William Girdler Director Profile

Born October 22, 1947 with a monogrammed, platinum spoon in his mouth, Girdler was the product of an elite Louisville bloodline. His father Walter managed numerous family-oriented industries until shortly before his death at age 40. Girdler’s childhood was hardly average: He rode to school in a limousine, he had nannies and servants at his disposal and his home was an elegant mansion. But even as a young child, his older sister Lynne recalls, “Billy was always trying to entertain you. He was a real cut-up.”

Girdler loved films from an early age. He was purely and simply, a movie freak, a man who spent his childhood in the flickering dark of movie theaters and grew up to realize the dream of a lifetime [and] actually became a maker of movies.” Girdler’s directing idol was Alfred Hitchcock, and he was intrigued by the fact that people went to Hitch’s films just on the strength of his name. Girdler is thought of by several friends and colleagues as a Quentin Tarantino of his time the ultimate cinema buff who got lucky and made his own films. His addiction to moviemaking infected nearly everyone around him. Above all else, colleagues remember him as a nice guy who rarely forgot a friend or a favor.

When he was 14 or 15, he got a real film projector and built a theater in the house, with real theater seats and a projection booth. He had picked up the seats from a movie house being renovated across town. Then he’d talk the managers into letting him borrow movies after the theaters closed. He’d carry the giant cans and reels all the way home and invite his friends over for private showings. So we had all of the biggest movies playing in our house.”

Girdler spent his teen years studying in a private military school. At 17, he stole away to Michigan to marry his high-school sweetheart; upon graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force and worked with the audio/visual services as a cameraman and editor. He wrote and co-directed a number of documentaries and educational films while stationed in California, a period diming which he spent a good bit of time hanging around movie lots to rub elbows with Hollywood talent.

After returning home to Louisville in 1970, Girdler started making radio and TV commercials. He took a storage warehouse his grandfather owned and started a company called Studio 1 Productions. Among those working for him was William and Bub Asman; they and their brother John would go on to team with Girdler on his films. Girdler soon set his sights on bigger game than commercials: He wanted to make the leap to the silver screen. So in summer 1971, at age 23, he began drafting plans for his debut horror feature, The Satan Spectrum, later renamed Asylum of Satan. A self-promoting whirlwind, Girdler was able to lever- age the sparse Hollywood contacts he’d made while in the Air Force to secure financing from local entrepreneurs, theater owners and friends.

Girdler’s most successful contribution to the genre universe was Grizzly, a 1976 Jaws knockoff that remains one of the most lucrative independent features ever made. Abby, a campy 1974 blaxploitation interpretation of The Exorcist attained such a high profile that Warner Bros, filed a lawsuit against Girdler. Other films like Day of the Animals and The Manitou continue to enjoy posthumous popularity by way of television and video exposure.

Asylum of Satan (1972)

SUMMARY

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A young woman is brought to an asylum to receive special treatment from a mysterious doctor. Dr. Spector does more than just run the hospital he offers his patients as sacrifices to Satan.

DEVELOPMENT/ BEHIND THE SCENES

With a budget of a little over $50,000, production on Asylum of Satan kicked into high gear in winter ’71. Girdler penned the script with brother-in-law Pat Kelly. By way of an ad agency contact, soap opera starlet Carla Borelli landed the leading role of a concert pianist kidnapped by a devious Satanic shrink named Dr. Jason Specter. This villain was played by horror host Charles Kissinger, a local TV and stage personality whom Girdler and most of Louisville adored for the “Fearmonger” character he created for his primetime TV program. The homegrown horror host appeared in all but two of Girdler’s movies; he died in 1991.

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Louisville TV/radio personality Claude Fulkerson played Dr. Specter’s smarmy, scalpel-wielding assistant. As Fulkerson recalls, “I remember one morning while we were filming, Billy was all excited about a dream he’d just had, in which he fell down an elevator shaft. He told me that he was going to write it into the script. He had three or four people from Hollywood there, and he said they were stunt people. Well, for some reason, he couldn’t get them to do the scene, so he asked me later if I’d volunteer. I figured I’d get some extra money. I didn’t. But anyway, they strapped me to a parachute harness and tied that to a regular rope. At one point, there were four or five guys just holding the ropes as I dangled over the elevator shaft in Billy’s warehouse. It was about four stories down. They hadn’t thought to tie the rope to anything at first, so for a while they were the only thing holding me! Finally someone realized they should tie down the rope, but I don’t know how many takes they shot beforehand.

“The 1st time they dropped me, which they did by running really fast with the rope in their hands, they were really nervous and unsteady,” he continues. “My feet banged against the walls the whole way down and I landed hard. We had to do that scene a few times to get it right. It was a fun movie, but Billy really almost killed me shooting that scene, and I still can’t believe I agreed to it.”

Girdler coaxed his own sister into helping out with an equally “uncomfortable” sequence. As Lynne recalls, “There’s a scene where one character is killed in a swimming pool filled with snakes. Billy had the snakes shipped in from California, and there was some kind of animal handler there. But the actress (Sherry Steiner) refused to do the scene. Then Billy’s stunt people declined, so he asked me to be a body double. I don’t like snakes, and I don’t know why I let him talk me into it. We went out to a club, I got in the pool and they dumped in boxes of live snakes. They all went straight for me, since they were trying to get out of the water. They were all over me, in my hair, around my neck. It was awful. There had to be about 50 wet snakes on me.

While some portions of Asylum were filmed in a nearby stately mansion, much of it was shot in Girdler’s own warehouse studio. “It was a comedy of errors,” says Fulkerson. “Everything was so low-budget and cheap. Props were always breaking . You’d go to turn a doorknob on the set and it would fall off in your hand. In one scene. there was a man in a wheelchair behind a desk. He wasn’t used to the electric wheelchair, and he had timed the scene wrong, so he crashed into the desk, then fell out of the chair. He almost knocked down a wall. Billy was under a lot of stress, and you could tell he was working really hard, but he still managed to have a good sense of humor about things. He was just so happy to be making a movie. He was very much enjoying what he was doing, and it made things go much smoother.”

Girdler may have cut comers by using friends and relatives as fall guys, and certainly exhibited little creative integrity trying to pass off dime store rubber bugs as fearsome implements of death. But when it came to the film ’s climax, he went for broke. He was able to obtain the actual Satan suit worn in Rosemary ‘s Baby, where it appears for a few brief seconds which was likely intentional, since it’s not terribly convincing. Much has been made of the Satan costume seen at the end of the film. Yes, it was a woman behind the mask. According to Lois Haynie, Satan was standing in a little red wagon, which Girdler himself pulled so it would appear as if Satan was floating.  Don Wrege was told that the Satan mask was an unused prop from Rosemary’s Baby. Roman Polanski is said to have designed a Satan mask and costume based on a dream he had as a child. If you watch Rosemary closely during the ‘mouse bite/rape’ scene, you can see portions of a Devil costume.

Anton LaVey, late founder of the Church of Satan, was once rumored to have appeared as the devil in Rosemary’s Baby. (The anecdote proved false in recent years, and the fact that Girdler had to cast a rather petite female secretary to fit in the outfit renders it improbable “iat a man of LaVey’s girth could have squeezed in. Encouraged in part by the LaVey urban legend linked to the costume, Girdler and Kelly contacted the official Church of Satan in California and asked if it would offer consultation on Asylum, specifically for the final scene. The Satanists agreed, and High-ranking Church member Michael A. Aquino flew out to Louisville at his own expense to lend a hand.

Michael & Lillith Aquino - Temple of Set
Michael & Lillith Aquino – Temple of Set

“Patrick Kelly originally wanted to pay me something,” says Aquino, “but I declined and said that a thanks in the credits would be more than adequate.”

Aquino rewrote and oversaw the final ceremony scene, and the Church also provided the symbolic props visible in the climax. “Some of the demonic references in my revised script were from LaVey’s The Satanic Bible,” says Aquino. “Others were from ceremonial working records of my own some of which I later incorporated into ‘The Ceremony of the Nine Angles,’ which I wrote for Anton’s follow-up volume. To show you how these things go on, extracts from ‘Ceremony’ were then spoken by Ernest Borgnine in The Devil’s Rain.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s an artistic high point in satanic cinema,” Aquino says. “That doesn’t mean we don’t like it. Actually, we’re kind of fond of it as a ‘ midnight matinee’ memory.”

RELEASE/DISTRIBUTION/CONCLUSION

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Asylum was less kindly received by critics in 1972. Distribution was slim, leaving Girdler’s investors with nothing to show for their money. The local media, which had followed Asylum’s progress with keen interest beforehand, ripped the film apart upon its debut. “Other people learned how to make movies in film schools, I learned by doing it,” Girdler told the Louisville Times. “Nobody saw Billy Friedkin’s or Steven Spielberg’s mistakes, but all my mistakes were right up there on the screen for everybody to see.”

