Alec Baldwin in Miami Blues (Photo: MVD & MGM)

By Matt Brunson

(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)

Suzanne Somers in Ants! (Photos: Kino)

ANTS! (1977) / TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO (1977) / TERROR OUT OF THE SKY (1978). It wasn’t just 1975’s Jaws that popularized the genre best described as “When Nature Strikes!” Even before the Spielberg blockbuster, such works as 1972’s surprisingly decent Frogs and the same year’s dopey Night of the Lepus demonstrated that it wasn’t wise to turn one’s back on Mother Nature. And this fad wasn’t confined solely to movie theaters: While marquees were filled with the likes of Day of the Animals, The Swarm, and Prophecy, television also decided to get into the act, with producer Alan Landsburg and screenwriter Guerdon Trueblood responsible for four such films. Three of these made-for-TV movies have now been released separately on Blu-ray on the Kino label; curiously, the only no-show is the most popular of the bunch, 1976’s The Savage Bees.

Ants! is the worst of the trio, although bad-movie buffs will certainly get their money’s worth. Originally making its debut under the title It Happened at Lakewood Manor, this finds employees, guests, and construction workers being attacked by murderous ants suddenly taking up residence at a quaint hotel owned by an elderly widow (Myrna Loy, a long way from The Thin Man pictures), run by her daughter (Lynda Day George), and coveted by an unpleasant developer (Gerald Gordon) and his more agreeable partner (Suzanne Somers). Even though most people get itchy from just one or two ants crawling on them, this is the sort of daft flick in which a person has to be completely covered in the critters before they even notice their presence. The awful effects only add to the merriment. Although Robert Foxworth (as the construction crew head) and Day George are the leads, the sudden stardom of Somers (whose smash sitcom Three’s Company debuted earlier that year) meant that she was the focus in all the ads.
Pat Hingle in Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo

Ants! premiered on ABC on December 2, 1977, followed by Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo debuting on CBS on December 28 — most likely, Raid stock peaked during that particular Yuletide season. In this one, two pilots (Night of the Creeps’ Tom Atkins and WKRP in Cincinnati’s Johnny Fever, Howard Hesseman) illegally transport a plane full of coffee beans from Ecuador to the U.S., not knowing that the bags are also filled with killer spiders. When the plane crashes next to a small California town, arachnophobia kicks in. Top-billed Claude Akins (TV’s The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo) plays the local laborer who leads the charge against the fearsome spiders, while North Carolina’s Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon in the Keaton-Kilmer-Clooney Batmans) is the town’s crusty doctor. Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo gets off to a fine start, with the premise and the characters nicely established — there’s even an unexpected death to goose the proceedings. But since slow-moving tarantulas are rather limited as screen villains (unless they’re gigantic, of course, as in the ‘50s classic Tarantula!), the film has nowhere to go but down, with the climax consisting of tedious scenes involving shovels and buckets.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Tovah Feldshuh, and Dan Haggerty in Terror Out of the Sky

Figuring that nothing says Santa like marauding bugs, CBS opted to release Terror Out of the Sky almost exactly a year after Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo, on December 26, 1978. This one’s a sequel to the aforementioned 1976 hit The Savage Bees (★★½ for those keeping track), a fairly decent effort which had starred Ben Johnson (five years after his Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show) as a sheriff contending with killer bees in New Orleans and Michael Parks and Gretchen Corbett as the scientists on the case. Corbett’s character of Jeannie Devereux was back for Terror Out of the Sky, but Corbett was not; instead, the role was adopted by Tovah Feldshuh, fresh off her Emmy-nominated turn in the same year’s hit miniseries Holocaust. Here, Jeannie spends more time deciding between her horny boss (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and sluggish boyfriend (Dan Haggerty) than she does running from the bees. This one’s rather dull, with the buzz-worthy bugs opting to swarm a school bus. Haggerty was immensely popular at the time for his starring role in the 1974 theatrical release The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and the subsequent (1977-1978) TV series of the same name — while his beard isn’t quite as shaggy in Terror Out of the Sky as in those wilderness adventures, one can’t help but wonder how many bees could he hide in that mass.

All three Blu-rays include film historian audio commentary among its extras. Ants! also contains audio interviews with supporting cast and crew personnel; Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo offers trailers for Fear No Evil and Scream, Pretty Peggy; and Terror Out of the Sky serves up trailers for Ritual of Evil and Chosen Survivors.

