THE FOOD OF THE GODS
**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C
starring Marjoe Gortner, Pamela Franklin, Ralph Meeker, Ida Lupino
screenplay by Bert I. Gordon, based on a portion of the novel by H.G. Wells
directed by Bert I. Gordon
**/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C
starring Ray Milland, Sam Elliott, Joan Van Ark, Adam Roarke
screenplay by Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees
directed by George McCowan
EMPIRE OF THE ANTS
*½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras C-
starring Joan Collins, Robert Lansing, John David Carson, Albert Salmi
screenplay by Jack Turley, story by Bert I. Gordon, based on the novel by H.G. Wells
directed by Bert I. Gordon
***/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras C-
starring Fritz Weaver, Gretchen Corbett, Jon Korkes, Norman Lloyd
screenplay by Gerry Holland, from a story by James Callaway
directed by Bob Claver
by Jefferson Robbins If THE DISSOLVE had lasted, Keith Phipps's fine recurring genre feature "The Laser Age" might have gotten around to the SF subcategory of Nature Gone Wild--the movies that set animals against humanity, such as The Swarm, Night of the Lepus, Squirm, and Prophecy (The Monster Movie). Distinctly a 1970s phenomenon, as we fretted over the northward migration of killer bees and the health of our DDT-soaked bald eagles, the films usually boasted critters who turned on us bipeds after stewing too long in our toxic effluents, perhaps gaining bestial superpowers as a result. They were cheapies, by and large, although with The Swarm director Irwin Allen tried to pull off the same broad settings and large aging-star cast he'd managed in his previous disaster flicks. As a trope, humanity vs. nature works best in isolation, when solitary heroes or groups of victims are besieged in the sticks, with no outside help forthcoming.
Shout! Factory's horror imprint Scream Factory has lately issued a brace of double-feature Blu-rays from the genre. The two discs reviewed herein boast entries from the later years of American International Pictures, longtime home of the killer B-movies--including the last two films Bert I. Gordon ever directed for the studio before its dismantling in 1979. The first, Gordon's The Food of the Gods, makes the unfortunate choice of mewling its eco-theme loud and long in an opening voiceover by footballer protagonist Morgan (Marjoe Gortner, the decade's sensitive action hero). The Earth was bound to get sick of man's transgressions, he lectures--and thus he finds himself shotgunning giant Norway rats off a picturesque cabin roof.
Gordon, who in the 1950s made badly-composited giant animals and even giant men his calling card, adapted well to '70s filmmaking in some ways and not so well in others. The framing, cutting, and camera movement he and his collaborators supply on The Food of the Gods is up to snuff, evoking loneliness and mystery as Morgan explores a mist-shrouded island where wasps and chickens grow king-sized. But, oy, those wasps and chickens. Transparent postproduction effects and obvious puppet-work show how '50s schlock could, with the forgiving nature of black-and-white film stock, more easily pass off its flaws. (Let's be honest, though: not even the characters who got eaten in Earth vs. the Spider thought that spider was really there.) The effects hadn't changed much since Gordon's heyday, because Stanley Kubrick aside, who was asking for better? The films that contained them had broadened, however, along with audience expectations. If your giant rooster is in widescreen colour, it damn well better look like a giant rooster.
The puppeteered rats that harass Gortner, his love interest Pamela Franklin, and their intriguing old-guard co-stars, Ralph Meeker and Ida Lupino, fare much better. Based on "a portion of" H.G. Wells's novel--which Gordon or AIP felt compelled to also credit for their 1965 go-go travesty Village of the Giants--the movie jettisons Wells's social satire, unless you count Meeker's greedy investor or Lupino's Bible-blinded farm wife. Both are enjoyable foils, and we're the poorer for it when they're devoured. (Spoiler.) One thing we can be certain of is that The Food of the Gods would never have gotten an American Humane certification. In its quest to blend action and horror, rats are visibly pelted with paintballs to simulate gunshots, hurled into the air by staged explosions, or submerged in water and forced to swim. Briefly, we see their corpses. The '70s really were a different decade. There's no telling how many animals were ironically traumatized or killed for a near-forgotten parable on the unpleasantness we've wrought on nature.
No one is directly murdered by frogs in Frogs, which leads one to wonder how a herd of frogs might go about murdering someone. Smothering? Toxic skin secretions? For all their marquee menace, the frogs (mostly cane toads in the ominous insert shots) appear to be generals in wildlife's war on humans rather than the infantry. Relatives at the coastal island redoubt of oligarch Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) fall victim to spiders, rattlesnakes, alligators, geckos, and monitor lizards, while the frogs squat behind the lines, croaking and (apparently) scheming. Only nature photographer Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, so young and moustacheless that when he first canoes into sight the sole valid response is Holy shit, that's Sam Elliott!) seems tuned in to the danger posed by the effluents from Crockett's paper mill and the pesticides he uses to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Smith, his canoe swamped by Crockett's princeling son Clint (Adam Roarke), gets taken into the family bosom to flirt with Clint's sister Karen (Joan Van Ark) and to homoerotically bond with Clint over high-school football. Nobody's there to see it when Crockett's nephew Michael (David Gilliam) dies in a shower of tarantulas, one of which falls straight into his mouth, but at least Smith starts asking the right questions. That still doesn't yield many answers as to how the lower-order creatures on Crockett's island got smart enough to, say, read the labels on conveniently-placed bottles of poison, but we know where to place the blame.
