Cleansing the Doors of Cinematic Perception, for a better worse

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What's Eating You: FOOD OF THE GODS, EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, JAWS OF SATAN, FROGS


Bert I. Gordon, one of the few schlockmeisters whose career spanned both the 1950s 'big bug movie' craze (Beginning of the End, Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. the Spider) and the 1970s Jaws eco-horror phase, comes to Shout trailing clouds of toxic bughouse glory in two new Blu-rays this week. Food of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977) are now deep black spanking HD new and they may just save your life --in event of giant pest invasion you at least know what not to do. Flanked with B-sides equal to their terrible majesty (Frogs for Food, and Jaws for Ants)they come to us in deep lovely HD blacks and sparkling color, after nigh under forty years of washed out who cared VHS grays. That's a good thing, for when all else fails (and it sure does), we can admire how now pink natural light beams through the willows and fields of murmuring hemlock. Shout treats these tawdry gems with the same reverence Criterion affords Kurosawa: those shadows in which normal size snakes and large ants hide are now so super deep they're darker than the starkest midday shadows, and the colors and finery-- oh oh my children. I like big bugs and I cannot lie, you know this.

Shout knows it too, for they preserve the subtle grain of real film stock so HD or no these still look like 70s movies. And that's what matters, for there's no reason for these two double features to exist--they are abominations in the eyes of God. But some of us, of a certain age and misanthropic disposition, need them. They deliver a kind of deeper vertigo-inducing version of nostalgia, a post-childhood dread Pavlovian trigger that gets us deep where other monster movies cannot reach.

All nonbelievers beware, however: for there are two problems with these films' coming to Blu-ray. First: the contrast between rear projection and overlays is even more very glaring than ever before: the splices and outlines between the humans and the amok nature backgrounds glow like filaments. Second: seeing any animal--even lower life forms like snakes and rats--killed, stunned, betrayed, abashed or even annoyed... is abhorrent to modern sensitized sensibilities. Partially because of movies like these (see my rant on Day of the Animals), part of the 70s naturalist horror kick, we've learned to care about nature. Now Humane Society stooges monitor every animal shot--even the rats and insects get body doubles for crushing scenes--but I sincerely doubt the mysterious BIG had one. And the look of stunned betrayal in the eyes of some of these vermin is crushing in ways it wasn't back in the time of these films' release. To redress the wrong, and spare the sensitive unseemly sights, I've given each film an unofficial PETA rating. First up...



FOOD OF THE GODS
(1976) - Dir. Bert I. Gordon
**1/2 / PETA: D

Food has one of those weird casts that makes you wonder if the great Bert I. Gordon's obsession with giant little things and little giant things is the result of a vision disorder like strabismus that makes it impossible to tell how big or small something is vs. proximity (i.e. are children really small, or just far away?). How else can one explain his decision to cast the ever-squinting, frizzy blonde, cap-toothed, and suspiciously diminutive ex-child evangelist Marjoe Gortner as an NFL quarterback? Why, he's no bigger than a fourth down prayer! Yet there he is, right in the opening credits, practicing his throws on a frosty field (or is it pollution? Freeze frame!) Then he's off for R&;R to a remote woodsy island with two of his teammate buddies to go hunting on horseback - as NFL stars are wont to do. The ever-dependable Jon Cypher is one buddy, and the other is soon-offed by giant (unintentionally transparent) wasps that look first like toys bouncing on a string and then like superimposed cartoons of wasps, and then--finally attaining opaqueness-- big rubber wasps with their pipecleaner legs carefully entwined around his backpack.

Marjoe will not let that stand, he must have vengeance against the hive! And so the film is off and running. Old Gortner climbs into the self-righteous power trip seat favored by so many self-appointed leaders in crisis situations and is soon battling a giant rooster, more wasps, Ida Lupino as a farmer's wife, and--playing the rote capitalist who wants to monetize the situation-- a bloated, hungover Ralph Meeker in a black raincoat.

