Author Archives: Frank

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

The Films of Bert I Gordon Ranked for His 100th Birthday

Bert I Gordon
Image taken from Bert I Gordon under Fair Use.

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

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.

The Cyclops

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.

Tormented

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.

Necromancy

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.

Satan’s Princess

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:

  1. The Magic Sword
  2. The Amazing Colossal Man
  3. Picture Mommy Dead
  4. Secrets of a Psychopath
  5. Attack of the Puppet People
  6. The Cyclops
  7. Empire of the Ants
  8. The Mad Bomber
  9. The Food of the Gods
  10. Satan’s Princess
  11. Burned at the Stake
  12. Necromancy
  13. Tormented
  14. The Boy and the Pirates
  15. Earth vs the Spider
  16. War of the Colossal Beast
  17. Village of the Giants
  18. How to Succeed with Sex
  19. Beginning of the End
  20. King Dinosaur
  21. The Big Bet
  22. 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.

Recent Additions: January 2022

Psychotronic Review

After I got to 1,000 capsule reviews, I started working on a Kindle book for them. I finished it but I’ve been waiting over a month for an introduction. And I’ve been sidetracked. The bold films below are really great. I especially recommend Winterbeast. In fact, I’m planning to do a whole review of the excellent Blu-ray release of it.

January 2022

  1. Alison’s Birthday (1981)
  2. The Astrologer (1975)
  3. Blade (1998)
  4. Blade II (2002)
  5. Blade: Trinity (2004)
  6. Camp Wedding (2019)
  7. Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
  8. Death Valley (2021)
  9. Eraserhead (1977)
  10. From Beyond (1986)
  11. Girl on the Third Floor (2019)
  12. Grizzly (1976)
  13. Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
  14. The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
  15. Pet Sematary (2019)
  16. The Premonition (1976)
  17. Robot Jox (1990)
  18. The Unholy (2021)
  19. Viy (1967)
  20. The Watch (2012)
  21. Winterbeast (1992)

See you next month!

Recent Additions: November 2021

Psychotronic Review

We reached 1,000 reviews this month so I’ve been working on the ebook for it. As a result, this got away from me. Sorry!

As you can see, there wasn’t too much that I considered essential viewing. You should definitely watch The Old Dark House because it’s a classic and it’s also a lot of fun. Repo Man probably falls into the classic category at this point. Invasion of the Saucer Men is just a fun and silly film. Braid is one that stays with you. That’s quite an intense one. Look for it.

Most of the rest is pretty good. In particular, the two Bad News Bears films are always worth a look. They are both equally good. I saw I Was a Teenage Werewolf when I was a kid. My opinion hasn’t changed much. It’s not as much fun as it ought to be. It could be that I just don’t much like Landon in the lead. Or it could be that I never much care for these kinds of films.

Magic is surprisingly good. It’s no Devil Doll but what is? The Night of the Hunter is visually delightful. The two Pet Sematary films are fine. I have the recent remake sitting around here waiting to watch. Santo vs las Mujeres Vampiro was fun enough but you can do better in a Santo film.

I might have to rethink Troll. that was a lot of fun!

November 2021 Films

  1. The Bad News Bears (1976)
  2. Bad News Bears (2005)
  3. Braid (2018)
  4. Con Air (1997)
  5. The Devil’s Rain (1975)
  6. The Food of the Gods (1976)
  7. Highway to Hell (1992)
  8. I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
  9. Innerspace (1987)
  10. Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)
  11. The Longest Yard (1974)
  12. Magic (1978)
  13. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
  14. The Old Dark House (1932)
  15. One Dark Night (1983)
  16. Pet Sematary (1989)
  17. Pet Sematary Two (1992)
  18. Repo Man (1984)
  19. Santo vs las Mujeres Vampiro (1962)
  20. Space Truckers (1996)
  21. Troll (1986)
  22. Venom (1981)
  23. Waterworld (1995)

See you next month!

