RogerBW's Blog

The Food of the Gods 22 August 2021

1976 horror, dir. Bert I. Gordon, Marjoe Gortner, Pamela Franklin: IMDb / allmovie. "Based on a Portion of the Novel By H. G. Wells."

I've been watching a lot of arguable masterpieces recently, and I wanted to make sure my calibration was still set properly. A friend recently told me about this film, which I hadn't previously heard of, an American International Pictures production by Samuel Z. Arkoff. (Those of you who know your B material have already worked out roughly what to expect…)

Now your man Bert I. Gordon ("BIG"), perhaps better known for The Amazing Colossal Man, had one particular trick as a director: a combination of back-projection, matting, and forced perspective to take footage of small things, enlarge it, and superimpose it behind other footage. So most of what he did involved giant animals or people in some way, from King Dinosaur to Earth vs. the Spider. The obvious drawback is that the actors can't interact with the enlarged footage. This sometimes looked decent, sometimes terrible, but it was cheaper than good-quality puppets or models.

But he barely uses it here. Most of the time there's no compositing at all: either the film cuts between humans observing and animals on miniature sets, or unconvincing giant animal-part props (particularly a rat head and what I think may be an inflatable rooster) are shoved at the actors from out of frame. When he does do his thing, it can work pretty well within the obvious limitations of the technique.

(Special Visual Effects are by "B. I. Gordon", clearly a different person from the director; the unit production manager is Flora Gordon, who would divorce Bert three years later, probably not as a direct result of this film.)

Of course this film is not just about the giant animals. No, no, it needs actors. And whom have we got…? Marjoe Gortner, who to my mind always looks as if he's just been dumped into this human suit and doesn't quite know how to make it move or emote convincingly. It's not his fault: when he was four his parents ordained him as a preacher for their revival shows, and he was part of that whole scam until his father ran off with all the cash, so it's not as if he had much chance to learn to interact with people in a normal context.

Pamela Franklin, whose last film role this was though she kept working in television, does a rather better job, though she doesn't have much to work with. And Ida Lupino, star in the 1940s, the most prominent female filmmaker in 1950s Hollywood, pioneering television director and frequent guest star in the 1960s… plays a comic-relief yokel. It can't have been for the money…

Gordon is usually a pretty taut filmmaker; he may not have much to show, but he keeps the pace up. Mostly. The thrilling ferry crossing scene might have worked the first time, but by number four I was definitely starting to wonder whether there was going to be a point… padding is an unfortunate fact of the B-movie, and some directors hide it better than others.

The first giant animals we see are the wasps, which are less than entirely convincing, especially when they're a model glued to the back of someone's jacket. (The coroner failed to notice the single giant wasp-sting-wound in the victim's back, I guess.) I think these wasps must have been filmed in a thin glass cell, because they don't move closer or further away in shot; they rely on the film editor to zoom in and out on the whole set of wasps at once.

The giant chicken head that our hero has to fight isn't entirely wonderful either (though when other chickens are sharing a split screen with him, i.e. he doesn't have to be pretending to interact with them, it all works much better).

And really you'd think farmers on a remote island would know how to keep rats out of the chicken feed.

Much to everyone's surprise, it turns out a VW Beetle isn't giant rat proof. Though in the shots of the normal rats crawling over the model car they're visibly not attacking anything inside it. Remember those prop giant rat heads, though, because you'll be seeing them again. And again.

But that guy, victim number 2, gets killed by the side of the road and his car is left there. The obligatory slimy businessman drives past the car, then past some stranded campers with an over-large van, refusing to stop to check on either. Then the car is apparently dragged off by the rats, because lots more people drive between ferry dock and farm without ever noticing it.

This film does one brave thing: it doesn't ignore the basic problem that giant animals aren't actually a solution to world hunger, because even if it can survive, a single 250kg chicken probably doesn't feed any more people or eat any less food than a hundred 2.5kg chickens. No, they have an answer to that: they're going to use the stuff on plants too! That'll solve everything.

(Also these giant rats have no problem scampering about and killing people, but apparently they can't swim, because, um, oh look one of the campers is very pregnant, I wonder if that'll matter later?)

When you're trying to help people climb out of a giant rat burrow, and the branch you put over the hole to anchor the rope breaks, why not just tie it round one or more of the great big trees nearby?

But even when this film is being rubbish, which to be fair is most of the time, there's a sense of energy about the thing which leads me to forgive many sins. Gordon doesn't play it for laughs: he's genuinely trying for tension and excitement, and sometimes he almost succeeds.

Might make a good double feature with Night of the Lepus.

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