The Brief Life & Times of Bill Girdler

girdlertheman1Now that we know what’s in store for us from Bill Girdler’s filmography, let’s talk about the man himself. His biography is well documented, a good overview is found here, and some themes are worth repeating as we get ready to look at his films in depth.

Girdler was born on 22 October 1947 in Kentucky to a well-to-do family of industrialists, and after a short stint in the US Air Force–likely pleasing his grandfather whose plant built B-24 bombers during World War II–returned home to start Studio One Productions with his brother -in-law. After shooting a number of local commercials, the pair turned to feature filmmaking and changed their studio name to Mid-America Pictures. Six of his nine films were shot in Kentucky, Project: Kill, Grizzly, and The Manitou were his only Hollywood productions. Girdler and his brother-in-law would be business partners until Girdler’s untimely death in 1978.

Because Girdler said himself that he was more businessman than artist, his work is mainly underappreciated by film scholars. He gets mentioned from time to time as the director of Abby or Sheba, Baby or Grizzly, and that’s pretty much the extent to which he’s remembered.

A little more thought brings us a bit more legacy to think about: first, we see Girdler’s ghost at play nearly weekly in low-budget sci-fi and horror, especially in places like the SyFy Channel. Every time we see an “animals attacking humans” film, we should be thanking Bill Girdler. Grizzly showed that this sub-genre could be fun and successful, and it’s been with us ever since 1976 when Grizzly became the most successful independent film of its day.* More importantly, Grizzly was the first film in this genre since he was the first to rip off Jaws’ main storyline. Someone else would have done it if Girdler had not, but the point is that Girdler beat everyone else to the punch–and did it well.

Another thing we might have Girdler to thank for–only in part–is Pam Grier’s television career in the late 70s and 80s. She was pretty tired of the one-dimensional roles she was getting in the blaxploitation scene, and called it quits on the whole lot–Girdler’s Sheba, Baby was the last blaxploitation she shot and her last film for American International Pictures. Soon thereafter she moved on to television work for a spell.

As an aside, I’ll just mention quickly that Austin Stoker has fonder memories of Girdler, having been directed by him in Abby; Sheba, Baby and The Get-Man. According to Stoker, if you played a villain, Girdler would also make you show some positive sides of that character. Likewise, heroes were expected to show some villainy. To Stoker, this was a breath of fresh air during the height of blaxploitation–and he turned down many roles within this genre precisely because the charters he was asked to play were so one-dimensional in the way that Grier would have found all too familiar. One might conclude that Grier, as an African-American woman had fewer choices at that point while Stoker had more on account of gender.

Pam Grier, Austin Stoker (r) in Sheba, Baby (1975)

So what might have happened to Girdler if he hadn’t perished in that helicopter in the Philippines in ’78? He had already moved out to Hollywood and had completed three films there, the last of which, The Manitou, was starting to get into some seriously well known stars and bigger budgets–specifically Tony Curtis and $3 million. We’ll never know the answer to counter-factual questions, but one could see the upward trajectory Girdler was on, so who knows?

*Outside of porn. By any accounting, Deep Throat was the most successful independent film ever created.

The Groovy Horror & Exploitation Films of William Girdler

william-girdler-02Thought I’d start the new year off right by sinking my teeth into a new project here on the blog–exploring all nine of Girdler’s fun exploitation flicks!

Bill Girdler was an up-and-coming horror and exploitation director who was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 1978 at the tender age of 30 in the Philippines while location-scouting for his tenth feature. He was just hitting his stride and was starting to see commercial success from his endeavors.

He also knew who he was as a filmmaker–he was in it to make money, not art:

I’m in the business to make money. Why kid yourself? Nobody wants to lose money. We haven’t and never will get into the art stuff. I’m not out to give messages to the world. We look at scripts for their commercialism. Art is not the objective of my films, but we try to put as much art into them as possible.

Girdler is most often remembered for his latter films, such as 1978’s The Manitou; 1976’s very successful Jaws-knockoff Grizzly; and 1974’s blacksploitation version of The Exorcist: Abby. But here are the trailers for all nine of his films, to wet our appetites:

Girdler often used many of the same players throughout his nine films–that’s Charles Kissinger (1924-91) on the left playing “Pa,” who appeared in seven of these nine films and quit acting after Girdler’s death.

Combat Cops a.k.a The Get-Man a.k.a The Zebra Killer starts Girdler’s trilogy of blaxpolitation films. This one also makes an appearance in the Spike Lee joint, Summer of Sam (1999).

Personally, my fave of Girdler’s films. Initially earning $4 million of box office (about $19 million in today’s dollars) in its first month, this film was taken out of circulation when Warner Brothers sued Girdler because it was too similar to The Exorcist. By the time the suit was settled and profit could be earned again, Girdler was already dead. Also, William “Blacula” Marshall hated Girdler’s script.

