Starring Pamela Franklin, Sam Elliott, Belinda Balaski, Joan Van Ark, Lots of frogs
Directed by Bert I. Gordon, George McCowan
Distributed by The Scream Factory
In a past review I lamented the lack of little creature features; films like Ghoulies (1984), Troll (1986) and Gremlins (1984). There’s another subgenre of horror that hasn’t seen much activity in a good long while either: nature fights back. After societal concerns about pollution, health, environmental impacts and animal extinction gained significant traction in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, horror followed suit by using those statistics as a framework from which to build low-budget feature films. These pictures almost always followed the same general plotline – show man’s inability to respect nature, give nature some sort of upper hand, kill man – but don’t kill every man because the film should offer some hope that man has time to change. What I’ve always liked about these nature revenge flicks is that they’re usually right – man does wantonly destroy the environment, so it isn’t hard to believe that animals (those things which live in the environment) would seek out humans and just start killing.
While the thought of this might sound potentially thrilling for a film, what stops many of these movies from being anything more than a fun ‘70s distraction is the main selling point: the animal attacks. There are two reasons why – either animals this large don’t exist, or if they do you won’t find an actor willing to be attacked for real. On the latter point, check out Drafthouse’s release of Roar (1981) this summer for a thousand reasons why, if you actually can find an actor willing to play alongside deadly animals, it is not a good idea. In the case of Scream Factory’s newest releases – The Food of the Gods (1976)/Frogs (1972) and Empire of the Ants (1977)/Jaws of Satan (1981) – the low budget skirmishes are reduced to a combination of rear screen projection and shaky close-ups of an animal prop “attacking” a person.
But who cares how bad the effects are, right? That’s half the charm! The other half is watching actors, either past their prime or just starting off, do every possible idiotic thing in the book before being slaughtered. Sure, ostensibly these films serve as a warning that man needs to get his shit straight and quit ruining the planet, but, really, they work best as an exercise in Darwinian selection. Is there a vicious, oversized creature in your midst? One which you could probably run away from very easily, if only… you didn’t… stop in your tracks… and do nothing… but widen your eyes… and slowly wait for this thing… to kill you. Every. Damn. Time. Outside of the lead actors that are assured a life lasting till the credits, every other actor or actress shrieks loudly before patiently waiting to be murdered by a huge wasp, or a massive ant, or some other embiggened creepy crawler. I guess they have to, though, because if anyone acted rationally these movies would end in six minutes. Based on how bad some of them are, that might not be such a bad idea.
Director Bert I. Gordon (appropriately nicknamed “Mr. BIG”) returns to the subgenre that made him famous – turning smaller creatures larger – with the first of two films on this double bill, The Food of the Gods. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you may be familiar with the slightly-iconic one-sheet poster, featuring a man-sized rat holding his prey – a pretty woman – up in a tree. This would be American International Pictures’ first foray into the tales of H.G. Wells, with more titles to follow after this one’s success.
The story finds a group of football players heading out to a remote island for a weekend getaway before a big game. During a walk through the woods one of the men is attacked and killed by a giant wasp; an attack no one witnesses. The men bring his body home but return to the island to finish out their retreat. After being accosted by a giant chicken, the men and their ladies meet the Skinners (Ida Lupino and John McLiam), an elderly farming couple who have stumbled upon magical ooze that produces huge results; they call it “The Food of the Gods”. Soon after it’s revealed that rats have gotten into the special liquid and are now as big as a large dog… or bigger, it depends on the scene – consistency takes a back seat here. The group is under siege from the rats and they all have to band together in the farm house and come up with a plan to stop them.
That’s about it. The story starts off suggesting this yogurt-y ooze has made all kinds of animals big and now they’re on a quest to attack mankind. Yet after the wasp and chicken encounters the film just sticks to the rats. There are a few more animal cameos, true, but they amount to very little. All of the focus is placed on the rats trying to eat everyone. Gordon does a commendable job of blending the footage of rear projection shots with the practical FX close-ups – even if it looks like the film is bouncing from showing rats jumping all over a Lincoln Log playset to a furry Halloween mask being jabbed into an actor’s face. All kidding aside, these effects probably required a great deal of passion and effort to pull off in an age where there were few options, a quality that isn’t felt when watching a CGI rat like they’d do today. The Food of the Gods posits a world where man isn’t at the top of the food chain, and it is indeed a scary prospect, campy film or not.
