Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Food of the Gods (1976)

By Orrin Grey

The Food of the Gods (1976). Director: Bert I. Gordon. Starring: Marjoe Gortner, Pamela Franklin, Ralph Meeker.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. When I was a kid, we got a channel that showed old monster movies on Saturday mornings. So, when other kids were watching Saturday morning cartoons, I watched Squirm and Willard and about a jillion Godzilla movies. One of the movies that I remember watching most clearly on those Saturday mornings – though it turns out that I had forgotten most of what happens in it – was The Food of the Gods. Based pretty loosely off a lesser-known H.G. Wells novel, The Food of the Gods was written, produced and directed by Bert I. Gordon for American International Pictures.

To anyone familiar with Gordon’s oeuvre, the presence of his name in the credits of The Food of the Gods shouldn’t come as any surprise, as he’s pretty much synonymous with the spate of “giant creature” movies that were all over Hollywood from the 50s through the 70s. Bearing the dubious distinction of being one of the most frequent directors to appear in episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Bert I. Gordon is responsible for such “classics” as Beginning of the End, The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. the Spider, Village of the Giants (also loosely adapted from Wells’ novel) and many others. Given that, and the fuzziness of my own recollections of the film, I was expecting to be pretty disappointed in The Food of the Gods, but was actually pleasantly surprised.

For those who’ve seen some of the films listed above, you’d be forgiven for expecting The Food of the Gods to look pretty cheesy, but the fact of the matter is that the special effects hold up remarkably well, with a handful of exceptions. The giant animal effects are obtained through a combination of rear projections and split screens of regular-sized animals interacting with models of cars and houses, combined with mechanical heads, giant rubber reproductions, and even people in rat costumes. Surprisingly enough, they all mesh pretty seamlessly and produce some of the better people-versus-giant animal footage to populate these sorts of movies.

The story concerns the titular Food, which bubbles up from the ground on an island where it’s fed to chickens, and makes its way to wasps, mealworms, and mostly rats. My dim recollections of the movie from my youth forgot how much of the film was occupied with giant rats and remembered a lot more giant chickens. (They’re hardly in the movie at all, it turns out, though there’s a great sequence of our protagonist battling a big, rubber rooster head.) Perhaps the best unexpected moment for me was a bloody sequence involving some nicely gross giant rubber mealworms. The rat attacks get pretty bloody and gruesome in spots, too.

For the majority of the film’s running time, it’s people against giant rats, complete with some remarkably unsubtle anti-capitalist and “Nature Strikes Back” messages. In fact, the screenplay isn’t exactly anything to write home about, though it’s salvaged a bit by the presence of actors like Pamela Franklin (The Innocents, Legend of Hell House) and leading man Marjoe Gortner, whose own life story is probably more interesting than any of his movies. (He was ordained as a preacher at age four, among other things.) What elevate The Food of the Gods are its surprisingly effective big creature shots and some really lovely scenery. (It was filmed on an actual island in British Columbia.)
Of all the things that I remembered about The Food of the Gods from my childhood, my most vivid (and accurate) recollection was of the movie’s somewhat silly “or is it?” ending, which is, itself, a nod to some of the elements from the book that didn’t make it into the movie, as well as some of Gordon’s other giant films.

In spite of the fact that it’s actually pretty good, especially for a Bert I. Gordon picture, The Food of the Gods has the unusual distinction of winning a “Golden Turkey Award” for “Worst Rodent Movie” from Michael and Harry Medved in their 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards. Given that some of its competition for the title included the execrable The Killer Shrews and the infamous Night of the Lepus, I can only assume that the Medveds saw a different movie than I did.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we dance with the devil (though maybe not in the pale moonlight…)