The last blaxploitation picture for both Girdler and Pam Grier! “The heat’s on, but she’s doin’ the cookin’!” I love that line.

This brings us to Grizzly, arguably Girdler’s best known film. This was the highest-grossing independent film of all time in its day–it’s record not beaten until Halloween (1978), earning about $39 million worldwide in its original theatrical run (about $175 million in todays dollars, or about a day-and-a-half of the box office from Star Wars: The Force Awakens if you prefer).

This one’s an odd duck. Leslie Nielsen and Gary Lockwood play it straight in some sort of king-fu action flick. Is that a “Velvet Elvis” style painting of Nielsen with a Luger at about 0:47ish? Holy crap, man.

This is two trailers bundled into the same video. Neilsen returns, and this has the same basic plot as Grizzly, which is basically Jaws on land. Apparently Day of the Animals (a.k.a. Something Is Out There) is thought to be the sequel to Grizzly, but not so: that dubious distinction goes to Grizzly II: The Concert (1983), starring young versions of George Clooney, Charlie Sheen, and Laura Dern.

Finally, we come to the end of Girdler’s filmography. He described this flick as a combination of The Exorcist and Star Wars–Girdler was an exploiteer until the end. However, he did not survive to see this film’s debut. This was easily Girdler’s most ambitious project, with a $3 million budget and A-list stars such as Tony Curtis as players.

I’ll be diving into these films over the next several posts: their production, what the casts and crew went on to do afterwards, and Girdler’s legacy.

2015 Wrap-Up: My Top Five List

Couple things on the wrap-up this year: first I can say that in 2015 I watched an even 70 films. By no means am I a “power-watcher” of movies, quality over quantity, or said another way: I have a day job. And kids. And I’m usually tired by the time I get a chance.

Before I get into my lists of films I enjoyed most this year, a quick note on podcasts I’m listening to. I’ve tried a number of B-movie and/or horror film podcasts, and most are, sadly, unlistenable. We need far fewer podcasts that are film reviews–as if we could not survive another day without your review of whether a 30-year-old film is “good”–and more that are film analysis of film history, IMHO. As we head into 2016, I’m still listening to Linoleum Knife; Monster Kid Radio; You Must Remember This; No-Budget Nightmares; 1951 Down Place; The Projection Booth; and Outside the Cinema. We’ll see what continues to make the cut next year. Welcome any suggestions.

And now, the films I loved this year–all first time watches. Spoiler: No Star Wars to be found here!

I can’t say anything than has already been said; my first thought was they don’t make movies like this anymore. Too bad, but makes one appreciate the older films all the more. I loved how some scenes moved like molasses, but were so full of meaning and innuendo. Such a pleasure to savor a film’s unfolding, instead of gulping it down whole.

About three-quarters of the way through the year I think I started burning out on my usual fare of schlocky horror movies and started craving cinema and not just movies. No doubt, this is the influence of starting to listen to Linoleum Knife–“a podcast of the cinema.” My next few choices reflect this change in my viewing habits, and are in no particular order.

This is just a beautiful film about the grief ensuing from the death of one-half of a gay couple in the John F. Kennedy era. It also is great at showing some of the realities that same-sex couples had to go through in those dark pre-Stonewall days to closet themselves in plain sight, which could be hard to watch at times. One of the tenderest films I’ve seen in a long time.

This was a hard film to watch about a topic I know little about–child soldiers. Set in an unspecified sub-Saharan African country that could have been anywhere from Liberia to South Sudan it follows one boy from capture through becoming a hardened soldier at the tender age of 11ish. Idris Elba is the standout here, and I’m now on an Elba kick which I’m satiating by binging on Luther, which I can’t take my eyes off of:

Horses of God is a French-Moroccan film speculating on the events leading up to the May 2003 attacks in Casablanca that killed 45 in 5 semi-coordinated attacks on the same day.  This is a straight dramatization of the fictionalized account of how two brothers go from living in a shantytown next to the city to becoming suicide bombers, and seeing the events through the eyes of the bombers is very revealing.

Back to my usual gig, a Hammer horror film with an early-1970s exploitation sensibility? Yes, please!

Now, some honorable mentions–films I also enjoyed very much on a first viewing:

I Heart Mega Sharks

 

A highly-realistic depiction of the Mega-Shark-pocalypse.

A highly-realistic depiction of the Mega-Shark-pocalypse.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for this pretty tired formula involving ridiculously large fish attacking ridiculously long passed their sell-by date pop culture icons in ridiculously silly ways. Lest you think I’ve jettisoned all standards, I’ll have you know I’m a purist: sharks must only have one head, not three; must be in the water, and not travel on land; and not be confused with weather or mountain phenomena; and the sharks must be based on real species, not mashed up fucked up shit. 

