On 24 September 1922, Bert I Gordon was born. And so, in celebration of his 100th birthday, I thought we would take a look back at his films. Few people know just how varied his work is. Or the fact that his last film was released shortly after his 93rd birthday.
I grew up watching The Amazing Colossal Man. It was right up there with other classics of childhood like Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The House on Haunted Hill. And as I got older, I noticed other similar Gordon films like Beginning of the End. And frankly, I thought of him as a more successful Ray Kellogg. But this is wrong. Gordon is a great filmmaker — on par with people like Samuel Fuller.
Gordon got his start in filmmaking the way a lot of people did — shooting film as a kid and eventually finding himself making industrial films and commercials. But he found his way into low-budget filmmaking and never really left.
Note that Gordon’s film are low-budget, not no-budget. He hasn’t worked a lot with stars but he consistently worked with professional actors. And while budgets for sets and effects were limited, he made maximum use of them.
Bert I Gordon Films Ranked
Let’s look at Mr BIG’s films in chronological order. My rankings are at the bottom.
King Dinosaur was Gordon’s first film as director-producer. His only other experience with feature films was the previous year’s Serpent Island, which he produced. And it was quite an achievement. It was made for just $15,000. Contrast that with Bride of the Monster, which had over four times the budget. But it was a huge hit. Not only that, it started a trend. Suddenly, everyone was making films about giant creatures using optical effects and rear projection.
A new planet has recently taken up residence in our solar system. So we send a rocket with four scientists to check it out. Two are men and two are women because, you know, who else is going to kiss and cook for the men? And on this planet, which looks an awful lot like southern California — including Bronson Caves. But there are giant animals roaming around. No dinosaurs though!
The film itself is pretty boring in a modern context. The huge animal effects, which is what made it successful at the time, just don’t translate today. But the film is well made. The male leads were veteran TV actors. The two female leads didn’t do much else in film, but you’d never know it.
Beginning of the End
This is Gordon’s second feature — the one with the giant grasshoppers. But to give them a nice End of the World feel, they are referred to by their Latin name, locusts. The USDA has a program to grow really big vegetables and accidentally creates really big grasshoppers. The USDA scientist manages to lure them to cold water to drown them using mating calls.
This one is fine with good leads in Peggie Castle (Invasion, USA) and Peter Graves (Airplane). But the plot is well-worn: find giant menace, devise a plan of attack, implement. Basically, it’s the same as King Dinosaur. Some of the effects like the captured grasshopper in the glass cage must have thrilled people at the time. Now, not so much.
With his third feature, The Cyclops, we get what most people expect from Burt I Gordon. A woman brings a small group into remote Mexico to look for her boyfriend who crashed there three years earlier. It turns out that the area is radioactive and all the animals are — What a surprise! — giant. That includes a man with a deformed face. You’ll never guess who he is!
This film upgrades the cast with Gloria Talbott (We’re No Angels), James Craig (The Devil and Daniel Webster), and Lon Chaney Jr (Spider Baby). Sure, we’re back in Griffith Park. And frankly, much of the film looks like so many other films shot there. But Gordon’s screenplay is filled with tension because of each character’s differing goals for the journey.
Because of lack of funds, some of the effects aren’t quite up to snuff. But most work just fine. And this film doesn’t live and die on its effects.
The Amazing Colossal Man
The Amazing Colossal Man was the third feature Bert I Gordon released in 1957. And I think it’s fair to say that it is the film that he will be remembered for. It’s not his best. But it is lots of fun and almost defines this genre of film. It spawned a lot of similar films — many of them wonderful like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
You know the story: Glenn Manning is almost killed during a nuclear test and becomes bald and very very big. It is not at all clear which one is more upsetting. The scientists develop a cure but by that point, Glenn is crazy as a loon.
As usual, Gordon’s effects are very good for their time. The compositing isn’t nearly as obvious as other films that followed. But that’s not why I love this film. I think I most like the fact that Glenn responds to his situation the way I (and most people) would.
Attack of the Puppet People
To start 1958, BIG goes small with this charming film about a doll maker who keeps a collection of living dolls. The film features June Kenney (who stars in Earth vs Spider the same year) and B-movie legend John Agar. But it’s John Hoyt as the evil yet sympathetic doll maker who steals the show. Susan Gordon, Bert’s daughter, plays the little girl.
Most of the effects in this film are quite good (the main issue is a giant rat). It’s probably helped by the fact that most of it is simple compositing. So it looks pretty good even today.
During the date scene, the film being shown is The Amazing Colossal Man. It and Attack of the Puppet People are both featured in the same year’s Earth vs Spider.
War of the Colossal Beast
As sequels go, War of the Colossal Beast isn’t bad. But it suffers from many of the usual problems. The original cast is gone so Glenn’s face has to be disfigured. And his fiancée is also gone and replaced by his sister playing an identical part. But the worst thing about it is that Glenn is now just a “beast” and so none of the original pathos is there.
The effects are solid. And I quite like Glenn picking up the bus. It was actually presented on the poster. But I guess when you have such an awesome scene, you don’t have to make up ideas for the poster!