Undaunted by Asylum’s less-than-enthusiastic reception, Girdler continued cranking out commercials for Louisville companies as well as Chicago-based clients. In early 1973, he decided to give feature filmmaking another go. Limited by Asylum’s flat box-office results, he turned to friends for financial assistance, namely Jones, John Asman and Girdler’s best man, Joe Schulten. He raised roughly $20,000 to fund his second feature, 3 on a Meathook, a brilliantly titled Ed Gein grindhouse slasher starring a cast of Louisville stage actors. James Pickett plays Billy, a young man who kills and mutilates woman.

Three on a Meathook (1972)

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SUMMARY

When four girls go on a weekend trip to a lake, they start to have car problems on the way home and meet a local young man named Billy Townsend who takes them back to his farm where he lives with his father Frank. Later, Frank begins to murder three of the girls and tries to pin the crimes on his son by convincing him he is responsible for their deaths and is insane.

BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS

Girdler’s second film has far less personality than its predecessor, but the brilliantly titled Three on a Meathook still retains a sleepy grass-roots appeal. Loosely (very loosely) based on the exploits of famed Psycho Ed Gein, the plot focuses on a young country boy convinced he’s a vile murderer with a lust for female blood.

Filmed in the spring of 1972, Three on a Meathook could well be Girdler’s most amateur effort, though the ludicrous ending more than makes up for the bad dialogue and robotic acting. Pat Patterson, a special effects artist who worked on several Herschell Gordon Lewis films, provided the gore. Because of the low returns generated by Asylum of Satan, Girdler did not have the same amount of investor support in respect to Meathook’s budget. Joe Schulten, a local realtor and personal friend of Girdler, provided most of the money for the film. Lee Jones and John Asman also chipped in. The rest came out of Girdler’s trust fund. The film was made with less than $30, 000 in about a month (some figures state the budget was $18,000). According to Joe Schulten, Girdler shopped Meathook around Hollywood in an attempt to show off how much he could commit to film on a tight budget. Consequently, he befriended AIP executive David Sheldon, who became a key collaborator on future Girdler offerings.

Three on a Meathook has earned notoriety in cult film circles based on its bizarre and well-edited theatrical trailer.

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A supremely goofy, cerebrally dislocating twist ending involving cannibalism and meathooks makes up for 3 on a Meathook’s occasionally narcoleptic pace. Girdler primarily filmed at two locations: a local abandoned farm and his own warehouse studio. As with Asylum of Satan, he composed the film’s score. The movie benefits greatly from the inclusion of several young ladies willing to go topless/get splattered to star in a film.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

J.G. “Pat” Patterson on the set Three on a Meathook (1972)
J.G. “Pat” Patterson on the set Three on a Meathook (1972)

J.G. “Pat” Patterson, a grassroots horror legend who lent his gore makeup talents to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ films, was employed to provide the FX for 3 on a Meathook. The North Carolina native was brought on at Jones’ suggestion; Girdler would later return the favor by helping Patterson complete his schlocker The Body Shop (1972)/Doctor Gore (1973). Many claim that the splatter Patterson produced for Meathook would have marked his finest hour. . .had the footage not been left on the cutting room floor. “They took out as much gore as they left in,” says Madelyn Buzzard, a Louisville actress who had worked on Girdler’s commercials and was one of Meathook’s victims. “They cut what they did because they didn’t want the X rating. The scenes were much more graphic when originally shot. Everything was trimmed down to little flashes in the final movie.”

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RELEASE/DISTRIBUTION

If Asylum of Satan hit theaters with a thud, then 3 on a Meathook arrived with a whimper. The quickly forgotten film ran at a scant few Southern drive-ins, but did not see a wide release until it hit video shelves some 14 years later. But Meathook’s immediate commercial failure did not cloud Girdler’s filmmaking aspirations. His primary goal in creating it was to flaunt his utilitarian directing style to Hollywood studios, and flaunt it he did. Once Meathook was in the can, Girdler began traveling back and forth from Louisville to LA so he could show his work to the major players. He set up a small Hollywood office, plastered it with posters from his two movies, schmoozed with potential talent and screened Meathook for anyone who’d bother to watch it.

CONCLUSION

Hugh Smith, a Girdler actor and Studio 1 collaborator, recalls, “I was aware of where Bill was headed. He was going to outdo the Roger Corman movies with shock and schlock, and do it much cheaper. When Bill and I took Meathook to Hollywood to drum up interest in the company we were forming (Mid-America) , Bill’s logic failed. I’m sad to say. If you go to Hollywood intending to wow producers with how cheaply you can make a movie, they have a tendency to only offer you opportunities to make other $25,000 films.”

Girdler wanted to work with American International Pictures, and began calling their head of production David Sheldon, who helped shepherd such AIP favorites as Blacula, The Thing With Two Heads, Sisters and Coffy. “Bill called me all the time from Kentucky,” Sheldon recalls. “He kept sending me stuff, but I rejected script after script. Some of them were just so off-the-wall, they didn’t work. But I liked the guy and we struck up a friendship.” Eventually, Sheldon became antsy and was thinking of leaving AIP; several years after his initial contact with Girdler, he decided that making movies with him under the AIP banner would be a good way to strike out on his own.

The Zebra Killer (1973)/The Get-Man (1974)

The Zebra Killer

SUMMARY

Based on the real events that shocked San Franisco in the early 70’s. Austin Stoker as Detective Frank Savage, a flip pant, wisecracking Louisville cop teamed with a white rookie partner . Savage is hot on the trail of a supposedly black serial killer, but it turns out that the maniac is actually the very white Meathook star James Carroll Pickett, smeared in black shoe polish and topped off with a big, sparkly, spongy afro wig. One by one, Pickett picks off jury members who sentenced his father to jail, and it’s up to Stoker and Smith to bring him in. ..or bring him down. In the villainous role, Pickett steals, chews up and spits out every scene he graces. Racist themes and poofy hairpiece notwithstanding, he’s an ace psycho and actually makes the blackface angle work.

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DEVELOPMENT/BEHIND THE SCENES

Meanwhile, Girdler fished around for more film deals in summer 1973. Changing the name of his company from Studio 1 to Mid-America Pictures, tapping investors gleaned from his Chicago jobs and taking his cue from Sheldon, he decided to try his hand at pitching a blaxploitation flick, an effort that would eventually become The Zebra Killer. Writing duties were split between Girdler, Gordon C. Lajme and a Louisville theater owner/ investor named Mike Henry. Hoping to fuse elements of Dirty Harry.

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Stoker also starred in three films for William Girdler The Zebra Killer, Abby and Sheba Baby, and loved working with the director. Stoker hit it off with Girdler immediately he found out they shared the same birth date and while the actor had turned down a lot of blaxploitation work because he felt the stories were lacking and the character development non-existent, he found an exception in the director’s projects. “Girdler allowed you to show a more multifaceted character,” Stoker says. “If you’re a bad guy, you have to show what part is good. If you’re a good guy, you have to show what part of you is bad, and you have to find some way to put it all together. If you’re allowed to do that, it’s a lot more satisfying. Bill Girdler allowed that.”

Stoker notes two similarities between John Carpenter and Girdler: Both were from Kentucky, and both composed music for their films. “Girdler had a passion for music, which is interesting to me because there’s such a tight correlation between music and acting,” he says. “I’m sure music was always going through his head, as it was with Carpenter. Somehow, if I could imagine myself in John Carpenter’s imagination or William Girdler’s imagination, I suspect they heard music going through the scenes.”

Stoker also appreciated Girdler’s preparedness. On The Zebra Killer, which contains a number of complex action sequences, “Girdler would plan his shots overnight,” he recalls. ‘While we’d be sleeping, He would be up planning. He came in very casual, everything was planned and he knew what he was doing. Nothing was left to chance.”

RELEASE/DISTRIBUTION/CONCLUSION

The Zebra Killer title was inspired by a well-publicized series of slayings in San  Francisco, dubbed “The Zebra Murders” by the mainstream media; a Black Muslim extremist group was later charged with the crimes. Some theaters mistakenly billed the film as a documentary, and Girdler wasn’t especially quick to correct them. But historical confusion was the least of the film ’s problems. The racially charged content caused numerous theaters to yank the picture. The film’s rating was changed from PG to R, though even that token gesture failed to take the edge off. The film was eventually banned in Europe, where it had played as Panic City. Girdler tried to unleash it one last time as Combat Cops in late 1974, but again, the film just didn’t take with audiences. The unique, often grisly and fairly ambitious thriller sank like a stone and hasn’t reappeared since.

Abby (1974)

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SUMMARY

Abby is apparently possessed by Eshu, a West African orisha of chaos and whirlwinds. He is also a trickster and the guardian of roads, particularly crossroads. In the opening scene of the film, Dr. Garrett Williams (William Marshall) explains to his students, “Eshu is the most powerful of all earthly deities. Eshu is a trickster, creator of whirlwinds… chaos.”

