He’s back — looking meaner and uglier than ever! Bert I. Gordon’s early sci-fi effort shapes up as a surprisingly entertaining monster thriller with an elemental appeal. And lots of groaning and howling, too. Led by Lon Chaney Jr., the all-name cast keeps things lively. The pop-eyed monster is the ultimate bogeyman for the kiddies. Any movie that inspired as many nightmares as this one did, can’t be bad.
Warner Archive Collection
1957 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 66 min. / Street Date September 25, 2010 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 19.95
Starring James Craig, Gloria Talbott, Lon Chaney Jr., Tom Drake, Duncan Parkin, Vincent Padula.
Cinematography Ira Morgan
Film Editor Carlo Lodato
Technical Effects Bert I. Gordon, Flora Gordon
Vocal Effects Paul Frees
Makeup Jack H. Young
Original Music Albert Glasser
Written, Produced and Directed by Bert I. Gordon
The pleasant surprises keep coming, and this time out the WAC graces us with a genuine guilty pleasure. Bert I. Gordon is an odd filmmaker, that’s for sure. Nobody accused him of making particularly good movies, but some are nostalgic entertainments from a time when even schlock cinema had an innocent appeal. I find this ambitious no-budgeter to be the most enjoyable of his monster-thons. In 2010 Gordon issued a sketchily- written auto-bio titled The Amazing Colossal World of Mr. B.I.G. that frustrated eager readers with its lack of information. Fans learned practically nothing about the master of the Unconvincing Saturday Matinee Special Effect, or his movies. David Del Valle’s futile attempt to interview Bert in Video Watchdog was just more of the same. Couple it with an audio commentary from 2003 in which Gordon’s ex-wife and special effects collaborator Flora Gordon seemingly couldn’t remember anything about the making of Beginning of the End, and the story of B.I.Gordon remains in need of serious investigation.
“And lo! The inspired one emerged from the wilderness of Wisconsin to seek his fortune as a Hollywood filmmaker. And verily this man among men didst flourish in his new garden of creativity, inspired by a vision: make it bigger.”
That’s the optimistic view.
Bert Ira Gordon was one of several rogue producers and directors who in 1953 and ’54 scraped together some cash to make monster movies on less than a shoestring. Even if the movies cost only twenty or thirty thousand dollars, those sums were in no way chicken feed; in 1955 a modest house in a reasonable location might go for as little as $15,000. Yet the enterprising Roger Corman, Bert Gordon and Herman Cohen did what almost nobody can do now — their cheapies received national releases and they turned a profit. If one figures in his deals for free services and defrayed lab work, Corman’s Monster from the Ocean Floor may really have been filmed with only a $12,000 hard cash outlay. These microscopic numbers did not escape industry attention, even as the big studios turned up their noses at such undignified filmic subject matter. Why, if audiences really stopped wanting bloated dramas and musicals with big stars, it would mean the end of their livelihood.
The ‘Little Guy’ producer got a break in the 1950s: the legal breakup of the closed Hollywood system allowed independent distributors to hawk their wares without being elbowed out of theaters by the big studios. Outfits willing to gamble on this new kind of independent film were Lippert, Allied Artists and later, American-International. Bert I. Gordon’s first effort with future writer-director Tom Gries was called Serpent Island; it was reportedly shot on amateur 16mm Kodachrome reversal film stock, and may have seen most of its screenings on television. They followed that up with the first theatrical Bert I. Gordon epic, which he directed and Gries wrote, 1955’s King Dinosaur. Barely more than an hour even after an endless stock footage montage, this triple-Z movie used fairly terrible effects to matte lizards into shots of Hollywood’s Bronson Caverns location. Yet King Dinosaur received a real release. Variety generously called it “a mild science-fiction yarn okay for smaller double billing.” Under the circumstances those words were glowing praise.
