I love William Girdler. I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but now you know. I thought I would take a moment to extol his many virtues. Born in 1947 in Kentucky, Girdler's short, seven year film career has given us some of the greatest exploitation films of the '70s. He was something of an exploitation wunderkind: he wrote most of his nine films, composed music for a few, produced a few and involved his hometown in the production of his early works. He has a blaxpoitation trilogy for AIP and an animal-exploitation trilogy, including Grizzly, which is his most successful film. He died during a helicopter crash in the Philippines after the completion of The Manitou, his final film.
Here is his legacy:
ASYLUM OF SATAN (1972)
Girdler's debut film is ridiculously tacky and is just about what you would expect from a no-budget independent feature from a first time director. This was one of the films he made in Louisville with locals involved in everything from acting to funding. A cute pianist is kidnapped by a Satanic doctor, who locks her in an asylum. He begins murdering the patients to gain immortality, with the pianist as the final virgin sacrifice. It's available as a double feature with Satan's Children from the great Something Weird Video.
THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1973)
It's a shame that such a great title doesn't live up to a relatively lackluster film. A young boy based somewhat on Ed Gein picks up a carful of girls on their way to skinny dip. During a sleepover, he kills them all, but doesn't remember. When he finally gets a girlfriend, can he keep himself from killing her too? I'm not going to ruin the absurd ending and I think this is worth at least one drunken viewing. Though the film essentially came out of Girdler's trust fund and didn't receive much acclaim or, really, viewers, it got him a relationship with AIP. Available on region 1 DVD from Televista. The trailer is amazing.
THE ZEBRA KILLER (1973)
Charles Kissinger strikes again (after Three on a Meathook) in this blaxploitation cop thriller that involves a serial killer, porn, karate, a dumb-ass cop and fried chicken. I haven't seen this one, though apparently I'm not missing much. Also known as Combat Cops and The Get-Man. As far as I can tell, this isn't available as a legitimate DVD release, though you can find bootlegs online.
This is, hands down, my favorite William Girdler film. I love it. The plot mimics The Exorcist, but with Santeria and blaxploitation. How much better can you possibly get? The film is a masterpiece. I don't want to give too much away, but the titular Abby, a pious, moral young woman, is possessed by an African sex god. Can her husband and father in law save her before she has nasty sex with everyone in town? Surprisingly, this was Girdler's first box office success, though I suspect it was riding on the coattails of Blacula and The Exorcist, whose producers sued Girdler. Thank god, it is available on DVD, in the "Black Exorcist Edition." I couldn't find a decent trailer, so here's an excellent clip. Required viewing.
SHEBA BABY (1973)
Another blaxploitation film, though mostly this is a weak Pam Grier vehicle. She stars as a detective battling thugs and the mob to save her father's company. Though you would be better off watching Coffy first, Sheba Baby is still entertaining and lovely to watch, mostly because of the sexy Grier. Another film with Charles Kissinger and the last shot in Kentucky. Available on region 1 DVD from MGM.
PROJECT: KILL (1976)
Another one that I haven't seen and am not in a hurry to. Leslie Nielsen stars as an assassin who quits his job and gets hunted by the FBI and an Asian gang trying to steal his secrets. Despite Nielsen's involvement the film is not a comedy and frequently gets bogged down by some painful dialogue. There's a cheap region 1 DVD available from Digiview. This clip has some of the worst kung fu I've ever seen...
DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977)
Another cause for jubilation... I saw it a year or two ago in the theatre and, let me tell you, I love rampaging animal movies. I have no idea why, but I do. Especially when they're directed by William Girdler. Animals in the forest go insane because of the ozone and a group of campers are stuck in the middle of the crazed beasts. Because Girdler has an obsessive need to recycle actors, the film stars Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen and Linda Day George. The death scenes are great, the acting is ridiculous, partly because the humans go insane from the ozone as well and hamminess abounds. Flying rats!!! Available as a region 1 DVD from Shriek Show, which you can buy as a discounted set with Grizzly from Amazon. This would make a great double feature with B. I. Gordon's Food of the Gods, another rampaging animal favorite of mine.
THE MANITOU (1978)
Girdler's last film where he directed, wrote and producer. Tony Curtis is a psychic with the hots for Susan Strasbourg, who has a crazy tumor that turns into a maniacal Indian medicine man. Yes, this sounds implausible to me, too. Based on Graham Masterton's novel, the script was allegedly finished in three days, which is unfortunately obvious. Somehow Girdler got funding, as well as major actors like Tony Curtis, Michael Ansara and Burgess Meredith to sign on, and they seem to be thoroughly serious about the film. It's silly but fun and was a great way for Girdler's career to go out. There's a region 1 DVD available from Anchor Bay, which I recommend you pick up. But don't let me talk you into it. Watch the trailer.
"The main thing is I can make a living doing what I want. Most people can't." - William Girdler
William Girdler was a genius. As far as I can tell, there are no books or box sets available covering his life or work, though someone should get on that as soon as possible. If you want to find out more, there is a great tribute page with detailed plot summaries of his films, interviews, clips, links and posters.