What better way to celebrate Halloween than with Bert I. Gordon, budget-compromised auteur of War of the Colossal Beast, Earth vs. the Spider, Picture Mommy Dead, Empire of the Ants, and many other B-films from the golden age of fantastic cinema (and beyond)? Steve Johnson finds new interest in the work of “Mr. BIG” and explains why you should too.
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“Each Gordon film is a psychodrama to itself, with the inherent sense that the more irrational it becomes, the more spillage from the filmmaker’s subconscious we’re being permitted to see. And there’s plenty of irrational to go around.”
Nobody wants to know about the little guy. The one with big ideas but neither the resources, skill, nor maybe self-confidence to bring them to full, breathing life. We crave the outsized, the outrageous, the outspoken – characters who can compensate in some way for our own inadequacies, infirmities or introversion. That’s why some of us turn to the movies for inspiration, and probably why many make them.
It’s a cliché about the movies that they make everything big: stories, emotions, relationships, body parts, secrets, differences, nuances, blemishes; even, when things don’t go perfectly, those inadequacies themselves. So it’s amazing what some people, many with talent even, can and will put up there out of sheer drive and determination; it takes a certain youthful self-assurance to do so in the first place, and to keep doing so when time and the world oppose you at increasing intervals. Occasionally, a fluke will come along to challenge our notions of enormity and significance, ambition and accomplishment, often through a combination of grit and pure childlike obliviousness. And it’s these special characters who make us all feel better about ourselves, no matter our station.
Despite his monogram, in the critical scheme of things writer-producer-director-special effects man and sometime cinematographer Bert I. Gordon was no titan. Known mainly for a string of B pictures (“We like to think of them as A pictures,” his ex-wife and frequent collaborator Flora has politely reminded) from the ’50s through the ’80s frequently involving enormous menaces and their miniature victims, Gordon was as spirited a filmmaker as they come even if never reaching the artistic heights of a Jack Arnold, perhaps, who occasionally mined the same vein.
A true DIY filmmaker, Gordon arrived in Hollywood lukewarm off a run of TV commercials in St. Louis and broke into features producing the low-budget Lost World knockoff Serpent Island in 1954 before taking the reins directing the similar King Dinosaur the next year; the latter incorporated his own visual effects shot mostly in his garage, a process he was to continue into his career. Like the previous two films, his next, The Cyclops, as well as subsequent Beginning of the End (both 1957), were financed independently and sold to a distributor before his success with these pictures led to a deal with upstart drive-in specialists American International Pictures and later shorter-termed relationships with Avco-Embassy and MGM, before his return to freelance status.
What distinguishes his films, from the Boy’s Own adventures and sci-fi programmers of the ’50s through the mélange of adult horror (Tormented, 1960; Necromancy, 1972), kid films (Boy and the Pirates, 1960; The Magic Sword, 1962), Baby Jane-style potboiler (Picture Mommy Dead, 1966), and hardboiled policier (The Mad Bomber, aka The Police Connection, 1973), is a naive, at times childlike tone, even in the nominal “adult” films of the ’80s (Let’s Do It, 1982; The Big Bet, 1985, following a first stab at the genre with 1970’s How to Succeed with Sex). Taking in his work across time is like observing a child’s progress from that sense of can-do optimism to disappointment, self-doubt, pessimism, and erotic reaffirmation, capping off with the unexpected nihilism of his last completed picture, Satan’s Princess (1990; incredibly, he has a new movie in post-production in this, his 92nd year). Princess saw that boy developing from special-needs “purity” to peril, corruption, and final rebirth as the Devil’s spawn, leaving little doubt as to Gordon’s perceived place in the world at that time.
In terms of stagecraft, Beginning of the End was Gordon’s breakthrough. Though the scenes of its star giant grasshoppers are primitively rendered – overexposed, transparent at times – the dramatic moments are competent if not compelling: shots are well composed and the action moves along, as can be said of any of his films. (You would be hard-pressed to find a Gordon you could call boring.) Self-taught from the word GO outside the studio system, Gordon improved with every picture, gaining the competencies of experience while retaining the ability to throw you with incongruities of dialog or motivation on the level of a backyard pretend-game. He never managed an entirely “good” movie; the closest he came was the mid-career Mommy, its success due in no small part to Robert Sherman’s sardonic southern gothic scenario and Joseph E. Levine’s money. Void of any garage-band special effects, it gets by visually on pure drama and staging while hewing to themes common to many or most Gordons: freaks, dolls, stunting, early trauma, fission (in this case, parental enmity), imperiled childhood, diminished manhood, the investigating female, loopy sexuality, the forbidden zone, an object of totemic significance, and Gordon’s feelings for his star-daughter, Susan – all situated in an isolated, matriarchal location.
About which: though Gordon was known in the years since his divorce from Flora to stipulate that his relationship with her as well as with Susan was off-limits to interviewers (besides Susan, he has three other daughters he rarely mentions), this matriarchal milieu could as easily be nurturing as it was threatening. In fact, it’s the separation from that feminine quality, whether by accident, murder, or divorce, that poses much of the irritation for his characters. In all cases this realm is to be taken as a region of the film-as-dreamer’s mind – the location of the feminine within.