While on an archaeological dig in a cave in Nigeria, Dr. Williams finds a small, ebony puzzle box, carved with the symbols of Eshu: the whirlwind, the cock’s comb, and the erect phallus. When Dr. Williams discovers the mechanism to open the box and unlatches it, a tremendous wind blasts out, knocking Dr. Williams and his men against the cave walls and floor.

The spirit released by Dr. Williams crosses the Atlantic to Louisville, Kentucky to the new home of Dr. Williams’ son, Emmett Williams (Terry Carter) and Abby Williams (Carol Speed). Why and how the spirit travels the globe is not explained. After Abby becomes possessed, her behavior becomes exponentially bizarre and dangerous.

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DEVELOPMENT/ PRODUCTION/ BEHIND THE SCENES

Girdler’s frequent trips to California began to bear fruit in 1974. With a little nudging from Sheldon, Girdler slugged AIP giant Sam Arkoff in the gut with a surefire project he simply couldn’t refuse: a blaxploitation possession film. In 1974, there was no bigger blockbuster than The Exorcist, and scores of low-budget imitations looking to steal some of its box-office thunder were rushed to theaters. The Exorcist was also very popular in the black community, which is how Sheldon sold to AIP. “I was driving through Westwood and went past a theater showing The Exorcist,” he says. “I saw more black people in line than white people. That’s all Sam Arkoff needed to know.”

Carol Speed, who had just come off a featured role in The Mack (1973), was slated to play the title role. She won the title role of Abby after the original actress demanded a masseuse, for which the film’s low budget had no provisions. After answering several questions over the phone with someone from AIP, she remembers getting the gig:

“Can you travel?”

“Yeah, I’d love to travel.”

“What about going to Louisville?”

“I don’t have a problem with it.”

“Do you need a masseuse?”

“No.”

“You’re on.”

Within three days. Speed was in Louisville. She recalls Girdler as “what you’d call a nice country boy. He was serious, he knew what he wanted, he was energetic and he was trying to make his mark.”

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During the Exorcist shoot, numerous strange and unexplained incidents occurred that some felt were the result of making a movie about evil, and weird accidents afflicted the Abby shoot as well. During the making of The Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn injured her back during a stunt, and actor Terry Carter broke a rib performing one in Abby.

But the strangest event that happened during the shoot was the 148 tornadoes which struck the midwest region on April 3, 1974. Speed and co-star Juanita Moore were on the set when suddenly, the sky turned black. Girdler shut everything down, and Speed and Moore headed back to their hotel. Once in her room. Speed called down to the front desk and asked if the hotel had a basement or a shelter. “Naw,” she recalls the receptionist responding. “The only thang I kin tell ya is to come down here an’ roll up in a blanket.” The rest of the night, she says, “Juanita and I were rolled up in blankets on the lobby floor, staring at each other, hoping the tornado wouldn’t hit us.” (As luck would have it, the tornado had turned and headed away from the hotel).

With a whopping budget of $400,000, Girdler used AIP casting resources to attract William Marshall to the part of Abby’s exorcist. Austin Stoker returned to play another cop, while Moore was the heroine’s mother. Just as Linda Blair’s demon voice was provided by a different actress (Mercedes McCambridge), Speed’s possessed speech was provided by actor Bob Holt, who has done voice work for such films as Gremlins, Wizards and Kentucky Fried Movie.

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Marshall plays Garnet Williams, a super-suave minister/ archaeologist studying the Yoruba religion. While on a mission to Nigeria, he stumbles upon a relic devoted to an endowed Yoruba sex god named Eshu. Noticing that the ancient relic is hollow, he twists a carved penis to reveal a hidden compartment. A fiendish whirlwind gusts forth from the idol, with subliminal Exorcist inspired cuts signaling that a relentless demon is on the prowl. Back in Louisville, Abby and her preacher man hubby (Carter) move into a new church sponsored house, unaware of the demon’s release. For reasons not fully explained, Eshu decides to hole up in Abby’s body, possibly to lure Williams into a brawl. Slowly, Abby morphs from a squeaky-clean housewife into a saucy, yellow-eyed dancing girl on the make. Williams arrives to drive the demon from Abby’s body, and in a final act that must be seen to be believed, the climactic battle between good and evil takes place in a ’70s jive bar (with swinging disco tunes courtesy of composer Robert O. Ragland).

The screenplay (by Girdler and Layne) displays an odd assortment of snide in jokes and hokey asides. Abby often feels like a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls affair, with the actors playing a tongue-in-cheek script completely straight. More than anything else, the movie makes demonic possession look like a hell of a lot of fun. “We thought Abby was going to be a comedy, but it wasn’t,” says Stoker. “Was this going to be an exorcist story with black characters rather than white, or was it going to be a takeoff on the original? We weren’t sure. By the end of the shoot we realized, ‘Oh, this is serious!’ ”

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RELEASE/DISTRIBUTION

Abby premiered on Christmas Day ’74 in New Orleans, where Speed received the key to the city. The film scored big at the box office, earning $4 million in its first eight weeks of release and reportedly breaking house records at the RKO and Penthouse Theaters in New York. Girdler was naively proud of his first unabashed theatrical success, and bragged to Louisville’s Courier Journal in late 1974, “Sure, we made Abby to come in on the shirttail of The Exorcist. But I don’t consider myself a rip-off artist. Ripping off an audience is a much more serious thing than ripping off a story. I consider myself someone who recognizes something that works and then uses that idea as General Motors does.”

Girdler would later come to regret his off-the-cuff remarks. It didn’t take long for Warner’s to notice Abby’s success, and in 1975, the studio filed suit against AIP and Girdler’s Mid-America Pictures, claiming infringement on the Exorcist property, and an injunction was issued against the film. The insurance company that was supposed to protect AIP from lawsuits didn’t fight the injunction, because when AIP turned over its files, they included an Arkoff memo stating that Abby “may be too much like The Exorcist, but that may not be a bad thing.”

“Billy was amused more than angered by the suit,” says Kelly. “It gave him a feeling of ‘We’re in the big league now,’ as everyone in Hollywood sues at the drop of a hat, or did back then. He’d ‘arrived’ if his works were visible enough to bring suits from the big boys.”

Girdler might have found the suit amusing at first, but the laughs wore off quickly once his profits were frozen in escrow. Warner’s stated that in addition to seeking monetary compensation, they wanted all copies of Abby destroyed. The film was withdrawn from U.S. theaters and the prints reportedly placed in WB’s care until the case went to trial. As Abby ate up time, patience and precious resources, the film seemed more like a celluloid Hope Diamond than a career-building smash. The case proceeded at a snail’s pace, dragging on for several years.

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CONCLUSION

Surprisingly, neither Sheldon nor Speed claim to see much similarity between Abby and The Exorcist. The Exorcist is nothing like Abby says Speed. “There is no way those two films are remotely the same. I hate to say this, because Warner Bros, spent all that money, but I think Abby is a better film. The Exorcist is slow, Abby has a pace. And The Exorcist is nothing but Catholic guilt! Abby is not a guilty person, she’s just possessed!” Speed adds that her performance was influenced not by Blair, but by Joanne Woodward in Three Faces of Eve, where she played a woman with multiple personality disorder.

 

‘Sheba, Baby’ (1975)

Sheba-Baby-review

SUMMARY

Private investigator Sheba Shayne (Grier) returns from Chicago, Illinois to her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to confront thugs who are trying to intimidate her father Andy into dissolving or handing over his family insurance company business. Sheba teams up with her partner’s father, Brick Williams, and the two rekindle their old romance. Driving in her father’s car, Sheba is nearly killed when the vehicle explodes. The local police warn Sheba against continuing to pursue her investigation, but she persists.

Later, four gangsters show up at Andy’s office and open fire. Sheba kills three of them, but Andy is shot and killed during the battle. Sheba’s investigation leads to an apartment complex where another shootout ensues. After a chase into a nearby amusement park, Sheba extracts a confession from a gangster named Pilot that the local gang is controlled by an insurance salesman called Shark Merrill.

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Sheba joins a party aboard Shark’s yacht, but is identified and captured. After the gang does away with Pilot by tying him to a speedboat and dragging him through the water at high speed, they attempt about to do the same to Sheba, but she escapes using a knife she had hidden in her wetsuit to cut the rope. As Brick leads the police to the yacht and another gun battle breaks out, Shark tries to escape in a speedboat but Sheba gives chase on a jet ski and kills him with a spear gun. Brick urges Sheba to continue their relationship but Sheba insists on returning to Chicago, though she promises to return to see him again since they are now business partners.

