I’ll be honest, I am not the biggest fan of these two giant critter/nature run amok flicks from legendary American International Pictures, but there is enough 70s nostalgia and plenty of bad dialog, cheesy SPFX and over the top acting to make an enjoyable evening of ‘so bad it’s good’ cinema. They are not among personal favorites, though they do have their fans, and they do work well together being similarly themed and both based on H.G. Wells stories and directed by schlock legend Bert I. Gordon. Sure they lack the charm of his earlier films, but watched together with some of your favorite beverages, they still can provide some laughs and a few chills. They are considered cult classics to some and are among the last few movies of this type made before AIP tried to go mainstream, failed and ultimately was sold in 1979 and saw it’s final releases in 1980.
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FOOD OF THE GODS (1976)
Food Of The Gods is loosely based on a story by H.G. Wells and tells the tale of a mysterious substance that bubbles up out of the ground on a remote British Columbian island and when eaten by the offspring of living creatures, causes them to grow to enormous size and with an increased aggressiveness. Local woman Mrs. Skinner (Ida Lupino) sees it as a gift from God and has the brilliant idea to mix it in with her chicken feed and not only does she get vicious, giant chickens, but inadvertently creates a pack of wolf-sized rats. A number of people staying on the island, including pro football player Morgan (70s TV and movie icon Marjoe Gortner), greedy dog food company owner Jack Bensington (Ralph Meeker), his pretty assistant Lorna (Pamela Franklin) and young married couple Rita and Tom (Halloween‘s Belinda Balaski and Tom Stovall) become stranded on the island and forced to fight for their lives against giant wasps, worms, chickens and the hungry horde of rats. Will they survive nature’s vengeance against mankind’s tampering?…will Morgan get to kiss Lorna between vermin invasions?…will pregnant Rita give birth during a crucial giant rat attack?…the answers to all these questions are a play button push away!
Adaptation is written and directed by Bert I. Gordon who made an illustrious career out of cheesy B-movies like this, including a previous version of the story, the 1965 Village Of The Giants, which focuses on giant teenagers. Gordon gives us some really bad dialog to go along with some really stupid decisions that characters make to move the plot along or put themselves in danger. And despite there being a lot of action, he directs this horror with a very pedestrian pace and gives it a very somber and serious tone, when we could have had a little more fun with a cast of hammy actors battling rubber prop critters. The SPFX are very cheesy with either real animals photographed against models or superimposed badly into live action footage, with the before mentioned plastic props for close-ups. There are a few effective moments…the worms, ewww!…and there is a surprising amount of blood for a PG rated movie, but that was not uncommon in the 70s. It was only till films like Dawn Of The Dead and Friday The 13th came along and pushed the limits that the ratings board got very sensitive. And all these cheese-tastic elements would be a lot more enjoyable if the flick didn’t lack the fun and charm of some of Gordon’s earlier giant animal/bug/human pictures. His 50s and 60s movies had a sense of entertainment, where here, he seems to really be trying to make a serious Sci-Fi/Horror out of this, despite the goofy script. There is some fun to be had with all the unintentional cheese, but we only wish the film didn’t take itself so seriously and took the wildlife out of control premise and really ran with it like the 1978 Piranha.
The cast take their roles very seriously for such a silly flick, some to the point of camp. Gortner especially is a natural ham and really chews the scenery as the pro football player turned giant critter killer. Few actors could battle a giant rubber chicken with such seriousness and intensity and he is fun to watch. Also amusing is his deadpan narration that bookends the film. Lupino is also over the top with her melodramatic eye rolling and over-acting as she recites some truly ridiculous dialogue with a straight face. Meeker is a stereotypical greedy corporate douche while Franklin gives us the perky yet rebellious assistant. Why she even works for this jerk is the big question. The rest go along with the nature run amok premise just fine and do a really good job emoting against plastic creatures and reacting to things that were added later in post production. I give each credit for keeping a straight face with some of Gordon’s dialog and the situations they are put in.
