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.

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