Face Behind The Fiends: Richard Gordon
Posted by: Dan Lopez
Richard Gordon might best be described as the face behind many memorable entries in the science fiction and horror catalogue. Although his career as a producer may very well be most remembered for the classic chiller, Fiend Without A Face (a fact he doesn't seem to mind too much), his contributions to cinema are further reaching than one might think. From two sides of the U.S., Richard (in New York) and his brother Alex (in California) created something of an era in film. While Richard developed noteworthy British prospects under his company 'Amalgamated Productions,' Alex was busy with the early years of American International Pictures. We spoke on the subject of Fiend Without A Face and other topics in a pleasant, friendly conversation with Richard Gordon, which has been slightly rearranged and edited for presentation.
dOc: How did you first get involved in distributing and producing films?
Gordon: When my brother and I came to America, which was in 1947 when we emigrated from England, I set up a business to represent English and other foreign film production/distribution companies to license their films for them in the United States for theatrical and television release. So, I got pretty experienced at how to make the deals, and then at a certain point in time, when it became very fashionable for English producers to get American actors to come to England and play in some of the films to make them more marketable, I also got involved in hiring the actors, dealing with the agents, and setting up co-production deals. After a few years of that, I said to myself "If I can do this for other people, I really should be able to do it for myself by now," and that's how I started. I first made about half-a-dozen co-production deals in England and produced these films with English partners. At the time of The Haunted Strangler and Fiend Without A Face I founded my own producing company in England, with me being based in New York. My brother, meanwhile, had gone on to Hollywood to get into production there, and was by that time established as a producer for American International Pictures, and he made quite a few of their exploitation pictures; everything from horror and science fiction to westerns, musicals, and comedies. As you know, by that time, AIP had a pretty eclectic schedule, and he did about 20 films for them. A couple of those early films were directed by Roger Corman, because that was when AIP first started and Corman was involved with Samuel Z. Arkoff and Jack Nicholson.
dOc: Did you and your brother work together at all, sending projects back and forth?
Gordon: Well, it was really one-way traffic, because a lot of stuff was being submitted to AIP. Nicholson and Arkoff used to consult with him and their other producers about which scripts were likely to make pictures suitable for them. When something came along that AIP, for whatever reason, didn't want to do and he thought it might be suitable for me, he would send it to me saying, "If you can use this, I can get it for you." Usually these were things that could be easily re-scripted to take place in England. This is how, for instance, I got the script for The Projected Man, which was originally a Hollywood script that AIP turned down. Also, this is how he came to send me the original story called The Thought Monsters, which was the basis of Fiend Without A Face. That had been published in the 1930s in a pulp-fiction magazine called Weird Tales. At that time, when Alex Gordon was in Hollywood, Forrest J. Ackerman, whose name I'm sure you recognize, was representing the remaining, living authors of these stories to try and sell the in Hollywood for movies. So, when Alex sent me Thought Monsters, and I read it thinking it was a terrific idea, he put in contact with Ackerman and I acquired the rights to the story.
dOc: Was working on science fiction and horror something you wanted to get into, or did you just fall into it?
Gordon: It's something I really wanted to do. Alex and I, as kids, were always interested in fantasy and horror films. Of course, in the 1930s in England, most of the American horror films, like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the rest of them, were prohibited to children under the age of 16, so we didn't see those until later. We were always interested very much in that field, and when we first came to New York, one of the things we did for extra income was to write articles for British fan magazines who were particularly interested in our interviewing British actors living and working in America. We had the opportunity to meet both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi that way, and that sort of spurred on the idea.
dOc: Is that how you wound up working with Karloff on Haunted Strangler?
Gordon: Yes, Karloff was in New York appearing in a play by J.B. Priestly, and we went backstage to interview him for a British magazine; we got along very well. He came back a year or so later in another English play and I contacted him again. We sort of became friends on an on-and-off basis and he knew where my thinking was and that I was very keen to get into production. He was very keen to work back in England, and at one point, in 1956, he gave me a story called Stranglehold, and told me that the story had been specially written for him by Jack Reed. He wanted to do the film and he wanted me to set it up for production in England, and if I could, he'd do the film with me. To use a cliché phrase, that was an offer I couldn't refuse. When I went back to England, being able to say that Karloff had agreed to do it, it wasn't too difficult for me to set up a deal. After that, I created my production company, Amalgamated Productions. He was a wonderful man to work with, of course the complete opposite of the characters he played on screen. He was a very gentle, typical English country gentleman. He was a very wonderful guy and very helpful to me, I will always be grateful to him for giving me that start. Later I made Corridors of Blood with him, and I stayed in contact with him right up until he passed away, and then subsequently with his widow Evelyn until she died a few years ago.
dOc: How did Fiend become attached to Haunted Strangler when it was released?