Meeker's on the island to get a look at the weird white stuff coming out of the ground like bubblin' crude... the titular food, which might have profit potential as a growth hormone. One thing's for sure, it works! But without a rooster the size of a UPS truck (like the one Marjoe kills while investigating Ida Lupino's barm) there's nothing to keep the rats away, or the giant caterpillars from biting her hand! Argggh!

Gamely moving these big blood-doused rubber worms around in her hand, to try and get them to seem like they're wiggling on their own and that she's trying to shake them off (while she's clearly holding onto them), Ida taps into the same 'go for broke' madness of Bela Lugosi wrestling the rubber octopus in ED WOOD. Her moan of horror seems to encompass the entirety of her fall off the A-list into old age, an almost delirium tremens style moan of low-key horror. So howl, Ida! You have found in your pain the consolation of its full expression; it is only for this expression that the pain was ever for...

...teeth that could blind Erik Estrada

As Meeker's nonplussed secretary, Pamela Franklin disguises her British accent and real-life pregnancy (I'm guessing) by never getting out of her white leather trench coat (above), even indoors. That's gotta be it, for she was such a thin little hottie in The Legend of Hell House, just three years earlier, holding her own against seasoned pros like Roddy McDowall. Here she just tries not to hold back in order to not act circles around ole Marjoe even with clunky dialogue like "I'd like... for you to make love to me." Meanwhile, the much better-preserved Belinda Balaski, as a stranded mobile home camper, pretends to be pregnant, and young husband Tom Stovall worries about her as the giant rats start closing in around their camper faster than a drunken Cornish lynch mob.

But then... endless shots of rats getting shot (for real) with pink paint in the face and body (is it supposed to be blood?) begins to weary the soul. even if it's not fatal and can be washed off, the look of shock and betrayal in their eyes is dispiriting. For mauling Gordon's well-crafted miniature hippie vans and farm shacks with such aplomb, those rats deserved better. As I wrote about Day of the Animals, part of the appeal of these movies (for me at least) tends to be in how the abstraction of the animal attacks (arms about to be bit suddenly appearing to have a pillow crammed under the sleeve; animal trainers doubling for actors; dogs wagging their tales even while growling and baring their fangs) gives the feeling the animals are just good-naturedly roughhousing - the violence implied solely through the rapidfire edits - and if the animals know it's all in fun, so do we, and it makes enjoying the film easier (and no more or less scary). Watching that all-in-fun look vanish in an instant in the startled rat eyes when they get pelted by the pink pellets drains the joy de vivre tout suite from Food of the Gods, that is unless you really hate rats.

That said, many of the better overlays between miniatures, rats, and people still have a kind of chilling immediacy, they feel real and inescapable, maybe because they're big but not so big they can't fit through a window or attack you from ontop of the kitchen counter. Add the (real size) giant chicken and rat heads that menace the cast, the giant caterpillar monsters that claw up poor Ida Lupino's hand, and the hilarious climactic 'flood' when Marjoe blasts open the 'dam', and this bad film shines like pure crap gold, the kind we wouldn't see again until Sharknado. God bless the Gordons, and forgive them for all their sins...especially against the rats... future Indras, all.

FROGS
(1972) - Dir George McGowan
*** / PETA - B

I always thought Frogs rather overrated--most of my horror critic friends love it--but that was on the small screen, wherein its colors felt drab and faded by time and low res cathode rays, its lovely nature reduced to green and brown blurs offset by a sickly yellow for interiors and the tediously flat red white and blue of Ray Milland's birthday party decorations. Now that it's on the Blu-ray, however, the confidence director McGowan has in his Deleuzian hat tricks (i.e. for all the animal attacks we just see a person reacting, cut to stock footage nature shot, back to person's reaction, almost like the footage itself is attacking them) is justified. Now the voracious amphibian and reptile and insect footage is beautiful, creepy, and poisonous with ambiguity. The interior mansion shots that used to oppress my childhood with their faded Colonial drabness now glow with a sun dappled pink that gives the whole film a 'twilight of mankind' champagne pop cheeriness.

