DVD: Gnaw – Foods of the Gods: Part 2 (1989)

April 23, 2018 | By

Film: Good

Transfer: Good

Extras: n/a

Label: Artisan

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released: March 16, 2004

Genre: Horror / Eco-Horror

Synopsis: In this every-so-slight sequel to the 1976 film, university eggheads expose lab rats to a super growth hormone that unleashes the giant rodents on students, professors, and synchronized swimmers!

Special Features: (none)

 


 

Review:

H.G. Wells’ 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth has spawned a trio of works, each of which isn’t especially faithful to the 3-part book. Bert I. Gordon’s Village of the Giants (1965) dealt with mega-teenagers, and he extracted further material for his 1976 stinker The Food of the Gods, but around 1987 Damian Lee took a crack at Wells’ novel, heavily diluting it to a simpler tale that owes more to Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), especially in its overall structure, plus a taste for Troma’s direct-to-video, self-deprecating shockers involving slime, mutants, breasts, and very dumb characters.

While working on a research project at at unnamed American institution, stud ‘plantologist’ Neil Hamilton (Paul Coufos) receives a rather desperate call from his former professor & mentor, Dr. Treger (Jackie Burroughs), asking to find an antidote for a child with a monstrous growth hormone that no only transforms him into a bigger, stronger child, but a rude little fucker.

Neil agrees to take a sample, and within the timespan of a classic music montage, he’s synthesized the hormone to an easily duplicated green goo, and is initially convinced it can be used to yield super-sized food to feed the world, but things go awry when his male lab rats eat the adjacent test mega-tomatoes and escape, now hungry for red meat of a human kind.

Parallel to the storyline is jealous rival Edmond Delhurst (Colin Fox) whose cruel animal research is going nowhere, especially after a band of animal rights activists break into his lab. Instead of freeing the caged creatures, leader Mark (Real Andrews) smashes valuable equipment and destroys all sensitive data, making Delhurst’s tenure at American University X beyond wobbly.

Unbeknownst to Mark, disillusioned co-activist Alex Reed (Lisa Schrage) is dating Neil, while sniveling Delhurst awaits the perfect opportunity to sneak into Neil’s lab and steal the goo data. Things go awry (again) when the mitochondria blossom under the microscope and break the glass slide, infecting Delhurst. Within seconds the badly touped professor oozes milky goo from his facial pores, and perhaps taking a nod from the instant cult classic Street Trash (1987), Lee’s effects team has Delhurst dissolving into bubbling, foaming, bright green muck.

Now, in spite of Delhurst reduced to pustule-bursting, liquified goo, Mark devoured by mega-rats, and horny teens and jocks rudely bitten in their bums and tricked into lethal car crashes on campus, Dean White (David B. Nichols) refuses to acknowledge There Is A Problem, and urges Neil to keep his trap shut so a planned synchronized swimming championship (!) for wealthy donors goes off with out a hitch.

As in Piranha, horny teens and jocks die, and the spawn of man’s evil genetic meddling are (literally) creeping below human perception, heading towards a large social gathering where families are at serious risk of becoming rodent chum. The police are powerless, science is baffled, and university officials who could’ve averted a bloodbath with a simple cancellation just stand back and witness a slaughter and the loss of easy money before they too become chum.

Lee and frequent producing partner David Mitchell (who also served as editor) keep things simple: the science babble is minimal, the bodycount is select but steady, and there is a convergence of allies as the pretty activist teams up with the more practical minded / macho egghead. Neil and and Alex make love while the horny male rats gorge themselves on mutant tomatoes, and before the rodents are eventually executed by gun-crazy coppers, the expanse of the campus underbelly is shown via sprawling service and creepy pedestrian tunnels, plus attached sewers that enable the mega-rats to travel fast and quiet.

SPOILER ALERT

 

The big munch-out naturally happens just as the synchronized swimmers are halfway through their interpretation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (synth-style), and like the finale of Piranha, a conservative mass of humans are killed & maimed, and deeply upset survivors are forced to flee until the rodents have landed in a courtyard that’s strategically advantageous to the police, now assembled en mass above with no shortage of firepower and ammo.

