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The ‘nature-run-amok’ or ‘eco-horror’ subgenre has existed for decades, but really it hit its stride in the 1970s. Some critics cite the massive success of Jaws (1975) as the reason for the upswing. Spielberg’s film definitely helped to kick nature-fever into overdrive, but it and Peter Benchley’s novel were, in part, responding to an already prevalent reemergence of B-movies. It’s possible that an increased awareness of environmental hazards had piqued public interest in watching animals (usually oversized ones) attack hapless humans in the ‘70s, but it’s just as likely a coincidence. Now, Scream Factory presents two double-feature discs featuring the Blu-ray debuts of four ‘70s – well, three ‘70s and one early ‘80s nature-run-amok ‘favourites’ of varying quality.

Eco-Horror Double-Features

Collection One: The Food of the Gods/Frogs:


The Food of the Gods

(1976)
Loosely based on a story by H.G. Welles about goo from the ground that causes the animals that eat it to grow to alarming sizes, Bert I. Gordon’s The Food of the Gods was released in the wake of Jaws by American International Pictures. It was the first in a line of eco-horror movies that AIP distributed in its waning years and the first of three movies inspired by Welles’ stories, including Don Taylor’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and Gordon’s [I]Empire of the Ants (also 1977, see below). As if that wasn’t enough, it also marked Mr. B.I.G.’s (real nickname – I didn’t make that up) triumphant return to his trademark: giant monster movies. Between 1955 and 1958, Gordon made six movies involving giant creatures of some kind that attack regular-sized humans. For his seventh film, Attack of the Puppet People (1958), he reversed the formula and had regular-sized creatures attack tiny humans. Throughout the ‘60s, he made more standard-issue movies of varying genres (many aimed at children) and came out of retirement once for Village of the Giants (1965), a semi-spoof of his other movies also based on Welles’ The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth. When Jaws-mania hit, Gordon was only one guy who AIP could turn to for super-cheap giant monster mayhem.

Food of the Gods is a fun enough mix of ‘50s and ‘70s monster movie mentalities. Gordon and his capable cast (this film is a reminder that Marjoe Gortner really should’ve had an A-list career) treats the goofy material with a straight face, but doesn’t let its heavy-handed dramatics (the narration/exposition spells out every environmental subtext for the audience) get in the way of the fun. From narrative clichés to ridiculous images and dialogue, it’s the type of movie that invites the audience to giggle without the burden of judgment. Surely, Gordon understood the hilarity inherent in images of man-sized chickens attacking man-sized men. Gordon’s miniatures and prosthetic effects are quite effective, even if the killer wasp process shots don’t really work. The violence fulfills the expectations of the ‘70s without overstepping the acceptable boundaries of Saturday ‘kiddie matinee’ entertainment. Only awkward pacing (which lags and sprints between set-pieces) and final act fatigue, and the fact that the rats are too cute to root against hold it back from bona fide guilty pleasure status. It’s difficult to get behind any movie that shoots real rats with pellet guns and drowns them for a climax. Sadly, the promise of a sequel featuring giant cows and children never came to fruition (the unofficial sequel, Damian Lee’s Gnaw: Food of the Gods II, is more like a splatter movie remake).

Food of the Gods appeared on a way out of print (and quite valuable…at least until now) DVD from MGM and made the rounds on HD television, especially during the late-night hours. This 1.85:1, 1080p transfer represents its first Blu-ray release. It’s probably safe to say Scream Factory hasn’t remastered any of these transfers, but MGM kept the original material in pretty good shape. Grain is steady, picking up a bit during process/special effects shots. Details and contrast levels are sharp, leading to occasionally edge haloes and similar artefacts, but overall textures are pretty impressive. Colours are quite natural and tightly maintained. Despite being stuck on a single disc with another movie, compression effects aren’t an issue. Print damage artefacts are resigned to small white flecks and a few blotchy spots, usually towards the end of a reel.

The LPCM 2.0 soundtrack meets the standards of any older, monoraul affair. The sound field is a bit crowded at times and real depth is at a premium, but clarity and tonality is consistent throughout effect and dialogue tracks. Elliot Kaplan’s thumpy and old-fashioned score is an aural highlight that blends nicely into the action (and lion-like giant rat growls) of the livelier sequences.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with director Bert I. Gordon – Gordon and moderator Kevin Sean Michaels discuss the making of the film. It’s a pretty low energy track; there are a lot of long pauses, and Gordon is sometimes hesitant to fully participate, but Michaels does a pretty good job coaxing behind-the-scenes anecdotes out of him.
  • Interview with Belinda Balaski (11:40, HD) – A sweet and funny interview with the actress.
  • Trailer, radio spots, trailers for other Scream Factory titles
  • Photo gallery