Each Gordon film is a psychodrama to itself, with the inherent sense that the more irrational it becomes, the more spillage from the filmmaker’s subconscious we’re being permitted to see. And there’s plenty of irrational to go around: Why do characters never sense the giant bug, rat, bird, duck, cat, or human till it’s immediately upon them – and why is their existence so easily accepted? What makes the Colossal Beast (1958; sequel to 1957’s Amazing Colossal Man) disappear when he clutches the power lines at the end of his so-called War? What, really, is Tormented’s jazz-pianist not-quite-hero running away from to marry bland Meg – and why does his relationship with her kid sister (12-year-old Susan Gordon) have such creepy overtones? Exactly how do each of the babe magnets in the sex comedies suddenly find themselves dysfunctional? And what is Satan’s Princess Nicole St. James doing in that men’s steam room, anyway – and for that matter, what is she: demon, sorceress, lesbian?
As most psychodrama turns on a traumatic event, so too do most Gordons – most often in the form of a wreck or explosion, or both. The disappearance of her fiancé’s plane in Mexico prompts heroine Susan Winters to convene a search party there three years later, only to discover he’s crashed and become a 30-foot-tall cave-dwelling Cyclops; a similar crash lands Glen Manning in the middle of a plutonium-bomb detonation that transforms him into the Colossal Man; the wreck of Jack Flynn’s car at the beginning of Earth vs. the Spider (1958) triggers his daughter Carol’s delving into the title creature’s lair; an automotive wipeout also kicks off Village of the Giants (1965) and War of the Colossal Beast. When The Mad Bomber replays this explosive scenario to a pathological degree till finishing off its fastidious loony (and probable inspiration for Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” – “I hate people when they’re not polite”) with a taste of his own dynamite, you might think that the cycle initiated by Manning’s formative experience had resolved, till the fireworks come out again (Food of the Gods, 1986) and again (Satan’s Princess). There’s something ticking in a Gordon film; part of the time it’s maturity/adulthood/sexuality, part of the time something akin to PTSD (Gordon served in the Air Force during WWII, a detail left out of his memoir, The Amazing Colossal Worlds of Mr. BIG), part of the time some fissile element only the director himself could tell you about.
Though he omits the fact of his military service and whatever he may have experienced there, Gordon does share one episode from his youth in BIG, which he characteristically fails to make much out of, as if dangling it out there for someone else to explain. His childhood in Kenosha, Wisconsin (yes, that Kenosha, Wisconsin; there are nods to fellow hometown-boy-made-good Orson Welles in several Gordon films, beginning with his many Xanadu-like NO TRESPASSING declarations and topping off with his hiring of the Great Man for Necromancy) is portrayed as in many ways idyllic, including taking in endless matinees at vaudeville and burlesque houses and making his own special-effect ghost films. But the anecdote that looms largest is his witnessing of a woman’s rape by one of the carnival workers passing through while older onlookers did nothing, a scene that lends chilling import to one of the most indelible images in Gordon, that of his hero standing in the scorching winds of the explosion that made him the Colossal Man he was, his arms across his face to spare himself the blinding force of the blast. Though the experience could be read as a loss of innocence for the budding filmmaker, it had the opposite effect on Manning, stripping away the skin of adulthood to leave him a temperamental, sarong-diapered Big Baby: the kind of reversal that movies – like Gordon himself – have always specialized in.
Puberty hits most people pretty hard, its transformative effects the accepted stuff of horror films. Gordon didn’t necessarily dwell on it more than any other genre filmmaker, but it’s closer to the surface with him than for many. For an imaginative kid, the change can truly seem like a Beginning of the End, although the later thrill of being able to center an entire feature around your suddenly enormous, bald, and Cyclopean monster (much to the shock of your virginal fiancée) must have been some compensation. The “goo” that makes the teens of Village of the Giants large and in charge (as well as promoting the growth of the various vermin and fowl of Food of the Gods) may be simple hormones, or it may be another form of discharge – the seminal stuff of many a male adolescent’s power fantasies (as well as a similarly liminal middle-ager’s: Ralph Meeker’s hoarding of the island’s secretions in the latter film would no doubt have held special meaning for a director-screenwriter himself 54 at the time).
Other forms of enrichment play into other Gordon scenarios, from the nuclear plant food of Beginning of the End to the sorcery of Sword and the unexplained growth spurt of the title Spider. Plutonium was only part of what made one character a big man; much of it was Gordon having made a name for himself in a town and a business that his memoir indicates had made small of him on his arrival and probably not a little thereafter. A thread of hubris weaves through much of the work, from the taunts of that colossal Manning and Tormented’s avenging spirit to the self-righteous Mad Bomber (whose tendency to “blow things up” is a neat double entendre for Gordon’s similar). This predilection for inflation contrasts the stunting or infantilism also there, from the diminuated victims in Attack of the Puppet People (1958) to the diapered and hairless menaces of the “Gargantua” cycle as well as juvenile behavior of Boy and the Pirates’ sea dogs; the normal-sized humans facing jumbo beasts in Beginning, Spider, Food, and Empire of the Ants (1977) suggest a child’s perspective on the Big World (possibly also transplanted Midwesterners Bert and Flora’s experiences in Tinseltown), their focus on fauna an awakening to the carnal, natural, or corporeal worlds in particular.
