In 1976, one year before Star Wars would be released, Drive-In movies were still king and American International Pictures (the same studio that gave Roger Corman his start) was pumping out B-Movie fare for it’s third decade in a row. The effects had slightly improved but the stories still remained pretty much the same. AIP had found big success in the 60’s when it had Vincent Price star in a series of films based on Edgar Allen Poe stories and now it was ready to try the same with H.G. Wells and in came one of their most prolific and successful producers/directors: Bert I. Gordon. Working with AIP, Gordon was responsible for some of the best known B-Movies of the 50’s: The Amazing Colossal Beast (1957), it’s sequel War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Earth Vs. The Spider (1958), Beginning of the End (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958) and Village of the Giants (1965) which was also adapted from the same H.G. Wells story as this one. In case you hadn’t noticed, all of these films deal with something or someone growing to gigantic proportions and terrorizing civilization. Thus it was that Gordon would adapt H.G. Wells’ 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came To Earth for the second time and this would be just as loose and adaptation as his first effort but taking inspiration from a different section of the book then Village of the Giants. In fact, between the two movies, Gordon has filmed almost the whole book.
The story begins as football player, Morgan ( Marjoe Gortner) goes on a vacation to a remote island in the Canadian wilderness with some of his team mates. While deer hunting, one of the guys chases the prey into the woods and is attacked by giant wasps naturally and killed. Morgan finds his sting-swollen corpse and rides off to find someone with a phone. Finding a house in the woods but getting no answer, he of course, goes poking around the barn on property where he is promptly attacked by a giant chicken which he’s able to fend off by stabbing it in the neck with a pitch fork.
Understandably irritated, he finds the owner of the house, Mrs. Skinner (Ida Lupino) and goes off on her, yelling “Where the hell did you get those chickens!”. Indeed. While there, Mrs. Skinner explains that no, they don’t have a phone and also, the giant chickens were fed a white substance (which she’s nicknamed Food of the Gods because she’s not just an isolationist but a fanatical Christian) that has bubbled up from the earth on their farm which has increased their size because the first thing one would be inclined to do in that circumstance would be to feed the mysterious substance to livestock. Unfortunately, it seems that some local rats and you guessed it, wasps; have also gotten into their supply of F.O.T.G. But don’t worry she explains. When Mr. Skinner returns from sealing a business deal to sell the stuff for big bucks, he’ll know what to do.
After Morgan and his remaining buddy Brian (Jon Cypher) leave to ferry their friends’ body back to the mainland, Mrs. Skinner is faced with the worst case version of leaving the sugar bowl out for the bugs to get into when even more critters get into her F.O.T.G. supply and she soon finds giant maggots gnawing at her arm. You really have to keep a lid on this stuff when you’re done using it.
Meanwhile, Mr. Skinner (John McLiam) is on his way home after sealing the deal. As luck would have it, he gets a flat and while attempting to repair it,he comes across those rats that got into his wife’s jars. Now the size of a pony, the swarm of rats tear apart the old man, dragging his body into the woods.
Back on the mainland, Morgan talks Brian into going back to the island after hearing that their friend was bursting with wasp venom, so they can discover what’s going on. Fighting a giant chicken probably raised his suspicion as well. But they’re not the only ones interested in the Skinner’s find. Enter 1970’s, big business dickhead Jack Bensington (Ralph Meeker) and his employee, “lady bacteriologist” Lorna (Pamela Franklin). This is the man whom Mr. Skinner cut a deal with and he’s on his way to have the couple sign on the dotted line. On the way, they pass a pregnant woman, Rita (Belinda Balaski) and her husband Thomas (Tom Stovall) who try to wave them down. Seems they’re camper is stuck in the mud and they need some assistance but sideburned Trump pays them no nevermind because nothing’s more important than the art of the deal so fuck ’em. On the farm, Mrs. Skinner shows Bensington and Lorna the brook where the bubbling, white substance originated from explaining that only the baby chickens grow to gigantic sizes and that the giant rats have broken into the chicken barn and went full KFC on them all. Lorna is intrigued by the substance but before they can analyze it, the giant wasps are back. Luckily, this is when Morgan and Brian show up with their rifles and blow the wasps out of the sky. I can only assume they do a lot of skeet shooting in their down time because they clear the sky in about 15 seconds. Instead of thanking them for saving his life, Bensington immediately lets these two guys know that he has “exclusive rights” to the food and no one is going to hoard in on his newfound asset which is fine with Morgan, who explains that that makes Bensington liable for his friend’s death.