DEVELOPMENT/ BEHIND THE SCENES

Girdler’s next blaxploitation venture is widely considered the weakest film to vaunt Pam Grier’s name. Grier stars as a detective who travels from Chicago to Louisville, KY to save her father’s loan company from some local thugs. Grier battles a host of black mob strongmen and “crashes” an outrageous yacht party to see justice served.

David Sheldon says Sheba Baby was his idea. He and Bill sold the project to Sam Arkoff by pretending that a script was completed. They then pulled an all-nighter to pen the script, and they delivered it the next morning. “Yes, we wrote it in one day!” Sheldon exclaims.

Stunning as always, Pam’s 2000 or so costume changes throughout Sheba Baby are all aesthetic delights. Girdler seems much more interested in molding a coherent (if somewhat bland) story than he seems interested in exploiting Grier’s finer attributes. His use of Grier falls far short of the thrilling excesses seen in Jack Hill’s Grier vehicles. A nude scene was actually cut from the PG-rated US release, but it appears in some overseas versions of Sheba.

Sheba Baby was a sensation in theaters and it played for several years. Girdler indicated that Sheba Baby was one of his least favorite films. Bill Girdler remarked in several interviews that he and Grier clashed while making Sheba Baby. He described her as being difficult to work with. Some folks close to Girdler recall ego-fueled disputes on the sets. Grier’s popularity was at its height in 1974, so it’s quite possible she was a handful at that point in time. The film also stars Austin Stoker and Charles Kissinger. Keep your eyes peeled for a special encore performance from D’Urville Martin’s Zebra Killer pimp suit. Sheba Baby was the last movie William Girdler directed in his native Kentucky.

Film Society’s Josh Strauss sat down with Pam Grier to chat about her third film with American International Pictures “Sheba, Baby.”

Regardless, Sheba Baby is dopey and fun. The Monk Higgins’ soundtrack is simply terrific, as are the Barbara Mason vocal performances.

BBD – Monk Higgins & Alex Brown

Three Hoods – Monk Higgins

Sheba, Baby – Barbara Mason

Get Down Sheba – Monk Higgins & Alex Brown

I’m In Love With You – Barbara Mason

Railroad – Monk Higgins

A Good Man Is Gone – Barbara Mason

One Man Band – Monk Higgins

Breast Stroke – Monk Higgins

Soundtrack Credits

Music by Alex Brown Monk Higgins

Vocals Barbara Mason

Project: Kill (1976)

 “Project Kill is the beginning of what I can do if I’m given the opportunity. Here I’m not pinned down by cliches or lousy material. It’s the only picture I’m really proud of.” – William Girdler, Courier Journal 1975

 SUMMARY

Nielsen plays John Trevor, who for six years has been training and leading a team of highly trained special forces men (Code Name: Project: Kill) whose performance is enhanced by drugs. Over time Trevor realizes that his men, who work independently, are being used as assassins rather than to protect government installations and individuals.

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Trevor relates his worries to his second-in-command Frank Lassiter (Gary Lockwood), then decides to escape from his secret government base to the Philippines where two of his former comrades in arms reside. However, withdrawal from the mind-control drugs turn Trevor violent and dangerous, and now Lassiter must find him before he can do any real damage. Filipino criminal boss Alok Lee (Vic Díaz) learns of Trevor’s arrival and has been paid to capture him and sell him to a foreign power so they may discover and duplicate the drugs and training given to Trevor’s force.

RELEASE/DISTRIBUTION

The first film Girdler made with Sheldon after the latter left AIP was Project Kill, a talky political thriller starring Leslie Nielsen that was shot in the Philippines while the country was under martial law. It was released in the theaters, though not a very wide release. The picture was pulled from Arnold Kopelson (Inter-Ocean Films) who was supposed to distribute the film overseas, but was taking too long. A company called Sterling Gold tried to take it next, but the owner was found murdered (organized crime style). Finally, Picturmedia released it theatrically and sold the home video rights. The CEO of Picturmedia is Doro Vlado Hreljanovic. Picturmedia has done a poor job in releasing the picture. Girdler next embarked upon a horror feature that would radically change the direction of his burgeoning career.

Grizzly (1976)

The original artwork for the Grizzly movie poster was created by popular comic book artist Neal Adams.
The original artwork for the Grizzly movie poster was created by popular comic book artist Neal Adams.

SUMMARY

The film opens with military veteran helicopter pilot and guide Don Stober (Prine) flying individuals above the trees of a vast national park. He states that the woods are untouched and remain much as they did during the time when Native Americans lived there.

Two female hikers are breaking camp when they are suddenly attacked and killed by an unseen animal. The national park’s chief ranger, Michael Kelly (George), and photographer Allison Corwin (Joan McCall), daughter of the park’s restaurant owner, decide to follow a ranger to the primitive campsite to check on the female hikers. There, they discover the mangled corpses of the two girls, one of which has been partially buried.

At the hospital, a doctor tells Kelly that the girls were killed by a bear. The park supervisor, Charley Kittridge (Joe Dorsey), blames Kelly for the attacks, saying that the bears were supposed to have been moved from the park by Kelly and naturalist Arthur Scott (Jaeckel) before the tourist season began. Kelly and Kittridge argue over closing the park, before deciding to move all hikers off the park’s mountain while allowing campers to remain in the lowlands. Kelly calls Scott, who tells him that all of the bears are accounted for and this specific bear must be unknown to the forest.

During a search of the mountain, a female ranger stops for a break at a waterfall. Deciding to soak her feet, she is unaware that the bear is lurking under the falls, and she is attacked and killed. Kelly recruits the helicopter pilot, Stober, to assist in the search. Flying above the forest, they see what they believe to be an animal, only to discover the naturalist Scott adorned in an animal skin while tracking the bear. He informs them that the animal they are looking for is a prehistoric grizzly bear standing at least 15 feet tall and weighing 2,000 pounds. Kelly and Stober scoff at the notion.

At the busy lowland campground, the grizzly tears down a tent and kills a woman. Kelly once again insists on closing the park, but Kittridge refuses. The attacks are becoming a national news story, and to counteract this, Kittridge allows amateur hunters into the forest. Now a team, Kelly, Stober and Scott are disgusted by this development. Later, a lone hunter is chased by the bear, but he manages to escape the animal by jumping into a river and floating to safety. Later that night, three hunters find a bear cub that they believe is the cub of the killer grizzly, so they use it as bait for the mother. However, the grizzly finds and eats the cub without the hunters noticing. Scott concludes that the bear must be a male, as only male bears are cannibalistic. A ranger at a fire lookout tower on the mountain is attacked by the grizzly, the animal tearing down the structure and killing the ranger. Kelly and Kittridge continue to argue over closing the park. Frustrated by the politics of the situation, Scott sneaks away to track the grizzly on his own. On the outskirts of the national park, a mother and her young child are attacked by the grizzly. The mother is killed while the child survives, albeit severely mutilated. Stunned by this development, Kittridge finally allows Kelly to close the park and ban all hunters.

Stober and Kelly now go after the elusive grizzly alone, setting up a trap by hanging a deer carcass from a tree. The grizzly goes for the bait, but suddenly retreats. The men chase the animal through the woods, but it easily outruns them. When they return, they discover the grizzly has tricked them and taken the deer carcass. The next day, Scott, tracking on horseback, finds the remains of the carcass and calls Stober and Kelly on the radio. He plans to drag the carcass behind his horse and create a trap by leading the grizzly towards them. However, the grizzly ambushes Scott, killing his horse and knocking him unconscious. He subsequently awakens to find himself alive but half-buried in the ground. Just as he finishes digging himself out, the grizzly returns and kills him.

Kelly and Stober discover Scott’s mutilated body and, in despair, return to the helicopter to track the grizzly from the air. They soon spot the bear in a clearing and quickly land. The grizzly attacks the helicopter, swiping the craft and causing Stober to be thrown clear. The grizzly kills Stober before turning on Kelly, who frantically pulls a bazooka from the helicopter. Before the bear can reach him, Kelly fires the bazooka at the grizzly, killing the animal instantly. For several seconds, Kelly sadly stares at the burning remains of the grizzly, before walking towards Stober’s body.

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“I said. ‘Oh, wait a minute. There are certain things about this script. By golly. I think I can do something with it.’ I sold out immediately,” he says, laughing. “We shot it in Clayton. Georgia, in the Smoky Mountains, where they shot Deliverance and we had a terrific summer.” – Andrew Prine

DEVELOPMENT

Sheldon had been toying with the idea of making a film about a killer grizzly bear. He had read Peter Benchley’s Jaws before the movie came out, and he knew it would be a big hit. Sheldon thought he could do Jaws in a fur coat, instead of stopping people from going to the beach, now they’d be scared to step in the woods and soon completed a script with Harvey Flaxman. The producer claims that Warner Bros, was interested in making the film, which he also planned to direct. But Girdler, whose offices were upstairs from Sheldon’s and who would come down every day to visit Sheldon and read the trades, arrived one day and saw the Grizzly script on Sheldon’s desk. After reading it he said, “This is great. I think I know who can finance this. But I’m directing!”

