A Song Before Annihilation: Beginning of the End (Albert Glasser)

It’s thrills, chills, and bombast to spare in this brief suite of cues from Bert I. Gordon’s big-bug opus Beginning of the End (1957), courtesy of one of the director’s earliest collaborations with prolific cinema composer Albert Glasser. His minute-long opening theme to the picture is an all-out assault on the audience dominated by shrill strings and woodwinds and explosive brass, whose meandering motifs duel and overlap in martial conflict before collapsing into percussive, repetitive stings. The cue which follows (from the film’s Pied Piper finale) is of subtler stuff, if only just – what I wouldn’t give to have a more complete score recording!

The small sampling here (just shy of three minutes) comes courtesy of Starlog’s long out-of-print 1978 LP release, The Fantastic Film Music of Albert Glasser Vol. 1, which offers a stellar mix of the composer’s work ranging from his early outing on The Cisco Kid film series (circa 1948) to his rare non-monster Gordon collaboration, the colorful 1960 fantasy The Boy and the Pirates. It’s a shame that the implied Vol. 2 never came to fruition (Starlog Records wasn’t in action for long), but I suppose them’s the breaks. Vol. 1 is still readily available on eBay, Discogs and elsewhere at very reasonable prices (mine ran me a whole $7, shipped) and, needless to say, is highly recommended.

The Real B. I. G. Picture Show:
Beginning of the End (1957)

With his independently produced sci-fi shocker The Cyclops already in the black with nary a ticket sold there was really nowhere to go but up for director and bargain effects whiz Bert I. Gordon. As RKO tangled with releasing that picture (picked up just before RKO’s own distribution arm folded) Gordon was already busy making another, this time as part of a deal with the short-lived production subsidiary of American Broadcasting – Paramount Theaters, Inc. Beginning of the End would be the director’s most ambitious project to date, a big-bug thriller in the mold of Warner’s 1954 blockbuster Them! built around a winning exploitation concept – an all out monster assault on Chicago. For his part Gordon did what he always did best. He brought the film in on time and on budget, and with bargain basement thrills to spare. AB-PT wasted no time either. Beginning of the End (opposite the John Carradine / Allison Hayes quickie The Unearthly) was in cinemas and earning bucks a full month before the distribution-challenged The Cyclops premiered.

The end begins when two state patrolmen happen upon an unnatural accident site just outside of Ludlow, IL. The car is totaled and a bloodied cloth hints at violence, but bodies are nowhere to be found. Worse awaits just a mile up the road, where Ludlow itself has been all but wiped from the face of the Earth. It’s structures have been trampled flat and, more disturbing still, the town’s entire population has vanished. The national guard moves in and begins investigating the incident, but their roadblocks net the curiosity of war correspondent turned National Wire Service photographer Audrey Aimes (B-movie bombshell Peggie Castle).


With grudging assistance from the commanding officers Aimes begins her own investigation into the matter, and follows a hunch to a nearby Department of Agriculture facility where experiments with radioactive isotopes are underway. There she finds entomologist Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves!) and a greenhouse stuffed with gargantuan experimental vegetables. With a bit of due diligence and the requisite personal endangerment Aimes and Wainwright uncover the cause of the Ludlow disaster. The grasshoppers which had infested Wainwright’s radioactive garden patch some months earlier have mutated into a veritable army of truck-sized monsters. With local resources exhausted they’ve begun creeping their way across rural Illinois, devouring everything in their path, and neither the Illinois National Guard nor the U.S. Army (commanded by who else but Morris Ankrum) are able to halt their voracious advance. Wainwright and Aimes rush to find an answer lest Chicago, and perhaps the whole world, succumb to the insatiable locust horde.

Okay, so Beginning of the End doesn’t quite live up to the epic expectations set by either its hyperbolic ad campaign or the synopsis I shared above, but it certainly tries in its own small way. Both the scripting (courtesy of one-time screenwriter Lester Gorn and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms‘ Fred Freiberger) and Gordon’s straight-forward direction play quite well early on, building a reasonable sense of dread mystery around the night-time destruction of an all-American small town and the disappearance of its entire populace. Beginning of the End leaves the grimmer eventualities of such an idea to the imagination, and I must confess that the idea of 150 men, women, and children being torn from their sleep by some all-consuming menace is a dreadful one indeed.