Ants!: ★½

Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo: ★★

Terror Out of the Sky: ★★

Mickey Rourke in Desperate Hours (Photo: MVD & MGM)

DESPERATE HOURS (1990). The “The” makes all the difference. The Desperate Hours was the name of a popular novel by Joseph Hayes, a Broadway adaptation that took the Tony for Best Play, and an excellent 1955 film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. Desperate Hours, on the other hand, is pure drivel, with director Michael Cimino perhaps setting a record by coaxing so many bad performances out of so many good actors. Mickey Rourke, collaborating with Cimino for the third time (following the studio-crippling Heaven’s Gate and the controversial Year of the Dragon), tackles the Bogie role of the escaped convict who, with his two accomplices (Elias Koteas and David Morse), holes up in a high-end house and holds the family (Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers, Shawnee Smith, and Danny Gerard) hostage. The characters are daft, the situations are risible, and why exactly is one outdoor scene featuring the death of a minor villain backed by an instrumental version of the cowpoke fave “Red River Valley”? It’s depressing seeing so many talented actors flailing so futilely — worst of all is Lindsay Crouse as a seemingly brain-damaged FBI agent who speaks with a ridiculous inflection, barks nonsensical orders, and, when asked, “Are you hurt?,” replies with “Only in my ego!”

Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; the theatrical trailer; and a photo gallery.

Movie: ★½

3981_The Duke_Photo Nick Wall.RAF
Jim Broadbent in The Duke (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

THE DUKE (2022). Jim Broadbent delivers an absolutely disarming performance in one of those stranger-than-fiction true stories. Apparently hewing to the actual history more closely than many such undertakings, this casts Broadbent as Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old Newcastle resident who in 1961 stole Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London. A gentle and unassuming man with genuine compassion for other people, Kempton anonymously let it be known to the authorities that the painting would be returned in exchange for the elderly no longer having to purchase a television license (required in the U.K. to watch the telly). Although his adult son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) knows about the theft, Kempton elects to keep it a secret from his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), who loves her husband but has grown angry and weary over what she considers time-wasting activities on his part. The Duke deepens when it adds a subplot about a long-ago tragedy that remains front and center in the everyday lives of the Bunton family — mostly, though, matters are kept light in what is basically a David and Goliath tale in which the sling and stone are replaced by a cheery attitude and an open heart.

Extras include a making-of featurette; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other titles recently released by Sony’s Blu-ray art-house branch.

Movie: ★★★

Chuck Norris in Good Guys Wear Black (Photos: Kino & MGM)

GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK (1978) / A FORCE OF ONE (1979) / THE OCTAGON (1980). Chuck Norris might be a non-entity as an actor (even a piece of balsa wood displays more emotion) and abhorrent as a human being (a homophobe, a conspiracy theorist, a gun nut, a science denier, a fan of grotesqueries like Ted Cruz, Roy Moore, and Donald Trump; take your pick!), but damn if he doesn’t project a necessary sense of swagger and an aura of authority up there on the screen. While most of his movies are junk (particularly after he got involved with Cannon Films), he did appear in a handful of worthwhile efforts, among them 1972’s The Way of the Dragon (as the villain to Bruce Lee’s hero) and 1985’s Code of Silence. Kino has just released three of his earliest successes as a leading man, and they prove to be a mixed bag.

Good Guys Wear Black is responsible for making Norris a movie star, although it’s not a particularly distinguished picture. It certainly sports a strong cast — perhaps the best of any Norris outing — and the actors provide some lift to a conspiracy thriller that feels especially malnourished in the wake of such ‘70s paranoia classics as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Norris plays John T. Booker, a Vietnam vet who learns that the former members of his outfit are meeting mysterious ends. Teaming up with a reporter (Anne Archer) and receiving tips from a trusted government insider (Lloyd Haynes), Booker follows a trail that takes him to the doorstep of a possibly corrupt senator (James Franciscus). Dana Andrews appears as the politico’s right-hand man while Jim Backus, finally off Gilligan’s island, cameos as a doorman. The dumdum plotting ultimately overwhelms everything else.

Jennifer O’Neill and Chuck Norris in A Force of One

Although he’s the lead, Norris takes second billing to Jennifer O’Neill (Summer of ’42) in A Force of One, a solid actioner that also turns out to be a pretty good mystery. Scripted by Academy Award winner Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection, Shaft), this finds the members of an elite squad of undercover narcotics agents being systematically murdered by a masked enforcer for a criminal outfit. Since this killer clearly possesses martial arts skills, the police captain (Clu Gulager) decides to hire karate champion Matt Logan (Norris) to train his people. O’Neill co-stars as a tenacious cop who soon realizes that one of her colleagues in the squad is a traitor. Good performances (save for Norris, natch), believable relationships, and artful action sequences make this one of the better bets in the Chucky canon.

Chuck Norris and Richard Norton in The Octagon

With its intriguing storyline and slick visuals, The Octagon had a chance to emerge as Norris’ best vehicle; instead, too many flaws place it in the close-but-no-cigar category. Norris stars as Scott James, who learns that his adoptive (and estranged) brother Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita) is running a terrorist outfit that trains participants in the ways of the ninja. Scott tries to maintain his distance, but the involvement of his best friend A.J. (Art Hindle), an anti-terrorist expert (Lee Van Cleef), and a woman (Karen Carlson) seeking his protection draw him into the fray. The plotting is decent and the action sequences excellent, but Scott’s voice-over narration is wince-inducing, Carlson is terrible, and the character of A.J. makes absolutely no sense.

