Rodents of unusual size

Wells never given a sporting chance

Published: Jan 14 2016, 01:01:am

Monday, June 21, 1976.
THE FOOD OF THE GODS. Inspired by the 1904 novel by H.G. Wells. Music by Elliot Kaplan. Special visual effects, screenplay, production and direction by Bert I. Gordon. Running time: 88 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: scenes of horror with rats attacking people.
THERE'S AN OLD JOKE THAT has a Scotsman making his first visit to Canada. During a rest stop in the Rockies, he spots an enormous animal and, very much impressed, asks, "what's that?"
    "That," answers the park ranger, "is a moose."
    "Great Scott, mon," says the tourist, his accent becoming thicker with every word. "If that's a moose, I dinna want to see one of your rrrhats!"
    There's a new joke called Food of the Gods. A science-fiction adventure, it is set on an island overrun with the kind of rats the apochryphal Scot had no wish to see. It's funny because it's sure to leave audiences rooting for the rodents.
    Made late last year on Bowen Island, this latest addition to the creature feature canon was written and produced by visual-effects director Bert Gordon. Although the film is being advertised as "H.G, Wells' Food of the Gods," the movie bears little resemblance to the English author's 1904 novel.
    Gordon's film opens with his Everyman hero, played by former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner, off for some deer hunting in the country. "My name is Morgan," he tells us in a purposeful-sounding voiceover. "I play football."
    Together with his pals Davis (Chuck Courtney) and Brian (John Cypher), Morgan takes the fog-bound ferry to Bowen Island. They chase deer, and during the pursuit good old Davis runs into a flight of gull-sized wasps.
     He is stung to death.
     Morgan goes for help. At a nearby farm house, he finds himself face to face with an enlarged and enraged rooster (perhaps, in the dim autumnal light, the bird mistook him for Colonel Sanders).  They fight, and the footballer wins.
    From Mrs. Skinner (Ida Lupino), the frightened farmer's wife, Morgan learns that a mysterious grow goo  — Wells called it "Herakleophorbia IV" — has been oozing out of the ground. "The good lord gave it to us because we're deserving people and pray regular," she explains.
    Soon two other deserving couples are on the scene. Thomas (Tom Stovall) and his nine-months-pregnant girlfriend Rita (Belinda Balaski) were vacationing nearby when their camper broke an axle. They're there by accident.
    Businessman Jack Bensington (Ralph Meeker) and his research assistant Lorna Scott (Pamela Franklin) are there deliberately. They have come to negotiate the purchase of the growth-inducing chemical stew.
    Working from a script that does little more than rough in its characters, director Gordon's actors are trapped in unidimensional roles. As Lorna, the liberated love interest, the capable Franklin has little more to do than stand about looking resentful and commenting on the action.
    At one point she calls Bensington a bastard. "So, why do you work for me?' he asks, snarling.
    "Because jobs for female bacteriologists aren't so easy to find," she snarls back.
     Later, after she's seen Morgan at work for a while, she offers a little instant analysis. "You don't like women around when you do your thing, do you?"
    "What's my thing?" says Morgan, caught out.
    "Facing danger," she says in a tone of voice that is even less convincing than the idea of the slight and hyperactive Gortner in the role of a pro football player.
    The idea, of course, is to move on to the special effects. That's what audiences come for, and that is the part that Gordon, himself, seems to like best.
    Here he offers us a mixed bag. His giant food worms — created by Tom Burman, the makeup man who melted the entire cast of last year's The Devil's Rain — work too well. The giant wasps, on the other hand, don't work at all.
    Then there are the rats. For close-ups, Burman created a number of cuddly-looking giant rat costumes. For long shots Gordon trained live rats, and integrated them with the human actors optically. The combination is effective enough to warrant calling out for some giant cats.
    The rats, Gordon implies in his film, are unwitting victims, and the director's sympathies seem to be with them. As a result, his Food of the Gods leaves its human characters dramatically undernourished.
*    *    *
MEOW. In two scenes, footballer Morgan (Marjoe Gortner) is seen practicing in Vancouver's Empire Stadium. That makes this particular rat-killer a Lion, doesn't it?

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1976. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: For those who aren't familiar with professional football in in Canada, the above review's final joke plays on the fact that the name of Vancouver's CFL team is the B.C. Lions. Until 1982, the Lions played their home games in Empire Stadium.
    In 1980, brothers Michael and Harry Medved published a book called The Golden Turkey Awards, in which they cited Food of the Gods as "Worst Rodent Movie of All Time." While that may or may not be true, the 1976 release was American International Pictures' biggest success that year. The production company quickly made two more H.G. Wells-inspired features: director Don Taylor's The Island of Dr. Moreau and Bert I. Gordon's Empire of the Ants (both 1977). In 1989, Canadian Damian Lee directed Food of the Gods II, an in-name-only sequel shot on location in Mississauga, Ontario.
    The original Food of the Gods was Marjoe Gortner's fourth fictional film role. He'd made his movie debut in 1972, in the Oscar-winning Marjoe, a documentary feature that told the story of his life as a the "World's Youngest Ordained Minister." Made with his full cooperation, it followed him during his final year on the religious revival circuit. Directed by Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith, it was an exposé of for-profit evangelism and included scenes with Gortner discussing his loss of faith and performing ambitions. Despite a showy early role in the all-star disaster epic Earthquake, his subsequent acting career never got beyond low-budget fare — films with titles such as Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976), Viva Knievel! (1977) and everybody's favourite Italian-made imitation Star Wars, Starcrash (1978) — and guest-star roles on various TV shows. After 1995, he seems to have concentrated on producing celebrity sports events designed to raise money for various charities. Marjoe Gortner turns 72 today (January 14).