The life and films of the exploitation filmmaker who had a career-long fascination with giant monsters.
Bert I. Gordon, who died this week at the ripe old age of 100, is one of the more fascinating characters of exploitation cinema. If you believe the critics, he was an essentially worthless hack who ground out a series of low-rent science fiction films from the 1950s through to the 1980s, none of which have any value whatsoever. This might be the reason why his work was so popular with the artistic incels of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its imitators. But as Reprobate readers, you already know that this is complete nonsense.
Now, I’m not going to make the case for Gordon – ‘Mr B.I.G.’ as he was christened by Forrest J. Ackerman, possibly ironically – as an artistic genius. But he made a whole bunch of significant, entertaining and popular movies for more than two decades and while he was essentially grinding out whatever was popular, he did develop a certain style – or, more accurately, a theme that ran through his movies. That theme was giant monsters – overgrown creatures, some human and some not that ran from The Beginning of the End in 1957 (where giant grasshoppers go on the rampage) through to Empire of the Ants in 1977. The latter was ‘inspired’ by the H.G. Wells story and had a major release internationally, following the huge box office success of his previous Wells-connected film The Food of the Gods. Who else of his generation was still having major theatrical releases in the mid-1970s? Whatever you might think of his work, it was clearly speaking to a mass audience.
Mr B.I.G.’s films were often obsessed with size – he made The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel War of the Colossal Beast, Earth Vs the Spider and the mid-Sixties teen flick Valley of the Giants (with Land of the Giants-inspired teen delinquents). As a twist on his style, he made Attack of the Puppet People in 1958, a Dr Cyclops-inspired story of mad doctors and miniaturisation. But Gordon was a director who went where the market dictated. So his other films in the 1960s include the Sinbad-inspired The Magic Sword, psycho and supernatural thrillers like The Tormented and Picture Mommy Dead; in the 1970s he made the sexploitation film How to Succeed with Sex, occult movie Necromancy and violent action film The Mad Bomber; in the 1980s he shot witchcraft movie The Coming and sex comedies The Big Bet and Let’s Do It. He was not, by any definition, an auteur. But then again, neither are most filmmakers, including the near-anonymous people behind the big-budget franchise films of today. And Gordon’s films, compared to those modern rivals, seem positively unique and individual. His best films – those Fifties sci-fi epics, the underrated horror movies, the gloriously mad Empire of the Ants – are a lot of fun. No, not great films by any stretch of the imagination, but solidly watchable and entertaining.
Not every filmmaker needs to be an artist to be memorable. Gordon’s work is, in the grand scheme of things, fairly worthless. But equally, it’s mostly good, reliable entertainment. If you watch a Bert I. Gordon movie, you’re going to see a film that is a lot of fun – disposable maybe, but fun nevertheless, and isn’t that what we all really need from a sci-fi movie? We probably need more filmmakers like him today, when even trashy comic book movies are full of their own self-importance.
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Objection here to the characterization of the MSTK3000 crew as “artistic incels”. What does that even mean? It’s possible to hold two ideas in one’s head simultaneously – that someone like Bert Gordon’s movies can be good and sometimes great fun in themselves, but that they can also be appropriate fodder for the pointed and often very clever japes of able humorists (granted, many MSTK imitators don’t qualify).