Who am I kidding? I love it all! Bring it.

Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009)

Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus (2010)

Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark (2014)

Mega Shark vs. Kolossus (2015)

mega-shark

Deadtime Stories

Good write-up of a fun-looking 80s low-budget horror anthology.

Forgotten Films

Deadtime Stories 9As sure as Dracula is afraid of getting a suntan, our Halloween series here at Forgotten Films is sure to bring out at least one horror anthology film. That’s where those half-baked horror ideas come together to make one film out of several short stories, since none of them is substantial enough to make a film all by themselves. This year we get three stories wrapped together by the framing device of a guy telling his young nephew stories to get him to go to sleep. Plug in your night-light for 1986’s Deadtime Stories.

Deadtime Stories 2Story number one concerns a young man named Peter (Scott Valentine…Nick from Family Ties) who has been raised by two witches since he was just a little guy. Now that he’s a strapping young man, the two hags use him to help lure their victims. First he brings them a priest who is expecting an…

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Virtual Film Fest: Bad Horror from the 1940s

hqdefault (1)The 1940s are a bit of a lost decade for horror, so to find several films from then is a real treat. These are mainly Producers Releasing Company films–PRC was one of the low-budget producers of the day producing second-run films with lesser stars or unknown actors; there were dozens of studios specializing in in B-movies, collectively known as the “poverty row” producers. These producers made the 40s a boon for B-films, if a bit light on horror.

First up, Son of Ingagi from 1940. First all-black casting for a horror movie ever, so that alone makes this one of some historical interest.

Next, continuing with the simian/missing link theme, is Boris Karloff in The Ape, released on 30 September 1940. In the pre-Jonas Salk era, human specimens are needed for a polio vaccine, and a ingenious plan to extract them is concocted…

Enter Bela Lugosi! The Corpse Vanishes, premiering on 8 May 1942 has Lugosi trying to preserve his wife’s beauty by injecting her with the precious bodily fluids of virgins. This one was the basis for a 1989 episode of MST3K, and finally came out on DVD twenty years after that.

Mary Carlisle, late 1930s or early 1940s.

Mary Carlisle, late 1930s or early 1940s.

Dead Men Walk, released on 12 April 1943 was notable for bring Mary Carlisle’s final role; she had appeared in silent films and dozens of B-movies in the 1930s. Today, Carlisle is among the oldest surviving silent film actors. She turned 101 this year, though she’s been out of the public eye since receiving her Hollywood Star 55 years ago.

When The Monster Maker came out on 15 May 1944, it was PRC’s first horror release in nearly a year-and-a-half, mainly because PRC had spent most of 1943 in talks to acquire a poverty row company that specialized in renting production equipment. Once purchased, PRC films took on better production values. Scary stories with at least decent production values seems to have paid off for Monster Maker, which earned a rating of B–partially morally objectionable–by the “National Legion of Decency,” a predominantly Catholic organization seeking to combat the “massacre of the innocence of youth” on film.

As an aside, lest you think backward-looking organizations like the National Legion of Decency are a thing of the past, today’s “Parents Television Council” (est. 1995) seek to fulfill the same role today–and look at the Legion as their model.

On 1 February 1946 we got The Flying Serpent, a loose remake of PRC’s biggest hit The Devil Bat from 1940; both were redone in 1982 in the Michael Moriarty/David Carradine flick Q. Aztec treasure protected by ancient god Quetzalcoatl being fought over by greedy archaeologists… what could possibly go wrong? A fun early creature feature.

Lastly, we have Things Happen At Night, from 3 November 1948, an underplayed little British horror-comedy in which a poltergeist bothers a household, based on the play The Poltergeist by Frank Harvey, Jr. Horrorpedia notes the structural similarity to The Exorcist in which a young girl is haunted, an expert comes to exorcise the monster.

 

Horror/B-Movie Roundup, Disembodied Head Edition

What film is this from? Tune in next week...

What film is this from? Tune in next week…

A roundup of what I’ve watched, read or listened to lately:

  • Projection Booth #144 on “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” (1962). I loved the part of the episode that one commenter dismissed as “psychobabble” about this film being a reflection of the male Id of that era, how the legacy of Nazi physician Joseph Mengele is portrayed on film, the subgenre of “disembodied head/brain/brain-in-a-pan” films, etc.

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  • Also from the episode we learn that both Brain and Debbie Does Dallas both have musical theater adaptations!

  • Lastly, here are the trailers for the best films I saw in September, in no particular order:

Covered on episode 6 of 1951 Down Place.

Will be covered on a future episode of Badasses, Boobs, and Body Counts–I suggested it as part of “listener appreciation month,” and Mike and Iris took the suggestion. However, Mike says its the one film for the BB&BC listener appreciation month he’s not looking forward to… I suspect we’ll be agreeing to disagree about this classic.