B-movie filmmaker Bert I. Gordon, who passed away on March 8th at the age of 100 (!), was a creator of giant creatures flicks whose very initials dictated the kinds of projects he’d become most associated with—movies about really big animals, birds, insects, people, etc. Bert I. Gordon was the man behind so many of the wonderfully ridiculous movies I grew up watching on TV as a kid.
These beloved giant creature movies included “King Dinosaur” (1955), “The Cyclops” (1955), “The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957), “War of the Colossal Beast” (1958), “Beginning of the End” (1957), “Earth vs the Spider” (1958), “Village of the Giants” (1965), “Food of the Gods” (1976), and “Empire of the Ants” (1977) were all films featuring giant animals, insects and people, usually achieved with (often crude) matte photography, forced perspective, scale props, and miniature sets.
While Gordon’s giant monster movies (created in a period lasting over two decades) were certainly worthy fodder for the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (the MST3K episodes on the “Colossal” movies and “Village of the Giants” are comic gold), they’re also made with an earnest desire to entertain—something that younger, prepubescent me and my siblings appreciated. Gordon’s movies also stirred our young imaginations; I still remember wondering, for example, exactly how the Colossal Man, Col. Glen Manning (Glen Langdon) took a dump…
The “Colossal…” movies are arguably Gordon’s best-remembered, and while their crude visual effects haven’t dated particularly well, there’s a charming audacity to these movies. The sight of a giant, irradiated bald mutant running amok in a diaper through 1950s Las Vegas is hardly an image to be taken seriously, yet the movie treats it with a deadly earnestness (despite its inanity) that impacts a child’s brain in a uniquely primal way. It’s one step removed from playing make-believe.
These ‘giant’ movies also remind me of how kids often perceive the world—as oversized and threatening, with large angry adults who can (literally or metaphorically) step over you at any time. Granted, children today are far too sophisticated to fall under the spell of these admittedly schlocky, atomic-age, B&W drive-in era flicks, but for kids of my generation watching these films on TV in the 1970s? They did the trick. Effectively entertaining, however goofy.
In 1962, Gordon tried his hand at an all-out fantasy with “The Magic Sword,” arguably his best-made film, with a cast that included Gary Lockwood (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) as a brave young knight rescuing a fair maiden (Anne Helm) from an evil witch (Estelle Winwood, who throws herself into the part). The film features some impressive stop-motion dragon effects, along with some genuinely creepy ghosts, a two-headed man, and other impressive tricks and gimmicks highlighting this colorful little movie.
I vaguely remember watching “The Magic Sword” on TV as a kid, while home sick from school one morning, and I would later catch the MST3K version. Despite some leaden characters and a fairytale by-the-numbers screenplay, the rich color cinematography and cast (including Basil Rathbone) make this little gem worth seeking out for B-movie fans, with or without the MST3K laugh track (the mockery does help to digest the movie’s slower scenes…).
Note: “The Magic Sword” is available on a clean, colorful high-definition Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber, a home video company renowned for excellent restoration work with their catalog of video titles.
“Village of the Giants,” which I first reviewed waaaay back in 2018, was an odd staple movie of my childhood; a ‘giants run amok’ movie fused with the bikinis and music numbers of 1960s beach party flicks. My siblings and I watched it every year, without fail, whenever it aired on local TV stations. The movie starred Beau Bridges (son of Lloyd, brother of Jeff), Joy Harmon (the busty car-washing girl in “Cool Hand Luke”), Ronny Howard (yes, Ron Howard, future director of “Apollo 13,” while he was still costarring on “The Andy Griffith Show”) and former Mousketeer Tommy Kirk, freshly released from his Disney contract at the time.
“Village…” concerns a small town overrun by a group of twentysomething year-old “teenagers” who ingest a mysterious pink paste and grow into 30-ft tall delinquents. Their reign of terror includes dancing in (ridiculously) slow-motion and consuming massive quantities of fried chicken. Aimed primarily for teens, the movie features tons of big bouncing boobs and giant gyrating heinies stuffed into makeshift bikinis—all of which served to make many young boys’ voices change, no doubt. With “Village…”, Gordon combined the giant monster and teensploitation genres into an hour and 22 minute package (though it sometimes feels considerably longer, especially during the interminable dance numbers…).
Note: Kino Lorber also released a dazzlingly remastered Blu-Ray of this otherwise silly drive-in flick that makes it look far better than I ever remember from seeing it on TV.
In addition to the Wisconsin-born moviemaker’s ‘big’ movies, he also made a few creepy/camp ghost story/murder-mysteries, such as “Tormented” (1960), and “Picture Mommie Dead” (1966).
“Tormented” is a campy, B&W ghost-story/murder-mystery which stars Richard Carlson as a blackmailed jazz pianist named Tom Stewart, who allows his seductive mistress Vi (Juli Redding) to fall to her death from atop an old lighthouse. This incident happens right before Tom’s big island wedding to his loving, but clueless fiancée Meg (Lugene Sanders). Susan Gordon (director Bert’s little girl) plays Meg’s kid sister who overhears Tom talking to the spirit of his dead lover in a haunted lighthouse. As Vi’s talking-head ghost threatens to crash Tom’s wedding, much mayhem ensues. Like many of Gordon’s movies, this one is best enjoyed today with MST3K commentary.
I remember “Picture Mommie Dead” quite vividly, as my sisters and I used to love the film, which starred Don Ameche (“Cocoon”), Zsa Zsa Gabor (one of the Gabor sisters), and Gordon’s daughter, Susan (now in a starring role) plays the anguished teenaged protagonist who struggles to cope after her widower father (Ameche) marries a greedy gold-digger (Martha Hyer) with designs on daddy’s money. Those plans are foiled partly with the aid of Gabor’s ghost.
“Picture…” is primarily told from its young protagonist’s perspective, which made it very relatable for kids. Every wicked stepmother cliche, subtle and overt, is thrown into the mix, and young Susan Gordon does an effective job of conveying her character’s feverish mental state. So help me, I can still hear the lyrics from the movie’s creepy little ditty, sung by Gordon herself, as the family estate goes up in flames; “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…”
For young horror fans like myself, these spooky (now silly) murder mysteries with supernatural elements were crude precursors to a later wave of 1970s supernatural anthology TV shows, like Rod Serling’s “The Night Gallery” (1971-1973), “The Sixth Sense” (1972), or “Circle of Fear” (1972). Gordon’s variety of genres reminds me of a more successful Ed Wood, who also tackled many genres (albeit less successfully), from westerns, to horror to X-rated monster movies.
Remaining active as a filmmaker and writer until 2014, Gordon would also take a stab at softcore sex comedies as well, with “How to Succeed With Sex” (1970), “Let’s Do It!” (1982), and “The Big Bet” (1990). None of these comedies ever crossed my personal radar (and still haven’t), but they illustrate how Gordon had a knack for tapping into the current zeitgeist, as teen sex comedies were all the rage in the 1980s, when I was in high school.
While the late “Mr. B.I.G” may not make any best directors’ lists or win any posthumous Oscars, he’ll always be remembered for the deep impressions his giant monster and supernatural murder-mystery flicks made on my siblings and I, huddled in front of our family’s 25” Zenith TV back in the 1970s. Gordon’s movies made manifest some truly surreal images seemingly pulled straight from my prepubescent imagination.
For the cheesy childhood memories and the adulthood laughs, I’m grateful.
Bert I. Gordon, 1922-2032