Sweet little old Mrs. Skinner (Ida Lupino), soft-spoken and dressed like a park ranger, has gone and done a terrible thing. It seems that she, along with her coot of a husband, has taken the toxic sludge from a nearby spring, mixed it with feed, and produced giant chickens. As big as elephants, they are. And why not? As she states, “The good lord give it to us to do as we please.” Riches and fame would follow, and world hunger would be solved. A noble goal, perhaps, but grandma is also quite literally fucking insane. While Jesus might want her to send massive farm animals to Africa and the like, the law of unintended consequences – combined with a religious fervor that guarantees maximum worldwide damage – means that her precious food (helpfully labeled in jars as “F.O.T.G.” in case you’re watching the movie with your retarded brother) will also be consumed by the surrounding forest’s unholy beasts, all but ensuring the horrible deaths of innocent bystanders. Leave it to schlock king Bert I. Gordon to take the reigns of this one, sending forth rats and wasps in what the opening credits charmingly state is “based on a portion of a novel by H.G. Wells.” Perhaps the portion he left in the wastebasket.
Given the danger ahead, we know full well that a hero will rise. That man is Morgan, played with gusto, bravado, and full-tilt machismo by the 70s’ definition of charisma, Marjoe Gortner. Full disclosure: in addition to his memorable roles on T.J. Hooker, Hotel, and Falcon Crest, Marjoe is famous for being, at the age of four, the World’s Youngest Ordained Minister. He even had a 1972 documentary made about him. But it is here, among giant stuffed rats and rubber wasps, that he set his footprints in the concrete of lasting legend. When we first meet Morgan, he is a top football star, playing – I think – for the San Francisco 49ers, though I don’t remember Candlestick Park ever being under a thick blanket of snow while tucked against a mountain range. No matter, as this gridiron great needs a rest – coach’s orders – and where better to relax than an island paradise in British Columbia? But Morgan is a nervous man. As his voiceover tells us, the world is going to hell. “My father told me, enjoy some of the open spaces that man hasn’t destroyed with his technology…..One of these days, nature’s gonna get even.” Even more shockingly, dear old dad left him with the comforting thought: “It’s gonna be one hell of a rebellion.” Man’s survival, needless to say, is very much in doubt.
So as Morgan embarks on an island hunting trip with his teammate Davis (a bloated, middle-age type that could only play pro football in a B-movie), trouble looms. Dogs bark, horses snort, and before we can get comfortable, Davis is savagely attacked by a dozen giant wasps. When found, Davis is puffed up like an overcooked goose, and his lips and face are cracked and blue. Morgan goes for help, and quickly finds the aforementioned Mrs. Skinner, who peers out the window like the paranoid monster she is. Morgan sneaks into the barn, is swiftly pecked by Skinner’s prized poultry, but survives thanks to a handy rake. He’s outraged. “Where the hell did you get those goddamn chickens!”, he roars, leading the aging nutburger to reveal her secret. Only she too is concerned, as her dream has been dashed by the rats who got at her sordid mix of cornmeal and nuclear death. It is here that she shows Morgan the F.O.T.G. jars, which she intends to sell to a greedy business type, who right then makes his appearance. That man is Jack Bensington, played by a nasty Ralph Meeker as if commanded to bring down capitalism by his performance alone.
Meanwhile, Mr. Skinner, on his way back home to meet Bensington, encounters a pack of rats, who quickly tear grandpa to pieces. While the close-ups are frantic and disjointed, I assume to hide the fact that the actors are being asked to panic in the face of stuffed rat heads on sticks, the long shots are in fact the real deal; actual vermin crawling about on Matchbox cars, munching away with pure delight. After the rain stops, the roadside is littered with Skinner’s foot, forearm, and trunk, with yards of bloody entrails to complete the excitement. No man deserved it more, it would seem. But that damned Jack, impatient to close the deal to make himself a fortune, will not pause for tragedy. Accompanied by Lorna, a striking research scientist on hand solely to call her partner a selfish bastard, Jack is taken to the bubbling spring by Mrs. Skinner. As he collects the goop, he cries, “You know what this stuff is worth? You could use $100 bills as toilet paper!” We know, famous last words, but for now, he will stuff his trunk with all his stubby little hands can carry. Only Morgan is back from burying his friend. And Lorna likes what she sees.
Right then, more wasps attack, and Morgan shoots them down like a man possessed. Few stars of the reckless decade have had more (and better) teeth, and they are bared with all the rage of a lion provoked. Lorna’s libido now released, she ambles up to this great man, remarking, “You don’t like women around when you do your thing.” “What’s my thing?” he asks. Half demented by lust, she whispers, ”Facing danger.” She’s all but impregnated by his final glance. For now, though, she will wait behind while Morgan and his buddy Brian go back to rescue Thomas and Rita, that charming couple who thought it was a good idea to go camping with the little woman hours from giving birth. Their motor home engulfed by rats, they are in fact brought to safety. Within seconds, Rita is moaning from pain, and Lorna inexplicably announces that she just might die. No matter, as Jack continues to relish his new found wealth. “I’ll feed the world with giant chickens, cows, ducks, and who knows what else!” How he might accomplish this feat with what amounts to a few mason jars of slop is beyond me, but I doubt it’s beyond the filmmaker. As always, I’ll trust any man who can make a movie where Joan Collins is a sugar slave for an ant colony.
