One should be careful in going overboard with praise for director Stuart Gordon, who was a fallible mortal like the rest of us - I have seen both Robot Jox and Fortress, I am well aware that the man could fuck up. But still, listen to this fun fact and tell me the man wasn't a miracle worker: Gordon directed films produced by both Empire Pictures and The Asylum, two of the most notoriously bad of all low-budget genre film companies, and he somehow managed to make good films for both of them. That he managed to make for-real great horror pictures while under Charles Band's thumb was impressive enough; but he is, as far as I am aware, the only director to ever sneak a genuinely good movie out of The Asylum, best-known these days for its profoundly craven "mockbusters", and its ghastly bad-on-purpose movies about shark tornadoes and/or mega sharks. This is maybe in part because Gordon worked with The Asylum before it had discovered the money to be made in plumbing such depths of depravity: depending on the source you trust, his 2003 film King of the Ants might even be the very first film produced by The Asylum, which before then was only a distributor.

It was a partnership that came about because Gordon couldn't find any more respectable outfit willing to sink money into what looked to be a singularly nasty, gross revenge thriller. The story goes that George Wendt, beloved co-star of the iconic sitcom Cheers, was reading the 1992 novel King of the Ants by Charles Higson, and wanted very much to appear in a film adaptation, securing the rights from Higson himself (the novelist also wrote the screenplay). Having worked with Gordon back in their Chicago theater days, the three men shopped around the project for the better part of a decade before The Asylum finally bit.

With that anecdote in mind, the obvious first question is: so just how dark and violent and depraved is the scenario, anyway? And the answer is: not that much. More violent films get made without incident all the time. Still, it would be wrong to deny just how much of a nasty piece of work King of the Ants is, with its world full of completely awful people, and with a casual roughness to its portrayal of violent murder and other sordid content that absolutely does feel unsafe. It's a grimy film, with that griminess amplified by the crummy production value that The Asylum enforced on Gordon and his crew: the film looks filthy, to go along with the filthiness of the characters' souls.

The story is a pretty basic, straightforward tale of gangsters, betrayal, and revenge. Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna) is a young man with no direction in life; when we meet him, he's just starting out as a house-painter, and he's pretty bad at it. Bad enough that he comes in for some good-natured ribbing from "Duke" Wayne (Wendt), another contractor working on the same house, who suggests that Sean might want to consider working with Duke's boss, a real estate developer named Ray Matthews (Daniel Baldwin). Ray is, of course, crooked as all hell, and on one of his first meetings with Sean, he conveniently gets so drunk that he indiscreetly muses that his life would be better if the accountant investigating his books, Eric Gatley (Ron Livingston, in an uncredited cameo), were to meet with a horrible accident. Sean is wracked with doubt about this, but not so wracked that he doesn't brutally murder Eric in his house. And after this, he discovers that Duke was looking to set him up as a patsy all along, and only his foresight in having assembled a folder of documents detailing Ray's involvement in the murder keeps him alive. It does not, however, keep him from being kidnapped and tortured. He's able to escape, and start nursing a murderous rage and desire for revenge, complicated when he ends up being nursed back to health by Eric's widow, Susan (Kari Wuhrer).

None of this is at all surprising or novel, of course. Where King of the Ants distinguishes itself is in the scuzzy tone and general nastiness with which approaches this stock narrative of corrupt thugs fucking each other over. It's pervasive, right down to the littlest things: fairly early on, there's a scene where Sean is squirming around in his bed during a sleepless night, sleeping naked on top of the blankets, in an unexpected bit of full-frontal male nudity; it's a tiny little nothing moment but it creates a kind of sleazy vibe that the film benefits from. And of course, there are the biggest things as well, like the horribly ugly death scene where Sean kills Eric, learning the hard way how much blunt trauma a human body can take before it shuts down; the tone of the scene is set by Livingston's meek and confused "what are you doing?" when he takes the first hit to the skull and blood starts to streak down his face. It's a great little line delivery, pathetic and hopeless, and it makes the rest of the murder - the rest of the violence throughout the film, really - seem that much more heartless and raw.

The acting is, in general, one of the film's biggest strengths; even Daniel Baldwin, by no means one of the best-loved Baldwins, fits perfectly into his role as a self-impressed egocentric monster. Wendt goes a long way just on the basis of subverting his friendly barfly image - the great upshot of being so intimately associated with a single role as Wendt is, is that it takes very little effort to turn that into something horrible and perverse, and Duke is a great role for the under-used actor, burly and loud and perfectly blending cheerfulness and depravity into one inextricable portrait of a low-grade psychotic bully. McKenna sometimes overplays his character's gee-whiz innocence in the first 20 minutes or so, but that sets up a nice to his gee-whiz insanity as the film progresses; even though the film unambiguously sets him up as the character we're meant to side with, he's a scary, erratic presence.

Gordon handles this all with a deft hand for tone - the film is absurd enough, often enough, that it's never truly unpleasant to watch, without it ever shading into anything remotely like comedy. Better still, as Sean starts to suffer a break from reality, Gordon pulls out some of the tricks he learned in his horror days, using exaggerated angles and lenses, and even, for one vividly weird scene, actual body horror to make Sean's mental collapse feel like the subject of the film even more than the revenge plot.

The only problem with all of this, really, is that at the end of the day it's an ultra-low-budget production by a young company of no means. Even more than in their Charles Band days, Gordon and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg have nothing to work with, and the sad fact of the matter is that King of the Ants ends up feeling like a cheap film made on prosumer equipment by enthusiastic, talented amateurs. The flagrantly ugly, flat look of the film at least somewhat fits the squalid content, but production designer Georges Moes doesn't have the means to make these spaces look like people inhabit them; it's a bunch of curiously sterile houses that have been stripped down of anything that's not directly necessary to the plot. And the less said about the deeply awful sound recording, the better. By all means, King of the Ants is a film made with talent and passion, but it also has the feel of an especially ambitious home movie; all love in the world to Stuart Gordon's gifts as an indie director, but this one is a little too indie for my tastes.