Review: Food of the Gods

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Bert I. Gordon’s initials form a whimsically appropriate acronym for the work of a man whose directorial stock-in-trade since the middle Fifties has been giantism. This time he has served up another “portion” of H.G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods, on which his 1965 Village of the Giants was also loosely based. The premise of the story involves the creation, by vengeful Nature, of a pasty substance that seeps out of the hillside on a small Canadian island, causing giantism in creatures that eat the stuff. This gives Gordon the opportunity to dwell on giant wasps, rats, chickens (?!), and a few other goodies (one of which, in the film’s only high point, is discovered by Ida Lupino behind a row of Mason jars on a cupboard shelf and is sure to delight anyone who’s ever reached into a dark area, afraid of finding something unpleasant). The wasps are animated-in à la Hitchcock’s The Birds; the chicken is a model; the rats are real, shot in closeup and writ large into the world of human beings via rear projection and matte work. But the detail of Gordon’s extreme-closeup work on the rats—though it maintains the illusion of size and generally conceals the model and matte work—leads to poor perception of spatial relationships and a frustratingly shallow depth of field: A big rat, yes: but where is he in relation to the players, and to the other rats we just saw in the preceding shot? In most cases, there’s no telling. Further, the bigness of Gordon’s creatures, unlike that of Wells’s, is not matched by a similar bigness of idea. Little attention is paid to the script’s early, labored explanation that the food of the gods has no effect on adult animals but causes overgrowth only in juveniles. And a pregnant woman who—logic demands—is in the story so that her infant will somehow ingest the “F.O.T.G.” and grow large (something like this happens in Wells’s novel), ultimately serves no dramatic purpose at all, except to give birth at the height of a rat attack, under even less comfortable circumstances than Melanie Wilkes.

Well, there’s more than enough shock and gore here to satisfy the less-demanding fan of scary movies; but cinematically, Gordon doesn’t score at all. D. Keith Mano, in a different context, has commented on the characteristically American thirst for the enormous: “Miracles, even those certified by a notary public, aren’t American: they are European, Catholic, wog, frog, funnier things. On the other hand a tobacco juice spitter who could do 30 feet against the wind would be phenomenal. This is a different sort of wicked generation; it couldn’t care less for signs and wonders. … Size and distance, yes; Paul Bunyan, yes. Ovid or Our Lady of Lourdes, uh-uh.” The earliest American films of the supernatural—Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, Dracula—are all set in Europe; there are no haunted palaces in the U.S.A. because there are no palaces at all. Only with King Kong do we find a monster big enough to walk American streets. Vampires, werewolves, and the walking dead are abstractions, spiritual distortions generally out of place in the American milieu. American monsters, by contrast, are physical distortions, extensions of material reality. From the Fifties onwards, size and number, not spiritual impact, have been the measure of American horror. Gordon had his apprenticeship in those days and a couple of his films (The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People) display a modicum of technical skill and psychological penetration. But in general he has always failed to deliver a substance worthy of his superficial enormousness: the giant arachnid of the shamelessly over-titled Earth vs the Spider never actually got farther than the hamlet of River Falls, California; the outsized locusts of The Beginning of the End were summarily drowned in Lake Michigan, with relatively little apocalyptic impact. The extent to which Gordon ultimately betrays the American thirst for bigness, even while catering to it, and the distance by which his films still miss the mark, was effectively measured in a comment I overheard from a disgruntled pre-teener at the snack bar after the running of The Food of the Gods: “One house! I thought they would take over at least the world!

THE FOOD OF THE GODS
Direction, production, and special visual effects: Bert I. Gordon. Screenplay: Gordon, after a portion of the novel by H. G. Wells. Cinematography: Reginald Morris. Editing: Corky Ehlers. Music: Elliot Kaplan.
The players: Marjoe Gortner, Pamela Franklin, Ralph Meeker, Ida Lupino, John McLiam, Jon Cypher, Belinda Balaski, Tom Stovall.

© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.