Recent Additions: December 2021

Psychotronic Review

I didn’t do much this month because I’ve been putting together the Short Takes on Great Films: Capsule Reviews of Lesser-Known Films. Or whatever the final title is. This will be version 1.0. The idea is to correct the error of Michael J Weldon, who I quietly curse every time I guess wrong and open the wrong of his two books. Anyway, I did write about a few films.

The main thing to note here is that The Night of the Virgin is a fantastic horror-comedy out of Spain. Yet more evidence that this is a golden age of international horror. It does have a couple of gag-inducing scenes. But if I can make it through them, anyone can.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is, of course, a classic. And I think everyone should watch it just for Clint Howard. But at this time, it isn’t essential viewing. It is, however, a whole lot of fun.

And then we get to the Tremors franchise. I just loved the first four films. Not that they are essential viewing either. They are just silly horror-comedies. But they are irresistible. And I’d encourage everyone to watch them. In fact, I think the second, third, and fourth films are better than the first!

The problem comes with Tremors 5. The whole franchise is under new ownership and the films become typical action films. Sure, there’s comedy! But it’s of the one-liner variety that we know so well of dozens of forgettable action films of the past. All the charm is gone.

Stop at the fourth film. You’ll be glad you did!

December 2021 Films

  1. The Night of the Virgin (2016)
  2. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
  3. Tremors (1990)
  4. Tremors 2: Aftershocks (1996)
  5. Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001)
  6. Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004)
  7. Tremors 5: Bloodlines (2015)
  8. Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (2018)

See you next month!

Recent Additions: October 2021

Psychotronic Review

Pretty good month for films. The standout was Benny Loves You, the best killer-puppet film I’ve ever seen. And, you know, I’m seen a lot of them. They are kind of my thing. I love puppets and I love gore. It’s my subgenre.

Also of note is the BBC production Ghostwatch. It’s very effective but it’s mostly interesting in that it was presented as a regular show and apparently terrified the people of UK.

Another great one is The People Under the Stairs. Even when Wes Craven is bad he’s good. And this one is tremendous fun. It’s an interesting contrast to The Goonies, which is hard to sit through.

Sugar Hill is also a whole lot of fun — the lighter side of Blaxploitation. And I revisited Silent Hill, which is as good as I remember.

Finally, if you’ve never seen it, you really must see Them! It is the first and best of the giant bug films.

October 2021 Films

  1. The Alligator People (1959)
  2. Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
  3. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
  4. Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
  5. Benny Loves You (2019)
  6. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
  7. Daniel Isn’t Real (2019)
  8. Dave Made a Maze (2017)
  9. Fade to Black (1980)
  10. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)
  11. Ghostwatch (1992)
  12. The Goonies (1985)
  13. Gunslinger (1956)
  14. Harold and Maude (1971)
  15. Horror Express (1972)
  16. The Lighthouse (2019)
  17. The Mortuary Collection (2019)
  18. Motel Hell (1980)
  19. The Negotiator (1998)
  20. Oasis of the Zombies (1982)
  21. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
  22. Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
  23. Silent Hill (2006)
  24. Slither (2006)
  25. Sugar Hill (1974)
  26. Terror Train (1980)
  27. Them! (1954)
  28. Tormented (1960)

See you next month!

Recent Additions: August 2021

Psychotronic Review

What this month lacked in total movies it made up for in quality. Some surprised include Curse of the Fly, the third in the series and probably the best. We also did the first two Blind Zombie films. The next two will be on next month’s list. And then there was a delightful newer film Vicious Fun. Of course, that kind of film is clearly made with people like me in mind.

June 2021 Films

  1. Bad Teacher (2011)
  2. Beetlejuice (1988)
  3. Curse of the Fly (1965)
  4. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
  5. The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982)
  6. George of the Jungle 2 (2003)
  7. The Ghost Galleon (1974)
  8. Gremlins (1984)
  9. Host (2020)
  10. Jaws (1975)
  11. Jaws 2 (1978)
  12. Killer Sofa (2019)
  13. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
  14. Macon County Line (1974)
  15. Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976)
  16. Mystery Men (1999)
  17. Night of the Seagulls (1975)
  18. The Osterman Weekend (1983)
  19. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
  20. The Psychic (1977)
  21. Return of the Blind Dead (1973)
  22. Rock’n’Roll Wolf (1976)
  23. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  24. Shock Waves (1977)
  25. Spinning Man (2018)
  26. Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
  27. Vicious Fun (2020)
  28. White Fang (1973)
  29. Wizards (1977)

See you next month!

