The Colossal Cult of Mr Bert I. Gordon (Part Two)

* contains spoilers

Gordon made one of my favourites when he got 50s sci-fi star Richard Carlson (1912-77 cerebral haemorrhage) to do Tormented (1960) for Allied Artists now that he had fulfilled his contract with AIP with four quick fire movies, something which must have left the director exhausted. It is Carlson’s last starring role as he plays a jazz pianist who is trying to end his affair with a woman named Vi as he is about to become married. Living on an island, he ‘accidentally’ kills his now unwanted mistress when she falls from the top of a lighthouse. Unfortunately, for Carlson, he is haunted and ‘tormented’ by her ghost.

The ghost of Vi in Tormented… “Tom Stewart killed me!…”

A clip of this film appears in horror director John Carpenter’s late career film The Ward (2010), which shows it must rate as a cult movie. And for me, the film gets better with each viewing… “Tom Stewart killed me! Tom Stewart killed me!! Tom Stewart killed me!!,” cries the ghost of Vi in a classic scene. Others may find it quite ridiculous and indeed it played on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K).

John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010) trailer

Susan Gordon appears again as a little girl but it was obviously no success and Carlson more or less made no more film appearances until the late 1960s.

Susan Gordon with Richard Carlson in Tormented (1960)

His scenes with Susan Gordon are good and Carlson, who occasionally directed movies, seems to have taken charge of their performances in a way that Gordon never seemed to do with his actors and actresses. For once, the acting is superior. Attack of the Puppet People has some good performances as well.

One of my favourite Bert movies is Tormented (1960) trailer

Gordon would finally do a colour feature the same year when he directed The Boy and the Pirates (1960), starring his daughter Susan again and another child actor, who became a troubled adult, Charles Herbert (1948-2015 heart attack). Herbert had starred in William Castle’s popular 13 Ghosts (1960). Herbert would do no more films after working with Gordon and drugs and alcohol took a toll before he found sobriety and did conventions in the years before his death.

Susan Gordon with Charles Herbert in The Boy and the Pirates (1960)

The Boy and the Pirates was shot on the Fox lot where there was a full mock up pirate ship, perhaps dating back to Tyrone Power’s (1914-58 heart attack) The Black Swan (1942). I can’t be sure. The film also had a “psychotic” Timothy Carey (1929-94 stroke) fired from the cast for hurling young Charles Herbert too viciously across the set in one scene. I guess he was going for realism at all costs!

Psychotic Timothy Carey (left) got carried away in The Boy and the Pirates

It is basically a kid’s film and more polished than Gordon’s previous efforts, although it could have been a little scary for kids way back when. Herbert is transported by a genie aboard pirate Blackbeard’s ship where he’s ordered to “swab the deck” and “save the entrails” of a fish he must clean.

Quality-wise, the results are probably Gordon’s best film to the average viewer, with throats getting cut by Carey amid moments of mayhem. Joe Turkel (1927-) plays the genie and would be respected enough in later years to appear as barman Lloyd in Stanley Kubrick’s (1928-99 heart attack in sleep) The Shining (1980) and Dr Eldon Tyrell in Ridley Scott’s (1937-) Blade Runner (1982). Turkel is also seen in a key role in Gordon’s Tormented.

Joe Turkel as Lloyd in The Shining (1980)

Gordon’s next film would be The Magic Sword (1962) filmed early in 1961. Starring former 1940s Sherlock Holmes Basil Rathbone (1892-1967 heart attack) and one of the first actresses to reach her century Estelle Winwood (1883-1984 in sleep), it tells of a quest by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) actor Gary Lockwood (1937-) to recover a kidnapped princess.

Gary Lockwood with foster mother Estelle Winwood in The Magic Sword (1962)

Rathbone is the baddie as he did so well in the old days in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Mark of Zorro (1940) although he is aged in this movie. Lockwood must contend with seven curses and tests of bravery with his trusty magic sword and white steed to help him.

Basil Rathbone (left) at his peak against Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Considering it’s a Gordon movie, it’s not bad, with colour photography and while it isn’t really considered one of his ‘big’ movies, the first curse is that of a deformed giant. It’s hokum and the kids in the day may have liked it.