 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

Frogs

(1972)
George McCowan’s Frogs is one of those select few ‘70s eco-horror throwbacks that actually predates Jaws. It concerns an editorial photographer named Pickett Smith (played by a very young and mustache-free Sam Elliott) who finds himself stuck on the estate of an affluent and influential family while they’re under attack from a plethora of swamp-based critters (including frogs, obviously). It is probably the only film in this series that doesn’t require an appreciation of B-movies and so-bad-it’s-good traditions to enjoy. The better-than-average qualities begin with Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees’ semi-smart, politically adept screenplay. The environmental angle is covered early with relative grace during the opening titles, as Pickett snaps pictures of wildlife as it exists alongside floating garbage and raw sewage. The audience can understand what had incited the animals without needing their motivations explained when he later finds the body of a groundskeeper that was spraying pesticide. Further social commentary is established via the understated social clash between Pickett and the wealthy weirdoes he stumbles across, as well as their subversive reactions to the African American woman (Judy Pace) that the ‘black sheep’ son has brought home. Later, when the familial patriarch refers to his family as ‘the ugly rich,’ his wife rationalizes the statement by insisting ‘We’re entitled to be ugly – God knows we pay enough taxes.’

Though mostly assigned to popular television throughout his career, McCowan was a reliable workhorse whose film work included the third film in the Magnificent Seven series, The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) and the H.G. Welles-inspired The Shape of Things to Come (1979). He overcomes the innately goofy premise with handsome photography (supplied by Carrie cinematographer Mario Tosi), effectively frightening animal attacks (the spider scene is great!), and a foggy emotional atmosphere. The occasionally agile dialogue is severed by slightly stiff performances that actually feeds the gloomy tone. The soap-operatic, yet relatively mundane problems of the central family drives the pacing down to a crawl during the middle part of the film. A bit of outrageous gore would’ve livened the threat at the climax, but, all in all, Frogs is among the more sophisticated movies in this eco-horror lot.

Just like Food of the Gods, Frogs got an anamorphic DVD release via MGM (it popped up in those big box store ‘value bins’ all the time) and made the midnight show rounds on HD TV. This is its Blu-ray debut. The 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is another solid showing. The brighter outdoor photography gives it a slight edge over Food of the Gods in terms of wide-angle background patterns and the more even-handed contrast doesn’t block out as many of the shadowy areas. Interiors are appropriately dark with slight increases in grain texture, but there aren’t any notable hikes in print damage artefacts. The colours are natural and eclectic (if not a bit muddy, due to the swampy setting), but some of the brightest hues (mostly reds) do feature some blocking effects.

The LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack is slightly better than most, due to the state of the original mix. The sound design isn’t always naturalistic, but it excels by putting eerie effects over music or dialogue and creates an effectively immersive aural environment. The ominous croak of the killer frogs is perfectly relentless as the film builds to its climax. Lip-sync is occasionally off, probably thanks to ADR recording, but dialogue tracks are generally consistent. AIP’s busiest composer, Les Baxter provides a moody and often abstract ambience for the scary sequences, but otherwise stays out of the way.

Extras include:
  • Interview with Joan Van Ark (10:10, HD) – The actress briefly chronicles her time on her feature debut.
  • Trailer and radio spot
  • Photo gallery


 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features


Eco-Horror Double-Features

Collection Two: Empire of the Ants/Jaws of Satan:


Empire of the Ants (1977)


Bert I. Gordon’s Food of the Gods follow-up was another loose H.G. Welles adaptation for AIP. Empire of the Ants concerns the wacky antics of a colony of ants that are enlarged when a corrupt sugar refinery dumps toxic waste barrels in the ocean near their island home. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it has plenty of schlock appeal. It opens with a Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures-style description of the scientific facts of ants that slowly turns into an ominous warning of their many monstrous superpowers. The narrator informs us that their pheromone communication causes an obligatory response, then repeats himself:

“Did you hear that? Obligatory. Pheromones give an order that cannot be disobeyed! It’s a mind-bending substance that forces obedience. But we don’t have to worry about it. That’s business better left to the ants.”

It’s probably the first and last instance of a film using the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ technique, but replacing ‘gun’ with ‘ant pheromones.’ From here, it turns into a more prototypical eco-horror movie. Joan Collins (on the verge of Dynasty super-stardom) plays an entrepreneur who tries to hock real estate to a cadre of saps and yuppies. The group finds themselves trapped among the giant ants and their relentless pheromones. Jack Turley’s screenplay (based on B.I.G.’s story treatment) is apparently engineered to ensure that we don’t feel bad for any of the human victims. They’re either ruthlessly ambitious, ruthlessly horny, or ruthlessly stupid with the exception of the chartered boat captain (Robert Lansing), who is forced into the role of a reluctant hero. Empire of the Ants wins points for its ensemble cast of people over 30 and for attempting to bring this older point-of-view to a genre normally reserved for bumbling college co-eds (the actors really do their best with the material, too). The sudden third act reveal of a small-town conspiracy also comes as a nice surprise. Still, it would’ve worked better if we were concerned with their survival.