Frogs managed to piss me off a bit. This is another AIP picture, though it was not helmed by Gordon but George McCowan, who is known for his extensive directorial work on television and… not much else. What irked me so much was the poster, which made the promise that a frog would eat a man; a frog did not eat a man in this film. Is it asking too much that the producers should have a large fake frog created and then shoot a single scene of it eating someone? Hell, it would have been perfect to have it appear and eat Ray Milland at the conclusion. But no; this film wants to stretch the credibility of nature besting man to its very limits instead.
There’s no toxic waste here; no special goo; no radioactive elements. Nope, Frogs simply suggests that the animals of a swampy Florida island are tired of being polluted with pesticides, leached in by the constant spraying ordered by old man Crockett (Ray Milland), who feels man is superior to all other living things. Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, sans mustache) is a local photographer out taking shots of the water’s pollution when Clint (Adam Roarke) whizzes past on a speed boat and knocks Pickett into the water. Clint apologizes and takes Pickett back to the Crockett estate, where he is welcomed by the family members who have come for a yearly gathering. Pickett strikes it up with the family and stays for dinner, but before he leaves in the morning Crockett asks Pickett to check on his worker, Grover, who was sent a ways up the road to do some pesticide spraying.
Pickett finds Grover and – surprise surprise – he’s dead. He returns to let Crockett know about his man’s fate and winds up staying a bit longer to help survey the scene brewing outside. All of the swamp’s lizards, snakes, leeches, birds and frogs have made it their mission to descend upon the Crockett estate to wreak havoc on the elitists who have shown a total lack of respect for the world around them. What follows is nearly an hour of people ignoring all forms of rational logic to be placed in situations where animals they could easily escape from wind up delivering a coup de grace.
The only thing Frogs has going for it is Sam Elliott’s Southern charm and assuredness, and Ray Milland’s John Hammond-like performance as an elderly patriarch who prefers to ignore all warning signs around him and staunchly remain optimistic that things are not going to hell. The animals responsible for attacking everyone aren’t mutated or large; they’re just pissed off. Still, when you see a snake coiled up, ready to spring just feet away, run! Don’t just stare at it, scream and (presumably) hope it simply goes away. Good god, these people are all so stupid that nature did the world a favor by killing nearly all of them. Despite getting top billing, the most the film’s frogs contribute to the picture is by croaking the score, since composer Les Baxter barely wrote anything to be used. Would it have been so hard to have one big frog show up late in the film? This is very bothersome.
As easy as it is to pick these two creature features apart, the fact is that, together, they’re ripe for helping viewers laugh their way through a lazy Saturday afternoon filled with good booze and a purple haze. You can’t even begin to try taking either seriously. At least Gordon did his best to make pictures filled with oversized everyday animals; it’s hard to work up the slightest bit of tension if your film is relying on frogs, salamanders and leeches to frighten. Watching The Food of the Gods and Frogs is less about trying to appreciate the features and more about getting yourself into a drive-in mind; a place where quality is secondary to campy enjoyment.
As long as they aren’t screwed with too much, in general every film from the ‘70s produced by AIP tends to look similar to its catalog brothers. The Food of the Gods is presented in 1.85:1, while Frogs is slightly opened to 1.78:1, and the results for both are nearly identical. The prints used here were kept in great shape, meaning there is only minor dirt or damage that appears sporadically; maybe a frame or two at most. A healthy grain structure remains untampered. Colors are nicely saturated, black levels are usually dark enough and definition & detail are evident without being overly showy. There have been a lot of complains about compression issues on recent Scream Factory titles, something that wasn’t noted in either case here.
