Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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 like a mutant muskrat needs his musk. 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, but I sincerely doubt old Burt had one. 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: *

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 silent 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 hunt on horseback. The ever-dependable Jon Cypher is one buddy, and the other is soon-offed by giant 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 carefully entwined in the zippers of 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 an angry Ralph Meeker in a black raincoat. Playing the rote capitalist, Ralph (looking bloated and hungover) is there to get a look at the 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 killed) there's nothing to keep the rats away, or the giant caterpillars from biting poor Ida Lupino's hand.

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, Ida taps into the same 'go for broke' madness of Bela Lugosi wrestling the rubber octopus in ED WOOD / BRIDE OF THE MONSTER. Her moan of horror seems to encompass the entirety of her fall off the A-list into and 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...

...with 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 act circles around ole Marjoe and to add what little pizazz might be added to lines of 70s corner-cutting bluntness like "I'd like... for you to make love to me." The much better-preserved Belinda Balaski, on the other hand, as a stranded camper, pretends to be pregnant, and young husband Tom Stovall worries about her as the rats start closing in faster than a zombie horde or a drunken Cornish lynch mob.

But then... endless shots of rats getting shot with pink paint in the face and body begins to weary the soul. I left the film feeling kind of sickened, the way I eventually got after having to feed Mina (my pet black king snake) a live mouse... every week, every week another death... the blood on my hands accumulating... I had forgotten all about that existential nausea until this film's inhumane climax.

For mauling Gordon's well-crafted miniature hippie vans and farm shacks with such aplomb, those rats deserved better.

Maybe they weren't killed or even permanently hurt, but the surprised, betrayed look in their eye lingers in a sensitive heart. 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, and if the animals know it's all in fun, so do we. 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. But hey, no one asks to be born a rat.

That said, many of the better overlays between miniatures, rats, and people still have a kind of chilling immediacy, and the giant chicken and rat heads that menace the cast, the giant caterpillar monsters that claw up poor Ida Lupino's game hand, and the hilarious climactic 'flood' when Marjoe blasts open the 'dam', all make this bad film shine like pure crap gold, the kind we wouldn't see again until Sharknado. God bless the Gordons, for all their sins... against the rats... future Indras, all.


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

I always thought Frogs rather overrated, but that was on the small screen. Its colors 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 --I found it all quite demoralizing. Now that it's on the Blu-ray, 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 b-roll 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 here 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 when his canoe gets rammed by rich Brick-esque prodigal son (Adam Roarke) and his sexy sister Karen (Joan Van Ark), trying out their new outboard motor during a lull in their annual obligation to fulfill wheelchair bound patriarch (and pollutant enthusiast) Ray Milland's regimented birthday expectations. Soaking wet from his splash, Pickett is invited home to change and participate in the 'fun.' Deaths accrue via various (normal size) lizards, snakes, and arachnids as one person goes looking for the one who never came back from looking for someone else. Elliot's not as purty as Melanie Daniels, but he does all right as the stranger who ignites the natural world uprising. He's quite a guy. Even Milland's crusty patriarch likes him. All seems ripe for a hook-up for ole Sam, with either Joan or Adam, but the mansion is also besieged by frogs, croaking away at night, in a 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 loungey helicoptering. 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 Ahab-like 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. There's even a shade of Col. Rutledge from The Big Sleep in the bond between him and Pickett, each recognizing in the other a capable outdoorsy plain-spoken hombre.

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, they all go with dignity, common sense and concern rather than 'f-f-f-feets don't fail me now" 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 meant to be, like Bronson and Fonda at the end of Once Upon a Time int at each other's throats with no witnesses, sides, or seconds, just like the old days. Not for nothing is the clan's name Crockett, this is the coonskin cap's revenge. No raccoons, but 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, and 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; and the incongruous mixture of wildlife that would only be caught dead down in Florida (like the New Mexican gecko). While we wonder how in hell they're 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 marching band music to convey his eternal defiance of nature, but that old devil AIP composer Les Baxter will 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; their 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 berates and bitches at her 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 most sexual icons-- but it would help if the writers had some notion how to make her sound convincing or Gordon had any skill directing actors. This on-the-nose stridency and jackhammer subtlety just makes her seem like she's in over her head - her sell is so hard it betrays the fact that it has never worked, and 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. 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 stocks, 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, one through overacting, the other through pheromones. You can always depend on Gordon to keep things at a very primitivist level as far as adult behavior. In omitting all subtlety and nuance he creates a grand framework for our own projections.

Ideally, this comes too from the nostalgia effect, the dutiful attempt to create a cross section of America, so older stars and younger B-listers can intermingle and each get a chance at a scene. 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... the marooned cast all unconsciously angling for a Love Boat vibe: 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 self-obsessed date-rapey coward; cute Coreen (Pamela Shoop) hits on the sulky pretty boy Joe (John David Carson) immediately after Pine tries to date rape her. And through it all Collins bellows through a bullhorn about where tennis courts will be and serves them more meals than in all of Troll 2. That said, the film wastes no time: the first casualties are swiftly followed by the giant ants storming the boat, which then has to explode to be saved and then, well the fire keeps the ants away, but well, then, it starts to rain. And then, well... dinner is truly served.

As for EXTRAS... Well, with all this gloriousness on display, it's a 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 saying Welles used Randolph Hearst's real name in Citizen Kane. Or the nonsense (hopefully) story of going down to Panama to shoot footage of these special kinds of fire ants, but their footage looks like normal nature show b-roll as all the other ant footage, and anyway every ant in the film is jammed up in ant farm, crawling against the glass (as above). Not that I mind; in fact I like the big fake ant heads here better even than the ones in Them! With their jet black little eyes and hairy heads (closer to the ground and scarier for being relatively smaller) and jagged mandibles--have a real grim dirty angry menace about them that's almost convincing. The Them ants just seem like robots, with mandibles that need an actor to climb in and hold on, the Empire heads look like not only will they tear you in half, they''ll leave you with a bad infection.


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, in hiding since the Age of the Druid but allowed to return every 666 years to pick a fight with a priest. Expository dialogue lets us know that faith-deprived Fritz Weaver is not only a priest but descended from a bunch of druid burning Christians. "Considering your family history, father, I sure would like to have a look at that coffee cup," says a local soothsayer at 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 (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 is currently incarnated in Weaver's sulky form 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 and the fickle ageist finger of Hollywood 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 says by way of counsel to 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... Drinking finds its own reasons.


Meanwhile, the Satan snake has motivated the local serpent population to action: deaths by rattlesnake bites mount; smaller cobras show up; an ancient text is read to Weaver by his credulous monsignor (Norman Lloyd, stealing the film) and soon Weaver's being chased around the local graveyard by the 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 tension being all a matter of proximity.

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. 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.

But the devil, so to speak, is in details 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 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.

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 after the flames of righteousness have burned the reels away, all that's left is 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, which is to say, nowhere at all, but so far out into nowhere it's off the board, onto the floor, and now the dog's got it.

A dog... finally. 

1 comment:

  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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