Beginning of the End Middle

The mystery is mostly for naught, of course, unless one is willing to forget the film’s own advertising for the sake of buying into it all. Beginning of the End‘s trailer only makes it a minute before completely spilling the beans about the film’s menace, a race of gigantic grasshoppers who are depicted on the poster art as having bulging cat eyes and toothy cartoon grins! One pities poor Lester Gorn and Fred Freiberger, tasked with devising anything at all credible within the confines of such a preposterous premise. The writing can’t help but succumb to the silliness of it all, with Graves desperately warning about irresistible power (“Each has the strength of ten men!”) of the film’s rather everyday monsters.

While the first appearance by Beginning of the End‘s locusts is indeed startling, punctuated as it is by an excellent Albert Glasser stinger, it’s not especially convincing, and by the end of the film’s brief running time Gordon has already repeated the same angle half a dozen or more times. As with The Cyclops, King Dinosaur, and the majority of his films to come it was Gordon himself who was responsible for the special effects here, which are as transparent as they come. Perhaps the greatest failing of Gordon’s methods (here a mix of miniatures, rear projection, and travelling matte) lies with the nature of the monsters themselves. No matter how enormous Gordon tries to convince us they are, it’s impossible to see the film’s big bugs as anything but what they are – cute, ordinary grasshoppers. I doubt AB-PT much cared so long as they had a marketable monster and enough effects takes to cut a trailer that was good enough to drag in the expected audience – predominantly teenagers. Whether they were there for gut laughs or cheap scares didn’t matter, just so long as they paid their admission.


Somewhere therein lies the secret to Gordon’s mid-century success. For a fraction of the cost he could churn out just as much effects punch as the majors, and in Beginning of the End‘s case likely much more, and whether or not his work stood up to even the most casual scrutiny was completely beside the point. To that end Beginning of the End dishes out the monster stuff in spades, reaching its zenith when a handful of grasshoppers (all that was left out of the couple of hundred the production had begun with) creep into Chicago to threaten a flat photograph of the Wrigley Building. Whether because of or despite the utter stupidity of it all, this is great stuff, with Peter Graves bravely machine-gunning rear-projections of travelling mattes (a one-two Gordon punch!) that keep coming to the same window again and again and again. The pests are eventually routed into the mighty Lake Michigan, leading to an effect so just-plain-bad that I can’t help but love it – the grasshoppers seen briefly swarming the shoreline are just a flat shot from above, and creep in and out of the jagged matte lines at will. The mess is over in two seconds flat, and the audience left to divine the big bugs’ drowning demise from a couple of quick cuts of the water-bound hoppers and a fade back to Lake Michigan’s pristine, bug-less shores. Humanity is again triumphant, and the effects? Eh, good enough.

Indeed, good enough could well be the mantra of Beginning of the End. It’s a decent big bug picture with a passable script and competent cast, and the special effects are certainly there. For a film with no loftier aim than to be cheap exploitation it could well have been much worse, and the box office doesn’t seem to have minded its rattier qualities. Along with Gordon’s later The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End would go down as one of the top earners of 1957.

The home video status of Beginning of the End is a bit confused. The presently available widescreen DVD is quite good, but represents the 73 minute theatrical cut of the picture and loses the stock footage padding – and at least one special effects take – that are familiar to those accustomed to the 76 minute television version. The television version is technically out of print, but remains readily available both on VHS and as the co-feature on Rhino Video’s original DVD of the film’s MST3K appearance.

The Real B. I. G. Picture Show:
The Cyclops (1957)

Independently financed for what must have seemed a small fortune to commercial maker turned Hollywood director and low budget special effects guru Bert I. Gordon in the wake of 1955’s miserly matinee King Dinosaur, the 1957 sci-fi horror The Cyclops was the first film in Gordon’s filmography to be completely his own. Not only did Gordon produce, direct, and provide special effects for the production, he wrote it and hunted up its private financiers as well. Though eventually distributed through Allied Artists, upon completion The Cyclops was picked up by a floundering RKO, whose cash advance on the deal put the $100,000 production in the black before it even hit the screens. Its profitability led to a new deal with the short-lived AB-PT Pictures Corp and the production of the big-bug opus Beginning of the End, and doubtless helped ingratiate Gordon with Nicholson and Arkoff’s A.I.P., under whose banner he would go on to produce many of his best pictures.

