond, Re-Animator, Dagon) to the dark fables he has been turning out in recent years (Edmond, Stuck). Adapted for the screen by Charlie Higson (from his novel of the same name), the film tells the story of aimless young house painter Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna). Shuffling through life with no ambition, no car, and no money, Sean thinks that things may be about to get better when he meets a shady electrician named Duke Wayne (a very good George Wendt, playing against type). Duke thinks that Sean might be just the guy to perform a little job for Duke's friend, Ray, a mobbed-up contractor played by Daniel Baldwin. It seems there is a tenacious city accountant (an uncredited Ron Livingston) who knows a little too much about Duke and Ray's not-very-legal business dealings. Sean is asked to tail the accountant and play amateur private detective. Which he does - poorly. Then one night, a very drunk Ray asks Sean if he'd be willing to go a step further and kill the nosy accountant. Sean agrees, but only if he is paid the paltry sum of 13 grand. When Sean does the deed, it is genuinely shocking - not because of the level of brutality on display, but because Gordon leaves his trademark black humor at the door. The violence in King of the Ants goes for agonizing realism, and the accountant's painfully slow death is pretty hard to watch.

Being the sleaze they are, Ray and Duke have no intentions of paying Sean for the murder. When Sean reveals that he swiped an incriminating file from the dead man's briefcase and tries to force the pair into paying him, Sean is whisked off to Ray's secluded desert home. not wishing to kill Sean, Ray decides to do something even worse -- make him forget. For several days Ray and his band of thugs (including the Road Warrior's Vernon Wells) take turns bashing Sean's head with a golf club. Beaten to a pulp and suffering from startling hallucinations, Sean appears to have his mind sufficiently scrambled enough for Duke to untie him. A bloody melee ensues, Sean escapes, licks his wounds, and plots his revenge.

The film stumbles badly when Sean becomes romantically involved with the dead accountant's wife (Kari Wuhrer). This diversion doesn't make a whole lot of sense (to me, anyway) and slows down with had been a pretty tightly wound neo-noir outing. I will admit that Kari Wuhrer's frequent nudity did help me overlook this blunder, however. No matter what genre he's working in, Gordon knows how to keep a viewers interest. Once the film regains its composure in the final reel, Sean has gone through one of the weirdest character arcs in recent film history. Filmed with handheld cameras and abundant natural light, King of the Ants is drastically different from Gordon's previous films. Retaining the same dark sophistication that has marked his best work, Gordon uses the template of a revenge thriller, loads it up with an unusual amount of characterization, and throws in a few dashes of horrific surrealism for good measure. The result is a wildly uneven, extremely brutal, and compulsively watchable mishmash of old Gordon and new Gordon. Highly recommended for those with strong stomachs. Where else are you going to see killer Norm?

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