Gordon: The reason I was looking for something at the time was that I had started by setting up the production of The Haunted Strangler with Boris Karloff and found that the co-financiers, distributors in England, and subsequently MGM wanted a picture to go with it because everything was double-feature in those days. They quite rightly said, "If you can't give us a second picture, we'll have to put it with our own picture and that won't be to your own benefit." So, I was looking for something to go with Strangler, which was a Gothic, Victorian story. I thought a modern science fiction story would make a good co-feature so, I decided to put Fiend along with it. And, by the way, I have to give credit to Alex for the title Fiend Without A Face. Fiend was designed originally to be the second feature, but as it turned out, because of the cost of the special effects, it not only became more expensive to produce but it developed an identity of it's own, in fact it opened as single feature. When it went into distribution on the English circuit and in the United States, the two pictures went out as a double feature.
dOc: Where did Fiend premiere?
Gordon: It originally opened in the West End of London on a single bill at the Ritz Leicester Square in a theater owned by MGM, though MGM had nothing to do with the picture. Haunted Strangler opened separately at Picadilly Circus by it's original title Grip Of The Strangler. In the US, I believe Fiend opened in Detroit, but when it came to the Rialto in New York we had fun with the opening. We had a Fiend model in a glass case and we had an electrical mechanism that made it move around and growl. Unfortunately, it only lasted a couple of days because it attracted so much attention from people in the street that the police came to say that we were disrupting traffic.
dOc: In the original story, the actual fiends themselves were never visible, correct?
Gordon: Yes, that's right. Not only are they never visible, but they are never properly described, which I guess is because they're invisible. (laughing) We decided that if you don't make them visible, then we really don't have a movie. We had complete freedom to use our imagination as to what they would look like, because there's nothing in the story that indicated it.
dOc: Who came up with the idea that they should be brains with spinal cords?
Gordon: Actually, the guys I have to give credit to for that were the two special effects men we had, Ruppel and Nordhoff, who were a German team of F/X specialists who were working in England at the time. They used to do a lot of the model work on World War II pictures with airplane battles and so on. John Croydon, who was my line producer on the picture, knew them from working with them on some pictures. he introduced me to them. We had a meeting and discussed the whole thing, and they conceived the idea and then did some drawings which they submitted to us.
dOc: Was Fiend a difficult film to make compared to most films of the day?
Gordon: The only thing about it that was hard was to get the special effects right, and that's where the budget problems came in, because special effects of that nature, which are more or less the same technique that people like Ray Harryhausen were using; the stop-motion and background projection and so on. That kind of thing was always done on a trial and error basis; you just kept doing the scenes over and over again until they came out right. It never went as quickly as it was planned. I spent some time in Munich, Germany, at the studio of these two special effects guys, working with them on the model work and it just stretched on for many, many weeks, several months longer than it was originally budgeted at. At the end of the day, though, it turned out to be well worth it.
dOc: Were you ever worried at all about censorship? It's always struck me that the film was kind of intense and gory for the time.
Gordon: Well, I was concerned the film might be too gruesome in places, particularly with regard to the deaths of the Fiends. We tried to shoot it so that those scenes could be trimmed wherever necessary, and in fact they were trimmed both in England and in the United States at the time. Everything that you see now is the original cut. Of course, right around this time, Hammer Studios was starting it's horror cycle; Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, among other things. Hammer was pretty good at pushing the envelope, as they say, so I felt that, to a certain extent, we could cash in on that. I was not, however, prepared for the fact that there would be such an outcry when Fiend opened, which in fact there was. The critics said it was revolting, outrageous, horrific, and shouldn't be allowed. It got right up to the point where there was a question asked in the Houses of Parliament about what the British Board of Film Censors was doing allowing movies like Fiend to be shown, and why was the British film industry trying to copy Hollywood by making this kind of picture? Of course, that was all fantastic publicity. (laughing) I could never have afforded to buy that kind of publicity. That's always been the case with censorship and sex films. They never realized, even with the Catholic Legion of Decency, that the more they complained the more they were driving people to go see the pictures. Movies nowadays are getting more and more explicit and I'll admit I'm not a fan the trend that started with the so-called 'slasher' movies like Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street, in fact I was just reading the reviews this morning of Hannibal which specifically mention the gore. It seems producers are trying to out-gross each other, and I don't mean it in the money making way. (laughing) I think it's a mistake and I think it's taken the fun out of making these movies.
dOc: Well, I think it's taken some toll on the stories, definitely.
Gordon: Right, what they're doing doesn't involve much creativity because with computer imaging, the effects have reached a point where if you can afford it, you can do anything, so directors often think everything must be visual. I think, as in true life, if something horrific happens and you don't actually see it, you always imagine it to be much worse. When you put lots of gore into a film, the audience KNOWS it's fake no matter what you do, wheras in the old days if you saw an axe coming down to chop someone's head off and the film cuts away, your imagination makes it much worse that it actually looks.
dOc: Well, my favorite example of that is Robert Wise's 1963 film, The Haunting, which has virtually zero effects, but it worked so well.
Gordon: Oh yes, easily one of the most frightening pictures of it's time.
dOc: Then the remake came along a few years ago which was filled with tons of CG and it was....
Gordon: ...a disaster. (both laughing)
dOc: Were the cast and crew satisfied with the end result of the picture?