Likewise, each film gets an English LPCM 2.0 mono track, both of which are on par in terms of fidelity, depth, cleanliness and levels. The sound quality is typical of AIP – they had making movies down cold – and the usual bad ADR work is here, too. The Food of the Gods has a percussive, synth score, while Frogs lives up to its name in the audio department since all that is heard on the track the nearly the entire time is the sound of frogs. That film has an extremely sparse score. Subtitles are available in English for both movies.
The Food of the Gods bonus features:
Director Bert I. Gordon delivers an audio commentary, moderated by filmmaker Kevin Sean Michaels, which is not what you’d call lively. Michaels has to prod Gordon like a cattle, constantly coaxing the legendary director to break into conversation. To be fair, Gordon is in his 90s but it still takes him a very long, slow time to get chatty.
“Interview with Actress Belinda Balaski” has the actress discussing the research she did for her role (knowing how to be pregnant), location woes, working with Ida Lupino and so forth.
A theatrical trailer, radio spot and photo gallery are all included as well.
Frogs has the following extras:
“Interview with actress Joan Van Ark”, she discusses this being her first feature and recalls some tales from the set. She’s very giggly.
The film’s theatrical trailer, a radio spot and photo gallery are also included.
THE FOOD OF THE GODS Special Features:
- Audio commentary with director Bert I. Gordon
- Interview with Actress Belinda Balaski
- Theatrical trailer
- Radio spot
- Photo gallery
FROGS Special Features:
- Interview with actress Joan Van Ark
- Theatrical trailer
- Radio spot
- Photo gallery
GIRLS NIGHT 2 Review – A Terrifying Halloween Treat
If you love Halloween as much as I do, you probably also love horror films that take place on Halloween. French Writer/Director David Teixeira uses Halloween as the backdrop for his eerie short horror film Girls Night, which we reviewed here. The film tells the story of three friends who decide to play Bloody Mary and end up butchered by a creepy masked killer. Filmmaker Teixeira skillfully uses atmosphere and impressive cinematography to heighten the scares.
Teixeira is back with Girls Night 2 which will be released in October just in time for Halloween. The only survivor of the massacre, Jess (Marina De Sousa), is suffering from nightmares and insomnia because she was blamed for the murder of her friends. It’s a year later and Halloween and she is staying with Pierre (Vincent Conty). To calm Jess’s nerves they decide to watch a short film their friend David (David Teixeira) made, but Jess can’t stay awake. In her dreams the masked killer is back and wielding a pair of scissors. The film ends in utter confusion and a bloody mess. Is it real or is it a dream and who is the killer? You’ll have to watch the short to find out.
The performances are strong and believable and actress Marina De Sousa is remarkable as Jess. Like the original, Girls Night 2 delivers an exciting amount of intensity and panic in only around thirteen minutes. I highly suggest experiencing both of these short films while wearing headphones to really amp up the terror. Girls Night 2 is currently a semi-finalist at Los Angeles Cinefest and winner for Best Foreign Film at the $2 Dollar Film Festival. The award winning short film Girls Night is available on YouTube and you can watch the Girls Night 2 teaser trailer below.
Girls Night 2 delivers an impressive amount of intense scares worthy of a feature length film in just under thirteen minutes.
PANTHER RIDGE Review – When Your New Job Takes You To Interesting Locations
Written by Ryan Swantek
Directed by Ryan Swantek
Director Ryan Swantek’s graphic-take on a young woman unhappy with her looks in White Willow was in my useless opinion, one of the strongest short films to hit the horror genre in quite some time. It was brutal, unflinchingly ruthless to eyeball, and best of all for a first-time directorial effort, there was no apology for what was put before us – let’s venture over to Panther Ridge.
So what comes around in the second-time in the big guy’s chair? Well, when I’d heard that it was a sadistic look into the BDSM scene, I’ll admit I was a bit intrigued (no, I’m not into that stuff, ya kooks) – I’d just honestly hoped for a bit more than what was tossed to me. This particular short film is titled Panther Ridge, and it tells the story of a young lady who is getting a fresh start in a new career – that of a dominatrix, of sorts. As this presentation begins, she’s smack dab in the middle of a dungeon with a very unlucky prisoner and the woman who will be guiding her in her “training.” I’ll tell ya, first days on the job can be stressful, but with the correct forms of relief, you can make it through the day all the while exorcising some pent up demons as well.