Earth vs the Spider
To close out 1958, Gordon went back to his roots with giant animals with Earth vs the Spider. In this case, one giant spider. And this one panders a bit to the kids by including two high school students who exist mostly to get trapped so they need to be saved. The hero is the local high school science teacher, which has a wonderful 1950s charm to it.
The main thing that’s interesting here is that BIG managed to get some shots of Carlsbad Caverns, which are integrated with the many scenes of people searching the caves. It seems like Gordon was looking for new things to do because this film marks the end of his early period, although he will come back to this kind of film.
The Boy and the Pirates
Earth vs the Spider might have been for teens, but The Boy and the Pirates is an adventure film for kids. A little boy finds a bottle with a genie in it. He wishes to be on a pirate ship. And poof: he’s on Blackbeard’s ship! But he must return the bottle to where he found it or take over the genie’s place in it.
The film stars Charles Herbert who you will know from many films including 13 Ghosts and The Fly. With him is, again, Susan Gordon. The adult cast play their parts with gusto befitting the genre. The genie is played by BIG regular Joe Turkel who is better known for The Shining and Blade Runner.
After Earth vs the Spider and The Boy and the Pirates, I assume Gordon wanted to make something more adult in nature. The result is, if nothing else, memorable. A jazz musician is getting married. But his ex shows up and tries to blackmail him. She falls to her death and haunts him — most notably with her head floating around the room.
The film works because the main character is sympathetic. He clearly didn’t kill the ex and she is a horrible person. At the same time, the film is more faux adult. Gordon was 38 when he made it but it still comes off as the kind of thing a kid would imagine adult life is like.
Tormented stars Richard Carlson who was a B-movie icon starring in The Magnetic Monster, It Came from Outer Space, and, of course, Creature from the Black Lagoon. Juli Reding plays the ex and Bert’s daughter is back as the soon-to-be step-daughter.
The Magic Sword
The setup for this one is a bit complicated. A kid is adopted by a sorceress. When he’s grown, he falls in love with the king’s daughter. But she is kidnapped by an evil sorcerer. So the boy goes to save her and win her hand in marriage. This results in a battle between the sorceress and the sorcerer.
This is probably BIG’s best film. It’s wonderfully creative and compares very well to the best Ray Harryhausen films. And it features excellent performances by Estelle Winwood (Murder by Death) and Basil Rathbone (The Hound of the Baskervilles).
Village of the Giants
According to the credits, this is based on HG Wells’ The Food of the Gods. If so, many other of his films are too. This is a story of a young Genius (played by Ron Howard) who creates a substance that makes things become giants. Some “teens” from out of town take it and start abusing the others in town. The regular teens fight back and return things to normal.
Village of the Giants has a quirky charm to it. But it is surprisingly talky. It features a lot of good music, but it is used to pad a pretty thin script.
Picture Mommy Dead
BIG’s next film is the closest that he comes to a mainstream film. And it highlights a lot of his craft that tends to get overshadowed by his effects. In particular, his use of camera movement is always really good and it is especially on display here.
Picture Mommy Dead tells the story of a young teen who went crazy after her mother died in a fire. Three years later, she comes home and begins to remember things as her conniving stepmother manipulates her looking for a lost neckless of untold value.
The film features Susan Gordon in her only starring role as far as I know. It also stars Don Ameche and Martha Hyer. Zsa Zsa Gabor has a small role as the dead mother (the daughter hallucinates a lot).
How to Succeed with Sex
This is the first of Bert I Gordon’s sex comedies and probably his best. It features some honestly funny scenes. But overall, it’s not worth the time. Russ Meyer was pretty much always sexier and funnier. But it is interesting to see that the man known for rear projection effects was very good at sex comedies.
How to Succeed with Sex tells the story of a young man who is engaged to be married. But his girlfriend won’t do the sex until they are wed. So he gets a book (where the film gets its title) and tries to get laid. The film features a ridiculous ending.
After his sex comedy, BIG returned to more traditional ground with Necromancy (also The Witching). It’s more traditional horror — with a kind of hippy sensibility that was common in films of that time.
A young couple suffers a stillbirth. After, the guy takes a job at a toy company in a little town. But everyone in the town seems to be part of some cult led by the owner of the company. And it soon becomes clear that they want to kill the woman in some kind of ceremony to bring back the leader’s dead son.
The whole film has an unreliable narrator aspect to it that makes it hard to engage very strongly with the plot. But there are also some fabulous moments in it. And there’s a strong feeling of dread throughout. And it features Orson Welles, of all people, as the cult leader.
The Mad Bomber
In 1973, Gordon made a film in the mold of Dirty Harry, although it doesn’t have a charismatic hero; it has a charismatic villain. The Mad Bomber features Chuck Connors as a man bent on revenge for the death of his junkie daughter. But before we know that about him, he’s just a very intimidating protector of social norms against littering and general rudeness.
The film features Gordon at his most effortless in terms of visual images. But Vince Edwards’ character struggles with a poorly developed character. We just want to see more of Chuck.
The Food of the Gods
BIG’s next film came three years later and again he tried to tie it to HG Wells’ novel, although some prints only claim, “Based on a portion of the novel by…” Regardless, we know what Gordon means: animals eat something that makes them really big.
