What if there was something that could turn animals giant? A thing bubbling right up from the ground that could take the common beasts, bugs, and fowl and make them enormous and, inexplicably, thirsty for human blood. It’d probably be the most horrific thing you’ve ever seen. Rats! Wasps! Chickens? Unsuspecting people are stuck fighting all of these in the nature-fights-back movie The Food of the Gods from 1976, a film based on a novel by sci-fi maestro H.G. Wells and directed by animals-climbing-on-models maestro Bert I. Gordon. This is a film in which its scares are equaled only by its silliness.
Bert I. Gordon made a whole career of making giant animal movies, and a fair amount of them were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, so they’re pretty much amazing. The effects in the ones I’d seen up to this point consisted of bad rear-projection and grasshoppers climbing on photographs of buildings. The Food of the Gods goes a step further and has some fairly impressive animatronic giant beasts to go with the bad rear-projection and climbing on pictures of buildings.
The film stars Marjoe Gortner of StarCrash, a sentence no one including myself thought I’d ever type. He plays Morgan, a pro football player who must also have a degree in chemistry, physics, mechanics, and skeet shooting, who goes to an island in the Pacific Northwest with some friends from the team. One of his friends is stung to death by giant wasps. When Morgan goes for help, he finds a farm, owned by Mrs. Skinner (Ida Lupino), and her barn full of man-sized angry chickens, which promptly attack him. She, of course, is far more worried about the rats that have gotten into her house and eaten some of the chicken’s special food.
This food becomes important, because, apparently, it comes right from the ground, like “God gave it to us,” she says a few times. If you ask me, it looks a lot like liquid cornmeal. Enter Mr. Bensington (Ralph Meeker) and his assistant Lorna (Pamela Franklin), who want to buy the God Food to sell to food-farmers everywhere. Mrs. Skinner says she wants to wait to sell anything until her husband gets home, only she’ll have to wait a long time, seeing as how he was eaten by giant rats the night before. Oh, didn’t I mention that? When the animals get enormous, they also become carnivorous. Now, all these characters, plus a random guy and the woman he knocked up, must try to stay alive as hundreds of rats lay siege to the little farm house.
On the one hand, you really have to hand it to Bert I. Gordon. The rat puppets do look very good and at times can be quite scary. On the other hand, nothing else in the movie works. The giant rooster puppet that attacks Morgan in the early part of the film caused me to laugh out loud, and then the laughter doubled when Gordon cuts to a shot of real “giant” chickens who could not give less of a shit that a puppet version of them just got pitchforked.
Another huge problem is the giant wasps. I’m sure the puppets he made looked pretty good, but because the superimposition is so shoddy, all we can see are the outlines of them. It’s like everybody’s fighting ghost wasps. Also, the wasps get dispatched very quickly. The entire reason Morgan and his friend Brian (Jon Cypher) go back to the island is to investigate the wasps that stung their friend to death. The wasps are gone within five minutes, on account of Morgan concocting an explosive which he shoved up the enormous wasps’ nest. If only the rats were that easy to kill. Well, kind of, they are.
The real problem with this movie is that, while the puppet rats are great, the bulk of their screen time is real rats climbing over models and pictures while the frame is composited. You can always see that it’s two shots joined together anytime they want to actually get people in there. The real rats just never look big, no matter what you do to them. I even started to feel bad for them by the end. Every time Morgan or somebody shoots them, we get a shot of what I’m sure was a crew member shooting a red spitwad at them. Poor things. Then, the finale features dozens of rats “drowning” after Morgan floods the little valley. I know they’re rats and hence inherently disgusting creatures, but this is kind of cruel.
The Food of the Gods is an ambitious film. It tries to make good on H.G. Wells’ cautionary tale of nature finally fighting back against man, but it’s just so lame. Bert I. Gordon’s penchant for using and showing lots of real animals is to the detriment of the story. Remember the old Jaws trick of not showing the shark very much? If Gordon had followed suit (Jaws came out the summer before The Food of the Gods) and only shown glimpses of the rats, using his awesome puppets sparingly, he might have made a thrilling, scary film. But he’s Bert I. Gordon; he don’t go in for subtle, and he don’t do understated.