Gordon: I think so. I mean, there were no specific comments about it, but we had a very professional crew that went from one production to another, always confident they had done their best with the last thing they worked on. Both Haunted Strangler and Fiend were filmed back to back with the same production crew in the same studio. The studio was called Walton Studios; one of the oldest independent studios in Britain.
dOc: Did anyone ever suspect you'd be making a film that would end up with such a loyal cult following that affected so many generations of people?
Gordon: No, never. I honestly have to say it never entered my mind. It wasn't until television really came and so much old product was being re-released, and then of course home video came about. It wasn't until the age of television that people became more concious of older films and putting some films into a 'classic' status, and all that. I don't think anybody did think of its future, but that's why so many films get lost over the years. Producers often didn't think there would be any value left in a film that had already had it's day in the theaters, and they'd let the material deteriorate. Today we know better, but at the time they weren't thinking.
dOc: It is a shame that so many movies have been lost from carelessness and other factors.
Gordon: Well, it's a crime when you think about it. It's wonderful to hear about restorations of films from the silent age or movies that people didn't even know existed. I mean, I'm a great fan of old movies and I go to all the film festivals that specialize in showing these movies. There are still many lost films, and, of course, one of the most outstanding examples in the horror film field is Lon Chaney's London After Midnight. There's hardly anyone left living who actually saw that film when it came out.
dOc: I think DVD has enormous potential to be a format that encourages restoration and film preservation, perhaps more than anything else we've seen.
Gordon: Oh yes, as the cost of DVD materials comes down, which it's doing all the time. I mean, DVD players are so affordable now. There several companies like Criterion Collection and Kino Video who specialize in that kind of thing, which I couldn't be happier about.
dOc: Do you own a DVD player?
Gordon: (laughing) I must admit, I initially acquired one because I was putting out my own films on DVD and I felt rather a fool getting the finished job and not being able to look at it without going to someone else's house. I'm interested in it because of the possibilities of the medium and I've started my own collection of DVDs. I mean, I love seeing the original Dracula and the Universal classics on DVD; they've never looked better. Of course, I'm of a generation that saw them originally in theaters, so even though a television screen is hardly the size of a theater screen, I do have the ability to fill in those missing details from my memories of the picture. For people who saw them for the first time on TV or home video, DVD is better than they've ever been able to see these movies before. For me, though, DVD not withstanding, it's still not as good as seeing the picture on theater screen. I mean, there's still a thrill to seeing a 35mm film in a theatre that DVD can't provide.
dOc: Well, I'm one of those people that thinks everything should pretty much get the same treatment and look as good as possible on home video, regardless of whether it's a 'classic' or not.
Gordon: Certainly everything should be preserved properly. A friend of mine often said that if someone took the trouble to put it on film, someone should take the trouble to preserve it. He was absolutely right about that.
dOc: Have you seen the end result of the Fiend DVD? I think it's fabulous.
Gordon: I'm very glad to hear that, thank you. I love the job Criterion did with it. We went back to the original masters I had stored in England to provide the best picture. Their restoration and work on the material is superb. I was delighted that they gave me the opportunity to do the commentary, and all together I think they've done a beautiful job with the package.
dOc: I especially liked the movie advertisements from old newspapers.
Gordon: Well, fortunately I had them in my files. They're from locations where the film opened, and one of the ads has the Rialto premiere in it.
dOc: Do you like the fact that producers, directors, actors, and others are getting involved with the home presentations of films on DVD?
Gordon: Absolutely, yes. As time moves on, there will be less and less people who had anything to do with the movie that can be consulted. I'm particularly pleased with Criterion, who go to great lengths to involve the people behind the movie to come in on the whole thing and have their say. Certainly it's given me a new platform, not that I'm pushing a future career, but it's a satisfaction in seeing in handled the way I would have liked it handled if I were in a position to do it myself. What really pleases me is that, until recently, Criterion never really did a line of genre movies. Now they've put out Carnival of Souls, The Blob, DePalma's Sisters, and now Fiend. I think it's something a little new for them and they're feeling their way with it, but hopefully this group of films will be sufficiently successful.
dOc: What are you doing nowadays?
Gordon: Well, I left producing in 1980. Right now I mainly work on licensing and distributing the films I own for DVD, television, cable, and satellite. I stopped producing when production costs started running away with themselves. Special effects and marketing costs were becoming the worst since everyone turned to television for marketing. It became very clear to me that I couldn't continue to produce independently, because the sums of money were getting so big. The only way I could have done it was if I joined up with a major studio, assuming a major studio wanted me. I didn't want to that, because, first of all, I had my own business in distribution and foreign sales which I never gave up. Second of all, I had been independent for such a long time, I just didn't feel like I wanted to work for anyone else. So, I decided to just concentrate on distribution. My last film as producer was Horror Planet, also called Inseminoid, which I actually just licensed to Showtime. The Shaw Brothers were my partners at the time, who came from Hong Kong productions. They were mainly interested in low budget production, but they moved into bigger things, like Blade Runner, for example. I had my 75th birthday two months ago and most people wonder why I don't retire, and I say, "Why should I?" I'm enjoying what I'm doing and I'm fortunate that I still own the copyrights on a lot of my films. I'm making money, obviously, but I'm also having fun doing it, and that's the important thing.