Shot in Florida by director George McCowan, Frogs plays to its location and drops Southern Gothic into its stew, but never quite brings it to a simmer. That's too bad, because it also lacks much in the way of action, so we're stuck in a house full of characters whose psychology only goes puddle-deep. At least The Food of the Gods blows shit up and forces a pregnant lady to give birth during a giant-rat siege. Written into a wheelchair in the classic noir/Gothic tradition, Milland is basically doing Lionel Barrymore as Henry Potter. His offspring lounge about the veranda with little ambition, pilot speedboats at unsafe velocities, and maybe worse from the patriarch's point of view, bed down with black women (Judy Pace). Frogs falls short as a Gothic--if it ever intended to be one--because the wildlife attack arises from the Crockett family's external, visible sins, not the ones that are kept hidden. That doesn't mean they didn't have it coming.
This shortcoming is shared with Empire of the Ants, Gordon's final AIP entry and the most direly-paced, overstuffed Ten Little Indians piece I have ever seen. We think there's hope for some patina of symbolism when the first man to die on a boat outing to Joan Collins's seaside real estate scam is also the first to see it for the scam it is. We'd like for the lion-sized ants, once again introduced in portentous voiceover above some excellent macrophotography, to mean something--anything. They could be poisoned Nature's retribution for the flimflamming carried out by Collins's gorgeous, fearsome Marilyn Fryser (just a mink stole away from Alexis Colby), or else be comeuppance for the sins of the dozen or so potential marks she's roped in. Couldn't they at least eat Robert Pine's oily rapist, and spare his wife? There's a glimmer of depth, maybe, in the fact that all of Marilyn's potential buyers are reeling from job loss, divorce, infidelity, seeking a measure of control that could be had if they surrender to the ants' mutated hive-mind.
But no. Empire of the Ants, another Wells "adaptation," goes from thinking it's a luxe '70s And Then There Were None to thinking it's Them! to thinking it's The African Queen. Its unlikeable protagonists affect the least plausible human behaviours, and the gaps they leave between lines of dialogue add probably fifteen minutes to the runtime--copious room for "Mystery Science Theater 3000" interjections from home viewers, but what is there to yell at the movie except "Turn this shit off?" The ants that pursue their human prey are so poorly splitscreened they appear to be not only in a different shot, but a different biome altogether. Empire of the Ants is exhausting in its badness, in its unwillingness to be either real horror or camp, and for a film that closed out the partnership between Gordon and his longtime enabler Samuel Z. Arkoff, that's a real shame. Though they always made trash together, it had been memorable, self-aware trash. Empire of the Ants deserves to go as unnoticed as the brightly-marked barrel of toxic waste that acts as its stupid McGuffin.
I best remember Jaws of Satan--the only non-AIP outing on these sets--under its release title King Cobra, as it's billed on Scream Factory's source print and within the disc's theatrical trailer. Whatever you call it, it's the most intriguing of this passel of when-animals-attack flicks, ascribing its snake rampage in a rural Southern town to supernatural malevolence instead of eco-disaster. Under veteran TV helmer Bob Claver, several disparate parts fit together with few seams. First there's the creepy what-the-fuckitude of the opener, with carnies shipping a gargantuan cobra that suddenly manifests telekinesis. Over here, troubled priest Father Farrow (Fritz Weaver) finds himself afflicted by inexplicable oogie-boogies. Finally, there's the woman of science, Dr. Maggie Sheridan (Gretchen Corbett), investigating a rash of fatal snakebites with somewhat-dashing herpetologist/love interest Paul Hendricks (Jon Korkes). If it weren't for exposition machine Norman Lloyd as Farrow's uncle, telling of a family curse that's loosed Satan on Earth in cobra form, we'd have no connective tissue at all.
