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5 Films That Helped Make the Eco-Horror Craze an Unmistakable Part of the 1970s



5 Films That Helped Make the Eco-Horror Craze an Unmistakable Part of the 1970s

Anyone who lived through the 1970s know what a weird time it was in American popular culture. Bizarre fashions and trends became all the rage, defying all precepts of logic and good sense. Bellbottom jeans (which I always hated but was forced to wear by my mother!), ridiculously long (and often unwashed) hair for men, polyester suits, and interior home designs featuring the gaudiest of patterns somehow became accepted to the point of being mainstream. We look back now with humor (and some shock) wondering how we could have fooled ourselves into thinking that any of this was attractive or tasteful. But somehow we did.

The genre of horror did not avoid the wildness of 1970s culture. One of the movie trends that took hold was something called eco-horror, or ecological horror. In these films, elements of nature attacked humanity, for a myriad of reasons—pollution, toxins, nuclear waste, toxins, and strange serums. In a way, eco-horror was nothing new. We saw it in the 1950s, when Godzilla began his reign of terror on Japan, giant-sized ants invaded the southwest in Them!, and the fictional Rhedoaurus came to town due to atomic bomb testing in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. The trend dissipated in the 1960s, with the exception of Alfred Hitchcock unleashing The Birds on theatergoers, who were left to ponder why millions of birds would simultaneously attack people throughout the world.

In the 1970s, an onslaught of oversized animals and insects, suddenly violent arachnids, and other forms of rebellious wildlife turned angry and-in some cases, decided to exact vengeance against unsuspecting humans. These films, which seemed to be churned out on annual basis, all conveyed a sense that the apocalypse was upon us. Some of the films were patently ridiculous, like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, while others, like 1978’s Piranha, were rather terrifying and made us wonder whether such catastrophic episodes could happen in real life. Still other movies, like The Swarm, fed into phobias that some people harbored about some aspects of nature, like bees and the painful stings they inflicted.

While more than a dozen films from the 1970s could be classified as eco-horror, five in particular have become favorites of mine. None of them are great films, and we might have to strain to classify any of them as truly good, but they all made an impression on me in the 1970s and continue to provide some guilty pleasure all these years later.

Let’s take a closer look at five films that helped make eco-horror an unmistakable part of 1970s horror culture:

5. Frogs (March 1972):

Frogs 1972

When Frogs debuted on March 10, 1972, it marked the unofficial beginning of the decade’s full-blown ecological horror trend. Not only was it the first, but it was also one of the more ridiculous of the eco-horror movies. And yet, even with its shortcomings, it is a film that finds a way to entertain us, in part through its unintended comedy.

Frogs has a rather nonsensical premise: frogs and many other forms of wildlife are rising up and rebelling against humans as some kind of vengeance against the use of pesticides and the increasing levels of pollution. With some exceptions (like tigers and chimpanzees), the idea of planned and premeditated animal revenge—which perhaps foreshadows the vengeful shark in the awful 1987 film, Jaws: The Revenge—is generally a silly notion, but in the imagined world of horror, it seems slightly more feasible.

The director of Frogs, George McCowan, deserves credit for trying to be as authentic as possible. Rather than rely on special effects or robotic animals, McCowan used actual wildlife during the filming. In the beginning stages of the production, he reportedly collected a total of 500 frogs and 100 toads, but a number of them escaped during the filming! That forced him to turn to other animals, including a variety of reptiles, birds, and insects. And despite the film’s title, we do not see a single frog actually attack anyone during the movie (though it is implied that a major frog bombardment will take place at the conclusion).

One of the strengths of Frogs is its cast: the venerable Ray Milland, who made some odd movie choices in the latter stages of his career, is top-billed as Jason Crockett, a retired millionaire who has become an angry old man, one who is impatient with the inconveniences of nature. In celebration of his midsummer birthday party, he invites friends and family to his island estate, only to have the weekend festivities interrupted by animal attacks that result in tragic deaths. A very young Sam Elliott, without his trademark mustache, also intrudes on the proceedings as a nature photojournalist working on a magazine layout highlighting the effects of pollution on the landscape. And then there is Joan Van Ark, who plays Crockett’s daughter and Elliott’s potential love interest.

The quality of the acting, along with a decent level of suspense, sustains viewer interest, especially during the times when the accidental comedy falls off. The outdoor cinematography is also beautifully done. As ludicrous as many of the death scenes are, with the victims incompetently flailing around as they attempt to fend off attacks from less-than-frightening creatures, Frogs apparently made enough of an impression to convince other directors to dip into eco-horror. For that reason, we can call Frogs a trendsetting film. Not a great film, or even a good one, mind you, but significant enough to initiate a new phase in 1970s horror.