The lead protagonist (you know he's going to be a conservationist) is laconic Sam Elliott (sans mustache) as Pickett, just an easygoin' nature photographer paddling around along the edge of the Florida's Eden State Park, snapping away at the nature, like he does, when his canoe gets rammed by the prodigal son (Adam Roarke) who--with his sexy sister Karen (Joan Van Ark)--is trying out their new outboard motor during a lull in their duties fulfilling wheelchair bound patriarch (and pollutant enthusiast) Ray Milland's regimented birthday expectations at their nearby island mansion. Soaking wet from his splash, Pickett is invited home to change, meet the patriarch, and participate in the 'fun.'

Since he gets a come hither look from Karen, naturally Pickett says yes. Soon he's meeting the gang and finding a real kindred soul in Milland --one of the more unique relationships in horror, a kind of off-center parallel maybe to Ben Quick and Will Varner in The Long Hot Summer or Col. Rutledge and Marlowe from The Big Sleep in the bond between him and Pickett, each recognizing in the other a capable outdoorsy plain-spoken hombre. There's also a bisexual vibe where we can't tell if Pickett's going to shack up with Karen or Roarke. As seductions and simmering resentments accrue over cocktails, deaths accrue via various (normal size) lizards, snakes, and arachnids outside in the greenhouse or around the grounds, as one person goes looking for the one who never came back from looking for someone else. Meanwhile no one can get any sleep or hook up, for the mansion is also besieged by frogs, croaking away at night, in a deafening cockblock serenade.

Blu-ray image much better
Another plus: so the constant frog song can ring out proud, we're treated to the absence of composer Les Baxter's usual on-the-nose loungey Mickey Mousing. Eerie silences cast a strange reverie-style mood over the proceedings. I'm especially grateful that Milland's wheelchair bound patriarch is more than a one-dimensional capitalist monster (as opposed to, say, Meeker in Gods). Instead, he's almost heroic in his determination to carry through with the tradition of his birthday, irregardless of how many family members he's losing to the local alligators, frogs, snakes, and spiders.

Meanwhile, they even go for a racial subtext, as the black maid and butler share a coffee at night with the youngest son's black girlfriend and though, true to cliche, they're the first to insist on leaving to the mainland when all the shit goes down, they all go with dignity, common sense and concern rather than cowardice.

The servants' leaving also signifies when the film really comes into its own, sort of like the climax of Orca or Jaws: now it's just the white man and the all devouring natural world, like it was always meant to be, like the end of Once Upon a Time in the West (nature the Bronson) with no witnesses, sides, or seconds, just like the old days. Not for nothing is the clan's name Crockett, for this is the racoons' revenge for his coonskin cap. The escape doesn't go well: a snapping turtle devours a defenseless Lynn Borden; Sam Elliott bashes the surface of the water with an oar; Adam Roarke swims out to his boat after something chews off the line; the gators close in. And then... well, the rest of the time we can savor the gorgeous willow trees, sun-streaked fog and mist, dialogue like "pollution control on the paper mill will cost us millions" dropped into normal conversation rather than underlined in thick script marker; the incongruous mixture of wildlife that would only be literally found dead down in Florida (like the New Mexican gecko). While we wonder how in hell they effects crew are going to pull off death by normal size frogs, and where that dog came from just in time for the very end, the film is already cueing up the credits. Poor dog. Where did he come from? Dogs never do get a break in horror, the frogs get the best of everything. Milland really needs a different record to play other than lame Sousa record to convey his eternal defiance of nature, but wily old Les Baxter would have his pomp. 