There’s a peculiar motif of sexual hunger that bounces between Neil and Alex (ah, earnest love), Neil and a healthy student (realized in a surreal dream state as Neil injects himself with the goo and has sex after aggrandizing significantly), and the female white rat Neil allows to roam freely in the lab. See, Neil’s pet is in heat, and her state of angst is what lures the males to their doom and hers as well, dying as she attempts to wipe out Alex for usurping Neil’s devotion.

The finale actually reverts to the original crisis: the increasingly rude brat kills good Dr. Treger (making extra use of the production’s giant puppet hand), and escapes into the world for the never realized sequel (had one actually been planned).

 

END OF SPOILERS

* * *

Damien Lee’s knack for action ensures Gnaw has fast pacing, and he doesn’t shy away from the classic blend of sex, violence, and gore; Gnaw has its share of grievous trauma, but the best bits are the most elegant, such as Dean White’s head and appendages slowly drifting to the pool’s bottom. Neither the director, writers, nor actors took this nonsense seriously, but perhaps the leading reason why Lee’s second feature film is overwhelming poo-pooed by critics lies in the video transfer which no one’s attempted to upgrade since its release to pay & cable stations, and home video.

Prior to Synapse’s beautiful widescreen HD release of another CanCon shocker, Curtains (1983), all TV and video sources stemmed from an old, old open matte transfer that showed areas never meant to be seen – the top and bottom of the frame. With the mic boom bobbing in several shots, Curtains looked like it was directed by a moron instead of a noted cinematographer who had to wait 30 years until the details, colour saturation, and proper widescreen composition of his film could be seen, appreciated, and deservedly applauded by genre fans.

Like Curtains, Gnaw makes no bones about what it is – in this case, an exploitation eco-thriller – but the inherent flaws of the film (especially bouts of stiff, stilted, and outright bad acting) and genuine continuity gaffes are overshadowed by an identical open matte video transfer that makes Lee look like an even bigger moron, which he’s not.

The lighting is classic 1980s – a heavy reliance on blue gels for night scenes and eerie tunnel shots, and pinks and red for sex and surreal sequences – but the actual camerawork is quite solid, with cinematographer / operator Curtis Petersen doing fine work in fast follows and action scenes; a frenetic follow-up as Dean White is chased to the diving platform features great handheld work. (Gnaw was Petersen’s second film as full cinematographer, and his subsequent credits includes action CanCon classics Abraxas, Tiger Claws, Death Wish V, and No Contest for Prom Night‘s Paul Lynch.)

The video transfer is adequate in terms of colour and detail, but the telecine’s circuitry had bad capacitors, causing visible vertical noise lines to bleed loudly from the frame’s left.

Sample shot of bad caps affecting frame left, followed by a close-up:

 

Sample shot of home video footage with its bad caps more egregiously affecting frame left with bolder vertical lines:

 

When comparing the open matte 4×3 shots with proper 16×9 / 1.85:1 matting, you can see the mic boom and its shadow are gone:

 

And in this shot, the mic boom and vignetting (dark curves from the lens housing) at the upper frame corners are also gone:

 

And more importantly, the special effects technician’s hands operating the pneumatic goo at the lower left frame is wholly gone in the matted widescreen shot, as intended:

 

But there are some gaffes. Real Andrews’ hair changes in the following shots from a long mop-top in the opening protest scene to a full haircut in the lab break-in & smash-up, and flips back to the mop-top when Mark is scolded in Dean White’s office:

 

But most bizarrely, a bank of strategically placed floodlights grafted onto the lab’s upper cabinets are clearly visible in the unmatted and subsequent widescreen shots of Coufos. The error recalls the equally huge gaffe in The Return of Count Yorga (1971) when several shots covering the actors running around a dining table contain light stands:

 

The film has reportedly never been released in a widescreen edition, and perhaps being partially owned by ostensibly defunct Carolco, chances of any special edition seem slim. Of course the immediate question is Why even bother with a Special Edition Blu-ray?

