Scream Factory, the genre imprint of Shout! Factory, usually treat their fans to hefty line up in preparation of summer. Their “Summer of Fear” events includes the announcement of new titles, 6-pack sales, free giveaways, and — best of all — the release of a ton of fun and sometimes even fantastic films. It should be noted that not all of these releases can be stacked up with Scream Factory’s finest, but a great many of them can and even the worse of the bunch are still wildly entertaining romps. This year’s “Summer of Fear” oriented releases got off to an early start, with the release of a quite a few double features, many of which fall under the much beloved creature feature sub-genre. First up were their Blu-Ray double feature discs of Food of the Gods and Frogs and Empire of Ants and Jaws of Satan. Keeping the momentum going, however, Scream upped the ante by answering the initial four titles with two even better creature features, 1977’s Tentacles and 1961’s Reptilicus.
1976’s Food of the Gods is adapted from a three-part novel by H.G. Wells and brought to the screen courtesy of B-Movie icon Bert I. Gordon. Food of the Gods was Gordon’s quasi-return to what we often consider to be the iconic B-Movie style. Having made Necromancy, a rather grim film starring Orson Welles and the crime-thriller The Mad Bomber one year later in 1973, Food of the Gods was more akin to the kinds of films that he made his name on, films like The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. the Spider, and Village of the Giants. It was also Gordon’s first film back at American International Pictures, after having disbanded from the company over a fiscal disagreement on Earth vs. the Spider.
The film is somewhat paint-by-numbers but, informed by Wells’ source material, offers up a rather timely and universal message about the effects of man’s unchecked experimentation of the environment. By removing the plot point of man’s creation of the “food of the gods,” a scientific experiment in Wells’ book, it could be argued that as a reaction to man’s impact on the earth the substance has formed naturally. This gives the film a quasi-supernatural element, while also planting it firmly in the nature attacks subgenre. Further, it could be said that the substance is the response to global pollution, akin to many readings on Godzilla and nuclear power. Either way you look at it, Gordon’s film honors Wells work while also — intentionally or not — opening up new ways of looking at the basic premise.
While the decision may have been forced on them by MGM, I am not otherwise sure why Food for the Gods would not be backed with Empire of Ants. For one, both films are sourced from stories by HG Wells but they are also both directed by Gordon. It seems that they would make for the perfect double feature. Instead, Food for the Gods is backed with George McCowan’s Frogs. Despite the title, as anyone who has seen it would know, Frogs is not a killer frog picture, all of the film’s swamp-dwelling creatures serve as a potential threat in this charming but goofy movie. Really the attraction of Frogs, even today, comes from McCowan’s style. This is not a flawless film and many of the tactics are a bit tacky but, nonetheless, it offers up some nice visuals and utilization of the Emerald Coast environment.
Of the four titles released in May, Empire of Ants probably offers up the most cohesive and tight example of B-Horror. Directed a year after Food of the Gods, Empire of Ants shows Gordon at his best. Using rear-projection, Gordon superimposes real-life ants into his narrative. The resulting effect it notably dated but does offer a bit more than just a nostalgic experience. Where Frogs and Food for the Gods give viewers very stripped down nature attack narratives, Empire of Ants has more in terms of plotting, including the humorous pheromone-controlling Queen Ant.
Jaws of Satan — despite its intriguing title — is probably the least enjoyable of the six films. The only theatrical film directed by Bob Claver, Jaws of Satan is kind of stuck somewhere between the cycle of post-Exorcist, post-The Omen satanic films and the wave of nature attacks films, which by 1981 were already slowing down and being replaced by cheap slashers. The plot is fairly simple; an ancient curse pits a town against a demonic snake. While there is a lot of room for innovation in this film, including the sadly underexploited talent of cinematographer Dean Cundey (probably his least impressive work), it is ultimately held back by rather weak direction. It really isn’t surprising that Claver would return to TV and remain there for the rest of his career because, despite a few moments, Jaws of Satan fails to deliver.
“Each year 10,000 tourists visit Ocean Beach. This summer Ocean Beach has attracted SOMETHING ELSE!” In this tagline, which adorned the original posters for Ovidio G. Assonitis’ 1977 creature-feature Tentacles, you can see the intention of the filmmakers…to capitalize on the worldwide success and admiration for Jaws (released just two years earlier). While the film certainly isn’t as an egregious attempt as something like Enzo G. Castellari’s Great White (1981), it doesn’t work hard to hide its homages. Tentacles follows a seaside town turned upside down by the onset, mysterious deaths of many of their citizens — its essentially Jaws but substituting a giant shark for a giant Tentacles. Similar to Assonitis’ more renowned The Visitor, Tentacles is supported with a strong performance by director John Huston. Huston seems to polarize audiences, but he has always had a strong presence on screen. Huston’s finest hour will always be as the evil Noah Cross in Chinatown, but Tentacles allowed Huston to stretch his legs as not only a lead but also as a likeable protagonist.
What both films on this disc — Tentacles and Reptilicus — have in common are their cheap yet enjoyable special effects. Neither film will be bring home awards but they have that sort of weird mix between beauty and eeriness that really work in the films’ favors. Really, the only major complaint that can be hurled as this disc is that Scream Factory was unable to obtain the rights for the Danish cut of Reptilicus. Like Dracula and some of the early Universal Monsters films, Reptilicus was shot for two different languages, once in English and once in Danish, but with nearly the same cast. Unfortunately, the American film was redubbed — quite shoddily although that doesn’t detract too much — and purportedly heavily edited. It would be a treat to see the uncut version on Blu-Ray, but, for now, the American cut will have to do.
Overall, these 3 discs are par for the course when it comes to Scream Factory double features. If you are very particular about transfers and features, these are not always going to be the right match for you. They are more of a novelty release, utilizing the available masters and generally skimpy of the features. For these discs there are photo galleries and trailers for nearly all the discs, but the only commissioned pieces are two new audio commentary tracks with Bert Gordon (for Food of the Gods and Empire of Ants), an interview with Food of the Gods’ Belinda Balaski and Frogs’ Joan Van Ark. With expectations low, the commission of two commentary tracks and interviews really is a nice surprise, but ultimately shouldn’t be either a making or breaking point for the discs.