“There’s nothing you can do except look into your mirror or magic pool,” Rathbone says to Lockwood’s foster mother and witch, Winwood.

The Magic Sword (1962) poster. Escapism before JFK’s assassination.

The script isn’t particularly amusing nor otherwise campy or particularly memorable. Based on St. George and the Dragon, it’s juvenile fare to say the least and the dragon at the end is still yet another example of Gordon’s big effects. One critic called the film “unintentionally hilarious” while someone else called it “uninspired”.

The Magic Sword (1962) trailer

A few years later came Village of the Giants (1965) with a young cast of children of big stars among its names as well as a very young Ron Howard (1954-) during his Andy Griffith Show period. It’s Gordon’s first film to be based on the H.G. Wells’ (1866-1946 unspecified) novel Food of the Gods (1904). It brings the director back up to speed with his use of ‘big’ actors or giants.

Writer and visionary H. G. Wells

This is a funky pop teenage movie, a type of beach party movie which were then highly popular. It opens as teenagers dance in the rain and mud after crashing their car in a scene which could have come from the documentary Woodstock (1970) that wet four day hippie music celebration in August 1969 which happened a week after the Manson murders. Did Manson put a deliberate dampener on that festival?

The Woodstock generation play in the mud which is prefigured in Village of the Giants

The irony seemed lost on the many drugged hippies but the dream would soon be over anyway. But the kids aren’t hippies in Village of the Giants although their actions prefigure the Manson gang in some ways. The film ultimately does predict that generation’s partying after the ‘car crash’ of Manson and while Sharon Tate’s funeral was being arranged it also seemed a tasteless lead up to their betrayal of their own generation as well as previous and future ones. Big themes for a teen movie!

They play in the mud and then become totalitarian freaks wanting wealth and power

There is also a small mention made of the generation gap, while gay actor Tommy Kirk kisses a girl when we know he’d rather kiss a boy, and Ronny Howard meanwhile is a child genius who cooks up a chemical goo which makes the family cat into a giant when consumed.

“We’re gonna make us a million bucks,” says Kirk about the results.

Kids of stars who appear include Lloyd Bridges’ (1913-98 natural causes) son Beau Bridges, Ann Sothern’s daughter Tisha Sterling (1944-) and Mickey Rooney’s son Tim Rooney (1947-2006 pneumonia). Not to mention Johnny Crawford (1946-) from The Rifleman series who hooks up with go-go dancer Toni Basil (1943-) who would have a hit with the song Mickey in the 1980s.

Village of the Giants (1965) poster

“Wow, look at these ducks,” say the teenagers at the local dance hangout when giant ducks appear shaking a tail feather on the dance-floor to the sound of the Beau Brummels. They have also been fed the Food of the Gods.

Beau Bridges and his gang have plans for the formula before Kirk can patent it.

“Muscles are very important to me,” says Beau, trying to impress Kirk’s girl and it’s not long before the two gang leaders are fighting it out over the last remnants of the goo Ronny has produced but is having a hard time trying to replicate.

Bert fan Forrest J. Ackerman on the set of Village of the Giants

Beau’s gang ingest the goo and instantly grow to giant proportions, obviously too big for their clothes, as the girls clasp their own cleavage in modesty.

“I was big enough before,” says one of the girls. “We’re freaks,” says another.

Staying at the local theatre where they use curtains for clothes, the giant teenagers then figure they can turn the tables on the adults who are yet to appear… The generation gap has escalated to thirty feet or more! That reminds me of another giant movie made in 1959 and that was Lou Costello’s (1906-59 heart attack) only film without Bud Abbott the posthumously released movie entitled The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959). Was it inspired by Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), which was again inspired by the films of Gordon?

Lou Costello’s posthumously released The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959) trailer

Back to Giants and the giant teenagers dance to electric guitar at the local park while the normal-sized teenagers watch in one drawn out sequence…. Ending when the police turn up. The giants start their regime with corruption as they kidnap the sheriff’s daughter and blackmail him into telling the adults they will have a 9pm curfew and have to surrender their guns. It’s the beginning of Fascism in the village. And it’s not an impeachable offence! Not while they’re in charge!!

