The Creepies And Crawlies Of Summer

Summer is here, complete with hungry and often angry residents of your backyard, garden, local beach or forest making their first appearances of the year. Summer often means bees, mosquitos and the occasional angry horse-fly, but compared to what happens with the bugs of Empire Of The Ants, the snakes of SSSSSSS, Venom and Jaws Of Satan, the rats of Willard and Ben or the oversized critters of Food Of The Gods or Tentacles, just be thankful your can of Raid or a call to the Orkin Man can settle your job. The beasts in these films? Not so easy. A slew of ‘70’s and ‘80’s-era critters-attack movies — some worth preserving in amber, others worth stomping — have recently been buffed to a fine sheen on Blu-Ray by the likes of boutique labels Scream Factory and Blue Underground (Code Red has the underrated William Shatner arachnid-attack drive-in staple Kingdom Of The Spiders out later this summer). Long before computer graphics could stuff sharks into tornados (or unleash a swarm of beetles or rats with the click of a button), filmmakers like Bert I. Gordon dressed dogs as killer rats and turned silly puppets into fearsome insects thanks to quick editing and the knowledge that less is often times more.


The best of the bunch is 1971’s killer-rat opus Willard— which was soon followed by a 1972 sequel, Ben. Willard has a sterling pedigree — helmed by veteran stage/film director Daniel Mann and co-starring Ernest Borgnine and Elsa Lanchester — but it’s a B-movie at heart, a twisted tale of a sad-sack, Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison in an early role that typecast him as a weirdo for some time), who, put upon by his needy mother (Lanchester) and brow-beating boss (a particularly hateful Borgnine), befriends a rat named “Ben,” who becomes his companion— and eventual tool of revenge against those who have wronged him. The movie — leaner and nastier than you might expect — is more effective than the (fairly decent) 2003 remake starring a creepy Crispin Glover because you’re rooting for Davision's Willard through and through— we’ve seen him get dumped on by Borgnine, who’s stolen the family company away from Willard and watch him struggle to maintain a relationship with the pretty Joan (Sondra Locke in an early role) as he finds himself ceding most of his life to Ben and the massive number of rats for whom he cares. When things go south for Willard’s enemies — and Willard himself — it makes for a satisfying if tragic ending.


Ben is more of a mixed bag, with child actor Lee Montgomery befriending Ben, who’s escaped from the mayhem of the previous film, and takes up in the sewers with a few hundred of his pals. Ben is best known for the Michael Jackson theme song and for good reason— the movie, directed by journeyman Phil Karlson (best known for Walking Tall and a couple of Dean Martin “Matt Helm” spy capers), drags badly and showcases a number of shockingly shoddy special effects sequences in the climax, including a shot of flamethrower-wielding cops that’s just a previous bit run backwards! Scream Factory has done a solid job with both films— Willard looks pristine; it may look a bit bright, like a TV movie, but the transfer is perfect. Extras include trailers, radio spots, a still gallery and a revealing interview with Bruce Davison, who’s very proud of the film. Ben, however, is more problematic; Scream Factory was unable to locate the negative or an interpositive and took the transfer off a print, resulting in a grainy and overly-dark image. Extras are strong, however, with a fun interview with Lee Montgomery, now a real-estate agent in Simi Valley, California! Both films were produced by Bing Crosby Productions and this is the first time both of them — neither of which made it to DVD — have been seen in years.

We move from rats to snakes with a trio of disparate films— Sssssss, a ‘70’s horror-TV staple starring Dirk Benedict as a hapless scientist who gets turned into a giant serpent; The Jaws Of Satan, an odd cross between the animal-attack and demonic possession horror subgenres; and Venom, the most effective of the three, where a kidnapping saga is interrupted by the presence of a killer black mamba in the house where Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski (!) are holding a woman hostage. Ssssss, from Scream Factory, is a creepy riff on Freaks, with mad scientist Strother Martin working to turn Benedict, the boyfriend of Martin’s daughter Heather Menzies, into a snake. The film doesn’t hold up as well as one might remember — the climactic transformation is a series of slow dissolves that are less scary than silly-looking — but the makeup by John Chambers and Dan Striepeke (who also produced and wrote the story) is disturbing and effective and Benedict makes for a strong, sympathetic lead. Scream delivers a typically strong transfer— strong enough that you’re easily able to tell where leaves and branches have been painted over Benedict and Menzies’s bodies in a skinny-dipping scene! Extras include interviews with a charming Benedict (whose warts-and-all stories, particularly about executive producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, who would later produce The Sting and Jaws, are hilarious) and Menzies, who largely left the industry after the death of her husband, TV actor Robert Urich.