Among the numerous indie-made exploitation and intended-for-video productions of the period, Gnaw is among the more polished (for Christ’s sake, the special effects are often better than Gordon’s 1976 film), but it’s reputation has never risen above CanCon crap, and Lee isn’t regarded as a filmmaker who fully broke free from exploitation fodder and established a lauded career. After years churning out trailers and films for Roger Corman, Joe Dante hit studio big time with Gremlins (1984) and Innerspace (1987); and fellow Corman graduate Jonathan Demme earned an Oscar win for Silence of the Lambs (1991) and directed Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia (1993) after starting out with the women in prison entry Caged Heat (1974).

As producer-director, Lee’s worked with Canadian & American talent and funding sources and has a substantive filmography, but his early work (including 1990’s Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe) exists in older video & broadcast transfers, and Gnaw isn’t a cult film, so it’s kind of forgotten except for CanCon connoisseurs, and myself, but for very peculiar reasons.

When I started film school at York University in the fall of 1987, we were told a movie had just been shot on campus, and sure enough, the film did eventually get released. Copyrighted in 1988, it was released the following year in the U.S., and its Canadian premiere didn’t happen until 1990, after which came home video and Pay TV (which in Canada has to favour local production to keep that CanCon ratio high). You can therefore argue that Gnaw may well have been your classic tax shelter production that was instantly kicked onto the street to fend for itself after fulfilling the fiduciary purposes for its investors, and remains an orphan film bereft of love.

Shot before York’s extensive campus makeover and the addition of larger buildings designed to hide the original Brutalist architecture, Lee’s film is also a snapshot of the core campus with the Ross Building as its anchor for the aforementioned student protest scene, many night scenes, a car crash, coed whoopee in the bushes, and the area between the Ross and the library, including the sunken courtyard where the mega-rats are slaughtered by the police.

Also seen is the central square where terrified aquatic fans flee, and more interestingly, underground tunnels, including utility and mural & graffiti-drenched student tunnels of which many of the latter were closed because 1) they were creepy, 2) students were assaulted, and in one case 3) reportedly stabbed or murdered (and subsequently sealed off and / or deemed “prohibited“).

The following frame grabs are divided into shots of the steam / utility tunnels very much off limits to students, and the old pedestrian tunnels, plus images featuring period graffiti:

 

 

Of the younger cast, Coufos had a background in exploitation, appearing in Jim Wynoski’s The Lost Empire (1984) and Chopping Mall (1986), and producer-editor’s David Mitchell’s City of Shadows (1987). Love interest Lisa Schrage had starred in the cult classic Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) and China White (1989), whereas Real Andrews would become a regular on daytime soap General Hospital (1998-2003), and Karen Hines in Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom (1997) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). Also hidden in the cast is Catherine Swing, former Miss Canada 1978, York University grad, and creator & later host of the daytime game show Just Like Mom (1980-1985).

The older roles are stacked with CanCon regulars including scene-stealer Jackie Burroughs (The Grey Fox, TV’s Road to Avonlea), and hugely prolific Colin Fox (TV’s Strange Paradise and Henry’s World), David Nichols (Street Justice, and many TV ads), and prolific Michael Copeman (The Fly, TV’s Filth City) as perpetual gum-chewing Lt. Weizel.

So come on Scream Factory or Arrow Video: give this little orphan some love and give it the deluxe treatment on Blu. It needs a home.

Note: Although the U.S Lions Gate edition reportedly contains English & French dub tracks with English & Spanish subtitle tracks, the Canadian Artisan release (which replicates the sleeve art & text) is bare bones, and does not feature a 2.0 Dolby Surround mix; the audio’s standard English 2.0 mono. A citing in the End Credits of a soundtrack album refers to the closing song by Stephen W. Parsons, who co-composed the music of Gnaw with Dennis Haines. Like the film, a soundtrack album deserves to be released digitally and on vinyl (all the better to embrace the heavy bass licks and synth chords). Parson’s filmography includes the cult films Howling II (1985) and Split Second (1992).

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB —  Composer Filmography

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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