“Nobody’s gonna say don’t to me about anything,” says Beau.

The giants make their demands

Village of the Giants is better than its reputation. Or is it just so bad it’s good?

The giants in this movie rebel just like any teenager but take it to the limit. They are also bullies who take advantage of a situation which is the worst combination when creating a totalitarian state within a ‘village’. The adults must do what they say, betraying those who fought to bring democracy back to the world during World War II. It is up to the also betrayed Kirk and gang to take on Beau who is now a Goliath and another Hitler.

Little Ronny Howard as Genius is the positive influence in Village of the Giants (1965)

“I’m gonna cut you in pieces little man,” Beau promises about delivering Kirk’s head on a silver platter… But Ronny’s Genius comes up with an antidote and it is probably ironic that he uses a gas on the totalitarian bullies to cut them back down to size. And so the teenagers return to their car stuck in the mud… almost predicting the end of the Woodstock revolution as it comes full circle… they are the future adults of what would become today… toxic former Summer of Love baby boomers with all the wealth now as did the conservative teenagers of the era who were also at Woodstock… They have their own goo or Food of the Gods… and like the little people that pass those teenagers by as they are back stuck in the mud at the end of Village of the Giants… For the midgets or little people the Food of the Gods or goo means a chance at a normal life whereas for the rest it meant power and money!

And the next self-serving bully up to bat is…

… The bullies and totalitarians we pass by as the little people – only, it seems, to be replaced by even more of the same, with only their self-interest at heart. In governments nearly all over the world. Their car, or the world, is forever stuck in the mud to return to at the end of the day. It is like they must return even if the party is over. They are the party – a selfish view.

You want a tip? Socialised medicine works fine in Australia.

I guess little Ronny in his basement laboratory is the wild card in this day of possible biological warfare. What goo could get cooked up? What sort of a virus?… Or miracle cures? Ronny is the only totally positive influence in the movie.

Village of the Giants is underrated as it dispenses with the adults like the Woodstock generation did after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 as conservatism grew from a possible melding of socialism with capitalism that had started under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now more or less dismantled today. It is a typically untypical American movie of its day about the American political malaise and disillusionment. Little Ronny is the symbol of hope.

Village of the Giants is very political as star Beau Bridges surmised in one interview

It’s kind of like the two-party preferred system of democracy shown as the two gangs of teenagers in Village of the Giants can possibly lead to totalitarianism under a demagogue who breaks the law to stay and become ultimate leader due to his own popularity. It’s sad we don’t have anything but two choices as leader in the end. Worse if we have one!

“You’re just the same as them,” says Johnny Crawford about Beau’s new regime.

You’re just the same as them, says Johnny Crawford who is prepared for the worst

Do you get the picture? That the film was made under the Johnson administration: paternal, anti-Red and borne on the back of JFK’s murder, possibly dishonest is perhaps unsurprising. And it’s presented without any really nasty cynicism. I mean it’s a teenage party movie overall! It would appear to be the perfect antidote for the times even if Gordon’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with WWII veteran and hero and actor Alan Caillou (1914-2006), would have us giggle at the bad guys getting gassed.

Screenwriter Alan Caillou as he appeared in flop 1977 series Quark as The Head

There is definitely some seriousness to this movie relating to democracy and fascism. Gordon’s vision of Village of the Giants at least has the, hopefully, prophetic ending of the self-serving bullies getting kicked out of town! Just as it should be with each election as long as we have a choice!! Otherwise its war and poison gas! As with Wells’ novel Food of the Gods, the demagogue is the villain as he should be viewed today in this era of suspected climate change and the gap between the rich and poor being ignored for a popular vote. The world is stuck in the mud like the car while the rich get to play like there is no tomorrow. Except at the end of Village of the Giants the fun is over as we wonder why we liked those people who were in our gang in the first place and perhaps feel a little ashamed or ourselves for letting it happen! Oh, how our points of view change as we grow older. Pity we only have one vote… but get enough votes together and we create giants! On the side of right or wrong. But I’m going on now…

Alan Caillou also wrote Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Take a look at the beginning of the film again and you wonder are these kids really alive? Or have they just been killed in a car crash as power lines drape over their crashed car.

