Saturday, October 07, 2017


Over the years I've become a fan of writer/director/special effects artist Bert I. Gordon's films. I was resistant for a very long time because whenever I stumbled across one on TV it always seemed cheap and lacking. Never well thought out or well produced, they exuded the feel of a production stretched beyond what could reasonably be accomplished with the meager means available. Whether it was a grasshopper crawling over a postcard cityscape (BEGINNING OF THE END) or supposedly giant monsters that somehow didn't cast shadows (virtually every movie he made), Gordon was always at least a few steps behind the special effects curve. And that was when he started producing movies in the 1950s! But I learned to love those pics for their odd charms and simple stories. They were not great films but they were earnest fun.

For the first seven or eight years of his film career Gordon kept pace with larger budgeted movies in the 'giant monster' genre because there were only so many ways to create the effects. But as he moved into color photography in the 1960s it became apparent that his skills were not advancing and sadly, neither were his stories. By the '70s he was still in the game but he was rarely getting films made. At the time he made THE FOOD OF THE GODS he had been making different kinds of movies for a while and must have seen this as a return to glories past. I guess in a way it was. His scripting is just as juvenile as in the '50s and the effects are just as cheaply cheesy. But even though I came to love the movies "Mr. BIG" made in his early years, this effort just doesn't work for me. I think it's because I'm willing to give the older films the leeway to slather on the cheese out of a sense of nostalgia for a time before I was born. For me, stilted, awkward dialog is somehow more believable when the actors drive Studebakers, smoke Chesterfields and wear fedoras. The tin-ear dialog that was always a part of Gordon's monster efforts becomes slightly embarrassing when spouted by men who also curse. I can understand having a soft spot for FOOD OF THE GODS if you saw it as a youngster, but as an adult first-time viewer, it's just a silly hoot. I counted at least five great laugh-out-loud moments of classic unintentional humor. Maybe I should count that as a plus? 

Morgan (Marjoe Gortner) is an NFL wide receiver who, with a couple of fellow players, goes off for a few days of rest before a big game. Traveling to an isolated Pacific coast island, they encounter a host of oversized wasps and one of their group is stung to death. In searching for help Morgan learns that a nearby farmer and his wife have discovered a gooey substance bubbling out of the ground that they've been feeding to their livestock. This "food of the gods" causes animals to grow to gigantic proportions and after a dangerous encounter with a big chicken Morgan leaves the island with his dead pal vowing to come back.

A few days later, Jack Bensington (Ralph Meeker) and his secretary Lorna (Pamela Franklin) come to the island to meet with farmer Skinner about the Food. But Skinner never made it home the night before, after a deadly run in with some giant rats. Bensington realizes that this Cream of Wheat-like stuff could be incredibly profitable and tries to secure the rights. Mrs. Skinner (Ida Lupino) is adamant that they wait for her husband to negotiate but when Morgan and a buddy return to the island with shotguns and explosives plans begin to alter. Warning a pregnant couple stranded by their broken-down Winnebago about the dangers on the island, the jocks proceed to the farm and set out to destroy the insects responsible for their friend's death. But after successfully burning the huge wasp nest the two men realize that the real problem they face is the growing hoard of hungry giant rats.

In a series of exciting scenes Morgan and his friend race around the island trying to find a clear path to the ferry dock but it soon becomes apparent they're cut off. The pregnant couple joins Bensington, Lorna and Mrs. Skinner in the farmhouse and attempt to barricade the place as the rats attack. From here on out it's all-out war with the giant rodents as the besieged humans are picked off one by one. With shotgun shells running low and few options, how will anyone survive? 

Sounds great, doesn't it? Giant critters swarming all over the place trying to get a mouthful of juicy human flesh as screaming people attempt to shoot their way to safety. And, to give Bert I. Gordon his due, the movie does move very well. Once things start to happen after the destruction of the wasp nest the pace is very fast. It often felt as if he thought that if he kept moving the shoddy effects work would zip by quickly and be more easily accepted. Unfortunately that doesn't happen. The giant animal attacks are accomplished with a combination of partial mockups for the actors to push against and poorly done process shots laying the images of real creatures across the shots. In other words, the exact same process used in the 1950s. I knew we were in trouble when the first of these effects sequences involving the wasps was so bad that the flying insects looked like greenish magic marker squiggles. And once they landed on a victim the fake bug was obviously not moving, forcing the actor to shake it while pantomiming fear. It's actually kind of funny... albeit not a promising start for a horror film.

To give the movie some credit, the giant rat heads that are used to attack the cast are pretty darned good-looking practical effects. They rarely match up to the shots of rodents pushing into the farmhouse model but they are effective on their own. The oversized worms that attack Mrs. Skinner's hands are very good as well and stand as the single best effect in the movie. Also, the fast and violent shotgun-blasting standoff has a few tense moments that manage to induce some cringing — if only for the way the real rats are being pelted with blood pellets! And now this cinematic joy is available on Blu-Ray! Some days I love this world!

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