Sunday, July 24, 2011

Giant Rats

One common category for the deformed destructive beings (DDBs) of horror films is the berserk biota. These are natural creatures gone crazy in some way, breaking free of their place in the natural order, often attacking humans. They may, for example, be magnified to giant size, or they may behave in homicidal swarms. In The Food of the Gods (1976), both are true--swarms of giant rats hunt people, like a cross between Willard and Tarantula.

The Food of the Gods is not a good movie, but it has its moments. Based loosely on H.G. Wells's novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, it tells the story of a pro football player (why is he a pro football player? we don't know), played by Marjoe Gortner, who happens upon an island where animals grow to prodigious proportions. A giant rooster nearly pecks him to death, prompting the immortal line of dialogue, "Where the hell did you get those goddamn chickens?" A swarm of enormous wasps kills his buddy. The island's only living resident, a nutty farmer played by Ida Lupino (in the tradition of aging movie stars relegated to grade B horror movies), fights off very big larvae.

It turns out that Lupino and her husband (introduced only to be killed) have been feeding their chickens with a mysterious food that enlarged them, along with any vermin that happened to take a bite. With the addition of a few more characters (including Pamela Franklin as something called a "female bacteriologist"), the island is stocked with normals to be attacked by the giant DDBs, principally the rats. The movie comes down to a giant rat vs. normal-sized human story, with the house boarded up in Night of the Living Dead style while the rats keep charging and getting rebuffed through gunfire, improvised explosives, and finally a burst dam.

The effects vary from nearly convincing to ludicrous; the flying wasps are particularly bad, appearing as ghost images because of some failure in the optical department. Live rats on miniature sets are the key effect, and, depending on the editing, this can work well. The acting is frequently wooden--with the principal exception of Lupino, who knows how to wield a hatchet--and the characterizations one-dimensional. An annoying ecology theme (nature takes revenge against pollution) is periodically raised, but luckily not much is done with this. The best contribution of the ecology theme to this horror movie is a frisson at the end, in which we realize that cows may have been drinking traces of the food of the gods and it may have gotten into their milk and--gasp!--a child is now drinking that milk...

For all its flaws, The Food of the Gods has a lot of monsters and bloody deaths, and for that reason alone deserves a look. It is also interesting as an example of the oeuvre of director Bert I. Gordon, who, in The Amazing Colossal Man and elsewhere, had done these magnified DDBs before.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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