Also after their mud dance, they see a sign once pointing to the ‘village’ of Hainesville. There was such a place once upon a time in Illinois, founded by a child genius, who first surveyed the place, by the name of Elijah M. Haines (1822-89). Another initial! He went on to become a noted state politician who broke from the two major parties and ran as an independent and worked for minor parties to get together and influence legislation as a combined majority. He thought damn the two party system! He knew Abe Lincoln who was said to have stayed in Hainesville on occasion. What’s in a name?! That’s an undercurrent of Caillou’s rich script and I thought it was interesting. Hainesville, incidentally, eventually almost became a ghost town possible visited by the ghosts of the teenagers killed at the beginning of the movie! It hints that the Earth as it is now is a form of limbo for those who dwell within it.

Elijah M. Haines didn’t appear to be a Nazi. Caillou’s script again!

The Woodstock sell-out generation quickly forgot Roosevelt and World War II and that previous generation of the Great Depression’s defeat will come full circle if and when Bernie Sanders isn’t made president. A communist according to Trump and whether you like it or not! That Village of the Giants predicted the ‘sell-out’ as well as points out the weaknesses of self-interested demagogues in democracy… and hinting at the drawbacks of the two party preferred system… among other things. At least Haines wasn’t a Nazi. Happily, it also predicts an eventual en masse of the little people and, yes, you may be one, making their way to Hainesville where they hope to find a miracle… here on Earth! It will take a number of like-minded child geniuses like little Ronny to get together before this limbo improves. Enough boring politics! Caillou is to blame!

Alan Caillou is to blame for all this raving!

Gordon pitched Village of the Giants to Joseph E. Levine (another initial) of Avco Embassy Pictures while he rode in his limousine to the airport… using Wells’ novel and the Hollywood kids as stars clinched it. Also the mud scene at the beginning was shot at Universal Studios. Critics ranged from “silly” with “poor special effects” to “inept and tasteless”. Whatever, I think this one is Gordon’s masterpiece.

Bert I. Gordon’s popular masterpiece Village of the Giants (1965) trailer

For Gordon’s next movie Picture Mommy Dead (1966), the director turned to horror. It was originally to star 1940s star and beauty Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000 heart disease) but she was caught shoplifting and the ensuing legal troubles led to her being dropped from the film and Zsa Zsa Gabor (1917-2016 cardiac arrest after five years on life support) replaced her.

Picture Mommy Dead (1966) poster

It is a mild horror, which also stars Gordon’s daughter Susan again, in her last role, alongside Don Ameche (1908-93 prostate cancer), long before he scored an Oscar for Cocoon (1985) and Martha Hyer (1924-1914 natural causes). A girl loses her memory after witnessing her mother’s death. Released from an asylum into the care of her father and girlfriend… it’s a twisted plot and not terribly original but slightly intriguing nonetheless. Gabor’s role is as the dead mother. The key scene has Gordon slashing a portrait of her mother while imagining her body lying beneath the portrait.

The pioneer mobile phone inventor, shoplifter and generally beautiful… Hedy Lamarr

“The worms go in, the worms go out… in your stomach and out your mouth,” goes a macabre children’s nursery rhyme throughout the movie.

Critics chimed together with the word “hokey”.

Then came Gordon’s toying with sex comedies and he would go and do a few over the ensuing years. He said he did them for “a change of pace” and the first of these was How to Succeed with Sex (1970).

Bert called his sex comedies “a change of pace”

He went back to horror with The Witching aka Necromancy (1972), which like The Magic Sword took a while from its original shoot to its release. Necromancy is Gordon at his most sophisticated in terms of his script but also his most boring.

Neceromancy (1972) trailer

When he made the film, Gordon was in a state of depression when star Orson Welles’ secretary rang and said he’d only be on set between 10am and 4pm. Gordon countered by stocking Welles’ dressing room on set with fillet steaks, French cheeses, Russian caviar and fine wines. With a BBQ chef to boot! After the first day, Welles apologised as said to Gordon: “I’m yours!”.