Recent Additions: September 2021

Psychotronic Review

All and all, it was a weak month for films. But there were some highlights. Get Out, of course, is a wonderful film. I haven’t seen anything else from Jordan Peele but I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Martyrs Lane is just a fantastic film that I loved when I saw it and has only gotten better as I look back on it. The Tenant is a really slow film but it builds well and really leaves an impact. Zombi 3 is a fairly typical Fulci film, but of course, that’s great.

The Spirits of Jupiter and Spookies are the kinds of films this site is all about. They are both weird and brilliant. Find them both!

June 2021 Films

  1. Biohazard (1985)
  2. Cellar Dweller (1987)
  3. Cool World (1992)
  4. Creepshow 2 (1987)
  5. The Dunwich Horror (1970)
  6. Extra Terrestrial Visitors (1983)
  7. Get Out (2017)
  8. Hackers (1995)
  9. I See You (2019)
  10. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)
  11. Love and Monsters (2020)
  12. Martyrs Lane (2021)
  13. Popcorn (1991)
  14. Primeval (2007)
  15. Saturday the 14th (1981)
  16. The Spirits of Jupiter (1984)
  17. Spookies (1986)
  18. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971)
  19. Superhost (2021)
  20. The Tenant (1976)
  21. Tomb of the Pistolero (1964)
  22. WarGames (1983)
  23. Zombi 3 (1988)

See you next month!

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre vs The Happening: Comparison of Two Scenes

I like M Night Shyamalan’s work. He’s a very capable writer-director. What’s more, I like The Happening, which almost everyone seems to despise. But he does tend to waste a lot of money. I think his films would usually be better if he had less to spend. And this was very much on display in the Jeep crash scene from that film. I couldn’t help but compare it to the notorious meathook scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Now, you may think this is unfair. After all, this is one of the greatest scenes ever created for a movie. But I think it is still worth doing. This is a scene that cost almost nothing to shoot. It involves two camera setups. It was probably shot in an afternoon. Yet it is visceral in its impact.

This is exactly the opposite of the jeep crash scene in The Happening. It relies on motion-controlled cameras, computer graphics, stunt workers, and doubtless cost hundreds of thousand dollars — if not more. Yet it has no real impact on the viewer. It doesn’t even need to be in the film except to provide the film’s heartwarming epilog.

Meathook Scene: Shot by Shot

There are many things that make this scene one of the most frightening in movie history. There’s the excellent acting, the incredible music, and the context coming right after Pam (Teri McMinn) flees the “chicken” room. But I want to focus on the shots, which may be brilliant, but only in their simplicity.

  1. The first shot is from above and behind a row of two meathooks. One is prominent in the foreground — slightly out of focus. We see Leatherface carrying Pam, who is screaming and struggling, into the room. He carries her toward the hook.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre Meat Hook Scene 1
  1. Cut to the reverse angle, from floor height. Leatherface continues to carry Pam to the hook, lifting her up as if to impale her on it.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre Meat Hook Scene 2
  1. Cut back to the first angle. The hook is in the foreground, Pam’s back is brought down toward the hook. This shot is very short — perhaps a quarter second.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre Meat Hook Scene 3
  1. Cut to the second angle but swifted so that the camera is directly in front of Pam. Leatherface releases her body, which comes down starply, apparently impaled on the hook.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre Meat Hook Scene 4
  1. Axial cut to close-up of Pam screeming.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre Meat Hook Scene 5

Why the Meat Hook Scene Works

I think one big reason the whole film works is that it comes across as cinéma vérité. Yet as this scene shows, it is nothing of the sort. But it does have a certain documentary simplicity. The camera is always on a tripod here. It never pushes in, zooms, or even pans.

