Bert I. Gordon. Now there’s a man who knew no shame. Here was a director who combined the hucksterism of a low-rent William Castle (who wasn’t exactly living on the Boardwalk of Monopoly board of producer-directors, if you catch my drift), the willingness to pile on the spectacle of an even lower-rent Cecil B. De Mille, and the technical competence of a slightly (but only slightly) higher-rent Ed Wood. Here was a director who not only did his own special effects, but for some unfathomable reason thought they were good enough to show for extended periods of time. Perhaps he thought his back-projection techniques in The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People and Beginning of the End (grasshoppers!) were actually impressive. They weren’t. But they had a certain goofy charm.
And goofy charm is what today’s offering is all about. Gordon’s last film, 1976’s The Food of the Gods, has finally found a DVD release as part of MGM’s Midnite Movie series, and it’s about damn time. Here’s a movie that has both the honesty and nerve to claim to being based only on a portion of H. G. Wells’ source novel. I remember, in those heady, summer days of 1976, when Famous Monsters of Filmland trumpeted the film’s upcoming release, complete with plenty of FX shots that I thought were pretty cool. Of course, I was only nine. The film hit Winnipeg at the Pembina Drive-In, long since demolished to make way for highways. I didn’t see the film then, but when I at last tracked the film down decades later on VHS, it was exactly the kind of engaging nonsense I was hoping for, and it’s even better now in widescreen.
Marjoe Gortner, whom disaster movie fans will remember as the psychotic National Guardsman in Earthquake, plays the lead, and a more unlikely football star I cannot imagine. He and some friends head off to some ill-defined island for some R&R, and run afoul of giant wasps, which are easily the worst effects in the film, being both obviously plastic as well as badly matted into the frame. Determined to get the bottom of things, Gortner discovers that on the farm of Ida Lupiino, some strange substance is bubbling out of the ground, and whatever consumes it becomes very big. The principle menace involves rats, whose size varies from shot to shot, but are roughly on the scale of bears, even though the script oddly describes them as “the size of horses” (yeah, I’ve always thought horses and rats had roughly the same body type). The rats wind up cornering the principle characters in a farmhouse for an extended siege à la Night of the Living Dead or The Birds, but not before giant worms and, wait for it, giant chickens also have their turn in the spotlight. If the wasps are the worst FX, the chickens are the funniest. Seeing Gortner battling away with a giant chicken head is one of those scenes that makes you really appreciate the magic of cinema. The scene is all the more ridiculous because, ironically, the FX here are actually good by Gordon standards.
Gordon’s best film remains The Magic Sword, where he actually seemed to care a bit about making a halfway decent picture. This one is in some ways his oddest, as 1976 was rather late to be trotting out FX technology that was not markedly different from what he had been using twenty years earlier (and it had looked dated even then). Seeing such retro creatures parading around a very 70s setting is odd, to say the least, and another reason why the film is so perversely fun.
The DVD is sadly empty of extras, but the camp value of the feature can hardly be overstated. So see it, and be educated as to what to do when confronted by animals as unconvincingly giant as they are convincingly silly.