The narrative for The Cyclops is pretty straight forward stuff, but after the brainless slog of King Dinosaur I’m just happy it has one at all. Several years prior young Susan Winter’s (Gloria Talbot, I Married a Monster From Outer Space) fiance Bruce flew into an isolated canyon region of Mexico and never came back. Now Susan has returned to find him, with a motley crew of three in tow. Lee Brand (Tom Drake, Meet Me in St. Louis) is a contract pilot, while ambitious oaf Martin Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.!) is looking to prospect for uranium in them thar hills. Scientist Russ Brand (top-billed James Craig, Kitty Foyle) is the most devoted of the bunch, a would-be suitor who hopes the expedition will convince the woman he loves to put the tragic past behind her.
Having brushed aside stern warnings from the local government (there are dangerous downdrafts in the area!), the expedition flies out to the ill-fated Bruce’s last known coordinates and promptly crash lands (with an assist from a momentarily crazed Martin) in a valley rimmed with nigh impassable mountains. Martin’s prospect-o-scope is soon ticking off the charts – the area is alive with radioactive elements he hopes will make him rich. Unfortunately for our adventurers, it’s also alive with something else. As they search the valley for evidence of Bruce’s downed plane they encounter giant beast after giant beast – a car-sized spider, a hawk a dozen feet high, and a pair of dueling bus-sized lizards. After a quick bit of scientific investigating Russ reaches a dreadful conclusion. The constant exposure to radiation has sent the native wildlife’s pituitary glands into hyper-drive, allowing them to grow exponentially, and the expedition has mere days before its own exposure reaches dangerous levels.

Just as the group are plotting to escape the area they fall prey to the most horrible threat yet – a disfigured twenty-five foot tall giant whose humanity seems to have gone with his face. The one-eyed beast traps the band in a cave, killing the trigger-happy Martin in a fit of vengeful rage and taking Susan as his personal hostage. The chance appearance of a mammoth snake gives the surviving three all the opportunity they need to sneak out from under the giant’s watchful gaze, but he is soon in hot pursuit. Can the surviving three escape the valley before they all wind up like Martin? And just who is that towering giant?
half sheet
Gordon’s screenplay tries a little too hard to build a mystery out of such an obvious situation (that giant couldn’t possibly be the downed airman we’re all looking for, could it?), but I’d say it’s a perfectly forgivable transgression – the rest of the writing is passable enough in context, and gets to the thrills early and often. Of these the titular cyclops is easily the best and most memorable, a fact due in large part to Jack H. Young’s (The Brood) deliciously ghastly prosthetic make-up effects. With one big, bulging eye and a half-deformed mouth lined with cartoonishly out-sized chompers The Cyclops is an outright classic fifties monster design, even if the film it inhabits doesn’t quite rate. Studio guard turned giant monster Dean Parkin gives an appropriately BIG performance and, with a monumental assist from grunt-and-growl over-dubber Paul Frees, even elicits some heart-tug empathy when scientist Russ takes to re-enacting Homer with the beast’s one good eye. The scene of the cyclops whimpering in pain as he removes a bloodied spear from his now useless eye has been trimmed from television prints as of late, which is a damned shame – it’s the best moment of the picture.

The cyclops itself excepted The Cyclops plays as a fairly routine lost world adventure (some of the plot is straight out of the First National’s 1925 adaptation of the Conan Doyle novel) with a contemporary sci-fi twist. Unlike the lamentable King Dinosaur, which promised kids a Tyrannosaurus Rex and handed them an iguana instead, here Gordon’s oversized animals are just that – native wildlife made huge by the valley’s abnormally high radioactivity. The effects are what they are. Some early moments – the first appearance of a giant lizard and the landing of a monstrous hawk – are done in split screen, and blend with the rest of the action well enough. Gordon handles the rest with his trusty, terrible traveling matte process, producing an army of beasts with glowing highlights and see-through shadows. When I first saw the film late one night in my formative years, the unreal, almost phantasmagoric quality of Gordon’s process effects fascinated me. In this age of cold, photo-real CGI, the transparent unreality of Gordon’s work still holds huge appeal for me. I’ll take one man doing what he can to get the shot he needs over an army of tinkering effects techs any day.
Less appealing is The Cyclops‘ occasional reliance on real animal violence for its thrills. For decades after Hal Roach did it in One Million B.C., monster pictures (including A productions like Fox’s Journey to the Center of the Earth) seemed to be fixated with abusing big lizards for fun and profit. To that end The Cyclops repeats one of King Dinosaur‘s unpleasant highlights – a tangle between an iguana and a tegu – anew, but is at least brief about it. The optically gigantified lizards spend most of their time chasing down James Craig and Gloria Talbot, who prefigure James Mason and Thayer David’s dimetrodon escape in Fox’s later Journey by fleeing for the questionable safety of waste-deep water. An earlier assault by a giant hawk is more grisly still, lingering at length as the bird kills and begins to eat a mouse. The content is no worse than moments (staged and non) from countless nature documentaries that have been produced over the years (some pretty lamentable in their own right), but I’m still ruffled at the use of such material for its thrill factor alone.