What’s probably most important here is that the movement of Pam is seamless. As the second shot ends, Pam has been lifted as high as Leatherface can manage. Throughout the third shot, he lowers her. At the start of the fourth shot, she is coming down and then is dropped. To the viewer, it seems like a single shot.

Of course, it is in that fourth shot when Pam is dropped that makes it seem real. This is doubtless because Pam actually is being impaled. Gunnar Hansen really is putting the harness that McMinn is wearing on that hook. There’s even a little natural bounce that sells it.

To some extent, this is an example of practical effects being easier. That whole final “hooked” shot would be hard to make work if it had to be animated. But other than wearing the harness, there really is no “movie magic” in this scene. It’s doubtful it could be any simpler.

Jeep Crash Scene: Shot by Shot

I can’t really do a shot-by-shot analysis of the Jeep crash scene because it is all done in one shot. That is the problem! Let’s go through it.

  1. It starts with a medium shot of the Jeep from the side. As the Jeep accelerates forward, the camera tracks with it.

The Happening Crash Scene 1
  1. The camera falls behind and pans with the Jeep as it drives into the tree.
The Happening Crash Scene 2
  1. The camera stops panning as the Jeep hits the tree and we see the driver fly out the front windshield.
The Happening Crash Scene 3
  1. John Leguizamo exits the Jeep while the camera zooms in and follows him.
The Happening Crash Scene 4
  1. The camera continues to zoom as he sets down and cuts his wrist.
The Happening Crash Scene 5

A Technical Achievement!

There is a 10-minute documentary on the DVD that goes over the process. Basically, they use motion-controlled cameras. Then they composite them into the final scene.

Why did they do this? They spent a lot of time and money to make the scene happen in one shot. It’s 16 seconds from when the Jeep takes off to when we see Leguizamo leave the car. I doubt many people even notice it is in one shot. If they do, I don’t see how they would care.

The biggest problem here is that the most important part of it is in long-shot. Two people are thrown from the Jeep but we only barely see the second and that is after the body has landed. And despite 30 additional seconds of zooming, we see no detail of Leguizamo cutting his writs.

This is a perfect example of filmmakers pleasing themselves rather than the audience. Getting this scene was a technical accomplishment. But it deprived the audience of a great moment in the film.

A Better Jeep Crash Edit

I’m not a film editor. But I think it would have been more effective to eliminate the single-shot and get into the action. Following the crash, this would work better:

  1. CU on Leguizamo as he stares emotionless.
  2. POV of the dead bodies in front of the Jeep.
  3. Medium on Leguzamo as he calmly opens the door.
  4. Follow him as he notices something on the ground.
  5. POV of broken glass.
  6. CU on Leguzamo has he sits.
  7. Tilt down to his hand holding a glass shard as he cuts into his wrist and blood flows.
  8. Cut to other group.

Pretty standard idea there. It could probably be done with half the shots. But that would cut together in an effective way. The only problem: it wouldn’t have given the crew a tech boner.

Audience First

Financial limitations often bring out the creativity in people. But that isn’t what’s going on here.

The people who made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were just trying to make an effective film. The Happening was made by a bunch of jaded professionals. So why not have some fun with a technical challenge?

The problem is that after they spent the cost of a nice house on this technical feat, they had to use it in the film. And the film is worse for it.


Screen captures from the two films are used under Fair Use.

Recent Additions: July 2021

Psychotronic Review

Maybe I’m getting pickier but there weren’t as many outstanding films this month. But the ones there made up for it.

The Babadook is an exceptional haunted house film with a very interesting evil character. I do wish the film didn’t have such a clear theme. But I just force myself not to think about it.

Demonic Toys is one of those great Full Moon kind of films. It’s just a whole lot of fun. Although the plot is awfully complicated. But that kid is just so creepy. How do you not love this?