Commence brutality upon this poor tied-up fool and the lass roped up across from him, for they know not what lies in store for them next, but rest assured they’ll be making a blood donation whether they want to or not. Unfortunately my self-imposed hype proved to be insurmountable as Swantek’s second time up to the plate resulted (for me, anyway) in a big swing and a miss. What worked in his maiden voyage with Willow was the notion that you were going to witness the repercussions of a tortured soul as she looked in the mirror, whereas this time we’re watching some poor sap get the snot beaten out of him, and I could honestly see the same thing in a number of other productions for a longer stretch of time (if you dig that sort of thing). I’ll await Mr. Swantek’s third production when it’s time, and hopefully it’ll pack more of a sustained punch than this quickie.
Swantek’s sophomore directorial endeavor unfortunately isn’t much more than shock and torture-porn crammed into an abbreviated timeframe – been down this road more than a few times.
EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS Blu-ray Review – Savagery & Sexuality From The Master Of Sleaze
Starring Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Monica Zanchi, Donald O’Brien
Directed by Joe D’Amato (Arisitide Massaccesi)
Distributed by Severin Films
After taking famed sex icon Emanuelle (Laura Gemser) to Bangkok (1976), America (1976), and Around the World (1977) legendary sleaze director Joe D’Amato decided to mash up two of Italy’s most notorious genres by sending his beautiful muse down to the Amazon rainforest, cinematic home to countless hordes of cannibal tribes. The Italian cannibal craze of the late’70s was just beginning to take hold, offering D’Amato a ripe opportunity to satisfy both the bloodlust and, well, regular lust of exploitation devotees worldwide. For the most part the film plays out expectedly, with a reasonably large group of people meeting in the Amazon and trekking off on a quest. By the end, that group has dwindled down to only a few members, all of whom probably have a lot of regret about traipsing through the jungle. Aficionados will get a bit of a “been there, eaten that” vibe from the film, which hits every trademark of the genre sans animal cruelty, but Emanuelle herself spices up this cannibal comfort food with an alluring performance capped off by one helluva genius ending. The film also holds the dubious distinction of showing a penis being eaten less than 15 minutes after the opening credits. You set a high bar, Joe.
When an unlucky nurse has half of her tit eaten off by a newly-arrived mental patient, a girl found in the Amazon jungles, journalist Emanuelle (Laura Gemser) infiltrates the sanitarium to score a hot scoop. Armed with a camera concealed within a baby doll head, Emanuelle surreptitiously snaps a few shots before making the new girl talk via… digital means – and I’m not talking technology. Emanuelle takes her information to Professor Mark Lester (Gabriele Tinti), a museum curator whom she hopes will fund her expedition. He agrees. Then, she goes and screws some random guy in broad daylight down by the river. Later, she comes back and has more sex, this time with Mark. The next day they leave for the Amazon.
Upon arrival, the two are met by Isabel (Monica Zanchi) and Sister Angela (Annamaria Clementi), both of whom have altruistic plans of their own in the rainforest. Their trek soon brings them across Donald (Donald O’Brien), a hunter who is on safari with his wife and a guide. Now that the film has brought together a large group of people, some of whom are more reprehensible than others, it’s time to pick them off and watch in delight as cannibals of the Amazon gut them, skewer them, and devour their flesh while the soothing sounds of Nico Fidenco play in the background.
So many of these Italian cannibal pictures feel interchangeable because the formula is incredibly simple – send a group of naïve outsiders into the Amazon and let an indigenous tribe kill and eat them, usually in the most horrific manner possible. What sets this film apart from so many others is in the title: Emanuelle. Gemser is not only easy on the eyes but she has this magnetic presence on screen, not because she is a great actress but her looks, abilities, and personality combine to create one of exploitation cinema’s most capable and sultry sirens. It is entirely due to her ingenuity here that anyone survives at all. She isn’t a rag doll, tossed around and used for sex and companionship; Emanuelle is a woman in charge of her own sexuality and she calls the shots. This film was made during a time when women were often used as set dressing or spent most of a film being subservient, so it’s a nice change of pace to have one in the lead who takes control and it feels natural, not forced.