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The money for Grizzly was reportedly set up within a week. Girdler associate Lee Jones worked near the Atlanta-based office of one Edward Montoro, head of Film Ventures International. Montoro had founded Film Ventures in 1972, and earned a small fortune in the early ’70s by rereleasing cheap Italian flicks in the U.S. with lurid new titles. The most famous Film Ventures property at that time was Beyond the Door (1974), an Italian Exorcist knockoff that, like Abby, incurred the wrath of Warner Bros.’ legal pit bulls.

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Jones arranged a meeting between Girdler and Montoro, which culminated in the mini-mogul committing close to $700,000 for the project. Girdler’s brother- in-law/collaborator Pat Kelly describes Montoro as being “a bit of a villain in our story. Really, it was more a matter of his being newly rich without the benefit of sophistication or knowledge of etiquette. Ed was a good ol’ boy from Georgia, who made good and had an ego the size of Texas. On the other hand, Billy couldn’t have made Grizzly when he did if it hadn’t been for Ed, so he was not all bad. Ed wanted a lot of control, some of which was needed to keep Billy in check when he went a bit off-track.”

PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Filming commenced in Clayton, Georgia a few months after Montoro agreed to invest. In the film, Christopher George plays a ranger who helps a national park cope with a series of disturbing and deadly bear attacks. A man-eating grizzly, estimated to be 15 feet tall, has gone on a bloody rampage, slaying innocent campers and savaging skinny-dipping Penthouse Pets. Andrew Prine co-stars, and Joan McCall, Sheldon’s wife, portrays George’s love interest. Flaxman himself took a cameo gig as a reporter, just as author Benchley had in Jaws.

On the set of 1976 Grizzly
On the set of 1976 Grizzly

For the title role, Girdler procured an untrained bear from the Olympic Game Farm in Washington, because the “good” bear was being rented out. Despite his cute and cuddly name, “Teddy was ferocious,” recalls Sheldon. When Girdler wanted Teddy to run toward the camera, he would lure him with a fish. When they wanted him to stand on his hind legs, they’d hold a fish high in the air at the end of a pole. In scenes where it looks like Teddy is howling in a rage, Girdler later dubbed in a scary roar.

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BEHIND THE SCENES

By the time Grizzly wrapped, however, Girdler barely had a cent to his name. For a young man who boasted early in his career that he was only “in the film business to make money,” his efforts continued to put him in the red. Access to his inherited wealth was extremely limited when it came to filmmaking, as his family didn’t want to financially support what could end up becoming a youthful flight of fancy. “Billy was always terrible with money,” admits his sister Lynne. “He only cared about being creative. He couldn’t balance a checkbook for anything.”

Grizzly’s debut could not have been timed better. It took box offices by storm just as Jaws’ popularity had begun to recede in 1976, earning over $35 million in its first six months. Grizzly went on to become the gear’s top-grossing independent film , beating Monty Python and the Holy Grail in ticket sales. ABC paid $1.5 million for the TV rights, and the film ran in prime time under the title Killer Grizzly, where it received a 34 share.

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The movie went on to earn over $30 million (it was made with a budget of $750,000). Similar to Girdler’s Abby experience, legal issues prevented him from seeing his share of the proceeds. Edward Montoro’s decision to keep the profits for himself eventually led Girdler, Jones, Sheldon, and Flaxman to sue.

“Where Ed really did us wrong was in the bookkeeping, but hey! That’s what everyone in LA seemed to be good at doing, so he wasn’t alone. Ed made the money, Billy got the movie credits, so at that stage in his life, I think Billy wasn’t too upset by the deals. Ed also was a bit rude to our earlier associates, and gradually drove some off, me included for that matter so Billy mostly had around him the new group that Ed brought with him. Ed did have his rough side, but also was a good source of funds when Billy needed them.”

Grizzly Will Collins Novelization

Grizzly’s novelization contains numerous scenes not found in the final film; it also features a completely different ending! Will Collins penned this 1976 paperback, and he is successful at stretching the thin plot into 188 pages of pulp literature. His descriptions of settings and surroundings are somewhat underdeveloped, but he more than makes up for it via numerous sections told from the bear’s first-person point of view. You learn a lot about this bear. He was abandoned by his own mother as a cub because she feared his strength. None of the cute girl bears talked to him. He was always the last bear picked for teams in gym class. So he left the other bears and settled on the other side of the mountain. After many years of comfortable solitude, a group of oil barons decided to drill on his territory. Rather than fight it out, he opted to find a new home … and a new food source. Thus, the bear is a sympathetic character in the novel. Not only has he suffered numerous socialization blows from his own kind, but now man has driven him from his safe haven. Will Collins doesn’t stop at personifying the bear — he goes on to offer first-hand accounts from Sam the rabbit and Tex the horse! You just can’t get those perspectives from a movie alone — unless it’s Babe.

Most of the plot differences are minor and feel like the author’s own inventions. Much of the gore is described in higher detail, but that’s typical of novelizations. Some of the more interesting plot developments include:

  • The bear is drawn to the first victims because one girl is menstruating.
  • Christopher George’s character (who enjoys talking about impotency) gets laid in this book, giving Allison a little more significance.
  • George’s character is named Michael Kelly in the film; his name in the book is Kelly Gordon.
  • The conflict between Kelly and Kittredge is prolonged.
  • Kelly pleads with Allison’s daddy to shut down the park.
  • The scene in which the boy is torn to ribbons by the bear features the mother attacking the bear with a fireplace iron, as opposed to a (wimpy) broom.
  • The novel’s climax is completely different from what closes the film. Instead of whipping out a government-issue rocket launcher, Kelly brandishes a flame thrower to finish off the beast (this after lobbing hand grenades). The death of the bear really gets to Kelly; he has tears in his eyes as he looks upon the bear’s smoldering remains. Andrew Prine’s character, who is presumed dead in the film, survives in the novel! Upon realizing this, the end of the film changes a bit. When the end credits roll, you see Christopher George rush to his friend’s side. One can almost imagine George giving comfort to his injured Nam Vet buddy as they wait for help to arrive …

GRIZZLY (Soundtrack Suite) – Music by Robert O. Ragland

CONCLUSION

Girdler had long yearned to move his operations westward; he still quietly dreamed of making Louisville the next Hollywood, but rightly thought his opportunities could further blossom in California. He was, in his words, “too far away from the labs and the action. ” His one-sided desire to relocate, coupled with the seesaw nature of his career, ultimately caused his first marriage to dissolve. With little to lose, Girdler and a few of his Kentucky comrades headed to Hollywood in 1976. The director was too broke to afford an apartment, so he and his cohorts were invited to crash at Nielsen’s cozy guest pad.

Day of the Animals (1977)

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SUMMARY

The depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer by CFC aerosols has been causing increased exposure to UV radiation at high altitudes. Scientists observe that animals over 5,000 feet in altitude have become highly aggressive toward humans. At Murphy’s Hotel in an alpine village somewhere in Northern California, Steve Buckner (Christopher George) prepares to board a dozen hikers into two helicopters to fly up the mountain to Sugar Meadow, where they will begin a days-long nature hike. Local ranger Chico Tucker (Walter Barnes) privately tells Steve that there have been all kinds of accidents lately and maybe this hike is not a good idea, but Steve refuses to call it off.

Steve and his group then set off and, after a short rest, the group is introduced: Professor MacGregor (Richard Jaeckel), an anthropologist; Frank and Mandy Young (Jon Cedar and Susan Backlinie), a bickering married couple; a wealthy older woman, Shirley Goodwyn (Ruth Roman) and her son, Johnny (Bobby Porter); Paul Jenson (Leslie Nielson), an advertising executive and egomaniac with an angry, derisive sense of humor; Bob Denning (Andrew Stevens) and Beth Hughes (Kathleen Bracken), a teenage couple; Roy Moore (Paul Mantee), a former professional football player sidelined by cancer; Terry Marsh (Lynda Day George), a television reporter; and Daniel Santee (Michael Santee), a Native American guide and the steadiest person among them.

Meanwhile, in the restaurant of Murphy’s Hotel, Tucker sits down with Burt, the local sheriff, and tells him that there has been a spate of rattlesnake bites. At that moment, a reporter on the bar’s television set says a White House bulletin is claiming that chemical waste released into the atmosphere has dangerously depleted the ozone layer, which protects all life from the sun’s radiation.