After some flirting with Lorna, Morgan grabs Brian and they discover the giant wasps nest, load it up with some homemade explosives made from materials found on the farm and blow it up real good. Unfortunately, Lorna has fallen down a rat hole made by the giant rodents and Morgan is lowered down to rescue her. Things get worse when the rescue goes south, trapping the two in the tunnels with the rats giving Morgan a chance to test his sharp shooting skills on a few of the furry guys. They make it out to hear the bad news that they’ve missed the last ferry for the day, forcing everyone to spend the night on the island. And remember the pregnant girl and her man? They show up at the farm after escaping a rat attack on their camper.
Getting ready for the coming battle, Morgan and Brian scout the island, electrifying some border fences and observing some of the rats sinking when attempting to swim a river, due to their increased weight.
On the way back, the two are jumped by some of the rodents, killing Brian and after being an unreasonable asshole for the entire ordeal, Bensignton is finally gnawed to death as well, leaving Morgan and the others to board up in the house just in time for Rita to go into labor. The hordes of rats attack the house, allowing Morgan and the others to take some pretty awesome pot shots which send the rodents jumping into the air as they’re taken out with shotgun blasts.
Morgan and Thomas blow enough away to make it to his jeep and shortly after, one of the rats is able to make it inside where Mrs. Skinner and the big guy both go down fighting resulting in a mutually ensured death.
Luckily, Morgan and Thomas make it to a dam that’s conveniently never been talked about or seen until this moment and blow it with some more homemade dynamite. Somehow beating the raging typhoon back to the house, the two have time to blast a path through the rats to make it inside just as the infestation is hit with the flood waters. The group, along with Rita’s newly born baby (a lot can happen when you’re waiting for a flood to hit) run upstairs and out onto a porch where Morgan manages to have a final showdown with the lead rat, an albino with red eyes; beating him to death with his shotgun. And with that, the rest of the rats drown and when the waters recede, the group piles the dead carcasses together along with the remaining supply of the F.O.T.G. and burn it all.
The threat seems to be over but unknown to everyone, some of the jars are washed downriver where they end up being consumed by some dairy cows whose milk ends up being consumed by preschoolers at a school and with that we’re left to ponder a never to be made sequel.
This film represents perfectly why AIP and Bert Gordon films are so much fun. First off, it’s wonderfully 70’s in every way that’s good from the hair to the nature-strikes-back-theme of the story to the pre-CGI special effects that have actors fending off puppet heads of giganticized animals and doing their upmost to “sell it”. Speaking of big animals, Gordon really outdoes himself here. In an hour and a half, you get giant chickens, wasps and their nest, maggots and rats, all brought to life by a combination of superimposing footage of actual animals with the actors to make them look bigger, having the normal sized animals interact with scale models and then having the actors deal with the giant puppet heads for any fighting or death scenes. The best is the giant chicken head and foot that continually pecks away at Marjoe Gortner. It’s hilarious and strangely convincing at the same time. The giant wasp that attacks a man in the beginning is great since it’s just an oversized model glued to his back as he wails around wildly. And I have to give credit to the giant maggots which are only seen as puppets. The shot of them eating Ida Lupino’s hand is revoltingly effective. The rat heads get most of the work though, ripping apart their unlucky victims. All the techniques used to bring them to life are exactly the same as in a previous film I covered, Night of the Lepus (1972) where rabbits get the same FX treatment right down to shooting them with red pellets from an air gun to simulate gunshots. The big difference here is, the rats are much smaller than rabbits so when they take a hit they jump and twitch so violently from the shock that I really started to feel sympathy for the little guys. They drown them too in the final flood scene. I hope they got extra stunt pay for this.