Welles and Bert got on famously in the end on the set of Necromancy

Necromancy also features actress Pamela Franklin (1950-), who would be named a scream queen for appearing in such films as The Legend of Hell House (1973). Necromancy is forgettable as it tells of witchcraft and Welles dominating a small town. It is no wonder that Welles looks like the cat that ate the cream in one scene as he sits plate-less at a dining room table while the rest of the cast eats greens.

Welles was happy with the finest, er, wines. Otherwise Necromancy isn’t that good.

Then came The Police Connection aka The Mad Bomber (1972) with Chuck Connors (1921-92 lung cancer) as a psychopath who leaves a trail of destruction around the city when he detonates bombs. Actually, it’s not a bad movie, a departure for Gordon and an improvement over Necromancy with a rather effective finale where a human body explodes.

The Food of the Gods (1976) is one of the last of Bert’s ‘big’ pictures

There would be a couple more ‘big’ effects movies, both of them based on the works of H.G. Wells again. The first is another version of Food of the Gods (1976), set on a remote island in British Columbia. It features one of the best performances by child evangelist turned actor Marjoe Gortner (1944-) a definite improvement on his character in Earthquake (1974) and also features old timers Ida Lupino (1918-95 colon cancer) and Ralph Meeker (1920-88 heart attack). It is also Pamela Franklin’s last feature film.

The Food of the Gods (1976) trailer

This time the ‘food’ bubbles up from the ground and Lupino feeds it to her chickens thinking it a gift from God. Sadly, rats and wasps and worms get to it too and wreak havoc on assorted characters on the island. Village of the Giants was fun whereas this one has a far more serious tone. It won an award for Worst Rodent Movie in Michael Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards book.

Scream queen Pamela Franklin turned up pregnant on one of Bert’s film sets

I don’t know how they did the effects when they blew away the giant rats with guns but I don’t think the American Humane Society was present although Gordon insists they visited the set and they were satisfied there was no ill-treatment. Gordon still doesn’t let on how the effect was achieved though.

The end of the movie where the ‘food’ ends up in children’s drinking milk doesn’t actually sent shivers down the spine… but if you don’t like rats, there’s plenty to squirm about.

You’ve got to admire Joan Collins. She does the same in American Horror Story’s last season.

Actress Joan Collins was probably not very proud of her role in Gordon’s next H.G. Wells adaptation Empire of the Ants (1977). Yes, its giant radioactive ants as assorted character gather on an island again, this time for a real estate rort as Joan tries to sell bogus blocks of land in a swamp to unsuspecting buyers. With giant ants caused by drums of radioactive waste washing ashore, Gordon uses his usual back projection technique to an audience which is about to get hooked on the new age special effects of Stars Wars.

The final Mr B.I.G. film in terms of giant things Empire of the Ants (1977) trailer

Critic Leonard Maltin called the film “laughable”. He had already called Food of the Gods “dreadful”. And that wraps up Gordon’s ‘big’ career. I’ll mention a couple of other films he did after this… He made the Salem witch trial movie Burned at the Stake aka The Coming (1981), based on real characters and starring Susan Swift (1964-), who was discovered and appeared in the, once upon a time, superior and scary reincarnation drama/horror Audrey Rose (1977) which also featured Anthony Hopkins. The thrill is probably gone by now.

Bert in his 90s on the set of his last movie Secrets of a Psychopath (2014)

Gordon finished his career in his 90s directing the cheap horror Secrets of a Psychopath (2014). While it is technically competent and Gordon’s first High Definition movie, it’s ordinary stuff in terms of script as it has our murdering hero who can’t get it on with women due to some sort of block… it happens. But sleeping with his sister is the cause in this case and each failed liaison ends in murder. He always wants to marry his victims even though he’s just kidnapped them! But, ultimately, he would prefer dressing up as a doll with his sister and reciting nursery rhymes as they commit murder. I guess there are worse ways to end a career! There’s a scene in a cinema foyer where on the candy bar is a small poster of Attack of the Puppet People. A homage that points out it is forever Gordon’s favourite.

A sweet shot of Susan Gordon on the set of Attack of the Puppet People.

So there you have it. Gordon was never a darling of the critics but I don’t think he died a little with each new review. He probably laughed all the way to the bank. But Mr B.I.G.’s universe of creatures and people has a place in film history. You already know if you like them or not, so I will end the torment here.

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