‘Gnaw: Food of the Gods II’ Is B-Movie Perfection and Creature Feature Fun [Horrors Elsewhere]

The wrath of rats on film essentially began with 1959’s The Killer Shrews, but more unambiguous depictions first cropped up in the ‘70s. This included Bert I. Gordon’s 1976 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ 1904 book, The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth. Food of the Gods was financially successful by AIP’s standards, although critical opinion was by and large negative. Roger Ebert dished out a 1-star rating, and Gene Siskel called the film’s special effects “rotten” and the script “laughable.” Any small demand for a follow-up was only met when production began on an even schlockier sequel in 1988.

Damian Lee’s continuation has little to do with Wells’ book or Gordon’s film. In fact, the only enlarged critter to make it to the sequel is the rat. Completely shot in Ontario, Canada but set in New York based on a conspicuous license plate, Gnaw: Food of the Gods II primarily takes place at a university during winter. The campus, really York University in North York, Toronto, is under fire by animal rights activists. The main target is Edmund Delhurst (Colin Fox, Murder by Phone), a scientist who is misusing grant money to cure male pattern baldness rather than cancer, as he originally proposed. In place of a beard of evil, Delhurst’s furtive wickedness is denoted by his lousy toupée.

Meanwhile, the sequel’s main character, a spectacled and rather beefy Dr. Neil Hamilton (Paul Coufos), is strictly all about the plants. That is until he gets a call from a colleague, Dr. Travis (Jackie Burroughs, Willard). Her patient, a boy named Bobby (Sean Mitchell), is now 12 feet tall and swearing like a pirate after his parents okayed an experimental growth hormone. Travis then asks Hamilton to help her reverse the process. This is where the real trouble — and more importantly, the fun — starts.

The creature-feature element is underway once Dr. Hamilton’s hunt for Bobby’s antidote requires finding lab rats he is not so attached to; his beloved white rat Louise is off the table. The resident animal activists, led by Réal Andrews, catch wind of the experiment and break in one night, minus Hamilton’s double-agent girlfriend, Alex (Lisa Schrange, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II). Their attempt to document and liberate only ends with someone’s face becoming a chew toy for a 20-pound rat, and all the voracious rodents escaping.

As is always the case in these kinds of films, a growing body count is not enough for the authorities to do anything other than look the other way or think of how their money will be affected. Dean White (David B. Nichols) is not about to jeopardize the unveiling of a new pool in several days, even if that means permitting some man-eating rats on his campus. He channels the mayor of Jaws and requests this matter be kept under the radar. Then there is the other ostensible human villain; the previously mentioned Dr. Delhurst is making good on his veiled threat when Dr. Hamilton refused to help him after the activists destroyed his own lab. Delhurst’s theft of Hamilton’s serum does not go unpunished in the film’s one scene of human body horror. In putrid fashion, Fox’s character is reduced to virtually nothing after succumbing to multiple tumors within a matter of minutes.

This film being set in college as well as made in the ‘80s, Gnaw naturally throws in sex to punch up the material. Coufos and Schrange’s lovemaking is awkward, and having Louise the white rat as a spectator to said session was a weird and suggestive choice. One of Hamilton’s groupies, a student named Mary Anne (Kimberly Dickson), is then involved in two lusty scenes. The first has her partner Carlos (Eduardo Castillo) getting more than a love bite on his rump after a nightly roll in the bushes. However, the strangest and most memorable of all these sequences has to be Dr. Hamilton’s serum-induced wet dream about Mary Anne. He suddenly grows in size — in more ways than one — during their bizarre encounter.

If Gnaw has anything going for it, it is the visual effects. Delhurst’s previously mentioned body meltdown is a gooey delight, accentuated with popping pustules and oozing orifices. Colin Fox delivers a campy and visceral performance as he deteriorates in real time. The tricks used to make the rats and Bobby appear big are convincing enough, although the prop for Bobby’s humongous hand at the end is as comical as it is rubbery. Giant rat models are brought in for those up close and personal attacks; limiting them to quick shots is for the best. And lastly, the inevitable massacre at the pool opening should have been the film’s pièce de résistance, but most of the action comes from the poolside humans panicking — a random man grabs a gun and starts firing into the crowd, completely missing the rats — rather than actually getting devoured by the jumbo vermin. Nevertheless, the scale work at the pool and in the subsequent extermination scene is solid, all things considered.

As positively junky and sleazy as Gnaw: Food of the Gods II is, it is also immensely fun. The dead-serious tone clashes with the film’s fundamentally preposterous nature, and the audience laughs when the actors themselves cannot. The story gets odder with every passing minute, and the overall execution is bewildering. Even after all the skewering, this sequel still manages to outdo the original in some respects. How it goes about doing so would never be accepted as “good” in critic circles, but among B-movie fans, Gnaw is a treasure trove of absurdity and mindless entertainment.

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

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