EMPIRE OF THE ANTS
(1977) Dir Bert I. Gordon
***1/2 / PETA - N/A

Shore-swept toxic sludge has a curious effect on local ant-life, as you might guess. But this you won't: the ant queen's pheromones are discussed in a foreshadowing prologue as "a mind-bending substance that forces obedience." What does that have to do with a slumming Joan Collins trying not to break a nail while rooking time share commitments out of a charter boatload of retired and/or attractive freeloaders? You'll see. Collins could learn something from those ants. Rather than seduce and coerce obedience through her pheromones, she bitches at and berates potential customers in a brutal stereotype of the 'lady boss' who's hot but thinks she's even hotter. "You are terrific in the sack," she snarls at her lover lackey, "and that almost justifies the salary that I have to pay you." To the charter boat captain (Edward Power): "I'm paying damn good money to rent this boat!" Yeah, we get that. I'll defend the Joan Collins oversexed bitch in the boardroom capitalist to the end--she's one of the sexiest decade's powerful female icons-- but it would help if the writers had some notion how to make her time share rooking sound convincing. Her sell is so hard it betrays the fact that she yells at herself in the mirror at night because she has no kid to bully and can't make her diamonds cry. Not that I'm complaining. Joan rules! And Empire of the Ants is one of my guilty trash favorites. Shhh! The paltry 3.8 score it gets on imdb.com might be enough to put casual viewers off their toxic feed but I'm betting that would go up to at least a 4.2 once detractors get a load of how vividly this tough old queen has cleaned her antennae for Blu-ray. Even if the dark shadows the drones used to hide in are now less dark, thus exposing the two contrasting film grains, it's still the Plan Nine of giant ant movies. In sum, it is beyond perfect. Even scrubbed clean, those pheromones command obedience!


I'm glad old Bert didn't suss out the subtextual links between Collins' queen bitch and the queen ant, each trying to control the world around them through top bitch manipulation. You can always depend on Gordon to keep things at a very primitivist level as far as adult behavior, missing even the most glaring subtextual veins in his blindfolded jackhammering. I don't mind, though, for in omitting all subtlety and nuance he creates a grand framework for our own projections.

Ideally, this comes too from the nostalgia effect, for like all 70s disaster movies, there's a cross section of Americans (ala the Poesidon Adventure template) thrown together into a high-pressure life or death trek. This lets older stars and younger B-listers intermingle and each get a chance at a scene while their careers pass each other up and down the hill. There's never enough time to rehearse, so the actors all seem like they're genuinely meeting each other for the first time, while at the same time having second thoughts about the whole venture. What crapfest did they sign on for? But there are no cell phones in the 70s, and there's no roads where they are, and no chance to call their agents and bark at them. That's fine, Bert thinks: USE IT!

So... without a better suggestion coming from their unresponsive director, the marooned cross section of people who signed on for a 'free boat ride lunch' time share pitch play it like a Love Boat episode: a frumpy middle aged office drone (Jaqueline Scott) who got fired after blah blah years for Mr. Blah, with nothing to show for her years but a blah blah, hits on the grouchy captain; a rich girl (Brooke Palance) wishes her lame husband (Robert Pine!) wasn't such as a rapey coward; cute Coreen (Pamela Shoop) hits on the sulky pretty boy Joe (John David Carson) immediately after Pine tries to rape her. And through it all Joan bellows through a bullhorn about where tennis courts will be and serves them more meals than there are hours in the day. That said, the film wastes no time: the first casualties are swiftly followed by the giant ants storming the boat, which explodes, stranding them all in this remote section of beach, and, well a fire keeps the ants away,  but well, then, it starts to rain. And then, well... dinner is truly served.