Like a K-Tel Super Sounds of the '70s compilation, Jaws of Satan wraps up several hits of the previous decade. There's the nature-amok bandwagon, sure, but it also apes Jaws when corrupt town officials fatally ignore the snake invasion so as not to queer a major commercial enterprise. (These bosses go the cowardly mayor of Amity one better, dispatching a thug to rape and murder Sheridan.) When Farrow is called on to cast Lucifer back to the abyss, it's The Exorcist-lite. Yet the appealing cast (including a teensy Christina Applegate) is casually great and sells the horror; the plot seldom betrays its next step; DP Dean Cundey's shadow-loving lensing and Roger Kellaway's subtle score maintain suspense; and Eoin Sprott's snake effects are by and large indistinguishable from the real, creepy thing. That is to say, I hope that isn't a live diamondback getting its skull blown off.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Scream has remastered these movies to look as fresh as yesterday. Leave aside some haircuts and wardrobe choices and The Food of the Gods could pass for a far more recent vintage, thanks to the preservation of colour and depth in the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. Fleshtones are fine, although some pinks (Ida Lupino's cheeks, for instance) shine out of all proportion. The optical effects, of course, are shown up for the optical effects they are, and the composited elements amplify the grain and speckling, but detail remains sharp throughout. Both The Food of the Gods and its sister film, Frogs, are mastered in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono, which comes across a bit shrill when rats are shrieking and toads are chirruping for blood. It's cacophony, but cacophony with a purpose. Frogs handles its sound load the best of the two, with a score by Les Baxter that at times sounds as if somebody hurled a theremin out a window. The croaks and bleats of the closer, when Milland's animal trophies seem to scream at him from the walls, disorient and unsettle, even minus surround sound. (It's also a nice callback to The Lost Weekend.) The 1.78:1, 1080p image serves the horror well, as visitors to the Crockett estate stumble into the animals' clutches in broad daylight, often in clothing that serves up a riot of colour. We can see the flaws too, like the failed focus-pull as Elliott's canoe drifts towards the camera, or the visible cigarette burns at upper right (meaning this probably wasn't mastered from the negative), or the clumsy splice right through the middle of Elliott's lean and handsome face around nineteen minutes in.
At one point on The Food of the Gods' frustrating commentary track, interlocutor Kevin Sean Michaels enthusiastically grills director Gordon: How on earth did he make that chicken so big? "Well, it's a fake," Gordon offers. "We made a model." That's it. Extracting enthusiasm or insights or tales told out of school from the veteran King of the Bs is like prospecting for oil with a hand-drill. It's not that he's dismissive of his work--the impression is that he's more than ninety years old, being asked to comment on things he did forty years ago that weren't that big a deal at the time. It's the most skippable yakker ever recorded. Better grist is found in "Rita and the Rats with Belinda Balaski", an 11-minute HiDef featurette with the actress who had to carry a baby to term while giant rats sought to eat their way into her house. She remembers Gortner as the high-energy den leader of the cast, on a shoot that ran far too long, and discloses that co-star Ida Lupino--herself a budget filmmaker of some renown--grew so fed up with the schedule that she wrote a death scene for her character, browbeat Gordon into filming it that very day, and went home. The one-minute theatrical trailer is here in HD, in addition to a radio spot of the same length and a 43-image photo gallery. Frogs gets no commentary, though "Buried in Frogs with Joan Van Ark" (10 mins., HD) gives the picture another look from that actor's perspective. Boy howdy, did she have a thing for Sam Elliott. Find also a two-minute HD trailer, a one-minute radio spot, and 30 images in the photo gallery. My favourite is the appeal to exhibitors that reads, "Frogs is hoppin'...and so will your box office!"
Over on the disc it shares with Jaws of Satan, something about Empire of the Ants screams "particularly well-lensed TV episode." Everybody looks fresh and clean in this 1.85:1, 1080p presentation, especially Collins, whose makeup offers a blended but lacquered effect not seen on her co-stars. Costume colours are more muted than on the earlier Frogs, but detail and contrast remain high; hair, cloth, and skin textures are even and appealing. Grain is very fine in the non-F/X shots but heavier in the composited scenes, as could be expected when macrophotography intrudes on the real-world scale. I'm not a fan of the banshee screech deployed as the ants' attack siren--channelled through the LPCM 2.0 mono mix, it's harsh and jagged. But the character-setting conversation is clear and sunny, the lapping of still water against a boatful of refugees is low and mournful, and the whoosh of the wind and shore is bracing. Kellaway's score is the high point of Jaws of Satan's 2.0 LPCM mono track, and at times I wished for a music-only option. Outside of that, dialogue is crisp and easy to follow, Foley work is concise, and those snakes sure can hiss and rattle. I found the darker scenes in the 1.78:1, 1080p transfer a bit muddy, and when Farrow steps into a cave to confront the Dark Powers, the background pretty much vanishes. Still, like Frogs, Jaws of Satan is largely a daylight horror: It's not that wildlife could strike by night that's horrifying, it's that the wildlife is striking at all. Fabric texture, skin contours, and variances in light and shadow are all well-displayed. This isn't Cundey on Halloween, but it's still Cundey.
Between The Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants, it appears that late-period Bert I. Gordon had a habit of getting pushed around by his lady stars, or else fomenting environments where they were likely to revolt. In a slightly more forthcoming yak-track with Michaels, Gordon relates how Collins balked at having to leap into gator-infested waters for a key shot. Beyond that, it's the same laconic director getting pumped by the same admiring interviewer, to not much effect. No cast member interview this time--only the two-minute theatrical trailer (in HD), the one-minute radio ad, and a photo gallery append the feature. The lone Jaws of Satan extra is its own two-minute HiDef trailer--too bad, since this film is just enough of a curiosity to demand some explication. If I ever meet Christina Applegate, I know what I'm asking her to sign. Follow Jefferson Robbins on Twitter