4. Night of the Lepus (October 1972):

Night of the Lepus 1972

Only seven months after Frogs made its debut, Night of the Lepus tried to consolidate ecological horror into one form of lethal animal: giant killer rabbits. We don’t normally think of rabbits as ferocious murdering machines, even in overgrown form. Of course, when the giant rabbits don’t seem very realistic on the big screen, the effect is rather comical.

Here’s the premise of Night of the Lepus. Arizona rancher Cole Hillman (played by Rory Calhoun) becomes frustrated with mongrel rabbits that are wreaking havoc on his livestock. In order to stem the tide, Hillman seeks the help of a zoologist (Stuart Whitman), who recommends injecting the rabbits with mutated blood that will stop them from reproducing. Instead, the mutated blood has an unintended effect: it turns the rabbits into the size of horses, cattle, and even small buildings, coupled with a sudden desire to destroy everything in their path.

Like Frogs, Night of the Lepus actually features a good cast. In addition to accomplished veterans like Calhoun and Whitman, horror legend Janet Leigh and “Star Trek” favorite DeForest Kelley also take on starring roles. For the most part, they agreed to do the film because it represented a solid payday. As Leigh once said, “I’ve forgotten as much as I could about that picture.” Leigh also refused to allow her daughter, a 13-year old wunderkind named Jamie Lee Curtis, to make an appearance in the film. Six years later, Jamie Lee would made her film debut in a far better picture, John Carpenter’s classic, Halloween.

Leigh, Kelley, Whitman, and Calhoun do their best with the preposterous material, making it at least watchable. Of only the special effects could have been as good as the cast. The “giant” rabbits were actually normal-sized rabbits that were filmed while prowling around miniature sets. For some scenes, ketchup was smeared onto the faces of the rabbits in order to simulate blood! None of this proved very effective in creating the illusion of monstrous rabbits that could legitimately strike fear into the hearts of viewers.

Not surprisingly, Night of the Lepus struggled during its box office run. Bad reviews and unfavorable word of mouth didn’t help. The poor ticket sales may have also been caused by the film’s creative, but odd title. The word “lepus” is Latin for “hare” or “rabbit,” a translation that might have eluded many viewers. The producers, deciding to use the Latin word so as to disguise the true nature of the monsters in the film, feared that viewers might not come out if they knew that rabbits were filling the role of killers. As it turned out, the mystery of the title didn’t bring the fans out either, instead making the situation more confusing.

If you like your horror with humor, give Night of the Lepus a look. Let’s call it the poor man’s version of Frogs, which is damning with the faintest praise imaginable. But it’s still a hoot.

3. The Food of the Gods (1976):

The Food of the Gods 1976

The eco-horror craze made perfect sense for a director like Bert I. Gordon, who specialized in creating oversized monsters like the ones in The Amazing Colossal Man and The Cyclops. Gordon continued the trend of king-sized villains in 1976, when The Food of the Gods made its theatrical premiere.

I have vivid and fond memories of The Food of the Gods. I first saw the movie in the late 1970s on The 4:30 Movie, a local showcase that aired on weekday afternoons in the New York City market and often featured cheaply made horror and sci-films from the worlds of Godzilla and King Kong. As kids, my friends and I loved the hokiness of The Food of the Gods.

The movie takes place on a Canadian island, where a group of friends have gathered for a weekend of hunting. But shortly after their arrival, they notice that some of the animals have grown to the size of small buildings, including chickens, roosters, wasps, and an army of enormous and hungry rats! (An elderly couple on the island is feeding the animals a special food that makes them grow to incredible proportions.) The story is a classic case of table turning: the friends have come to hunt for animals as a matter of sport, but it is the giant rats and chickens who are hunting them! Oh my.

Based on the H.G. Wells novel of the same name and part of a cycle of films from American International Pictures, The Food of the Gods stacks up well as another ridiculous film in the vein of Frogs and Night of the Lepus. But it has more charm than its predecessors. The special effects are decent for the era, and there is plenty of action. The film became a success for AIP, bringing in more money than any of its other offerings in 1976.

The cast is also very 1970s. Marjoe Gortner, a former child evangelist who made his way to Hollywood, stars as Morgan, the heroic leader of the overmatched group. Gortner has become a forgotten figure now, but at one time was somewhat of a B-movie action star. With his wild and curly hair and lean build, Gortner had the kind of athleticism and charisma that made him well-suited for the role of a horror hero. Also appearing is the talented Pamela Franklin, the veteran of Satan’s School for Girls (that’s a story for another day) making her final feature film appearance, and veteran actress Ida Lupino, a respected performer who apparently needed the income provided by The Food of the Gods.

The 1976 film is certainly not high art, but it is enjoyable, and far more entertaining than Frogs and Night of the Lepus, even all these years later. It also brings back some good memories of growing up in the suburbs of New York and spending afternoons watching horror films with friends and neighbors.

