Scream Factory explores the popular “eco-horror” and “nature strikes back” subgenres of the 1970s with two killer animal flicks from the AIP vaults, presented here on Blu-ray as a terrifically creepy double feature package!
Producer, director, writer and special effects artist Bert I. Gordon (Mr. “BIG”) had furnished a number of mostly giant monster-themed classics for American International Pictures (AIP) in the late 1950s. After a hiatus of almost 20 years (and a number of assorted projects, fantasy and otherwise, for other studios), AIP released Gordon’s THE FOOD OF THE GODS, a return to the familiar territory of mutated and unusually large creatures, which become so through ecological tampering. This was Mr. BIG’s second stab at the H.G. Wells novel, as the satirical, rock and roll antics of VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS could be seen a decade earlier.
Football player Morgan (Marjoe Gortner, MAUSOLEUM) goes on a hunting excursion with fellow player Davis (Chuck Courtney from BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA) and PR man Brian (Jon Cypher, VALDEZ IS COMING). When Davis ventures solo on horseback, he is swarmed by giant wasps and his body is found completely swollen. After leaving the remote Canadian island where their friend was killed, Morgan and Brian quickly return to get to the bottom of things. A visit to the log-cabin farmhouse of God-fearing Mrs. Skinner (Ida Lupino, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT) reveals a shed full of human-sized chickens – the result of consuming a gooey white substance that comes from the ground, which Mrs. Skinner collects in jars, calling it “Food of the Gods.” Soon after, greedy businessman Jack Bensington (Ralph Meeker, THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE) and his sensible assistant Lorna (Pamela Franklin, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) arrive to make a deal with Mr. Skinner (who is in grave danger somewhere!) for the precious “food.” The group is soon joined by a young couple expecting their first child (Tom Stovall and Belinda Balaski) who are forced to abandon their camper. The reason; they were ambushed by an army of enormous flesh-hungry rats who soon surround the Skinner home. It’s up to the rifle-toting Morgan to take command and conjure up a master plan to stop them.
With THE FOOD OF THE GODS, Bert I. Gordon revisits much of the fun ingredients that made his 1950s monster movies memorable, updating them for a 1970s audience with a bit more violence. Giant wasps, worms, chickens and most predominately, rats, are showcased throughout the film, which moves at a non-stop pace from one lively monster attack to the next. By the second half of the film, most of the attention is placed on the giant rats, utilizing real ones superimposed against the actors, or seen ascending upon model cars, a camper and a log cabin. Some of these effects of course are not always the most convincing, but hey, would you have it any other way? When life-sized rats are attacking human victims, they’re shown as hairy mechanized puppet-like creations, for the most part the work of Tom Burman and a young Rick Baker, and they look far more menacing than most of the overblown CGI effects of today. These rat attacks get pretty bloody, so sometimes it’s hard to believe the film got away with a PG rating.
The so-called “bad movie” antics of THE FOOD OF THE GODS are helped by a great cast of vets and younger performers who were no strangers to B-movie vehicles. Curly-haired ex-evangelist Gortner was quite a celebrity during the decade, and he’s a pretty solid hero (sort of in the Doug McClure mode), and this could be his best leading role next to the previous year’s BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW. Franklin had already acted for director Gordon in 1972’s NECROMANCY, and the British actress and former child star, who was in a number of genre-related efforts, probably has the biggest cult following of anyone in this film. Her character’s suggestion to Gortner’s Morgan that they make love on the spot when doom is approaching is unintentionally humorous. As the pregnant Rita, Balaski would soon be a fixture of director Joe Dante (including PIRANHA, THE HOWLING and GREMLINS), and here she plays a liberated woman who refuses to marry her soon-to-be-born child’s father despite his plea (an issue that couldn’t be farther than what a 1950s B-movie would embrace). Lupino (who had juggled acting and directing chores during her long Hollywood career) was in THE DEVIL’S RAIN the year before, so her inclusion here as Mrs. Skinner comes as no surprise. A one-time Mike Hammer, Meeker was a steadily working character actor, and he really chews up the scenery here, causing friction with everyone else in the cast.
First released on DVD in 2007 as part of MGM’s Midnite Movies line, Scream Factory now brings MGM’s HD transfer to Blu-ray. The 1080p presentation has the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it looks terrific. Except for some fleeting speckle on the original elements, the transfer is immaculate, with bold and sometimes warmer colors and extremely sharp detail (slightly softer during matte shots and optical effects) and very little in the way of grain. The 2.0 DTS-HD master audio track is vibrant enough, with crisp dialogue which is well balanced with the music and sound effects. English SDH subtitles are also provided.
Legendary director Bert I. Gordon is on hand for an audio commentary moderated by documentary filmmaker Kevin Sean Michaels. At first, Gordon needs a lot coaxing before he gets really chatty, and Michaels does a good job of keeping the conversation going and making scene-specific inquiries, with Gordon seeming most comfortable and enthusiastic when he’s discussing his special effects, but he does touch upon the casting of the film and the locations, and does inject some anecdotes once he gets more comfortable in the conversation. He also reveals how the gun-shot blasts to the real rats (and how the rodents were purchased) was done, and that the scenes were shot later in Los Angeles in a garage after principal photography was completed. Gordon (now in his early 90s) mentions that he just recently finished shooting a feature on the digital format (“Secrets of a Psychopath”). Actress Belinda Balaski is on hand for a solid video interview (RITA AND THE RATS With Belinda Balaski, 11:36), produced by Walt Olsen of Scorpion Releasing. Here, she talks about how she went through a lot of research on giving birth for her character, and believes Gortner might have been instrumental in her getting the role (the two had just starred in AIP’s BOBBY JO AND THE OUTLAW together). She joyfully recalls working with Gortner, Gordon, Lupino, Meeker (“he plays a mean piano”) and Franklin, who was her roommate on location, and Tom Stovall who was already trying to get “Silkwood” made during this period (he became associate producer of that very film nearly a decade later). The original theatrical trailer is included, as is a radio spot and a lengthy photo gallery. Rounding out the extras for THE FOOD OF THE GODS are trailers for EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and JAWS OF SATAN (both being released as a double feature Blu-ray coinciding with this release).