As the rats keep coming, Morgan hatches plan after plan to kill the bastards. First, he electrifies a fence to drive them into the water. He’s no dumb jock, this one, as he knows their unnatural weight will ensure that they sink like stones. Some die in this manner, but not nearly enough. Curiously, the rats seem led by the lone white one, who guides them from the lake to the Skinner home. If it’s a last stand you want, that’s what you’ll get. As Morgan bears down with Molotov cocktail and dynamite preparation, Lorna lays it all out there. “I want you to make love to me,” she states, all while Morgan handles gasoline and gun powder. “It’s crazy, isn’t it, at a time like this.” Not at all, sweetheart, given the object of your desires. No time for love, though, as everyone in the house not ready for bloodshed contemplates death. As tender music plays on the soundtrack, pregnant Rita talks about her mortal obsessions. At the end of the day, she weeps and curses in turn, how could one know it would all end being eaten by rats? Only fools and scoundrels kept this scene from being part of the Oscar reel for the young actress.
And so a baby is born, Mrs. Skinner is gnawed to death on a pile of her peaches, and Morgan heads out with Thomas to blow up the dam. Two small sticks of dynamite should be enough, and they’re off! Everyone climbs to the roof as the water rushes forth, drowning every rat not blown apart by Morgan’s shotgun. As expected, the white rat is the last to die. A good five minutes are devoted to the Biblical flood, where rats are suffering, screaming, and falling lifeless to the bottom of the newly created lake. At this point, I couldn’t help but wonder if actual rats were harmed during filming. When they’re shot, the wounds look pretty damn real, and it would be difficult with 1976 technology to send stuffed animals to their watery doom. PETA wasn’t a force back in those salad days of the disaster pic, but even a plague survivor would be hard-pressed to agree that killing hundreds of rats for some drive-in feature could ever be worth it. Unless of course you also actually killed Ida Lupino.
So what gives? The source of the poisonous paste is never identified, and while the entrepreneur is a prick, is it as simple as hammering a greedy America? And those final images, where some of the F.O.T.G. is carried downstream to waiting cows, who are then milked, with that delicious dairy product eventually making its way to thirsty school children? Warning bells in the night? Maybe, but Mrs. Skinner was too much like Lady Bird Johnson for me to dismiss her outright. And why did she keep talking about her husband, who was trying to save the world? Exactly. This Bert Gordon toss-off is no less than a rumination on the Great Society itself, where the well-intentioned sent free food and services to the poor brown masses, only to have them riot and revolt in thankless despair. Gordon would not, of course, be the first filmmaker to equate a despised minority with rats, but he would be the lone voice in the wilderness to suggest drowning as the preferred method of destruction.
All liberal ideas, Gordon believes, lead to violence, and unless there’s a handsome white man, armed to the teeth, ready to save the day, all is lost. Hopelessly, painfully lost. Is Morgan Nixon? Not quite, but he does strike a George Wallace pose, even if by 1976 poor GW was paralyzed and out of presidential politics. And that white rat, the relentless little bugger who seemingly led the parade of madness? Meet Bobby Kennedy, friends, with a rat demise much like the real deal. And that massive rat bonfire, the flames reaching the threatening sky, is Watts and Newark and Detroit in turn, the heat from which would singe a generation with its humbling, cynical anger. The food of the gods, then, those crates of government cheese and community action program bureaucrats, would be reconstituted as seeds for a new revolution, with Ronald Wilson Reagan waiting in the wings.
THE OFFICIAL STORY
Reckless old couple feed pollution to farm animals, leading to a particularly bloody day of wrath.
The War on Poverty was, in fact, a war on truth, justice, and the American Way. And handsome white people with great fucking hair.
LEGENDARY ACTING TALENT SLUMMING FOR DOLLARS
Ida Lupino, we hardly knew ye. No, really, Ida, what the fuck did you ever do?
HUMAN DEATH WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION
The legend of Mr. Skinner lives on, even if only his foot remains behind.
DOES A LOCAL ECCENTRIC SOUND THE ALARM BELL?
Mr. and Mrs. Skinner, eyes ever heavenward, “knew” this shit would happen, but the cow done left the barn, now hasn’t it?
WHAT ABOUT DISBELIEVING LAW ENFORCEMENT?
Not a cop to be found. Typical, since this is white people defending their home against the poor and brown.
AND OUR CREATURES?
The wasps were mere black splotches projected on the screen, so they had little impact. The giant chicken was fairly awesome, but real rats? Someone had a few extra dollars in the budget.