Bert I. Gordon, whose B movies gained a cult following, dies at 100


Bert I. Gordon, who unleashed a parade of cinematic horrors as the filmmaker behind Atomic Age movies about mutant ants, 60-foot giants, rampaging grasshoppers and a bloodthirsty spider that proves too big to squash, died March 8 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 100.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Christina Gordon, who did not cite a cause.

Mr. Gordon, a B-movie auteur who wrote and produced almost all of his two-dozen films, was known for working quickly and cheaply — he shot his first feature, “King Dinosaur” (1955), in a single week for about $15,000 — while trying to terrify or titillate audiences in an anxious, paranoid age.

Critics called his storylines ludicrous and his special effects schlocky, and highlighted the absurdity of lines like, “You can’t drop an atom bomb on Chicago!” His film “The Food of the Gods” (1976), about a mysterious substance that causes rats, wasps and chickens to grow into giants, was “unintentionally hilarious” and “stunningly ridiculous,” wrote New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby.

But many of his films turned a profit and gained a cult following, attracting later generations of moviegoers with their imaginative monsters — rendered with the help of miniatures, mattes and rear-projection effects — and casts that featured actors who were on their way up, like a young Ron Howard, or seeking a paycheck near the end of their career, like Orson Welles, Ida Lupino and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Mr. Gordon “didn’t do much in the way of character development or psychological subtlety,” New Yorker film critic Richard Brody wrote in 2012, “but he sure knew how to make a visual metaphor — to convey extravagant emotions, indeed, the mental overdrive of youth itself, in simple images.”

That was especially true for “The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957), about an Army officer (Glenn Langan) who is showered with nuclear debris while trying to save a downed pilot near the site of an atomic-bomb test. He loses his hair, and his mind, while growing ever taller, and rampages through a cardboard approximation of the Las Vegas Strip before falling over the Hoover Dam to his doom.

The film capitalized on the success of Universal’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” and its box-office returns were good enough to revive the character for a sequel, “War of the Colossal Beast” (1958), which took the colossus to Los Angeles.

Over the next two decades, Mr. Gordon continued to make movies about larger-than-life characters and creatures, earning the nickname “Mr. B.I.G.” because of his initials and his preferred subject matter. (One notable exception: “Attack of the Puppet People,” a 1958 horror film about a toymaker who shrinks his enemies to the size of dolls.)

Shooting gargantuan creatures on microscopic budgets, he often turned to rudimentary techniques. For “Beginning of the End” (1957), which starred Peter Graves as a scientist trying to stop a swarm of giant locusts from destroying Chicago, he ordered grasshoppers from Texas, then placed the bugs atop still photographs of the city’s downtown landmarks. He used a similar approach for “Earth vs. the Spider” (1958), employing a real arachnid for some shots and building a single, hairy prop leg for sequences in which the giant creature picks off members of the cast.

At times he found it more difficult to deal with actors than monsters, as when he filmed “Empire of the Ants” (1977), in which Joan Collins is chased through a swamp by a swarm of irradiated ants. “She was not one of my most cooperative stars,” he recalled, adding in a 2003 interview with Marty McKee that he resorted to pushing the actress into a Florida river to get her into the water while shooting on location.

While preparing to shoot “Necromancy” (1972), which starred Welles as a mysterious cult leader, Mr. Gordon was warned by colleagues that his leading man would be demanding and uncooperative. Trying to get on Welles’s good side, he arranged for the actor to have a special grill and refrigerator on the set, filled with the star’s favorite foods.

“I got ribs from Chicago,” he recalled, “and I had a chef with a hat. Honest to God. Really.” The actor “was like a baby the rest of the way,” he added. “No problems.”

Mr. Gordon also made more realistic horror films like “Picture Mommy Dead” (1966), which featured Don Ameche, Martha Hyer and Gabor, and ventured outside the genre with movies like “The Magic Sword” (1962), a fantasy adventure, and “How to Succeed With Sex” (1970), a raunchy comedy that the Times called “an occasionally pleasant dirty movie.”

Still, he remained best known for his monster movies, which found new life in the late 20th century when they were screened as part of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” accompanied by the TV show’s usual snarky commentary.

The humor was lost on Mr. Gordon.

“I watched it one time, and I didn’t like them making fun of [the films],” he said, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “I take my films very seriously.”

The younger of two children, Bert Ira Gordon was born in Kenosha, Wis., on Sept. 24, 1922. His parents ran a tavern and then a health food store.

When he was 9, his aunt gave him a camera and he began making home movies. He later filmed football games and school events while attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and moved to St. Paul, Minn., to make TV commercials and corporate films.

“I woke up one morning and I was shaving, and I said to myself, ‘You’re fooling yourself. You’re not making movies. People make movies in Hollywood,’” he recalled in a 2010 interview with the Madison Capital Times.

Against the advice of friends and family, he moved to California and soon directed his first film, about astronauts who travel to another planet and battle prehistoric animals, including a dinosaur that was played on-screen by an iguana. His follow-ups included “The Cyclops” (1957), which featured Gloria Talbott, Lon Chaney Jr. and Duncan “Dean” Parkin as the disfigured title character, and “Village of the Giants” (1965), an H.G. Wells adaptation with Howard and Beau Bridges.

Mr. Gordon was aided on many of his films by his first wife, the former Flora Lang, a production manager and special effects technician. That marriage ended in divorce, and in 1980 he married Eva Marklstorfer, with whom he lived in Beverly Hills, Calif.

She survives him, as do two daughters from his first marriage, Patricia and Carol Gordon; a daughter from his second marriage, Christina Gordon; six grandchildren; and a number of great-grandchildren. Another daughter from his first marriage, former child actress Susan Gordon Aviner, died in 2011.

Mr. Gordon was still working in recent years, and released his last film, “Secrets of a Psychopath,” the year he turned 93. More than half a century into his career, he said he was still thrilled by the experience of going into a movie theater and waiting to see how the audience would respond.

“If they’re supposed to scream in fright, and the spider [is sneaking up on its victim] and you’re waiting, waiting, and the sweat is building up, and all of a sudden, it happens, and they scream — that’s what it’s all about,” he told McKee. “I love it.”


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