Venom is a much different picture, a kidnapping thriller made all the more intense by the presence of a deadly black mamba snake where Oliver Reed, Klaus Kinski and Susan George have kidnapped the a young asthmatic boy who’s the heir to a massive fortune— only to get locked in a house with the killer snake as Scotland Yard detective Nicol Williamson surrounds the building. Directed by Piers Haggard of Blood On Satan’s Claw fame (replacing Tobe Hooper), this is an effective and genuinely scary thriller, one of the few creature features where the snake in question is less of a threat than the pulverizing personalities of Reed and Kinski, whose oversized egos, Haggard says in the entertaining commentary, needed constant massaging. The Jaws Of Satan (aka King Cobra), also from 1981, is a different beast altogether, a silly piece about a cobra possessed by Satan himself— and only determined priest Fritz Weaver can stop this monster. Dull and shockingly inept at times — there’s more than one scene in which you can see the camera reflected in the glass protecting it and the actors from the killer snake — this works only because it’s the second half of a much stronger film…


…which is Empire Of The Ants, a crazy giant-bug epic that starts out much in the same way as director-producer Bert I. Gordon’s The Food Of The Gods, released a year earlier— environmental collapse (here, radioactive waste that’s dumped into the Everglades) turns tiny creatures into massive monsters. Here, sleazy real-estate developer Joan Collins (pre-TV’s “Dynasty”) leads a group of clients to a remote island off the coast of Florida— only to run afoul of a nest full of enormous, human-size ants. The giant special-effects ants are great; the other camera tricks — including placing real ants over miniature backgrounds a la Gordon’s 1957 killer-grasshopper epic Beginning Of The End — not so much. Whereas The Food Of The Gods (complete with giant rat and chicken puppets menacing the likes of Marjoe Gortner and Pamela Franklin) leads to an exciting-if-traditional showdown in a cabin, Empire Of The Ants’ third act is so insane that it redeems the up-to-this-point predictable piece. (SPOILER ALERT if you don’t want to know what happens). The Queen Ant secretes a pheromone that has put the residents of a local town under her spell — involving a factory where people are transformed into slaves — allowing the giant ants access to the town’s sugar mill. It’s so unexpected and WTF bizarre — shades of the experimental killer-ant classic Phase IV — that it turns an otherwise merely capable monster mash into something much more unique. Transfers for both are solid, though the extra resolution on Blu-Ray only draws more attention to the shoddiness of some of the optical FX. Extras on both Empire Of The Ants and Food Of The Gods include an audio commentary with Gordon; Food also contains a new interview with actress Belinda (The Howling) Balaski.


The Food Of The Gods is paired with Frogs, a Southern-fried animals-attack movie where the solid cast — ranging from Ray Milland as a crusty family patriarch to a young, mustache-free Sam Elliott as the nature photographer who stumbles across Milland’s island mansion on the eve of his massive birthday party — comes up against nature and all its fury, led by thousands of frogs who invade the property. More a Southern gothic thriller — complete with Milland’s hopelessly dysfunctional family — than the horror show the giant-frog-with-a-human-hand-in-its-mouth one-sheet might lead you to expect, journeyman Canadian director George McGowan eventually amps up the mayhem, with rattlesnakes, leeches, alligators, and snapping turtles added to the mix. Tentacles (which, oddly enough, is the first half of a double-bill that includes the 1962 Danish giant-monster mash Reptilicus), is a passable-but-dull Jaws knock-off featuring a killer octopus menacing boaters in a seaside town. Like Frogs, Tentacles features a stellar cast — including John Huston, Shelley Winters, Bo Hopkins and Henry Fonda — who should have known better (Winters, in particular, is given nothing to do). The movie showcases a few good thrills, but there are only so many close-ups of a normal sized octopus next to a tiny miniature boat that you can handle and the sharp HD transfer does the FX scenes no favors. Frogs features an interview with actress Joan Van Ark and the theatrical trailer, while we get trailers on both Tentacles and Reptilicus.

So brace yourself for the critters of the summer— break out the bug repellent, tuck your pant cuffs in your socks and stay out of the water (or the marsh or the rural cabin or the house belonging to that nervous kid down the road or the snake farm or even all of Denmark). Better yet, stay inside, break out any of these movies and keep your local exterminator on speed dial.

You can purchase Willard directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

You can purchase Ben directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

You can purchase Sssssss directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

You can purchase Venom directly from Blue Underground or from Amazon.

You can purchase The Food Of The Gods/Frogs directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

You can purchase Empire Of The Ants / The Jaws Of Satan directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

You can purchase The Tentacles / Reptilicus directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

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