In an old issue of Starlog, Gordon explains that the production raised over 400 rats and that they worked closely with psychologists from UCLA who were experimenting with rats and their social behavior and were able to actually train them. As Gordon states: “Using students from the college, we trained them all. Brilliant animals. They climbed and ran back and forth on cue. The only thing they couldn’t do was remember their commands for long periods of time. Unlike dogs, rats just can’t retain a lot of knowledge. They had to be reinforced every day before shooting.” Still according to him, “Everyone got nipped at least once.”
There’s some pretty good gore for a PG 70’s monster flick here. A lot of blood when the rats kill anyone especially Lupino’s death when she fights back with a meat cleaver but the goriest being a quick shot of Bensington’s cadillac driving past Mr. Skinner’s car where we see his arm and guts scattered all over the ground. There’s also a nice make up effect when the initial victim of the wasps’ is found with his head puffed out and swollen from the all of the venom he’s been stung with.
One of the best things about this flick is the wonderfully atmospheric location. Shot on Bowen Island in British Columbia, the opening shots of the overcast, fog shrouded mountains on a lake combined with Marjoe’s narration immediately establish a creepy mood that reminds one of those early X-Files episodes that would follow almost two decades later. It’s the perfect setting for a tale like this. In fact, I always thought this is how the island in Jurassic Park should’ve appeared instead of the sunny climate of Maui.
Apparently during shooting, the location proved just as hazardous as it was on screen. In that same Starlog interview, Gordon explains: “We were hit by two snow storms in a row. We had filmed half the movie on this little island off the coast of Vancouver. The place was totally isolated. which is why I chose it. The only way to get on or off the island was by ferry. The snow hit us and we were marooned. The ferry boats stopped running. The electricity went off. We had ten-foot snow drifts around the equipment. It was real disaster-time. I had to bring in flame throwers to get the snow out of the way. We cleared an area and finished the movie.” Indeed, if you watch the movie closely, in the third act you can suddenly see patches of snow appear in some shots were no snow had been seen at all throughout the rest of the film.
Food of the Gods illustrates one of the more interesting aspects of the B-Movie right before Star Wars hit and changed the landscape. These movies had been around since the fifties and were already starting to become a relic at this point but they stand as an interesting transition from the primitive, low budget techniques that really hadn’t changed much since the birth of drive-in movies to what was to come the very next summer. In a lot of ways, these films were the same ones from the 50’s but just slightly updated for the 70’s with a stronger environmental theme and a distrust of corporations, here exemplified by the character of Bensington.
The actors are all great, playing characters that are well defined and easy to identify within the story. The most interesting of all of them is the lead, Marjoe Gortner who is a story unto himself. Born to Evangelical Christian parents, he was trained by them from birth and at age 4 became famous on the preaching circuit as the youngest ordained minister. His parents used his celebrity from then until his teenage years to make, what he estimated to be about 3 million dollars until one day when his father split with the money, leaving him and his mother. After dropping out and becoming a hippie for a few years, he re-entered the preaching circuit by basing his performance after rock stars and began to make a profit on his own but at some point, his conscience made him start questioning what he was doing and when two documentary filmmakers approached him about a film that would expose the money-making scam of evangelical preaching, Marjoe agreed. During filming, Marjoe would perform onstage but afterwards and unknown to anyone else, he would give secret interviews on camera explaining the tricks and techniques used to bilk the congregation out of their money. The film one the 1972 Oscar for best documentary and to this day is one of the most scathing indictments of evangelical preaching. Here’s the most famous sequence that most remember with Marjoe counting his money at the end of his sermon:
After this, Marjoe decided to direct his natural charisma into acting and started out with a feature role in the 1973 Kojak pilot. Then in 1974, he would play the psychotic National Guardsmen in Earthquake. He would go on to appear in many B movies like this one and 1978’s Starcrash opposite Caroline Munro in the lead role. In the 80’s he showed up on a lot of television shows like Airwolf and Falcon Crest but after his last role in 1995’s Wild Bill as a preacher, he gave up acting. He’s pretty effective in Food of the Gods and the slightly over-the-top charisma he learned from his preaching days makes for an unintentionally funny intensity when he’s attacked by the giant animals. However, the other scenes where he argues with Bensington or takes charge and figures out how to defeat the giant rats are played with a believable sincerity.