Set amongst the Florida swamplands (where FROGS was shot entirely on location), freelance photographer Pickett Smith (a very young Sam Elliott, THE LEGACY) ends up in the presence of the wealthy Crocketts, fronted by hotheaded patriarch Jason (Ray Milland, THE PREMATURE BURIAL), during his annual July 4th birthday bash. While taking some nature photographs, Pickett is nearly killed when his canoe is capsized by the speed-boat driven by drunken Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke, THE SAVAGE SEVEN), which is also carrying his sister Karen (Joan Van Ark, THE LAST DINOSAUR). To make amends, they invite Pickett back to their family mansion where he can get dry and join in the holiday/birthday activities. Before long, the Crockett grounds become continuously overpopulated by hideous frogs, bloated toads, as well as other assorted critters (various snapping turtles, snakes, spiders, birds and alligators) and family members turn up dead, one after the other, in some very gruesome-lensed scenes (especially for a PG-rated movie).
Originally released theatrically as part of a double-bill with GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER and boasting such taglines as “Today the pond! Tomorrow the world!” and “If you are squeamish stay home!!!”, FROGS was helmed by veteran Canadian-born director George McGowan. Even though McGowan spent most of his career doing television, he was able to churn out an effective low budget studio-less bayou chiller which can be quite dark, making genuine reptilian creatures look menacing, and the makeup on the victims (by Tom Burman, who also worked on THE FOOD OF THE GODS) is also very effective. Although its premise appears somewhat ridiculous, FROGS is played completely straight and is enjoyable and disturbing at the same time. Maybe borrowing a bit from Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS and Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the cast members spend a lot of time bickering and getting on each other's nerves, while the slimy creatures become more and more abundant and deadly. During the climax, we get a hint that a reptile retaliation is happening all around, and that this isn't just an isolated instance.
Filled with great hammy performances, Milland (and his put-on southern drawl) sticks out as the loudmouth, stubborn and bigoted Jason Crockett (watch him effortlessly shoot a snake hanging from a dining room chandelier, then demanding the butler remove it while everyone sits down for dinner). His character in AIP's THE THING WITH TWO HEADS is very similar (hell, they both used a wheelchair). The cast also includes ex “Hazel” star Lynn Borden (BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA) as Clint’s aging and neglected “trophy wife” and Judy Pace (THREE IN THE ATTIC) as a lovely African American woman and girlfriend to pretty boy Crockett offspring Kenneth (Nicholas Cortland, BONNIE’S KIDS) who is liberated enough to stand up to Jason’s tyranny and pigheadedness. Actor George Skaff (who appeared in several early Jerry Warren movies) gets to wrestle an alligator, or at least his stuntman does! Add a totally bizarre-sounding soundtrack from AIP house composer Les Baxter that completely summarizes the swamp critters' ghastly doings, and you've got the makings of a great drive-in flick.
First released on DVD back in 2000 with both letterboxed and full frame options, FROGS now arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory and a brand new HD transfer which they commissioned themselves specifically for this release. Presented in 1080p in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, FROGS looks better than ever before with excellent detail, strong contrasts and distinct, vivid colors. Black levels are deep and natural-looking film grain is subdued and under control, unlike the previous MGM DVD which displayed some rather excessive grain. The film elements were obviously in very good condition, as there’s no dirt and debris to be found throughout the presentation, accept for a few fleeting black cue marks. The 2.0 DTS-HD master audio track provides crisp dialogue, and the noisy nature sound effects are easily discernable, with the music score also coming through nicely on the soundtrack. English SDH subtitles are also provided.
The main extra for FROGS is a great interview with actress Joan Van Ark (“Buried in Frogs With Joan Van Ark, 10:08) where the “Knots Landing” star discusses working on what was her first feature and how director George McCowan made the shooting comfortable despite it being a rather crazy set (which included all-night shoots). She describes it as being a grueling yet fun shoot and she easily signed on since her character wouldn’t have to endure a messy death scene, plus the fact that she would get to work with Sam Elliott (“a class act”) and Ray Milland. She recalls doing the speedboat scene with Adam Roarke (who was actually operating the thing), describes her impression of Judy Pace as “flawless” and says she still gets stills sent to her of Lynn Borden from FROGS for her to sign (which she has no objection to!). This featurette is dedicated to the memory of Borden who just passed away this year. The original theatrical trailer shows off an alternate death scene for the character of Aunt Iris (Hollis Irving) where she sinks deeply into quicksand. Also included is a radio spot and a nice still gallery with lots of different movie poster and advertising images (in the U.K. it played with the AIP biker film THE HARD RIDE). On the reverse side of the Blu-ray’s cover is poster art for both films from around the world. (George R. Reis)
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