Empire of the Ants popped up on an MGM ‘Midnight Movies’ double feature (alongside Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Tentacles) and this particular HD transfer made the rounds on TV before landing here on Blu-ray. The 1.85:1, 1080p image is consistently grainy, but rarely distressed. Complex textures are well-represented, though contrast levels can be harsh enough to crush some of the shadows. Details are generally tighter than the SD counterparts could manage and edges are sharp without notable haloes. The harsher contrast and swampy environment isn’t congruent to its particularly vibrant base greens, browns, and flesh tones, but the blue skies and acrylic costumes still manage to pop. Unlike the Frogs transfer, there isn’t a whole lot of noise in these brighter hues, either, except during some dusky images that pulse (not including the understandably grainy effects shots).

The LPCM  2.0 mono soundtrack is a bit crackly during its sharper moments and dialogue tracks are often muffled into near silence. There isn’t a lot of damage to the track, it’s just that all of the location noise (wind, traffic, ocean waves, et cetera) proves too excessive for the production’s recording equipment. I’m not sure why they didn’t employ more ADR. Dana Kaproff music bounces back and forth between typical horror motifs (including a variation on John Williams’ Jaws theme) and easy listening piano that underscores expositional sequences. The score and the screaming cicada-like noises that the ants make both sound good on the uncompressed track, even at high volume levels.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with director Bert I. Gordon – Gordon and moderator Kevin Sean Michaels return for another labored (often awkward), but generally informative behind-the-scenes discussion.
  • Trailer, radio spot, and trailers for other Scream Factory releases
  • Photo gallery


 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

Jaws of Satan (1981)


Bob Claver’s Jaws of Satan (also known as King Cobra in the UK) isn’t really an eco-horror movie as much as a particularly cheap, animal-themed Exorcist/ Omen variant. You see, Satan has come to our realm in the form of a traveling carnival’s cobra and he’s determined to possess a small town preacher (Fritz Weaver) whose ancestors were cursed by Druids. The film was clearly made in the ‘80s and retains a meaner edge – More of a grindhouse mentality, as opposed to the semi-family-friendly, drive-in appeal of the other three movies discussed here. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are also playing it safe at every turn. Minus some nude pinups, a couple of relatively gory snakebites, and a pointless, completely unmotivated scene where the heroine is sexually assaulted, it could’ve played on afternoon television. More distressing is the fact that a movie about a telekinetic snake with the soul of the Devil that can force other snakes to do his bidding is so…ordinary. James Callaway and Gerry Holland’s screenplay does have some amusing exchanges (‘Your motel is up the road.’/‘What’s it called?’/‘Motel. It’s the only one in town.’) and some of the supposedly frightening scenes are quite funny (the heroine literally telephones the hero to drive across town to save her from a rattlesnake that is coiled only three feet away from her), but there’s little indication that anyone involved was really interested in the product. They’re all just going through the motions. Once again, I also find it difficult to root for an evil animal movie that kills real animals on film.

Not surprisingly, Claver was a successful television producer and director throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and even the early part of the ‘90s. His credits included almost exclusively multi-camera sitcoms (with laugh tracks) – from Welcome Back Kotter and The Facts of Life, through Small Wonder and Charles in Charge. Jaws of Satan is his only feature film credit. His sitcom roots show in the worst way during the blandly conceived expositional sequences, the stiff action direction, and completely inept use of suspense. However, Claver was working with the extraordinary Dean Cundey as his DP. The balanced, clean, and evocative photography brings weight to the otherwise routine proceedings.

It seems that Jaws of Satan didn’t get an official stateside DVD release, but there is evidence that a streaming version was available on Netflix for a time. I don’t know if that was an SD or HD version. That means that, for all intents and purposes, this double-feature Blu-ray marks a kind of digital home video debut. This 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is probably the weakest of all four of the movies included here. I assume the scan came from MGM, because they still own the distribution rights. There aren’t many signs of overt print damage, but the whole image is a bit dingy with some inconsistent grain formations and a load of minor compression artefacts. While better than a DVD (and much better than the VHS copies that were going for hundreds of dollars on eBay), details are sometimes smudged and wide-angle shots often appear flattened. Though the whole print seems a too dark, black levels are relatively subtle, so at least there isn’t much crush. Colours run a gamut from genuinely vibrant to yellowed and dull.

The original mono LPCM 2.0 soundtrack is also in slightly worse shape than some of the other movies discussed here, yet the more recent vintage ensures a better all-around mix. Despite a couple of pops and fizzles, the depth of field is effective, ambient noise is subtle, and the sequences that feature a lot of overlapping sounds don’t become overcrowded. The lack of compression assures that the dialogue remains consistent and clear as well. Roger Kellaway’s score is mostly symphonic with big, string-heavy scare and suspense cues, but also dabbles in electronic melodies.

Extras include only a trailer.

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

 Eco-Horror Double-Features

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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