On the mountain, the hikers stumble upon a camp where a fire is burning and coffee cups are ready to be filled, but no one is around. Steve says that the campers will soon be back and leads the hikers to a nearby spot to bed down for the night. They build a fire, and while Daniel pulls Steve aside to tell him that something strange is going on in the woods, Steve asks him not to say anything to panic the others. The two decide to take turns standing guard. That night, as Terry wonders why the other campers have not returned, several wolves attack Mandy in her sleeping bag. The campers chase them off, but Mandy’s hand has been badly bitten and she needs medical attention. At daybreak, Mandy and Frank leave the others and hike to a nearby ranger tower to call for a helicopter, but various species of birds gather in the trees and circle overhead. Suddenly, hawks swoop down and attack her and, before Frank can chase them off, Mandy falls over a cliff to her death.

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Meanwhile, as the rest of the hikers continue down the mountain, Johnny picks up snatches of radio reports about an ozone emergency, resulting in a chemical imbalance in the forest. When Johnny alarms the other hikers, Shirley shouts at him and accidentally knocks his radio into a creek. When the hikers reach a spot where food has been left for them, they find that the boxes have been ripped apart by raiding animals and nothing is left. Jenson, challenging Steve’s competence, says the group should stay there and wait for a helicopter to return, but Steve insists on pushing on down the mountain. Frank is wading through a creek when he finds a little girl standing on the bank. Frank asks the girl where her parents are, but she is in shock and does not react to him until a hawk swoops down and makes her scream. Frank picks her up and carries her away.

At the camp, after wolves attack the hikers again and injure Daniel, Jenson (who is clearly growing more mentally unstable due to the radiation now affecting him) says he is going to walk back up the mountain to the ranger tower, which is closer than the village. He convinces Shirley, Johnny, Bob and Beth to go with him, as the others continue down the mountain. That night, as lightning flashes and rain pours, Jenson suddenly becomes hostile for no reason by insulting Shirley and threatens to toss Johnny off a cliff. Bob and Beth realize that they have made a mistake by coming with Jenson, as he is the only human now affected by the sun’s radiation, but before they can leave, Jenson kills Bob by impaling him with his walking stick. As he drags Beth away to rape her, a large grizzly bear appears. Jenson wrestles the bear, which kills him by biting a chunk of his neck out and then devouring him. Shirley and Johnny grab Beth and run away.

That night in town, Ranger Tucker is awakened by the telephone. Burt tells him the National Guard is in town to evacuate everybody above 5,000 feet, where the radiation is the strongest, making all animals go crazy and attack people. As Tucker hangs up, he hears something rattling and gnawing. He turns on the kitchen light, finds the room empty, and gets a plate of chicken out of the refrigerator. But as Tucker goes into a drawer for a knife, some rats jump onto the table. Tucker tries to stab them, but a couple of rats leap on him. Tucker runs upstairs to wake his wife, Rita. They hurry outside and get into their car and escape before several vicious dogs can bite them.

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In the morning, after a night of walking, Frank and the little girl arrive in the deserted village. Outside Murphy’s Hotel, a mad dog attacks them. Frank puts the girl inside a vehicle, grabs a hammer from a toolbox and makes a run for his car nearby. As soon as Frank reaches his car and opens the passenger door, several rattlesnakes inside bite him. This results in the dog attacking Frank and killing him. Meanwhile, Shirley, Johnny and Beth take sanctuary in a grounded Park Ranger helicopter whose pilot has been killed by a pack of dogs.

Steve’s group is attacked by another pack of wild dogs at a camp of dilapidated cabins. Professor MacGregor and Roy are both killed by the dogs, as Steve, Terry and Daniel Santee run. The three hurry down to the nearby creek and push a raft into the water, but as they push off, the dogs leap onto the raft, forcing them overboard. The three hang onto the raft as a current catches it and pulls it downstream through the rapids, while the dogs on the raft eventually drown. Sometime later, Shirley, Johnny and Beth are still in the grounded helicopter. Everything is quiet and the dogs are all dead. As Johnny and Shirley step out of the chopper, they hear another helicopter coming and shout and wave their hands as it approaches.

In town, U.S. Army soldiers in hazardous-material suits approach Murphy’s Hotel. Dead birds and animals lay everywhere, killed by the very same solar radiation that made them hostile in the first place. Four of the soldiers see the little girl hiding inside the car where Frank left her and rescue her. Not far away, Steve, Terry and Daniel are sleeping on the drifting raft when they hear voices and a distant siren. Looking up, they see a dozen people standing on a bridge, welcoming them back to the normal world. In the final shot, a surviving eagle flies at the camera.

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DEVELOPMENT

Girdler delivered a box-office hit with 1976’s Grizzly, which was dubbed “Jaws with paws.” Girdler’s nature-amok follow- up the next year, Day of the Animals, was not a direct sequel to his man-eating-bear wonder, but instead employed the Ten Little Indians motif and embraced growing concerns about environmental decay, primarily focusing on the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer and its effect on high-altitude-dwelling wildlife.

The innovative odd campaign for Day of the Animals set the enviro-message agenda, featuring the film’s stars Christopher and Lynda Day George voicing their concerns about pollutants and aerosols doing harm to the planet’s atmosphere. But beyond those concerns lies a sublime eco-horror feature that truly epitomizes the nature vs. humans subgenre with a frenetic, chaotic and anarchic fury that pits pathetic (and not-so-pathetic) hikers against vultures, coyotes, cougars, snakes, rats, dogs and even a bear. It’s a well-mounted, visually striking, scary ride in which the moral is as crystal clear as the crisp skies Girdler and cinematographer Robert Sorrentino capture.

Boasting an all-’70s-star cast, also including Leslie Nielsen in an uncharacteristically loathsome role, a neurotically over bearing Ruth Roman, the stoic Richard Jaeckel and Lynda Day George, exuding both sexy spunk and unnaturally natural beauty. Day of the Animals is a perfect example of Girdler’s maverick filmmaking. It might well have paved the way for him to create more natural-horror cinema.

Even during the opening titles, we are treated to ominous images of the animals we and the characters will soon encounter, with evocative framing: A cougar strolls through the trees, a bird of prey lands on a cliff top and a hairy tarantula creeps by in close-up. A snake seems poised to strike at the camera, and a big brown bear stalks through the shots. This is moviemaking at its most stylized, yet charmingly naturalistic.

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Girdler, working from William Norton and Eleanor E. Norton’s screenplay, truly understands character and plot, and the violence and terror of Day of the Animals is meticulously structured so that the story’s human dynamics reflect or organically extend the behavior of nature’s creations. In Girdler’s movies, humankind can be an abomination, and the creatures of the Earth be they bears or birds or cougars or dogs are just doing what comes naturally.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Not long after Girdler’s big Hollywood move, he began negotiating with Montoro to direct another horror movie to follow up Grizzly. As Girdler’s second wife Avis explains, “We were still suing Ed at the time over Grizzly. That guy was a real rat. But it was show business, and you can still sleep with someone even if you’re suing them. Ed was still a good source of money and income. Billy was broke when I got him, and we needed the work.”

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Montoro coughed up $1.2 million for Day of the Animals in 1977, with a screenplay written by William W. Norton and his wife Eleanor. A “when animals attack” smorgasbord of ’70s B-movie actors and bloodthirsty beasts, Day offered Girdler another ideal platform to honor his film icon, The Birds director Alfred Hitchcock. The ensemble cast features George and his wife Lynda Day George, Nielsen, Jon Cedar, Michael Ansara, Richard Jaeckel and Paul Mantee among others. Susan Backlinie, famous for being the first victim in Jaws, appears in Day and also handled many of the critters with her boyfriend, Hollywood animal trainer Monty Cox.

Girdler often worked with the same people from one film to the next, but Day marked the first time he teamed with legendary composer Lalo Schifrin. Considering his credits might seem surprising he would compose the music for low-budget films, but Schifrin is a big fan of exploitation and horror fare. “I used to go see B-movies many times because they didn’t have soundtrack records,” he says. “The music was fantastic, and that attracted me a lot when I was a child and a teenager.”

Schifrin also liked Girdler, and, knowing how hard it was for a director to get a break, he wanted to help him. As Schifrin recalls, even though Day of the Animals and The Manitou (which he also scored) was a separate little cottage away from his main house. It was perched on the side of a hill overlooking Sunset Boulevard. The view was great, the accommodations modest but very welcome to hungry young movie folks like Bill.”

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When asked what it felt like to take on a grizzly bear, Leslie Nielsen told Kevin Danzey in 1980, “I had to weave and play around with a honey bear, and I could wrestle with him a little bit, but there’s no way you can even wrestle a honey bear, let alone a grizzly bear that’s standing ten feet to eleven feet tall! Can you imagine? But it was fascinating to work that close to that kind of animal.”

RELEASE/DISTRIBUTION

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Montoro released Day of the Animals to theaters with little fanfare on May 25, 1977,  the same day Star Wars opened. Eclipsed by the razzle-dazzle of George Lucas’ space opera, the film was later described by Montoro as “one of my failures that I still made a couple million on.” After a few additional dismal attempts at stirring theatrical interest (including a title change to Something is Out There), Montoro sold the television rights to CBS for a handsome price. Avis Girdler admits, “That film worked a lot better on TV than it did in the theaters. The pace was just right with commercial breaks. It was a very popular TV movie in the ’80s, and many people seem to remember it fondly. Billy did a good job with what he had to work with.”