Don’t go thinking this is some kind of strong female-led picture that celebrates womanhood or anything. D’Amato never likes to peer too high from his gutter view, and “Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals” is a sleaze sensation; a cornucopia of cannibalism and carnal acts that culminates in the titular heroine literally becoming a god… temporarily. D’Amato takes two of humanity’s greatest loves – eating and screwing – and builds a story around them. Besides all of the aforementioned fornication, nipples are eaten as an amuse-bouche, penis tartare is part of the starter course, a vagina makes unexpected friends with the business end of a machete, a woman is gutted like a deer, and one guy learns a thin rope can still be strong enough to tear the human body in half. Nobody gets out of this thing unscathed… except, maybe, for Emanuelle who seems unfazed by every atrocity the world throws her way.
Ugly films need beautiful music and the lush, soothing sounds of Nico Fidenco make for the ultimate dichotomy of relaxation and revulsion. Fidenco’s score is less the serene soundscape Riz Ortolani composed for Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and more of a funky, porno-lite trip down ‘70s Lane. Oftentimes the composers on these rough Italian pictures delivered scores that felt like they belong to something more refined and accessible, not a movie destined for banning in multiple countries and cut to ribbons in others. Fidenco provided the score for many entries in the Black Emanuelle series and while those films might be past their prime the music is completely timeless.
Severin has provided a new 2K scan from unknown elements, delivering a 1.85:1 1080p image that falls right in line with most of their catalog. The picture has been cleaned up enough to allow for high-def improvements in clarity and coloration to (mostly) shine through, while still retaining a gritty look to remind viewers this is still a grindhouse picture. Film grain is heavy and active, swarming the picture but never becoming noisy. Contrast is variable, as is sharpness, with some scenes looking closer to HD than others. Colors are accurate but a bit anemic, too, with only a few instances of truly popping against the ever-present jungle greens. Detail is swallowed up in darkness, so don’t expect to see much of it when night falls, which thankfully isn’t often. I’ll say one thing Italy sure does make for a fine Amazon stand-in.
Audio is available in both English and Italian DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono, both of which offer a similar audible experience. The standout here is unsurprisingly hearing Fidenco’s score in lossless glory. The ADR work is typically poor and obvious, but everything is understandable and there are no noticeable issues with hissing or audio damage. Subtitles are available in English.
The World of Nico Fidenco – The legendary composer sits down for a new interview, covering his career and the Emanuelle series. In Italian with English subtitles.
A Nun Among the Cannibals – Actress Annamaria Clementi provides a new interview about her role in the film and what it was like working with D’Amato. In Italian with English subtitles.
Dr. O’Brien M.D. – This is an archival interview with Donald O’Brien, who played the wild and wily hunter, Donald, in the film.
From Switzerland to Mato Grosso – Actress Monica Zanchi gives a new interview that covers her career.
I Am Your Black Queen is an audio-only archival interview with Gemser.
A theatrical trailer (in SD) is also included.
- BRAND NEW 2K REMASTER OF THE FILM prepared for this release
- English and Italian audio tracks, with optional English subtitles
- The World of Nico Fidenco – an interview with the composer (27 min)
- A Run Among the Cannibals – an interview with actress Annamaria Clementi (23 min)
- Dr. O’Brien MD – an interview with actor Donald O’Brien (19 min)
- From Switzerland to Mato Grosso – an interview with actress Monica Zanchi (19 min)
- I Am Your Black Queen – an audio commentary by actress Laura Gemser (11 min)
- Original trailer
There is no point to making complaints about plotting when watching a film with this title. D’Amato promises viewers nothing more than a sleazy time intended to induce equal parts creep and kink into a span of time. Severin’s release offers a cleaned-up picture and a solid selection of extras that catch up with a few of the principal cast and crew.
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