Four of the Apocalypse may well be my favorite Lucio Fulci film. It’s certainly my favorite of his westerns — and possibly my favorite western ever. If you like McCabe & Mrs Miller, you should like this.

Godzilla vs Hedorah is one of the best Godzilla films. It’s just visually more interesting than they usually are. But note that I’m not a huge Godzilla fan.

Tammy and the T-Rex is a wonderfully silly and sweet film. It could so easily have missed the mark but it’s perfect and loads of fun. It’s the kind of film that Fred Olen Ray would have ruined.

Andrea told me An Unquiet Grave (only available on Shudder) was terrible so maybe my expectations were low. I kept watching it wondering when it would get bad. Instead, it just got better and better. It’s a wonderful film!

If you’ve ever wondered what a Nicolas Cage film would be like if he never spoke, you must watch Willy’s Wonderland. It’s a wonderful, funny, gory romp. The first half is particularly good.

Yor, the Hunter from the Future is a very creative film that pretends to be sword and sandals but is a lot more. It features some great practical effect.

June 2021 Films

  1. Assignment: Terror (1970)
  2. The Babadook (2014)
  3. Contraband (1980)
  4. The Dead Want Women (2012)
  5. Demonic Toys (1992)
  6. Devil’s Express (1976)
  7. Evil Bong (2006)
  8. Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
  9. Gilda (1946)
  10. Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)
  11. Hang ’em High (1968)
  12. Hobgoblins (1988)
  13. John Wick (2014)
  14. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
  15. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
  16. The Last Unicorn (1982)
  17. Massacre Time (1966)
  18. Munster, Go Home! (1966)
  19. The Private Eyes (1980)
  20. Raising Arizona (1987)
  21. Shrunken Heads (1994)
  22. Signs (2002)
  23. Tammy and the T-Rex (1994)
  24. An Unquiet Grave (2020)
  25. Vice Academy (1989)
  26. Willy’s Wonderland (2021)
  27. Yor, the Hunter from the Future (1983)

See you next month!

Recent Additions: June 2021

Psychotronic Review

You know how this goes. All the links go to the capsule review. The ones in bold typeface are what I consider must-see for psychotronic fans. I see that Dirty Harry is not bold. It’s just that the film hasn’t aged well. In fact, it’s hard to see what the fuss was about other than people reacting to what was (falsely) seen as an overly kind criminal justice system.

The real stand-out here is the George Romero film The Amusement Park. It’s shocking that he managed to get money for it. Amazing film with is kind of a documentary and kind of a horror film — but also not either.

June 2021 Films

  1. Aenigma (1988)
  2. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
  3. The Amusement Park (1973)
  4. Beaks: The Movie (1987)
  5. Beyond Re-Animator (2003)
  6. Black Roses (1988)
  7. Black Sunday (1960)
  8. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1973)
  9. Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962)
  10. Circus of Horrors (1960)
  11. Conquest (1983)
  12. Count Dracula (1970)
  13. Dead of Night (1977)
  14. Demonia (1990)
  15. Dirty Harry (1971)
  16. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
  17. Evilspeak (1981)
  18. Eye of the Needle (1981)
  19. A Fantastic Fear of Everything (2012)
  20. Frankenstein 1970 (1958)
  21. Ghosthouse (1988)
  22. The Gorgon (1964)
  23. High Plains Drifter (1973)
  24. Housebound (2014)
  25. Lifeforce (1985)
  26. Lust in the Dust (1985)
  27. Manhattan Baby (1982)
  28. The Manster (1959)
  29. My Favorite Year (1982)
  30. Nightfall (1988)
  31. Pale Rider (1985)
  32. Pieces (1982)
  33. Piranhaconda (2012)
  34. The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960)
  35. Puzzle (1974)
  36. The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)
  37. Shane (1953)
  38. Silver Saddle (1978)
  39. Slaughter High (1986)
  40. The Sting (1973)
  41. Toxic Zombies (1980)
  42. The Woman in the Window (2021)
  43. Zombie Nightmare (1987)

See you next month!