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Day of the Animals Donald Porter’s Novelization

Like Will Collins, Porter presents a few first-hand accounts from the animals’ perspectives, though they lack the personal touch found in Grizzly. These animals don’t know why they are suddenly so angry at mankind, but for the first time, they are willing to work together to see human blood spilled. Cougar joined with grizzly joined with wolf joined with hawk — all focused on one vengeful agenda.

The novel establishes that this group of misfit hikers was the brainchild of Steve’s boss. The nature tours usually cater to experienced hikers, but Steve’s group of “tenderfoots” all had money to burn, and the park was more than willing to accept their cash. Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara’s character) joins the group partially as a favor to Steve in case the tenderfoots prove especially helpless.

Throughout the novel, ALL of the characters suffer from the virus brought on by the hole in the ozone layer. They sprout ugly, painful lesions. They grow horny (the professor makes a play for Lynda Day George, and again, Christopher George gets laid). They all become irritable and reckless.

The first major plot deviation occurs after Mandy is attacked by the cougar. Frank and Mandy leave the group to seek first aid. As they travel down the mountain, Mandy grows disoriented and weird, chattering mindlessly and such. Tired and belligerent, she refuses to go any further without a rest. Frank urges her to continue, but she won’t budge. He turns to leave her. She is attacked by a group of birds. They don’t force her down the cliff just yet — they tear out her eyes. Frank chases them off. He and his blinded wife stumble away. Eventually, after several more bird attacks (Frank grows adept at crushing hawks with his bare hands), vultures force Mandy down a steep cliff. Frank resumes his lonely journey down the mountain, and in accordance with the film, he finds the little girl. As he and the brat travel, he calls her Mandy, mistaking her for his dead wife.

The most significant deviation comes toward the end of the novel, during the “dog attack.” First of all, the ‘wild German shepherds’ are wolves in the book, which makes a lot more sense. As in the movie, Steve’s surviving tenderfoots are holed up in a wooden shack and surrounded by angry canines. The wolves invade the cabin and attack the group. Roy, the football player with cancer, becomes the group’s savior; fearlessly taking on the wolves in direct hand-to-hand combat. The professor joins him and bravely engages in battle. They yell to Steve, Terry, and Daniel to leave. Steve refuses, but Roy insists. Steve somberly complies and the trio dashes to the river, and eventually, to safety. In the movie, it’s hard to believe that Steve would just casually abandon the professor and Roy after everything they’d been through, but it’s a logical move as presented in the novel.

Then there is a final scene of Roy and the professor in the cabin. Surrounded by dead wolves (which they offed themselves), Roy drags himself over to the professor’s broken body. The two smile and quietly congratulate each other on their triumphant victory. They hope their efforts were enough to save the others. Roy is brimming with an unfamiliar yet pleasurable sensation of peace. He has faced his own mortality and is no longer afraid of death. The professor and he join hands, then die happily.

The sudden ending seen in the film is even MORE abrupt as depicted in the novel. To give you a good idea of what I mean: the book is 168 pages long. The ending kicks in on page 165.

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CONCLUSION

Girdler’s working relationship with Montoro turned sour by the time Day of the Animals’ sun was setting, and he decided to cut his losses and head for higher ground. Girdler’s final deal with Montoro involved the latter purchasing the rights to Girdler’s first two movies, and Girdler used the proceeds to pay back his original Studio 1 investors.

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William Girdler called me and I met him. We had dinner together and he cast me. It wasn’t a big-budget movie, but it also wasn’t a small one, it was an “in-between-budget” movie which we shot up in Northern California, in the wilds. All I remember is how beautiful the scenery was up there in the upper Sierras. They had wolves and birds and tame bears, and then also mountain lions, beautiful mountain lions  I love the big cats. Right after that, I did The Manitou for the same director, and that was an interesting movie, too. I played the Indian who exorcises the Manitou from Susan Strasberg. Again, it was long before all of this new (special FX) technology The Manitou was a forerunner of this new stuff. They can do things much slicker I don’t know if you would call it better but slicker today than they did then. But still, it was done well, I thought. –  Michael Ansara (Memories of The Day of the Animals and The Manitou!)

The Manitou (1978)

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“Billy wasn’t scared of anything, he was always super-confident that anything he wanted that was in the script, he could make it happen.” Jon Cedar

 SUMMARY

Tony Curtis plays Harry Erskine, an early, disco-dancing incarnation of Miss Cleo. Harry reads tarot cards for lonely old rich widows who have nothing better to do than listen to his hackneyed fortune spiels. Harry’s ex-girlfriend Karen (Susan Strasberg) visits Harry under extreme duress; it seems that she has a giant, unexplained tumor growing on her neck at an unnaturally rapid rate. The two rekindle their romance as a way of coping with Karen’s life-threatening condition. Karen mumbles some strange alien words in her sleep, but Harry doesn’t think much of it until later that day, a client of his kills herself in Harry’s apartment uttering the same befuddling words. An operation to remove Karen’s “tumor” proves disastrous. A strange force drives the doctor (Cedar) to near suicide during surgery. Harry meets with the doctor, who proclaims that Karen’s tumor is really a fetus growing on her neck. After misadventures with Burgess Meredith, Stella Stevens and Ann Sothern, Harry teams up with a lean, mean Indian medicine man named John Singing Rock (Ansara) . Together they fight the avenging Native American spirit Misquamacus as it emerges from Karen’s body. Veteran little actors Felix Silla (Cousin It from TV’s Addams Family) and Joe Gieb share the part of the creature.

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DEVELOPMENT

“I was flying to London to oversee the scoring for ‘Day of the Animals’. At the airport in New York, I bought a paperback copy of ‘Manitou’. I read it straight through and knew it was a great film. I got off the plane in London and called one of my associates in Hollywood and said, “Sell the cars, hock the office equipment, do anything you have to do to get it, but get it today.”

Girdler returned to the typewriter to produce the script for his final film, The Manitou … and it shows. Tony Curtis (replete with funky hairdo) plays a hustling tarot card reader who has a soft spot for Susan Strasberg. Strasberg suffers from an odd tumor growing on her neck that defies all medical explanations. The tumor swells to titanic proportions and finally gives life to an ancient Indian medicine man bent on murder. Michael Ansara, in an unforgettably debonair performance, plays a modern medicine man contracted to defeat the spirit.

Immediately after he secured the rights to Graham Masterton’s best selling 1976 novel (for about $50, 000), Girdler began seeking investors in earnest. When a studio asked to see a script, Girdler lied and said he had one. He and several associates (including Jon Cedar and Thomas Pope) then spent the next three days cranking out a screenplay. Three months after optioning The Manitou, Girdler secured his financial backing. Production commenced a few weeks later. The rushed script is comically cheesy throughout, leaving seasoned actors like Burgess Meredith visibly struggling with their roles. The scene in which Tony Curtis intimidates the Manitou by tossing a typewriter is a schlock religious experience. The A-list performers deliver their lines with the utmost sincerity, thus endearingly over-the-top acting runs unbounded throughout Manitou.

The Manitou marked Graham Masterton’s entry into the world of horror literature. Prior to his tale of Indian magic running amok in New York City, Masterton earned a living by authoring sex manuals with titles like Girls Who Said Yes. He wrote The Manitou in under a week sometime during 1975. The book was an immediate smash in the UK.

William Girdler But before Girdler ever laid eyes on Graham Masterton’s The Manitou, the best-selling novel had already undergone at least one noteworthy change. Early hardback editions included a variant ending in which Misquamacus was killed by a rare venereal disease he contracted from Karen Tandy. When Pinnacle sought to release a paperback version, they asked Graham to alter the inflammatory climax. He complied, and composed a new ending in which Harry channels the ‘Manitou’ energy of a police computer to combat Misquamacus.

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The book is pulpy and feels as if it was penned quickly. It still packs a punch — even some 26 years later. The swift pace keeps the reader’s disbelief suspended. (I couldn’t count how many time an authoritative character says something like, “Well, normally I’d never believe this, but I can’t find another explanation, so sure: I’ll buy that she has a fetus growing on her neck!”)

The most significant plot element Girdler altered in his film presentation is the relationship between Harry Erskine and Karen Tandy. In the novel, the two are complete strangers — Karen is merely a cute tarot customer who evokes compassion from Harry. Several times throughout the novel, Harry makes comments to the effect of, “I don’t know why I care so much about what happens to this girl, but I do.” Girdler’s love connection gives Harry a real motive for putting his life on the line. In my opinion, the relationship seen in the movie is superior to Masterton’s original plot.

