With the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the “Nature Attacks” genre literally exploded in the 1970s, with moviegoers seeing the likes of William Girdler’s Grizzly and Joe Dante’s Piranha flooding the theatres and drive-ins, but even the small-screen was not safe from the influence of this nature gone wild explosion and thus people who tuned in one particular ABC’s Friday Night Movie were treated to a threat more relentless than a great white shark and even more aggressive than a school of piranhas, something that has been a scourge to picnickers since the dawn of time….ANTS!
Originally aired under the title It Happened at Lakewood Manor, which one must admit is a rather strange title for a movie about killer ants and so the film was eventually re-titled Ants! for the home video market and has remained as such ever since. Though this new title was not a huge improvement over the original it was definitely more succinct and didn’t make the film sound like it was an Agatha Christie murder mystery, of course, the plot of this movie does have mystery elements to it, with various characters running around trying to figure out who or what is killing the guests of Lakewood Manor, but we the audience are entirely aware from the outset that the perpetrators are our little insect friends.
This is your basic “Eco-Horror” movie and as such, it followed the formula adopted by the disaster genre, where an eclectic group of people would find themselves thrown together in a fraught filled situation dealing with the “Creature of the Day” and in the case of It Happened at Lakewood Manor we get a nice cross-section of movie actors and television actors to fill those parts. First off, we have construction foreman Mike Carr (Robert Foxworth) and his best mate Vince (Bernie Casey) who are part of the crew doing work at the classic resort hotel, Lakewood Manor, then we have the hotels matriarch and owner Ethel Adams (Myrna Loy) and her daughter Valerie (Lynda Day George), who is trying to get her mother to retire and sell the place to real estate magnate Anthony Fleming (Gerald Gordon), and because the film needs a human villain as well as those pesky ants, Fleming is also a sleazy jerk who wants to tear down the classy hotel so that he can put up a profitable casino, so his life expectancy is about zero. To spice up the “plot” we also have Flemming’s partner/mistress Gloria Henderson (Suzanne Somers) so that the army of ants could have something pretty to eat.
Rounding out the cast of characters is hotel employee Richard (Barry Van Dyke), who sneaks a cute backpacker (Karen Lamm) into the hotel so that he can have a little romance, this diversion does go along with the film’s other romance subplot between Robert Foxworth and Lynda Day George’s characters, and then there is poor Tommy (Moosie Dier), a young guest whose dumpster diving leads to an unfortunate encounter with the film’s killer ants. The film kicks off with two construction workers who stumble upon a swarm of ants in a closed section of the construction site, but they are accidentally buried alive before anyone notices their distress was caused by ants, and when little Tommy runs screaming towards the hotel’s pool, all covered in ants, his attackers are washed away before anyone is the wiser, thus once again the culprits remain unnoticed. It’s when the cook is found dead in the kitchen that two Board of Health inspectors arrive, Peggy Kenter (Anita Gillette) and Mr. White (Steve Franken), who were called in to investigate these mysterious deaths. We then get a bit of tension when Mike tries to explain his belief that a disturbed colony of ants is the cause of all their problems, but those around him universally mock his idea, and how does our hero react to being ridiculed for his theory? Why, he simply gets in his bulldozer and starts to tear up the ground around where the colony first lived, which results in all of those pissed-off ants moving on mass straight to the hotel.
• Real estate douchebag Anthony Fleming is upset that Gloria booked them separate rooms on their business trip. Ahh, the 70s, when sexual harassment in the workplace was just the cost of doing business.
• After three “attacks” foreman Mike Carr starts getting a weird suspicion, telling his friend, “I’m beginning to think, whatever it is, it’s mad because we disturbed it.” This sounds more like they uncovered an ancient burial mound, and were dealing with angry spirits than it does a pest control problem.
• I’m not sure what health codes surround ant infestation, but Lakewood Manor’s cook seems really unconcerned with what I would call an alarming number of ants in his kitchen. I’m surprised Health Inspectors hadn’t closed this place down ages ago.
• For the first half of the movie, we get numerous shots of the ants swarming around the sink and on the kitchen floor but when Mike claims ants are responsible for the deaths he is mocked for this theory by the health inspector, and when they go to the kitchen to look for evidence not a single ant can be found. Did the ants realize they’d committed murder and went into hiding?
• A kid looking for Coke bottles to get the deposit money, to help his divorced mother, leads to a rather sticky situation with the killer ants, in a scene I like to categorize as “Things I’d never do for money.”
When one sets down to pen a script dealing with the “Animals Attack” subgenre the first thing you must ask yourself is “Can my antagonist be a credible threat?” sadly, in this area, It Happened at Lakewood Manor failed spectacularly. At one point in the film, we are given the explanation for the deadliness of the ants, something to do with them being exposed to a variety of toxic pesticides which has somehow turned them into tiny killers, but we are still dealing with itsy-bitsy ants and even with their poisonous bites it takes over fifty bites to bring a person down, which leads to the most laughable aspect of the entire movie, that of being trapped in the hotel by this “massive colony” when all it would take to escape is to walk over them while wearing shoes. We are not talking about the giant mutated creatures from Empire of the Ants, those large insects were a credible threat because the ants in this film only succeed when the people we are dealing with are totally oblivious to the fact that they are standing amongst a swarm of ants, and the only real threat to the overall populace is when a Coast Guard helicopter arrives and its prop-wash blows the ants at the idiot crowd that came to watch those other idiots trapped in the hotel.
Note: The classic science fiction/horror film Them! is still the go-to film regarding killer ants and remains one of the best examples of the atomic monster genre, clearly, this film really needed someone like James Arness shooting at a giant ant to make it all work.
I will credit the actors in this film for doing their best to look terrified, but as a viewer, there isn’t much in the way of scares to make this thing even remotely count as a horror film – it never exceeds beyond making your flesh crawl watching all the little ants scamper across bare flesh – and the environmentalist angle is pretty weak as well, with the scientist at the end claiming that this cannot happen again due to the unique environmental conditions at the hotel estate, which was vital to the existence of the ant’s nest, making the whole event seem like a non-entity and the film’s conclusion a big letdown. Overall, as a made-for-television movie of the late 70s, It Happened at Lakewood Manor is an interesting entry but to modern viewers, it’s probably a little too tepid and slow-going, especially when you consider the fact that censors at the time would not allow anything even remotely graphic on screen, and while the cast all gave credible performances the premise itself was far from credible and the end result was more of a novelty than a movie.
It Happened at Lakewood Manor (1977)
Movie Rank - 5/10
If you want to see ants crawling across beautiful Suzanne Somers then this is the movie for you, but if killer ants are the attraction, then skip this entry and watch Empire of the Ants instead.