As for EXTRAS... Well, considering how under-directed the actors are in his films, it's probably no surprise that Gordon is so awkward and taciturn as an audio commentary guy. It's like pulling teeth getting anecdotes and when they do come they tend to be utterly banal, and often wrong, like his declaration that Welles used Randolph Hearst's real name in Citizen Kane. Or the nonsense (hopefully) story of personally going down to Panama to shoot footage of a special kinds of fire ants, but the footage looks like normal nature show stock footage as all the other ant footage ever shot; most ants seem to have been shot inside an ant farm and then matted into the main image, which is fine. like the effect of seeing them look like crawling up into the sky around the terrified humans (above). And I also like the big 'actual size' fake ant heads used for the mandible biting scenes here better even than the ones in Them! With their jet black little eyes and hairy heads down low to the ground, they're scarier for being relatively smaller, the size of a sports car rather than a van. The jagged mandibles have a real grim dirty angry menace about them. But I don't think Bert intended any of that, which is probably why it's one of the few things that's effective. Here's a man so dependent on termites he never buys dry wood.


JAWS OF SATAN 
(1981) Dir Bob Claver
*** / PETA = **

Who'd of thought the second best film of the whole lot would turn out to be the most unknown, a bona fide gem of badness, a too-late entry in the Jaws-Exorcist ripoff hybrid race (The Car, Killdozer)? It's also known as King Cobra but Jaws of Satan is far more on-the-nose as to its cross-pollinated rip-off sources (even more specific would be Jaws of the Omen). For as you can guess, the devil this time is a snake, hibernating since the Age of the Druids but allowed to return every 666 years to pick a fight with a lucky priest. Expository dialogue lets us know that faith-deprived priest Fritz Weaver is descended from a bunch of druid burning Christians, so is probably the right priest for the honor. "Considering your family history, father, I sure would like to have a look at that coffee cup," says the local tasseographer during a dinner party, perhaps little aware that the then-current rage for coffee filtration has rendered that form of divination fruitless. But soft! The devil cobra is coming and it has telekinetic powers. It can even bite people just by banging its head on an 'invisible' terrarium wall (the director can't be bothered cleaning the plexiglass that separates cameraman and snake so we see all the tiny cracks and smudges). The serpent then stops the train at the town where his old druid-burner descendant nemesis' currently incarnation waits, and you can start counting the beats toward the inevitable showdown.

If Jaws of Satan was any good it would be terrible, but since it's terrible, its terrific, because, you see, unlike other actors who channel their anger at their agent into their performance (such as Lupino and Meeker in Food of the Gods), Weaver refuses to to perform any other emotion than self-contempt and weariness. Every line feels like he's trying to do such a bad job he gets fired so he can go home and soak in a hot tub. "You know, God, he can be quite a 'trip,' too" he counsels a 'tempted' nerdy kid who's clearly never gotten high in his life. Weaver's even less convinced of his own bullshit than we are. What good is it being a materialist priest? Glug glug glug. Guess it's Nack do the toddle... You know, drinking can be quite a god too.


Meanwhile, the Satan snake has motivated the local serpent population to rise up from its rocky crevasses and attack the humans: deaths by rattlesnake bites mount; small cobras show up out of nowhere.

The best sequence occurs in a grave yard, where an ancient text is read to Weaver by his credulous monsignor (Norman Lloyd, stealing the film, though no one's even guarding it) and soon Weaver's being chased around the local graveyard by King Cobra in the dead of the afternoon, while all while normal small town life goes on around him, oblivious to his predicament, and he's eventually he's trapped down in an open grave while the snake tries to get at him through a closed gate. Only then doth Weaver seem awake-- and the sequence is so badass creepy it feels kind of natural, like it could happen to anyone. King cobras really do chase their prey like that, so I'm told. And maybe you've been a kid chased by a goose, as I have, and felt terror beyond measure while the adults around you seem oblivious or merely amused. It's a rare thing to see in a horror film, that sense of horror being all a matter of proximity to indifference.

