The Food of the Gods (1976)
Loosely based on a story by H.G. Welles about goo from the ground that causes the animals that eat it to grow to alarming sizes, Bert I. Gordon’s The Food of the Gods was released in the wake of Steven Speilberg’s Jaws (1975) by American International Pictures. It was the first in a line of eco-horror movies that AIP distributed in its waning years and the first of three movies inspired by Welles’ stories, including Don Taylor’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and Gordon’s own Empire of the Ants (also 1977, see below). As if that wasn’t enough, it also marked Mr. B.I.G.’s (real nickname – I didn’t make that up) triumphant return to his trademark: giant monster movies. Between 1955 and 1958, Gordon made six movies involving giant creatures of some kind that attack regular-sized humans. For his seventh film, Attack of the Puppet People (1958), he reversed the formula and had regular-sized creatures attack tiny humans. Throughout the ‘60s, he made more standard-issue movies of varying genres (many aimed at children) and came out of retirement once for Village of the Giants (1965), a semi-spoof of his other movies also based on Welles’ The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth (Macmillian, 1904). When Jaws-mania hit, Gordon was only one guy who AIP could turn to for super-cheap giant monster mayhem.
The Food of the Gods is a fun enough mix of ‘50s and ‘70s monster movie mentalities. Gordon and his capable cast (this film is a reminder that Marjoe Gortner really should’ve had an A-list career) treats the goofy material with a straight face, but doesn’t let its heavy-handed dramatics (the narration/exposition spells out every environmental subtext for the audience) get in the way of the fun. From narrative clichés to ridiculous images and dialogue, it’s the type of movie that invites the audience to giggle without the burden of judgment. Surely, Gordon understood the hilarity inherent in images of man-sized chickens attacking man-sized men. Gordon’s miniatures and prosthetic effects are quite effective, even if the killer wasp process shots don’t really work. The violence fulfills the expectations of the ‘70s without overstepping the acceptable boundaries of Saturday ‘kiddie matinee’ entertainment. Only awkward pacing (which lags and sprints between set-pieces) and final act fatigue, and the fact that the rats are too cute to root against hold it back from bona fide guilty pleasure status. It’s difficult to get behind any movie that shoots real rats with pellet guns and drowns them for a climax. Sadly, the promise of a sequel featuring giant cows and children never came to fruition (the unofficial sequel, Damian Lee’s Gnaw: Food of the Gods II, is more like a splatter movie remake).
The Food of the Gods appeared on a way out of print (and quite valuable…at least until now) DVD from MGM and made the rounds on HD television, especially during the late-night hours. This 1.85:1, 1080p transfer represents its first Blu-ray release. It’s probably safe to say Scream Factory hasn’t remastered any of these transfers, but MGM kept the original material in pretty good shape. Grain is steady, picking up a bit during process/special effects shots. Details and contrast levels are sharp, leading to occasionally edge haloes and similar artefacts, but overall textures are pretty impressive. Colours are quite natural and tightly maintained. Despite being stuck on a single disc with another movie, compression effects aren’t an issue. Print damage artefacts are resigned to small white flecks and a few blotchy spots, usually towards the end of a reel.
The LPCM 2.0 soundtrack meets the standards of any older, monoraul affair. The sound field is a bit crowded at times and real depth is at a premium, but clarity and tonality is consistent throughout effect and dialogue tracks. Elliot Kaplan’s thumpy and old-fashioned score is an aural highlight that blends nicely into the action (and lion-like giant rat growls) of the livelier sequences.
Commentary with director Bert I. Gordon – Gordon and moderator Kevin Sean Michaels discuss the making of the film. It’s a pretty low energy track; there are a lot of long pauses, and Gordon is sometimes hesitant to fully participate, but Michaels does a pretty good job coaxing behind-the-scenes anecdotes out of him.
Interview with Belinda Balaski (11:40, HD) – A sweet and funny interview with the actress.
Trailer, radio spots, trailers for other Scream Factory titles
George McCowan’s Frogs is one of those select few ‘70s eco-horror throwbacks that actually predates Jaws. It concerns an editorial photographer named Pickett Smith (played by a very young and mustache-free Sam Elliott) who finds himself stuck on the estate of an affluent and influential family while they’re under attack from a plethora of swamp-based critters (including frogs, obviously). It is probably the only film in this series that doesn’t require an appreciation of B-movies and so-bad-it’s-good traditions to enjoy. The better-than-average qualities begin with Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees’ semi-smart, politically adept screenplay. The environmental angle is covered early with relative grace during the opening titles, as Pickett snaps pictures of wildlife as it exists alongside floating garbage and raw sewage. The audience can understand what had incited the animals without needing their motivations explained when he later finds the body of a groundskeeper that was spraying pesticide. Further social commentary is established via the understated social clash between Pickett and the wealthy weirdoes he stumbles across, as well as their subversive reactions to the African American woman (Judy Pace) that the ‘black sheep’ son has brought home. Later, when the familial patriarch refers to his family as ‘the ugly rich,’ his wife rationalizes the statement by insisting "We’re entitled to be ugly – God knows we pay enough taxes."
Though mostly assigned to popular television throughout his career, McCowan was a reliable workhorse whose film work included the third film in the Magnificent Seven series, The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) and the H.G. Welles-inspired The Shape of Things to Come (1979). He overcomes the innately goofy premise with handsome photography (supplied by Carrie cinematographer Mario Tosi), effectively frightening animal attacks (the spider scene is great!), and a foggy emotional atmosphere. The occasionally agile dialogue is severed by slightly stiff performances that actually feeds the gloomy tone. The soap-operatic, yet relatively mundane problems of the central family drives the pacing down to a crawl during the middle part of the film. A bit of outrageous gore would’ve livened the threat at the climax, but, all in all, Frogs is among the more sophisticated movies in this eco-horror lot.
Just like The Food of the Gods, Frogs got an anamorphic DVD release via MGM (it popped up in those big box store ‘value bins’ all the time) and made the midnight show rounds on HD TV. This is its Blu-ray debut. The 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is another solid showing. The brighter outdoor photography gives it a slight edge over The Food of the Gods in terms of wide-angle background patterns and the more even-handed contrast doesn’t block out as many of the shadowy areas. Interiors are appropriately dark with slight increases in grain texture, but there aren’t any notable hikes in print damage artefacts. The colors are natural and eclectic (if not a bit muddy, due to the swampy setting), but some of the brightest hues (mostly reds) do feature some blocking effects.
The LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack is slightly better than most, due to the state of the original mix. The sound design isn’t always naturalistic, but it excels by putting eerie effects over music or dialogue and creates an effectively immersive aural environment. The ominous croak of the killer frogs is perfectly relentless as the film builds to its climax. Lip-sync is occasionally off, probably thanks to ADR recording, but dialogue tracks are generally consistent. AIP’s busiest composer, Les Baxter provides a moody and often abstract ambience for the scary sequences, but otherwise stays out of the way.
Interview with Joan Van Ark (10:10, HD) – The actress briefly chronicles her time on her feature debut.
Trailer and radio spot
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