Wednesday, May 20, 2015

THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) Blu-ray Review

The Food of the Gods (1976) d. Bert I. Gordon (USA)

Following an avalanche of late ’50s films featuring oversized beasties – six in two years, including Beginning of the End, The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, and Earth vs. the Spider – writer-producer-director-special effects artist Gordon (aka “Mr. B.I.G.”) moved away from the subgenre he had helped create, expanding his oeuvre to include ghost stories, action thrillers, and sex comedies. But the 1970s’ ecological horror boom combined with the Jaws-inspired “animals attack” movement proved too alluring to pass up; when longtime producer and American International honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff approached in 1975, inquiring if he had any new projects, Gordon thought immediately of a certain book by H.G. Wells, one upon which he had already riffed with his 1965 romp, Village of the Giants. As he says on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray release, “I remembered the giant rats in The Food of the Gods and instantly I knew we had a picture.”

Purists be warned: a faithful adaptation of Wells’ novel this is not. (Note the credit: “Based on a portion of the novel by....”) Rather than the lab-created Herakleophorbia IV, here the titular vittles bubble straight up out of the ground, resembling a particularly viscous batch of creamed-corn soup. Almost the entirety of the action takes place on a remote island (Gordon shot all his principal photography at Cowan’s Point on Bowen Island, British Columbia, returning to Los Angeles to complete the special effects on miniature sets). The character of Bensington is changed from a bald, benevolent scientist to a scurrilous flim-flam artist (played to perfection by burly Ralph Meeker). And our main hero is a horseback-riding, shotgun-shooting, football-playing ideal of liberal pragmatism named Morgan (Marjoe Gortner), who kicks things off with a narrated reminiscence of his father prophesying, “One of these days the Earth will get even with Man for messing her up with his garbage.”

While subtlety is not the first (or fifth) item on Gordon’s priority list, he and his committed ensemble take the opening speech’s portentous tone to heart, playing every scene to the hilt without an ounce of camp as they are besieged by humongous rodents, wasps, grub worms, and chickens. Gortner (Earthquake, Starcrash, Mausoleum), with his curly blonde hair and Heston-sized teeth, is a terrific brains-and-brawn man of action, as comfortable setting a giant wasp nest ablaze as he is constructing a makeshift electric fence. He is matched ably by genre legend Pamela Franklin (The Innocents, The Legend of Hell House, Gordon’s 1972 feature Necromancy) as Lorna Scott, a sharp and attractive heroine who describes herself as a “female bacteriologist” (which, of course, begs the question whether she’s a bacteriologist who is female or someone who studies female bacteria). Franklin is saddled with some of the clunkiest dialogue, but she sells it as best she can, even the notorious scene where she confesses to Morgan, “I want you to make love to me,” during a brief lull in the rat attacks.

Ida Lupino, star of such classics as High Sierra and “classics” like The Devil’s Rain, and a trailblazing director in her own right, brings an enormous amount of humanity to her penultimate screen role of Mrs. Skinner, the simple God-fearing woman who discovers the mysterious substance and, since “it weren’t no oil,” mixes it with chicken feed, thereby setting the hideous chain of events in motion. (She stores excess portions of the tasty mixture in mason jars, helpfully labeled “F.O.T.G.” in case anyone forgot the title of the movie.) Belinda Balaski (The Howling, Piranha, Gremlins) and Tom Stovall round out the main cast as an unmarried pregnant couple caught up in the voluminous vermin’s wake.

One can only guess that Gordon assumed people wouldn’t mind seeing Volkswagen-sized rats being shot by red paint pellets. After all, they’re rats, right? Even so, members of PETA would be well-advised to steer clear, as it’s impossible not to have a modicum of sympathy for our four-legged thespians getting blasted in the face, blown up, and/or held underwater by their tails. While Gordon insists that the ASPCA was in contact at all times, there’s no doubt that animals were definitely harmed during the making of this film. (The director also asserts on the commentary track that – at the actor’s request – it is none other than Gortner laying down the crimson fire on his rodent nemeses.)