Overall, Food Of The Gods is an amusing watch, but sometimes is either too bad or too serious to really have a good time with it. It also has a slow pace and really doesn’t pick up till the last act. The FX are delightfully cheesy and some of the acting and dialog is bad enough to elicit some chuckles, but I just feel the really somber tone defeats the cheesiness of the story and low budget production. Gordon made a career out of movies like this and I give him credit for not making a joke out of his subject, but when you are dealing with giant rats and chickens, you’d think he’d had a little more fun with it. On a more personal note, while I can’t find any documentation to verify it, it looks like some real animals were killed in some scenes and that doesn’t sit well with me either. A decent B-movie,but one that could have been more fun if Gordon just went with it instead of trying to pass off a cheese burger as prime steak.
2 and 1/2 giant rats!
EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)
Food Of The Gods was a success for AIP and so, Gordon was back the following year with another giant creature feature from yet another H.G. Wells story, this time Empire Of The Ants. This one works slightly better with it’s story of radioactive waste dumped in the ocean and making it’s way to the shores of a small island where it is consumed (why?) by the local ant population. Enter Marilyn Fraser (Joan Collins), a greedy real estate developer who takes a boatload of potential scam victims to the island to show then where their future homes aren’t really going to be built. Obviously they get stranded on the island with the large and highly intelligent ants, who not only have an appetite, but use pheromones as a form of mind control to make humans into slaves. Now it’s up to boat captain Dan Stokley (Robert Lansing) to try to get this beleaguered group to safety, battling both the ants and their human drones.
Again flick is directed…but this time co-written with Jack Turley…by Bert I. Gordon and once again with a somber and serious tone despite the silliness of giant, mind controlling ants. But this film seems to work a bit better then Food Of The Gods as giant ants are a bit more effective then giant chickens and the cast is a bit more subdued, especially hero Lansing, so we don’t get the glaring contrast of serious tone and over the top acting…though there is still some of that. Once again Gordon gives us cheesy moments of real ants photographed and superimposed to look giant and plastic heads and limbs for close-ups though, ironically, the ants make a shrieking noise like a school girl who has just found an ant crawling on her arm. We also, get characters making some really stupid decisions like an elderly couple who, while fleeing the ants, see a door-less shack and proclaim “We’ll be safe in there!”…and there is some really bad dialog recited with straight faces by the cast. Again, like the previous Wells adaptation, this one just should have had more fun and more energy for a B monster movie. Sure there are some sequences which work and give chills, but Gordon’s earlier films were a lot livelier, where these two Wells-based flicks are taken far too seriously considering the subject matter and the SPFX, which were cheesy even in the late 70s. No one is saying to make a joke out of it, but recognize that it is a Saturday Night Sci-Fi flick and have a good time with it, like Gordon did with his films of the previous decades. After doing more seriously toned movies like Picture Mommy Dead and Necromancy, Gordon seems to have lost his sense of fun. Empire and Food lack the charm that made Gordon’s earlier films a delight.
The cast are a bit more dialed down then Food Of The Gods’ Lupino and Gortner, especially with leads Collins and Lansing. Joan Collins plays the manipulating, bossy bitch she made a career out of and keeps a very straight face despite acting with plastic ants. Lansing plays the soft spoken hero very well and it was refreshing to have an older man as the hero instead of a young jock or soldier. The supporting cast features 70s/80s regulars Pamela Shoop (Halloween II), Robert Pine (CHiPs and father of Chris “Captain Kirk” Pine) and Albert Salmi (Superstition). There is a some cheesy over-acting here, as well, but it is a movie about giant ants, so we’ll cut them some slack even if it butts against Gordon’s too serious tone.
Overall, much like Food Of The Gods there is some fun to be had here, but certainly not enough as we’d like, or, to make it a real B-Movie treat. Sure there is cheesy FX and dialog to laugh at, as well as, the added nostalgia of the 70s stereotypes that make up the film’s characters, but the film forgets to have a little fun and Gordon doesn’t give it the charm of his earlier works. An amusing watch that would definitely be helped by a few brews and a visit from the MST3K gang.