It may not be only the director’s adolescence at issue in some of these films. There’s a penetrating moment in Ray Davies’ 1985 short film Return to Waterloo when his middle-aged commuter character, played by Ken Colley, takes innocent pictures of his teen daughter in a bikini, only to realize while watching his Polaroid develop that his little girl has become suddenly sexy. Gordon first cast his own doted daughter Susan in Attack of the Puppet People in the role of a young visitor to the doll factory (Necromancy’s original title – and never-seen location – was The Toy Factory: meaning, no doubt, Hollywood, or the film set itself) run by kindly, crazy Mr. Franz; there’s a disquieting scene where she is left alone with the man who has a penchant for kidnapping and shrinking people to add to his collection where you fear something bad is going to befall the nine-year-old girl. (It doesn’t.) That sense of endangerment at the hands of a bent lead character is advanced in Tormented, where Susan again spends much uncomfortable alone-time with an older man not her father – her much older sister’s much older fiancé – whom she’s intent on marrying herself and who tells her she’ll “always be [his] other woman.” Multiply this Electra complex by a couple degrees for Susan’s last performance for daddy in Mommy. Here her runty 15-year-old character, also named Susan, is newly sprung from the convent she’s spent the three years in since witnessing her mother’s murder, into the custody of her remarried father. She covets mother’s necklace, a yoni-symbol for the girl whose early pubertal years were spent in limbo, a totem of identification she finally claims in the end along with the guilt-ridden daddy to whom she pledges to “always be your pretty girl” while walking hand-in-hand with him from the flames of their estate.
This is more than a father’s confusion over feelings toward his daughter: it’s a horror of puberty itself and the corrupting effects of the world, for which Gordon’s special-effects manipulation seems a corrective. The Mad Bomber, the director’s foray into Dirty Harry territory and the first film to exchange his trademark investigating female for a male, takes up in the aftermath of this drama. Here assassin William Dorn begins his violent campaign on the event of the death by overdose of his own beloved daughter, Anne. Having failed to protect her from the evils of society, he attacks the institutions he holds responsible for this failure. It’s not known how successful Gordon may have been in safeguarding Susan, who quit her busy acting career in 1967, from the temptations of their Hollywood milieu; like many things between Bert and his women, it appears to be a family secret, and is respected as such. (She and Flora – whose imdb page lists her as mother of Susan, with no mention of her ex-husband – participated in the commentary to the 2010 DVD release of Beginning of the End, so there appears to have been some reconciliation.) Anyway, it’s beside the point.
The only person in Bomber who can identify Dorn is a serial rapist named Fromley, who spends his not-molesting time wanking to home movies of his homely wife in their garage festooned with other sexualized images of her. The idea that this raging libido held the key to unlocking the nature of the urge to “blow things up” reflects the oedipal project of Gordon’s WWII generation as well as his own, to cure the massively destructive (male) urge toward Thanatos with a dose of restorative (feminine) Eros. (It’s a working explanation for those sex comedies, anyway.) Complicating the process for Gordon, though, was the fact that this invigorating force – the cause of so much trouble in the science-fiction fantasies – was involuted with the violent means by which it was expressed both here and in his primal scene with the carny. As filmmaker and moralist, Gordon is fatally compromised by that immobilizing vision.
Call the libido by its other name, the Muse, and you see how the director’s life work is also troubled – how that force can inflate a person while simultaneously making him weak (the Colossal Man whose external growth outpaces that of his heart), just as it does in Tormented, where va-va-voom mistress-out-of-his-past Vi threatens pianist Paul Stewart’s Carnegie Hall debut, as his impending marriage. The life-giving force embodied in Necromancy’s heroine Lori Brandon, whose opening miscarriage is a likely metaphor for how Gordon viewed his always-erratic career at the time, can only find expression in the raising of Welles’ son from the grave by the climax to her film. By the time of Satan’s Princess, the divorced gumshoe played by Robert Forster (a retread of Bomber’s similar character) finally loses his girlfriend too in his pursuit of the supernatural temptress painted in that film’s 17th-century prologue; that is, art itself.
When Gordon blew her up in the end, he effectively killed his career too, 24-years-later postscript notwithstanding. That he had already survived, by this time, the ignominies of Harry and Michael Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards, with only several episodes of the sub-Don Rickles insult comedy of Mystery Science Theatre in his future, speaks well of his stamina and shows that no matter the depredations of Hollywood and the many small creatures leeching off its creative movers, he was a big man after all, with nothing to apologize for save his own innocence in the face of the feral carnies of the world.
One can only imagine what awaits in his Secrets of a Psychopath, finished and set for release sometime in 2014.