Thankfully, the rats are the only real-life creatures to take a beating onscreen, and FX wunderkind Tom Burman lightens the load with his large bucktoothed puppet heads and chicken beaks savagely attacking from just out of frame and giant latex wasps strapped to people’s backs. The Oscar-nominated artist also provided the copious amounts of red blood dashed about – this is easily Gordon’s goriest film to date – and the nasty makeup job on an unfortunate venom victim.

Editor Corky Ehlers, veteran of everything from the blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off Abby and Jaws 3D to Civil War prestige projects Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, does a fine job of cutting between the miniature sets and live action. (I’m also going to credit him with the opening title sequence’s artistic freeze-frame images, bringing to mind several 1970s political thrillers.) But not all of Gordon’s trick shots stick, the biggest offenders being the optically printed see-through wasps. Franklin and Lupino’s looks of disbelief and awe from the farmhouse window are textbook examples of “no acting required”; watching Meeker swinging wildly away at the air with a shovel, you can almost hear them thinking, “What is he doing? What are we doing? How did we end up here...?”

English-born Canadian cinematographer Reginald Morris, Bob Clark’s DP of choice (Black Christmas, A Christmas Story, Murder by Decree) delivers the overcranked goods, slowing the “giant” beasts’ actions so as to convey enormous heft and weight. Meanwhile, Graeme Murray, who would later win multiple art direction Emmys for The X-Files, gets his big break, crafting the dilapidated barns and underground tunnels lovingly accented by claw and teeth marks. (Erik Von Buelow handled the miniature design chores.) Considering the impact that composer Elliot Kaplan’s lively music has in fueling the proceedings, it’s somewhat surprising to find a handful of Fantasy Island episodes remain his biggest claim to fame.

Paired with Frogs, another vintage slice of “Nature Strikes Back” cinema, the announcement of Shout! Factory’s high-def upgrade was cause for much celebrating in the Doc’s office, being a sentimental favorite from my misspent youth. Sadly, the commentary track with Gordon, which should have been regarded as a time capsule moment (the guy is 93 years old, folks, he’s not going to be around forever) is a completely squandered opportunity. I don’t want to lay all the blame at moderator Kevin Sean Michaels’ feet; he is clearly doing his best to engage his subject, but the tight-lipped Gordon is uncooperative from the get-go, grumpily offering one-word answers and/or silence.

Sadly, it quickly becomes clear that Michaels hasn’t done much research, resorting to glib observations on the screen action and laughing at his own (unfunny) jokes. He also makes the HUGE mistake of shutting Gordon down when he starts to prematurely discuss the rats, stupidly saying, “We haven’t seen that yet, so don’t talk about that.” GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. It’s a commentary track, Kev! We’ve seen the movie!!! And have you noticed that Mr. B.I.G. hasn’t been the ideal chatterbox thus far? If he’s ready to talk about something, ANYTHING, the floor is open. That’s just Commentary 101.

As a huge fan of FOTG, it makes me genuinely sad that this commentary will likely stand as the film’s final testament for generations to come. Shout! Factory would have done well to hire someone who had bothered to read up on the subject and could provide a worthy verbal essay under any circumstances. I’m also sorely disappointed in Gordon’s failure to step up to the plate; sure, he might be tired of talking about a 40-year-old movie, but that was his assignment for the day and, outside of a few tidbits, he fails miserably. (Though he does manage to plug his new feature, Secrets of a Psychopath, several times.)

Happily, the other extra on hand (other than theatrical trailers for Food, Empire of the Ants, and Frogs) is Walter Olsen’s “Rita and the Rats” featurette with the marvelous Balaski, who reveals more in 10 minutes than Gordon and Michaels do in close to 90. She opens up about taking Lamaze classes to be authentic (and then having her director tell her to lay down anyway because it was “better for the shot”), the snowstorm, Gortner’s enormous energy and generosity (the two had already performed together in the same year’s Bobbi Jo and the Outlaw), the challenges of acting opposite Burman’s giant creations, and Lupino’s hilarious decision to kill off her own character so she could go back home to Los Angeles. It’s a delightful segment from start to finish, leaving one wishing she’d had been tapped to do the commentary herself! Ah well.

The Food of the Gods will be released from Shout! Factory on May 26 and can be pre-ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


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