Extras on all three Blu-rays (sold separately) include film historian audio commentary; a making-of piece; the theatrical trailer; and TV and radio spots. Good Guys Wear Black also contains an interview with director Ted Post while A Force of One and The Octagon both feature audio commentary by their respective directors, Paul Aaron and Eric Carson.

Good Guys Wear Black: ★★

A Force of One: ★★★

The Octagon: ★★½

Fred Ward and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Miami Blues (Photo: MVD & MGM)

MIAMI BLUES (1990). Seeing a rumbled cop repeatedly removing his false teeth is as unexpected as seeing another character scoop up his fingers off the countertop like so many M&M’s after they’ve been severed by a butcher knife. These are just a couple of the many offbeat ideas in a movie that would be weightless without them. Adapted by writer-director George Armitage from the Charles Willeford novel, this stars the late Fred Ward (who passed away in May) as Hoke Moseley, a weary policeman in dogged pursuit of the violent ex-con who stole his badge, his i.d., and his false teeth. Said jailbird is “Junior” (Alec Baldwin), who divides his time between committing crimes while pretending to be a cop and playing happy homemaker with Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a gullible prostitute seeking a better life. Leigh’s performance is so good that it’s a shame her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role is so generic — honestly, switch Susie and the prostitute played by Patricia Arquette in True Romance and neither movie changes in any significant way — although Ward (who also co-produced) has fun playing an off-kilter cop who’s neither hero nor anti-hero but basically just an ordinary guy on the job. Baldwin’s emoting is more slippery: He brings ample intensity to his role, but some of it spills over into hamminess.

Blu-ray extras include interviews with Baldwin and Leigh; the theatrical trailer; and a photo gallery.

Movie: ★★½

Forest Whitaker in Species (Photo: Shout! Factory)

SPECIES (1995). A sleeper hit during the summer of ’95, Species is an imaginatively cast and tautly directed sci-fi/horror hybrid that doesn’t quite escape the timeworn dictates of its plotline. A group of scientists foolishly combine human and alien DNA, and the resultant growth, named Sil, turns out to be a beautiful woman (Natasha Henstridge) with a nasty habit of turning into a grotesque creature and ripping spines out of people’s backs. The head scientist (Ben Kingsley) responsible for Sil’s creation is hot on its (her?) trail, aided in his efforts by a gruff assassin-for-hire (Michael Madsen), a tortured empath (Forest Whitaker), a lonely professor (Alfred Molina), and a bright biologist (Marg Helgenberger). With the help of makeup maestro Steve Johnson (Big Trouble in Little China) and fellow Oscar-winning effects expert Richard Edlund (Star Wars), artist H.R. Giger (Alien) created a memorable movie monster in Sil, although Dennis Feldman’s script is frequently more perfunctory (to say nothing of ludicrous) than inspired. Still, the film is better than its mangy reputation, although it’s best to skip its three sequels. Incidentally, the younger Sil is played by a 14-year-old Michelle Williams, a full decade before Brokeback Mountain kicked off her run as a critical darling and Oscar bridesmaid.

4K extras include audio commentary by Henstridge, Madsen, and director Roger Donaldson; a making-of featurette; a piece on Giger; a look at the visual effects; and an alternate ending

Movie: ★★½

Robert Pine in Empire of the Ants (Photo: MGM)


EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977). Those who desire more crazed bugs in their moviegoing diet might want to check out another subpar effort in this vein, one that was released theatrically in the same year that Ants! was hitting television. Loosely adapted by writer-director-producer Bert I. Gordon from a story by H.G. Wells, this stars a pre-Dynasty Joan Collins as a shady realtor who has some swampland in Florida she’s trying to sell to a particularly dense group of investors. What she and the others don’t know — but discover soon enough — is that a leaky barrel of radioactive waste has turned small ants into gi-ants, and the hapless humans must flee the area before they’re — what exactly? Bitten? Eaten? Crushed? The laughable effects make it difficult to ascertain exactly what the ants are doing to their victims, but as long as their actions result in the demise of these dolts, it doesn’t much matter. Yup, you’ll be rooting for the ants.

Movie: ★½


Review links for movies referenced in this column:
Big Trouble in Little China
Code of Silence
Day of the Animals
The Last Picture Show
Night of the Creeps
Night of the Lepus
The Parallax View
Scream, Pretty Peggy
Star Wars
The Swarm
The Thin Man Series
True Romance
The Way of the Dragon
Year of the Dragon

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