The other star of the film, the Chief Brody role, is Gretchen Corbett (the spooky girl running around the graveyard in Let's Scare Jessica to Death) as the town's only doctor. Recognizing the big bite on the dead psychic's face is not indigenous, she calls in a good-looking young herpetologist (Jon Korkes) from the big city, but the gross, corrupt coroner has already burned the body, on the mayor's orders! A cobra loose in town could start a panic! And worse, could kill the buzz for the new dog track. It's going to be "the biggest thing that ever happened in this state," assures the mayor.

Damn, what kind of lame state are we in?

Applegate, Christina
And there you have it. You know by now that dog track opening is going to be a disaster. There's also a very young Christina Applegate as the corrupt financier's daughter. She gets the film's only other spooky moment: wandering around the yard on a dark Lewton-esque night in search of her kitty, the wind rustling the grasses and trees around her.

But the rest of the time, the details are so ludicrous as to defy all explanation. The supposedly independent doctor lady Corbett needs herpetologist Korkes to ride to the rescue when a rattlesnake crawls into her bed (she could easily throw a sheet over it) and when he finally arrives this professional snake handler needs to use five different snake-wrangling devices and a gun to finally dispatch it, only after pretending to struggle with it, for like six minutes, all so they have an excuse to sleep together. Bro, if--even after you have a loop around its neck--you--an expert snake handler--still have to really fight against a rattlesnake's power--and then, wait... wait... finally blow its head off (getting snake blood on the sheets), rather than throwing into a pillow case and releasing it into the garden, and it's the kind of innocuous serpent that even Ray Milland in a wheelchair could kill or incapacitate without looking up from his red white and blue birthday cake, then, well, you're going to be very good in bed either.

wait for it....

So now the couple is together, the evidence of something unusual going on confirmed, but the mayor still ignores them: the dog race track grand opening must not be delayed. The "biggest thing to happen to this state" turns out to be the kind of cheaply rendered event that Aaron Spelling might stage for a Charlie's Angels episode: a dixieland jazz band and about ten extras mill around a sussed up high school track field. Naturally we expect a snake amok in a stadium, people fleeing and trampling children as they fight for the exit, Satan motivating the greyhounds to attack the band, etc. Instead, all that happens is Christina Applegate gets bit by a snake while looking around in the janitor's closet. And that's the end. I don't even think we see a single dog. Nice!

Meanwhile, Weaver, converted by his graveyard scare like a born-again Scrooge, tunes heavenly antennae to yonder caverns for the foretold showdown, shouting "SayyyyTANNnn!" over and over in a perfect imitation of Oron Welles' shouting for his footman in his 1948 Macbeth .

Great stuff. Aside from some real dead snakes and a distasteful episode involving a sleazy would-be rapist biker hired to terrorize Corbett, there's nothing to dampen the overall mood of joyful disregard as the film travels the pre-set pathways of its chosen namesake/s. And then at the very end, after the flames of righteousness have burned the reels away, you can still see the wire that held the snake erect, like a thin little curse finger aimed right at those on imdb who gave this a 3.6. They might be right, but right only gets you so far. Jaws of Sayyyy-TAN goes farther.

2 comments:

  1. I just watched Jaws of Satan and Empire of the Ants! I really loved them both, and they tick by pretty quickly, don't they? I love the whole, "We brought in a famous herpetologist from the University..." angle, and how the doctor was able to call him from her bed and he rescues her and then - Shoots the snake! - He just had to! And the whole path to Fritz Weaver killing the cobra. That was amazing. They didn't even let it lay down! It just hung there in space like those leashes with the wire in it so that it looks like you are walking an invisible dog. In the extras, if you should notice, in the trailer they show the clip of the priest lifting the doctor from the stone altar BACKWARDS - so that it looks like he is sacrificing her to his All Powerful Pagan Snake God, like the Queen Ant!

    And do you remember when these came out, Food of the Gods was also in the era of Chariots of the Gods? So there was some street talk about how everything was tied together, even though none of us talking could go to the drive in to see these movies yet? Women were sexier then, and Gods had more fun with us then, too, I think.

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