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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Food of the Gods

Bert I. Gordon started out in the 50s making “big bug” sci-fi films, such as Beginning of the End (’57), Amazing Colossal Man (’57) and Earth vs. The Spider (’58) to name but a few. His productivity waned a bit in the 60s, but B.I.G. was not done. Food of the Gods (FotG) was Gorodn’s adaptation of a portion of H.G.Wells’ novel, though Gordon appeared to be trying to ride on Wells' coattails in the promotion of the film. Gordon wrote the screenplay, produced and directed. The scenario was perfect for Gordon’s classic small-things-made-big techniques. Gordon’s adaptation resulted in a story that was almost purely in the horror genre. But, since Wells’ story was sci-fi, this film is worth including in this study. FotG did spawn a remake in 1989, which horror fans feel was superior this film (if only for having better “gore”).

Quick Plot Synopsis
Morgan, a minor league football player and two friends decide to vacation on a Canadian island to relax before a big game. While out horseback riding, Dave rides into the woods alone. There he is attacked by a swarm of giant wasps. Morgan meets Mrs. Skinner. She and her husband (a backwoods couple) found the “food” oozing out of the ground. They fed it the chickens and they grew big. Wasps eat and and grow big. Mr. Skinner gets eaten by giant rats, though no one knows this. Morgan and Brian take dead David back to the mainland. Business man, Mr. Bensington comes to the Skinner farm with his biologist, Lorna, to buy the rights to the food. Morgan and Brian arrive too. A young couple, Thomas and Rita, are introduced but factor in later. Giant rats attack Thomas and Rita in their stuck RV. They run to the house. The rats carry off Lorna. Morgan and Brian save her from the rat hole. Now everyone is trapped in the house. Bensington wants tries to gather jars of the food to drive back with, but the rats attack and kill him. Moran and Brian do recon in the jeep. They electrify a fence, which stops the rats. The rats try to go around the fence via a river, but sink instead of swim (too big/heavy to swim). The rats disable the generator and attack the house. Much shotgun fire ensues. With the aid of a homemade pipe bomb, Morgan and Brian break free to drive up to a modest dam at a lake. They blow it up. While they’re gone, the rats attack and kill Mrs. Skinner. Morgan and Brian return, but the rats get Brian. The rest of them flee to an upstairs balcony as the floodwaters swell around the house. The rats can swim, so slowly drown off, one by one. Those on the house get Morgan’s shotgun, including the white rat leader. As Morgan douses the pile of dead rats with gasoline, he recalls his father saying the earth would get its revenge for all the bad things men have done (ecologically speaking). As the credits roll, we see two of Bensington’s jars flow down stream where some cows drink the food-tainted water. Their milk goes to a school where some kids drink it. Freeze frame. The End (?)

Why is this movie fun?
The whole small-things-made-big genre is a fond (if somewhat cheesy) feature of the 50s. So, it has a nostalgic quality in FotG. In fact, if it weren’t for the mid-70s automobiles and being filmed in color, FotG could pass for a 50s B-film. FotG evokes memories of other rodent-monster films from the Golden Era, such as The Mole People (’56) and Killer Shrews (’59)

Cultural Connection
Earth’s Revenge — A recurring theme in many 70s movies is the environmental-wickedness of modern man. Pollution gets elevated to the ultimate sin. As mentioned in other review notes, anxiety over pollution surpasses nuclear anxiety in the 70s. Instead of radiation causing monsters, pollution spawns monsters.
Rats Were Big — The popularity of films such as Willard (’71) and Ben (’72) indicate that rats were enjoying a wave of popularity as the monster d’jour in the 70s. Other rat films would follow

Based on the Book (sort of) — The credits acknowledge that the source of the story came from H.G. Wells’ 1904 novel, “The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth.” Actually, the entire story in FotG stems from just a side-thread in the novel. The bulk of the novel focuses on the human giants and society’s inability to adjust to them. Early in the novel, however, there is a scientist named Bensington who creates The Food. He entrusts it to a rural couple, Mr. and Mrs. Skinner, who aren’t careful and The Food enters into the food chain. This creates giant wasps and worms and rats. These get hunted down and destroyed fairly early on and the story then goes on to human giants. The novel is not one of Wells’ better efforts, tending to get a bit talky and slow.

The Rest of the Story — Bert I. Gordon actually did a movie based on the rest of Wells’ novel, in 1965. Village of the giants plays out the story of some youths who become tyrannical giants. While Gordon’s VotG is played as youth-pandering farce, he still manages to catch some of the social commentary about the struggles between established generations and ones growing up after them.

Non-Sci-fi — Where Wells’ book has The Food being a product of some naive scientists (as per usual), Gordon’s screenplay has it simply oozing up out of the ground. This fits well enough into his moralizing message that the earth itself would be extracting her revenge for all the nasty stuff mankind has been doing. Having a natural cause for the monsters removes that small vestige of science that Wells included, making FotG more of an eco-horror film.

Renaissance Man — Actor Marjoe Gortner plays a football quarterback with an impressive range of skills. He is pretty skilled at using a pitchfork to fight off a giant rooster. He is a quick study on the workings of naturally occurring growth goo. He is a crack shot with a 12 gauge. He knows how to make pipe bombs and molotov cocktails. He knows how to rig up an electric fence (that somehow is not shorted out when the fence goes into the river.) He also knows just how to blow up a dam. Fortunately, he is a wise enough leader type to not be distracted by a vacuous female.

You Call Yourself A Scientist? (or an Actress?) — Most of the acting in FotG is adequate to the task of a B-grade horror film. Pamela Franklin’s portrayal of Lorna, however, stands out as particularly lame. Granted, Gordon’s script painted her badly. She’s supposed to be a biologist, but gets nothing science-y to say, and as the rats are massing to attack the house, she tells Morgan that she wants to make love to him. (huh? Not now, missy.) But it’s not all Gordon’s fault. Franklin plays her part as if the crew were just doing lighting tests. For example, giant rats kidnap her and drop her down one of their rat holes. How would someone act in that situation? Freak out a little, maybe? Franklin just stands there as if waiting for a bus. There are many other scenes in which Franklin clearly is not getting into character, but is simply someone reciting the correct lines. She has done better work, but had lost the zeal for film. FotG was her last feature film. She went on to several other television roles,

Actual Actress — In contrast to the disinterested Pamela Franklin, is Ida Lupino, who plays Mrs. Skinner. This is a small role for a big star. Lupino started film roles in the 30s. She was supposed to be (yet another) blonde ingenue — the usual curvaceous, pretty eye candy. But, she proved to be a talented actress capable of tackling some very tough and edgy roles. She was more of a name from the 40s and 50s. Obviously beyond the eye candy stage in the mid-70s, she still managed to give the Mrs. Skinner character the most feeling of any of the FotG roles. Gordon may have hired her for her latent marquee power, but she also managed to give his cheesy film some dignity.

Bottom line? FotG is a fairly predictable film in the horror genre. There is no science in the fiction. The acting is okay, except for Franklin. The special effects are vintage B.I.G, although the superimposed “wasps” are pretty poor, even by 1950s standards. While passable as entertainment, FotG might be a good first film in a double feature, with Gordon’s Village of the Giants as the second. Ignoring the discontinuity (natural goo vs. science potion), starts to piece together Wells’ original novel.

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