This one is mostly focused on rats. And that’s a bit of a problem because the fancy rats used are anything but menacing. Or maybe that’s just me because I’m fond of rats. There are other notable creatures, however. In particular, there’s a stunning if silly scene featuring a giant chicken.
The film features quite a good cast with Marjoe Gortner, Pamela Franklin, Ralph Meeker, and Ida Lupino.
Empire of the Ants
It’s hard not to think that Gordon was inspired to make this film based on Phase IV. His addition to the idea was to make the ants big. But even aside from the giant ants, it’s an interesting story about this scamming real estate agent, played by Joan Collins, selling dreams on an island. If you’ve ever sat through a timeshare presentation, you know the type.
What makes this film work is that the ants don’t want to kill the humans. Sure, sometimes they have to. But mostly, they just want to herd them into town and make them work at the sugar refinery. Now that’s brilliant!
I thought the effects were pretty good too. The only problem is that the ants act the way real ants do: they climb around randomly. Hard to believe they are actually intelligent. But I enjoyed the film.
Burned at the Stake
This is an odd thriller that bounces between the Salem Witch Trials and modern times (1982). In this universe, Ann Putnam is being controlled by an evil priest. She has accused a 4-year-old child of being a witch. The child’s father goes into the future to contact Ann’s reincarnation. In the end, Ann saves the child from being burned alive.
It’s hard for me to judge this film because it isn’t available on disc and I’ve only managed to get a terrible copy. But it’s more in line with Picture Mommy Dead. BIG is telling a relatively simple story well.
Let’s Do It!
With 1982 came the second of BIG’s sex comedies. Let’s Do It! is pretty much the same as How to Succeed with Sex except in this case, the problem is the boy who so loved breastfeeding that now he’s impotent when he tries to have sex with any girl he likes. Also like that film, it has a twist ending that you see coming.
Brinke Stevens is an extra in this. Otherwise, there is no one you are likely to recognize here.
The Big Bet
After five years, BIG comes out with… another sex comedy? There’s no doubt that he understands how to make these films. It’s tedious to watch now but perfect for the market at that time. And it has the advantage of most of the sex being in the main (virgin) character’s mind.
A high school boy makes a bet with a frenemy that he can sleep with a new girl at school who turns out to be a reverend’s daughter. He gets advice from his sexy neighbor. Finally, she “teaches” him about sex and gets the girl. It features lots of sidetracks as is typical of the genre.
The film features Sylvia Kristel and Playboy Playmate Kim Evenson.
Here’s another film in the mold of The Mad Bomber. But this time, it features a very engaging hero and villain. The problem is that despite a fine performance by Robert Forster, the ex-cop character suffers from the “cop who doesn’t play by the rules” trope. It needs care and you really can’t justify torturing a Peeping Tom. That’s when the character goes from antihero to asshole.
The film is a mashup of the Satanic thriller and determined cop genres. Forster plays the drunk ex-cop with a limp who is trying to find a runaway who is being kept by a demon in the form of a supermodel. The ending features a lot of fire.
Secrets of a Psychopath
At the age of 93, Bert I Gordon made what is currently his last film. And it is a supremely creepy one focused on homicidal sexual dysfunction. It tells the story of two grown siblings who are having a sexual relationship. She has given birth to two children who they apparently keep in the attic. He wants to have a non-incestuous relationship. But each time he fails, he kills the involved female.
This is an exceptional film. The only real problem with it is that it isn’t especially believable. A lot of women have disappeared and it seems obvious that the police would have come calling long before the third act of this film. But that’s a fairly minor issue. The film works really well.
Bert I Gordon Film Ranks
My opinions about these films change all the time. And with a filmmaker as varied as Gordon, it’s hard to compare. But these are how I think all the films stack up:
- The Magic Sword
- The Amazing Colossal Man
- Picture Mommy Dead
- Secrets of a Psychopath
- Attack of the Puppet People
- The Cyclops
- Empire of the Ants
- The Mad Bomber
- The Food of the Gods
- Satan’s Princess
- Burned at the Stake
- The Boy and the Pirates
- Earth vs the Spider
- War of the Colossal Beast
- Village of the Giants
- How to Succeed with Sex
- Beginning of the End
- King Dinosaur
- The Big Bet
- Let’s Do It!
Bert I Gordon at 100
If you look at Bert I Gordon’s Wikipedia page, you will see in the See Also section a link to Ed Wood. I admire Wood for the idiosyncratic genius that he was. But there seems to be an implication that Gordon and Wood created the same quality of work. That’s not at all truth.
Ed Wood was not a competent filmmaker. In some way, that’s what made him great. Bert I Gordon definitely has his idiosyncrasies. But he has always been a professional. Even his films I don’t care for are well made. And he’s arguably more impact on the history of film than Steven Spielberg, even if Hollywood hasn’t been throwing money at him his entire career.
Bert I Gordon is one of the greats. And he’s added enormously to psychotronic film for longer than I’ve been alive. So…
Happy birthday, Mr BIG! You’ve made the world a better place with your work.