And oh, those giant rats.

2. Empire of the Ants (July 1977):

Empire of the Ants 1977

After the success of The Food of the Gods, Bert Gordon dipped into the eco-horror fray once more with Empire of the Ants, another film that became part of American International Pictures’ cycle of works based on stories written by H.G. Wells. Arguably the best of the five movies profiled here, Empire of the Ants stars Joan Collins as a scam artist named Marilyn Fryser who is trying to sell fraudulent real estate packages in the Florida Everglades. Fryser takes a prospective group of buyers on a riding tour of the alleged properties, only to discover that the area is now being infiltrated by enormous ants. (Perhaps the ants didn’t approve of the scam being pulled by Collins.)

I had not seen Empire of the Ants for many years, not since the days of The 4:30 Movie, before rediscovering it on Comet TV over the winter. It is actually much, much better than I remembered. In fact, it’s pretty darned good, with a story that becomes more compelling as the film progresses, introduces some late mystery, and then culminates in a creative conclusion that involves a conspiracy of grand proportions.

A few years ago, I interviewed Gordon about some of his films, including the making of Empire of the Ants. He told me that Joan Collins was difficult to work with, very much a prima donna during the filming. She was reluctant to perform even basic stunt work required of most actors in horror films. But ultimately, as Gordon told me, Collins did what was asked and delivered a good performance as the smarmy real estate saleswoman. Several other well-known actors also appear in Empire of the Ants, including Robert Pine (of “CHIPs” fame) and villainous actor Albert Salmi, who in real life would murder his estranged wife before killing himself in 1990.

The hero of Empire of the Ants is played by a young, forgotten actor named John David Carson. He is quite good and very likeable as the brave Joe Morrison, but Carson did not have a particularly successful career, nor did he have an easy life. Sadly, he would pass away from lymphoma at the age of 57 in 2009.

In contrast to some of the other eco-horror films, Empire of the Ants presents an array of human villains, in addition to the oversized animal monsters, and that adds some depth to the film. After somewhat of a slow start, the action within the movie comes fast and hard, buttressed by special effects that are good for the era.

By no means is Empire of the Ants a classic horror film, but it is the best that eco-horror had to offer during the 1970s. It is entertaining and fun—and those qualities are worth something.

1. Kingdom of the Spiders (November 1977):

Kingdom of the Spiders 1977

A collection of 1970s eco-horror would not be complete without an invasion of deadly spiders, a form of animal that so many people have come to fear. B-movie director John “Bud” Carlos made sure to supply just that with Kingdom of the Spiders, a film starring William Shatner as Arizona veterinarian Rack Hansen. When Hansen realizes that his rural town is located in the direct path of a large group of migrating spiders, he plans a response. But before Hansen can do anything, his town is overrun by the army of venomous spiders, who start appearing everywhere.

Right from the start, the production of Kingdom of the Spiders faced challenges. First off, director Carlos had difficulty finding a female lead because most of the actresses who auditioned harbored a terrible fear of working with spiders. Ultimately, Carlos settled on a young actress named Tiffany Bolling, who would become a favorite among B-movie aficionados in the 1970s. And then there was the matter of the spiders themselves. Carlos wanted to use real spiders, so he set aside $50,000 of the film’s budget to purchase a total of 5,000 tarantulas. And once the tarantulas were secured, they had to be kept warm—and kept in separate containers so as to prevent the creatures from attacking one another.

Carlos also had to convince Shatner to take part in the film. Initially, Shatner balked at the offer, but Carlos made a personal visit to his home and talked the “Star Trek” alumnus into making the picture. Turning on his usual charisma, Shatner puts in a good effort, helping to carry the film as one of the few brand-name actors (along with veteran character actor Woody Strode) in the cast.

Thanks to Shatner, along with the authentic use of real-life spiders, and capable direction from Carlos, Kingdom of the Spiders ranks as one of the better eco-horror films. It is much better than Frogs and Night of the Lepus, and close to being on a par with The Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants. As long as viewers don’t take any of the story all too seriously (a prerequisite with all of these films), Kingdom of the Spiders supplies the kind of old-fashioned fun that only 1970s cinema could provide.

Thanks to this collection of movies, swarming spiders, king-sized ants, an overgrown array of rats, chickens and rabbits, and violent frogs all became stars of horror in the 1970s. As we look back at these monsters, we’re tempted to laugh, just as we chuckle at the bellbottom jeans and the leisure suits we used to wear. But the films of the eco-horror craze all bring with them some fondness, too. These films might not have been classics, but they did provide lots of fun. And they also make us wonder about the possibility of remaking them today, with bigger budgets and better special effects.

Perhaps it’s time for another wave of eco-horror to make its way into theaters.

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