Tag Archive: The Manitou (1978)


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.

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.

The Manitou (1978)

the-manitou-movie-poster-1020240378