Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Food of the Gods, The (1976)

... aka: Die Insel der Ungeheuer (The Island of Monsters)
... aka: H.G. Wells' The Food of the Gods
... aka: La plaga asesina (The Killer Plague)

Directed by:
Bert I. Gordon

H.G. Wells' 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth was divided into three different books and followed a group of scientists who invent a substance called Herakleophorbia IV (or “Boomfood”) that accelerates growth in plants, young animals and human children; eventually turning insects and our four-legged friends into large killer beasts and the kids into 40-foot giants more than willing to use their size to their advantage once they reach their early adult years. This film adaptation uses material from just the first section of the novel, though it doesn't stick all that closely to it aside from some of the same characters, the farm setting and, of course, the giant animals. There aren't any over-sized plants in the one and also no giant kids but that's because Mr. B.I.G. had previously already filmed the kid part as Village of the Giants back in 1965. It too was loosely adapted from just a portion of the book and didn't follow it all that closely. Most disappointingly omitted from the book for this film version are gigantic chickens attacking a small town. I'd have loved to have seen them try to pull that off.

“My father used to say, 'Morgan, one of these days the Earth will get even with man for messing her up with his garbage. Just let man continue to pollute the Earth the way he is and nature will rebel. It's gonna be one hell of a rebellion.'” Professional football player Morgan (played by former “Miracle Child” kid preacher / faith healer Marjoe Gortner), who narrates, his teammate Davis (Chuck Courtney) and overworked PR man Brian (Jon Cypher) decide to get away for a few days go to a barely-populated Canadian island (accessible only by ferry) to ride horses and hunt. Davis chases after a deer and is found dead by his friends; his face hideously pink and swollen. Morgan goes to look for help, stumbles upon a farmhouse, enters the barn and is attacked by a giant rooster. After killing it with a pitchfork, he goes to the home and meets the paranoid, God fearin' country bumpkin Mrs. Skinner (Ida Lupino), who greets him with a shotgun. Morgan and Brian return to the mainland and get the medical report back on their dead friend, with the coroner estimating he'd been stung by 250 wasps. In fact, it was actually just one giant wasp that did all of that damage.

The following day, asshole industrialist / chemist Jack Bensington (Ralph Meeker) and his assistant, bacteriologist Dr. Lorna Scott (Pamela Franklin), show up at the Skinner farm to make Mr. Skinner (John McLiam) an offer on some milky white substance they found leaking out of the ground near their home. Before getting devoured by a slew of giant rats, the farmer had given the substance to his chickens and, while it had no effect on the adult birds, their offspring grew to giant size. Other animals, includes wasps, worms and rats also got into the substance and have grown and now lurk around the island. Morgan and Brian return to avenge their friend's death by blowing up the wasp nest, while Thomas (Tom Stovall) and his very pregnant girlfriend Rita (future Joe Dante staple Belinda Balaski) end up in the middle of things after their RV breaks down. Eventually, everyone holes up in the farmhouse, board up all of the doors and windows and try to survive a giant rat attack.

There was definite potential here for a fun B movie, but it's pretty much all botched due to poor writing, some truly awful dialogue, dull one-dimensional stock characters, too much emphasis put on the rats (personally I'd have much rather seen more of the chickens, worms OR wasps) and special effects that were hokey even back in 1976. Hell, I could have lived with the fx, a mixture of rear projection, optical trickery, superimposition, split screen and cute stuffed model rats, as is if nearly every other component wasn't bad, but that's not the case. Completely stripping away the science elements from the source material and giving the substance a more natural origin actually wasn't a bad idea but they don't do anything interesting with that concept either. There's also a distinct lack of humor and if any movie could have used a few laughs, intentional or otherwise, it's this one. The only amusing bit occurs at the very end. The picturesque British Columbia locales, which look better than ever on the Blu-ray now distributed by Scream Factory, are a plus / minor diversion.

Despite generous use of red paint blood during the attack sequences and one bit where a head appears to have been eaten off (a young Thomas Burman was in charge of the make-up effects) this got a PG rating. Gordon not only directed but also wrote the screenplay, produced and was in charge of the visual effects. His wife, Flora M. Gordon, was the assistant director and unit production manager and Rick Baker supposedly also worked on some of the fx sans credit.

The first and one of at least three comic book adaptations of the novel.

This was the last theatrical feature for the talented Franklin (it's no wonder she bowed out of show business soon after if this was the best she was being offered) and second-to-last film role for pioneering female filmmaker Lupino.

Food was both a Saturn nominee for Best Horror Film and a winner of the prestigious “Worst Rodent Movie of All Time” award in Harry and Michael Medved's book The Golden Turkey Awards. Samuel Z. Arkoff was the executive producer and presenter. Of the 25+ films released by his company A.I.P. in 1976, this actually made the most money. As a result, they not only backed Gordon's big bug follow-up Empire of the Ants (1977) the following year but also sunk 6 million into the Wells adaptation The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977). The belated sequel GNAW: FOOD OF THE GODS II (1989) is actually a lot more fun!

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