The character of John Singingrock as seen in the film strays far from the modern medicine man described in the book. Masterton’s Singingrock is a sly profiteer who’s not afraid of taking money from white men. He is paid handsomely by Karen’s family to rid the young woman of the Indian nightmare growing on her neck. When he realizes the reborn spirit is Misquamacus, his first instinct is to drop the deal (he doesn’t want to be the Indian equivalent of an Uncle Tom.) But upon learning that Misquamacus’ new body has been injured via hospital X-rays, Singingrock decides to engage in battle anyway since Misquamacus will be hopelessly deformed.

Girdler’s Singingrock is a simple farmer whose price for the exorcism is a donation to an American Indian charity. Bill felt his depiction was more accurate in respect to real Native American personalities. In the novel, Amelia and MacArthur, the people who help Harry hunt down the origin of the Indian spirit, both meet grisly fates. Harry learns of their deaths while at the hospital. Girdler’s version assumes the couple survived. Interestingly, Masterton brought the couple back in his novel Burial. The French publisher of the novel noted to Graham that they died in the original Manitou book. Masterton attributed the error to his clear memory of the film version.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Bill Girdler told Jeffrey Frentzen in 1977, “Much of the gore in the book has been eliminated. We had two choices in making the film. We could have made a drive-in shocker of immense proportions or a class production. I wanted to get away from the kinds of films I’d been doing up until that point. Graham’s book went to extremes that I did not wish to deal with. I treated the story uniformly as a personal ordeal for the characters directly involved with this girl. Graham brought in things like the National Guard and the New York Police to undercut the credibility; it’s like some of those science fiction films of the fifties where battalions of men were called in to fight off invading aliens.”

Die-hard fans of Masterton strongly dislike Girdler’s show-stopping finale. Graham himself thinks Bill might have laid it on a bit thick. Personally, I can’t imagine the film without a naked babe firing laser beams at a midget. Girdler was especially proud of the film’s climax, and talked it up at every opportunity. He told Jeffrey Frentzen, “One thing the audience will not be prepared for is the ending, which is completely different from the one in the book. My ending will leave the viewer in a state of shock. So, if you are oriented on Graham’s finale, forget it. This finish is an end-all.”

LOCATIONS

Girdler also shifted the location of the story from New York to San Francisco. Bill commented during interviews he made the change because San Fran was moodier, though it’s more likely the decision was driven by budgetary concerns.

POST PRODUCTION/SPECIAL EFFECTS

Girdler stretched the $2.6-miIlion budget to its limit. Like a kid in a candy store, he picked out special FX of every flavor. He relied on traditional low-budget techniques like black screening for some scenes. Girdler orchestrated his audience agitation with waves of stunning visual and makeup effects, planned and designed with various technicians for over five months. Some of the effects proved spectacularly hazardous, both on and off the screen. “Some of the effects did get a bit out of hand,” Girdler admits. “But no one got hurt. We have a lot of explosions in the hospital. They were filmed at high speeds for a slow motion effect. But when you blow up an IBM typewriter on a sound stage, it gets pretty hairy. We had to empty the stage and build protective boxes for the cameramen and crew to hide in. There was shrapnel all over the place.”

Misquamicut Head Table Apparition
Misquamicut Head Table Apparition

The Manitou’s inundation of a hospital corridor with mounds of ice proved a slight problem as well. “At one point during the film, the entire tenth floor of a hospital had to be frozen. We took the temperature down to about 15 degrees. We used a lot of fiberglass snow and stuff but we also wetted the entire set down so the floor was really ice. Then we covered the place with fog, so the working conditions were pretty unbearable. We couldn’t take it for too long. It was like working in the Alps.”

Much to the cast and crew’s relief, some of the dangerous looking effects, proved to be fairly routine to get through. During a hospital examination scene, for instance, the Manitou takes control of a laser gun and begins disintegrating everything in sight. In reality, the scene was simple to film. “We designed the laser gun ourselves,” reveals Girdler. “We put it on motorized tracks so we could control the movement. The laser beam itself was animated on a frame by frame basis, which took months.” Simple, non-hazardous, but costly and time-consuming nonetheless.

Another horrifying scene proved a tedious but physically benign experience: the creation of the monstrous lizard. “It was an old process that hadn’t been used in a long time, the black screen process. It’s similar to a blue screen, a long superimposition. We had a lizard built that was about nine feet long, mechanically operated. We filmed it against black and put it through an optical process, an oil plate which gave it a fluid look. We then superimposed its fluid, moving image with already choreographed live action. It took weeks to do.”

The Misquamacus makeup. “The actor had on more appliances than any other actor has ever had on film, including Planet of the Apes. It took five hours to put on and two to take it off.”

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The physical creation of Misquamacus was assigned to the skilled hands of Tom Burman. It’s very difficult to design prosthetic pieces that move, bend and wrinkle naturally. says Tom Burman. Also the anatomy had to be exaggerated they wanted a very ‘ropey’ look to the muscles. The design seeks to elongate the upper body, torso and abdomen. It was very difficult to incorporate that look and still make it functional.” Once the final visualization was agreed upon, a positive cast had to be constructed of the actor’s body, the entire body head, hands, feet, everything! The hands, feet and face were cast in the standard alginate. The body cast was taken with plaster bandages. First the actor was coated with vaseline, then plaster bandages were applied directly to the skin. ‘We marked the body at halfway points with indelible pencil.” There were 36 pieces, including wig. scleral lenses, and teeth. Felix Sita and Joe Gieb played the role. The application took five sometimes six hours to complete. Of the Misquamacus actors Tom says: They were the most cooperative subjects I’ve worked on-never complained at all. I would have cried like a baby if someone had done that to me! The sequences involving Misquamacus in makeup took about 7 or 8 days to complete and received an ovation of appreciation from the crew. Tom Burman – The Manitou (1978)

Some of the FX are quite potent. The little Indian gremlin bursting out of Strasberg’s neck/back is genuinely icky. The FX in the last scene are another matter entirely. Trust me, you can’t say you’ve lived a full and rewarding life unless you’ve watched a naked chick shoot cartoon laser beams at an Indian midget (played in part by Felix Silla of “Cousin It” fame). Per Girdler, “The film’s ending is a complete head trip. The effects that you see, well, you’ve never seen them before.”

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CONCLUSION

Those who knew Girdler say The Manitou got burned in post-production.  Avis Girdler winces when reminded of the final scene. “That’s not what Bill had in mind,” she says. “He was almost finished with the movie when he died, but I know he wanted to work on a number of things with that scene. The studio put it out as is, and there wasn’t anybody who wanted to finish it right.”

Getting better with every movie was Girdler’s motive, and he was hoping after The Manitou that he’d take a big step up the ladder. “We made all our pictures fast and cheap,” he said at the time. “Now we can start making them better and a little more carefully.” Everything was coming up roses in Girdler’s personal life by late 1977; right before his 30th birthday, he married Avis and they moved into a new house in Studio City, CA.

To Girdler’s relief, the Abby lawsuit was finally settled in December 1977. Girdler won the battle (and over $100,000) but ultimately lost the war. Though he was finally awarded his share of the profits, the terms of the agreement stated that Abby could never be shown publicly without Warners’ express consent, and the film remains unavailable on legitimate video to this day.

But Abby symbolized the past; Girder was looking to the future. He mulled over a number of projects as Manitou wrapped, trying to decide what he would make next. One potential project was The Overlords, a sci-fi action fantasy; Harry Kleiner, who wrote Fantastic Voyage, is said to have completed a script. Another venture Girdler considered launching was Kentucky Wild, an Every Which Way But Loose-style road comedy about marijuana farmers in Kentucky (Girdler wanted to make another film in Louisville) . The director was also in serious negotiations with Masterton about turning his book The Djinn into a film. Still another movie prospect Girdler discussed in interviews was Deadly Jungle, which he talked about shooting partly in equatorial Africa. But there was one project he was considering that would lead him back to the Philippines.

Girdler died in a freak accident while preparing his next film. Scouting locations in Manila with British producer Patrick Allan Kelly and Filipino film executive Dennis Jovan, Girdler hired a helicopter piloted by Jess Garcia. While engaged in an aerial survey of a jungle location, the director’s helicopter hit a power line and fell into the thick underbrush below. All four men perished in the crash.

“Billy was hired to scout locations for a film called Opium,” says Avis. “It was a drug cartel movie, but I don’t think there was a full script yet. Terence Young, who’d directed some of the James Bond movies, was originally hired as director. Billy heard that Marlon Brando was going to star in the production. Young went over budget while scouting locations and he was fired. Mel Gordy suggested that Billy be brought in as a replacement” Girdler hadn’t officially signed onto the project.

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fangoria 216  

Fangoria 217

Fangoria 162

Starlog Magazine 225

Fangoria 343

Starlog Future Life Magazine

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