The animal scenes aside, I’m not one to criticize The Cyclops too harshly. It’s a competent if not especially outstanding genre programmer, but it was the first Bert I. Gordon picture I ever saw, and remains one of my favorites. Indeed, it’s the first from the director that really feels like a Gordon picture, thanks both to its content and the happy confluence of talent involved. Among other things it was the first to feature a score from Albert Glasser, whose beautifully overstated compositions would go on to accompany a further seven of the director’s pictures. Gordon would expand upon The Cyclops‘ central conceit in fantastic fashion with his first A.I.P. production – the monumentally successful The Amazing Colossal Man. That film’s 1958 sequel War of the Colossal Beast would replay some elements from The Cyclops‘ wholesale, featuring yet another pitiable one-eyed giant courtesy of Parkin, Young, and Frees.

The Cyclops is out in a gorgeous (and uncut!) widescreen enhanced made-on-demand DVD from the Warner Archive, and comes highly recommended to genre fans. The top image is sourced from my old tape, for the dubious purposes of nostalgia.

The Real B. I. G. Picture Show:
King Dinosaur (1955)

PosterFour generic science-types do generic science-y stuff on the wandering planet Nova in this bargain basement sci-fi yarn released through independent Lippert Pictures (The Lost Continent, Rocketship X-M) in the summer of 1955. The eponymous King Dinosaur and his prehistoric pals are a sad sack indeed, a menagerie of decidedly normal animals that only show up to threaten our intrepid astro-nots in the final reel. Essentially just 62 minutes of utter disappointment hiding behind an exploitable title and keen ad campaign, King Dinosaur‘s singular claim to fame is the man who made it all happen – Bert I. Gordon – who not only directed the picture (his first feature in that capacity), but produced, co-wrote, and devised the visual effects for it as well. Gordon’s career would soon come to be dominated by films built around the optical enlargement (and occasional reduction) of both man and beast, leading to at least a few honest B-grade classics along the way. One wonders what might have been lost had King Dinosaur not been there to provide the dubious springboard.

Fortunately we have King Dinosaur, though unfortunately it’s still King Dinosaur.

Written by Tom Gries (The Hawaiians) from a story by Gordon and co-producer Al Zimbalist (Robot Monster, Cat Women of the Moon, Monster From Green Hell and so on), the sum total of King Dinosaur‘s narrative impetus is related in a single slogging 10 minute montage at the start of the show. The key points are hit upon swiftly – the newly-discovered planet Nova has wandered into our solar system, and scientists are naturally eager to investigate. What follows is padding upon padding, with Hollywood narrator extraordinaire Marvin Miller (the voice of Robby the Robot) doing his best to make a stock footage history of an entire space program seem exciting (“Switch on for jet engine test number eighty-seven!“) while the cast silently fidgets with test tubes and technological whatsits. With more than a sixth of the running time already over and done library footage of a V2 rocket test is rolled out, and the film finally migrates to the pristine and distinctly Californian countryside of planet Nova.

vlcsnap-2014-03-11-13h47m09s230 “It resembles a Tyrannosaurus Rex, of Earth’s prehistoric age!”. . . Or not.

While the departure from stock footage hell is welcome, I can’t say that it improves things much. The band of interchangeable explorers (Will Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, and Patti Gallagher, all making the best of the barren material) disembarks from their ill-matted spaceship and romps around in the woods, looking at dirt and occasionally saying science-like things (“An active volcano! This planet is quite young, Pat!“). Drama arrives courtesy of a handful of animal interjections – a python that harmlessly wanders the camp at night, another snake that stupefies one of the female scientists with its horrible tree-sitting, and an unfortunate alligator, which is fallen on and then pretend-fought-with by one of the male leads. More enticing for aficionados of Gordon’s peculiar brand of effects madness is a Jerusalem cricket the size of a Volkswagon bug that appears half-way through the picture, threatening a pair of scientists in truly dreadful traveling matte fashion. Like most of the rest of Nova’s indigenous wildlife, it is shot on sight.