Gordon’s next effort The Cyclops was produced soon after Dinosaur but not released until just after the 1957 debut of Gordon’s next picture, the much bigger-budgeted Beginning of the End. Gordon sold the distribution rights to RKO, which planned to release it in 1956 with the Hammer film X- the Unknown. An unused ad mat for the proposed double bill is just below; note the RKO logos. But when that studio suddenly went out of business, X- the Unknown was sold to Warners, The Mysterians to MGM and The Cyclops to Allied Artists. Release prints must have been ready to ship, because the some copies of the film reportedly retained an RKO logo as well. Allied Artists double-billed Cyclops with Edgar G. Ulmer’s horror opus Daughter of Dr. Jekyll. And Gordon’s show took the top slot on the bill.
Gordon wrote and directed The Cyclops on his own, and reportedly took over much of the cinematography as well. Although the movie lacks a full professional polish, it’s a quantum leap beyond the ‘backyard’ level of his previous effort. For such a small film, the cast is quite distinguished. Ex- MGM contractee Tom Drake had played Judy Garland’s boyfriend in Meet Me in St. Louis. Top-billed James Craig was another actor of merit (The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Human Comedy, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes) set adrift in the post-studio contract wilderness. By the time the show was released, Lon Chaney Jr. had just been re-introduced to potential kid audiences, thanks to the recently televised Shock Theater syndication package of his older Universal horror films. The fearless heroine is played by Gloria Talbott, a real talent who made a splash in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and kept busy in TV shows while taking any feature work she could get. Talbott also stars in The Cyclops’ second feature Daughter of Dr. Jekyll but is best known for her excellent performance in the next year’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space. Surprisingly, only James Craig’s name was featured on the posters.
Gordon’s direction is basic but serviceable, and his story isn’t at all bad for this level of production. Beautiful Susan Winter (Talbott) hires a plane to travel with three men into central Mexico, hoping to find her fiancé Bruce Barton, who disappeared in the ‘forbidden territory’ three years previous. Disobeying the local governor and overpowering a guard tasked with seeing them back to the U.S. border, the foursome flies directly into the off-limits airspace. Susan’s pilot Lee Brand (Drake) is an alcoholic who has lost his license to fly. Russ Bradford (Craig) was Bruce’s best friend and now hopes that Susan will accept the fact that Bruce is most likely dead. Marty (Chaney) has bankrolled the flight; he has packed a Geiger counter device he calls a scintillator to search for Uranium in the forbidden jungle.
Treacherous winds force the plane to make an emergency landing a valley or two away from where they think Bruce crashed. Marty is both a coward and a cheat. Detecting a strong uranium-like signal on his machine, he tries to talk Lee into flying back without the others so he can launch yet another crooked stock offering. Russ and Susan are shocked when giant animals — a hawk, a rodent, a lizard — cross their path. She talks the group into pressing on, and they eventually locate some wreckage from Bruce’s plane in a large cave (Guess where?). That’s when they’re confronted by a horrifying sight, a thirty-foot bald human giant with a grotesquely disfigured face. The giant roars and growls and holds them prisoner. Seemingly mentally impaired, it wails even louder as it gesticulates at Susan, who seems to have some significance for him.
On its own tawdry terms, The Cyclops is an efficient matinee thriller. Bert I. Gordon was no director of actors, but his script is serviceable and his actors are pros that know how to keep a scene from going dead. Lon Chaney’s avaricious securities crook is certainly animated, if not particularly convincing. The other three are never caught staring blankly or smiling when they shouldn’t, which happens in too many of these pictures. The standard radiation excuse accounts for the giant animals. The giant man’s face has been deformed because the radiation acts differently on scar tissue — the man had a wound over his eye when he entered the ‘forbidden valley.’
Gordon’s Cyclops is really something to remember — he tends to scare the bejeesus out of small kids. Makeup man Jack H. Young outfits stuntman Dean Parkin with a beautifully-designed facial appliance that gives half of his face a ‘melted’ look, leaving a single staring, bloodshot pop-eye. Clever makeup appliance sculpting gives the illusion that half of the Cyclops’ upper lip is gone, exposing his teeth beneath. It’s crude, perhaps, but the monster really grabs impressionable kids.