Pamela Franklin as Lorna, Bensington’s assistant is smart and likable here as the love interest and gives a great performance even when being trapped in a house surrounded by giant rats where she has to inexplicably say to Marjoe, “I want you to make love to me. It is crazy, isn’t it, at a time like this?” Gee, ya think? That line literally comes out of nowhere. Franklin’s most well known role was as the rebellious schoolgirl opposite Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She started a series of B-Movie horror roles with Necromancy (1972), another Bert I. Gordon film and would play the part of the medium in The Legend of Hell House (1973).
Ralph Meeker as Bensington really chews up the scenery in this role and plays the greedy businessman with real relish, proud of his misogyny and instantly irritated the moment things don’t go his way. A great character actor, Meeker is best remembered as one of the soldiers executed in Paths of Glory (1957) and as Detective Mike Hammer in the excellent film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). He would also show up on The Outer Limits episode Tourist Attraction (1963) and even showed up to hassle Kolchak as an FBI agent in the original Night Stalker TV Movie (1972).
Veteran actress Ida Lupino plays Mrs. Skinner with a great sense of creepiness and religious naivete that underlines a tough woman who is given a great death scene where she gives just as good as she gets. Mrs. Lupino had been acting for years and had become well known as the “tough dame” by the 1940’s in such films as High Sierra (1941). In the 60’s she would do mostly television, showing up in The Twilight Zone and by the 70’s she had moved into directing and would occasionally take acting gigs like here and in another fun 70’s horror flick, The Devil’s Rain (1975).
Belinda Balaski plays Rita, the pregnant girlfriend camping out with her boyfriend who has the herculian acting task of going into labor pains through most of the film then having to give birth in a house being attacked by the rats as everyone else around her fires shotguns out the windows. She would have a long career as a B-Movie horror queen starring way back in 1975 as a hippie chick in the hilarious Werewolf of Woodstock. I can’t resist putting in a clip of this one here:
She would go on to become a favorite of Joe Dante, appearing in Piranha, Gremlins 1 and 2, Matinee and Explorers, but I remember her best in The Howling as Eddie, the werewolf’s first victim. Here she is in a clip from the Blu Ray release of this film talking about the filming:
Rounding out the cast is Jon Cypher as Brian and Marjoe’s best friend. He plays his role well and has a great death scene. He’s very believable as the loyal friend to the hero. Cypher would appear 11 years later as Man At Arms in the He-Man movie Masters of the Universe (1987) and would go on to star in Hill Street Blues and Major Dad.
Food of the Gods was AIP’s biggest hit of the year and would start them on a series of H.G. Wells inspired films. The next would be similar to this one and would again be helmed by Bert I. Gordon, called Empire of the Ants (1977) which I also highly recommend. A sequel was made in 1989 but doesn’t appear to have any connection to this one and is connected in title only which is a shame because it would have been fun to see what happened to those kids at the elementary school who drank the contaminated milk. This film has also been released on Blu Ray along with most of the AIP movies previously released in MGM’s Midnite Movie DVD collection. All of those new releases come with commentaries and some with behind the scenes interviews like this one.
This movie is why people went to the drive ins back in the day and for me it’s a wonderfully nostalgic slice of 1970’s entertainment which may be considered a “bad movie” today but far from the borefest of today’s CGI laden bullshit B-Movies, oh I mean tent pole films. My bad. This Halloween, you couldn’t have much more fun than enjoying this film from back when B-Movies were king.