And so the first three quarters of King Dinosaur go. With just fifteen minutes to spare the band decides to cart itself to a desolate, vulture-infested island, and the film’s prehistoric miseries finally begin. While wandering one of the island’s canyons the explorers find themselves at the mercy of one of history’s top predators – a ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, here played by an agitated green iguana with a small horn glued to its snout.

Yes, kids, this is yet another in the long line of dinosaur films that relies on animal abuse for its effects thrills. Nova’s rather Earthly dinosaur king is man-handled into battle first with a young alligator, and later with a tegu, two manufactured conflicts that obviously injured their unwilling participants. When the astronauts seek shelter in a nearby cave the animal wrangler is there, shoving the distressed star iguana’s head into the cave’s miniature entrance. It’s lamentable stuff through and through, to the point that I was actually relieved when the explorers finally escaped, leaving the animal violence (if not the animals themselves) behind.

vlcsnap-2014-03-11-13h47m53s162Prehistoric horror!

The final few minutes of King Dinosaur are perhaps its greatest asset, a fever-dream sequence that has the explorers planting an atom bomb (it was handy) on the island and fleeing from a series of increasingly unconvincing horrors. A bus-sized armadillo sends them into hysterics while stock footage of a pursuing mammoth (courtesy of Hal Roach’s One Million B.C.) is made to look a cool hundred or so feet tall. As the explorers reach their dinghy they look back in stark terror at an insert shot of a mata mata turtle creeping along a riverbank. Louis Palange and Gene Garf’s score builds to absurd degrees of overstatement, and the iguana looks on, seemingly wondering at just what the hell is happening. Our “heroes” eventually reach shore, seeking the shelter of a dirt pile just moments before all stock footage hell is unleashed afresh. A mushroom cloud bursts onto the screen, blasting Nova’s prehistoric island (and the Nevada test site…) into oblivion. “We sure have done it,” one of the men says before cracking a smile. “We’ve brought civilization to planet Nova!”

One would be tempted to parse that final statement for meaning if the film were any more interesting, but in the case of King Dinosaur there’s little to do but chuckle at the blind stupidity of it all and move on to better things. Gordon did, after all. His next film, The Cyclops, would repeat some of King Dinosaur‘s regrettable animal abuses, but is still a hoot compared to what preceded it. King Dinosaur went on to be plundered for stock footage (along with One Million B.C.) by the amusing Mexican lost world production La Isla de los Dinosaurios in 1967, and doubtless bored fervent young genre fans half to death in television syndication. There’s really not much else to say. King Dinosaur is the pits.

There are a few DVD iterations of King Dinosaur out there, most notably a cramped (particularly during the “dinosaur” scenes) widescreen offering from VCI and an open matte edition from Retromedia. The screenshots in this review are from the latter, which is mastered from an old tape source with analog glitches to spare. The film doesn’t deserve much better. Buy at your own peril.

A Song Before Annihilation: The Cyclops / The Amazing Colossal Man / War of the Colossal Beast (Albert Glasser)

What can I say. I’ve been in a Bert I. Gordon sort of mood as of late, which means that I’ve been in an Albert Glasser sort of mood as well. Though he composed heaps of scores across many genres during his 30 year career, it’s for his numerous collaborations with Gordon that I remember Glasser most. Playing in perfect concert with the director and special effects guru’s insatiable appetite for larger-than-life subject matter, Glasser’s scores for Gordon’s pictures tended to be brassy, martial, and utterly over the top. With giant grasshoppers clawing their way up the Wrigley Building and and an atom-charged giant laying waste to Las Vegas, subtlety was certainly not the order of the day.

Sampled here are the main title cues for Gordon’s trio of colossal man features – The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, and its sequel War of the Colossal Beast. Sources aren’t the best – The Cyclops and War of the Colossal Beast are each taken from VHS (for all my love of Blu-ray, yes, I still use a VCR), while The Amazing Colossal Man is taken from a digital rip of a cassette recording (presumably one of those Glasser himself was peddling in his later years). While abbreviated suites to the first two were made available on LP, War of the Colossal Beast has never seen a release to my knowledge. As is ever the case, I’d pay damn good money to have shiny remastered CD releases of all three.