On a first viewing the makeup will startle most anyone. Dean Parkin’s extreme facial contortions add greatly to the effect. The Cyclops always seems to be contorting his mouth, as if in a perpetual howl. When he suddenly rises into the frame and roars, it’s difficult not to flinch. Young would top his truly surreal Tromp-l’ioeil makeup effect in Gordon’s later giant man movie, War of the Colossal Beast, doubling down on the visual concept of eye trauma. It also stars Dean Parkin and replays some of this movie’s plot points.
The show’s second unsung hero is the ubiquitous voice talent Paul Frees, who must provide at least twelve full minutes of Cyclops vocal effects. The monster is constantly crying, growling, breathing heavily, whining and yowling like a tortured cat, all of which is played at an exaggerated volume. Yes, the ‘character’ really isn’t developed, but the Cyclops can’t be ignored — he’s a walking, groaning horror and I’ll bet that he’s inspired a nightmare or two in his time.
The direction displays few niceties. An exception is an effective giant’s-eye view of Susan as she stumbles upon the wrecked plane, only to look up toward the camera and scream her lungs out. Gordon makes sure that these CyclopsVision shots are accompanied by blasts of Albert Glasser’s nicely overstated music score. The movie ends much the same as Odysseus’s fabled encounter with Polyphemus, and the gore effects were originally considered strong stuff.
The Allied Artists negative in Warners’ posssession is the shorter but better theatrical version. TV prints were marred by lengthy opening and closing scrolls of meandering, pointless text that pad the film out to minimum length for a 90-minute time slot. Joe Dante reported in 2010 that,
…”the Allied Artists TV print does indeed begin with (a pre-title prologue, a pre-repeat of the scene of Gloria Talbott finding the wreckage of the plane, and then screaming up at the camera.) I think it also has some step-printed stuff during the jungle-trek sequences. Those interminable text crawls at the beginning and end were at least good for fans of composers like Al Glasser and Ronald Stein, whose scores were looped to fill.”
The Cyclops may be a monster show for what Variety called ‘undiscriminating audiences’ but it has a tawdry grandeur all its own. A perfect example of a drive-in thriller made with more ambition than resources, it transports us back to a year when the nation’s screens saw a lot more variety of product. In today’s failing market many costly films starring big names have difficulty even finding a video release. Freebooters like Bert I. Gordon were following their version of the American dream — making their own movies and selling them in a film market that could accommodate crazy independents. Humble as his films may be, Gordon is a notable ’50s trendsetter, a “prophet from the wilderness.” In the tender words of Paul Frees, “ARRwerRAOWurghamOORAHgraaWAHWAH hrombhORGH!”
I compared the Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Cyclops to its older DVD release, and the improvement is dramatic — it is sharper, less grainy and has improved contrast that gives the images added punch. The cinematography now looks quite good, with adequate lighting for all the character close-ups with Gloria Talbott. The terrific monster makeup job is easily examined, as are Bert I. Gordon’s funky mattes and bi-pack camera tricks. We still have those occasional see-through monsters to contemplate, and there are a few effects howlers… when one character is plucked out of frame by a giant monster hand, the whole image around the man comes with him. One has to see this cheesy effect to believe it. But Bert and Flora occasionally luck out with an impressive composite.
The Warner Archive has added a trailer, albeit a Textless one meant for the addition of foreign-language titles. It gives away the monster’s face, which was The Cyclops’ main mystery back on the grade school playground, after broadcasts on KTTV’s Chiller Theater. Because we first heard about movie monsters through the exited commentary by our fourth-grade peers, they became doubly scary in the imagination.
I’ve relied so much on Tom Weaver’s original interviews that I’d like to add this link to one of his books, which has a lengthy interview with actress Gloria Talbott: Interviews With B Science Fiction And Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Fair + but a source of great affection for monster fans, so Good
Supplements: Textless trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 22, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Joe Dante on Mr. B.I.G.’s ode to James Joyce.