William Girdler, King of the Knockoffs

As Grizzly turns 40, we look back at William Girdler’s brief and dirty career.

Director William Girdler is a tough nut to crack. Some people who worked with him say he was a friendly, straight-laced, church-going type, while others insist he was a macho wild man. Interviewed during the filming of his 1976 killer animal hit Grizzly, Girdler all but likened himself to Werner Herzog, making the shoot itself sound as arduous and death-defying as Herzog’s later Fitzcarraldo (it wasn’t). Still others insist he was a brilliant filmmaker poised to become the next Spielberg.

Well, um, that’s not exactly true, either. But he did crank out some interesting exploitation pictures during his brief career, you gotta give him that, even if a few of them weren’t what you might call “original.” Over the course of six years, between 1972 and 1978, the King of the Knockoffs made an impressive nine indie features before his untimely death at age 30 while scouting locations for his tenth.

In extremely low-budget terms, Girdler, it must be said, started out with a good deal of energy and some promise. He was even a little ahead of the curve. Just a smidgen.  Problem is, if you’re only ten minutes ahead of your time, you’re pretty well screwed.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1947, he founded his first production company in his early 20s, and shot his first feature, Asylum of Satan, around Lexington in 1971. He had no budget, was working with a mostly non-professional cast and crew, and the resulting film is grainy and murky and amateurish, but it still had a little something. Stories about sinister madhouses with even more sinister chief psychiatrists were nothing new by then (you could go back to the legends surrounding Bedlam in the 18th century), and neither were stories about the Devil. The hook here, though, was that Girdler’s film, released just a few months before The Exorcist, concerned the sinister Dr. Spector (Girdler regular Charles Kissinger), who not only tortured and killed the patients in his care, but sacrificed them to, yes, Satan. Had the film come out a few months after The Exorcist instead of a few months before, it may well have tapped into the new devil-crazy zeitgeist and made it into more than a tiny smattering of theaters. But it didn’t, and was roundly ignored into oblivion.

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The following year, also filming around Lexington and using several of the same cast members, Girdler shot his second feature, Three on a Meathook. Clearly (and shamelessly) owing a great deal to Hitchcock’s Psycho, the film nevertheless had more than its share of unlikely surprises. Even with his limited budget, he was obviously aiming to make something a cut above the standard splatter fare. That may have been part of the problem.

It opens like any cookie-cutter slasher film from a decade later, with a group of four girls on their way to a weekend at the lake when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. A young farmer in a pickup (James Pickett) happens by, and offers to let them stay at his creepy old farmhouse until they can get the car fixed. The kid’s father (Kissinger again) is none too pleased about the houseguests, and the ominous whispers begin to swirl.

Well, ten minutes later, the girls have been slaughtered and the film becomes something else completely. With a title like Three on a Meathook, audiences likely didn’t enter the theaters expecting a deliberate and serious character study with a romantic subtext, but that’s what they got, at least up to the final ten minutes. More than Psycho even, the film presage’s George Romero’s Martin from four years later, and in fact the story and subdued tone may have been part of Romero’s inspiration.

Also interesting, Psycho knockoff aside, a year before both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deranged were released, Girdler became the first low-budget grindhouse director to exploit the grisly possibilities of the Ed Gein case.  The film may not have had Psycho’s enduring brilliance, but still, right? There he was ahead of the curve again. Sadly, the film lacked Tobe Hooper’s stylistic flair and Tom Savini’s makeup effects, as well as the crazy bloody mayhem audiences were expecting. Although it’s since been rediscovered and has gathered a small cult following, at the time it again only made it into a couple theaters before quickly vanishing.

Still, a few people noticed, and Girdler earned himself a contract with American International, moving out to L.A. in 1973 to make a trio of blaxploitation pictures. It seems around that same point he realized there was much more money to be made in being ten minutes behind the times than there was in being ten minutes ahead of them. I mean, why bother putting all that work into making (mostly) original movies with a unique angle when you could just spit out a cheap remake of a proven hit? Maybe give it a little twist to avoid the lawsuits? It was a formula that had worked like a charm at AIP for years, and we won’t even get started on the movies coming out of Italy and Japan.

The game at AIP was pretty simple. Blacula and Blackenstein had both been big hits, right? So why not update it a bit? For his second AIP picture, Girdler co-wrote and directed Abby, starring Carol Speed, Juanita Moore, and Blacula’s William H. Marshall. The story concerned this nice young woman, see, who gets possessed by an African demon and starts doing all sorts of crazy shit, so her new husband has to call in this, um, exorcist and, um…

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By releasing the film a year after The Exorcist with audiences hungry for more zany deviltry, Girdler finally landed a real distribution deal, as well as his first big hit. At least for two weeks or so there in 1974, right up to the point Warner Brothers caught wind of it and forced AIP to yank the film out of distribution under threat of a copyright infringement suit.

He played it a little safer the next year with the Pam Grier vehicle Sheba Baby. It was a boilerplate blaxploitation action film, and even if today serious Pam Grier scholars consider it second or third-tier at best, her presence in the lead at the time guaranteed it would make money.

After that, Girdler and AIP parted ways, and working more independently once again, he was free to bring that AIP knockoff formula to full bloom while keeping all the profits for himself. The question was, where to go next? The key to making a successful ripoff was jumping on the bandwagon quick, hoping all the while you made the right guess.

Sam Peckinpah’s violent spy thriller The Killer Elite had been a modest hit in 1975. It seemed like a good shot, so Girdler teamed with writer/producers David Sheldon and Harvey Flaxman to come up with a similar story, hired Leslie Neilson to take over the James Caan role, and got to work on Project: Kill.

Nielsen stars as an instructor at a US intelligence agency who trains anti-assassination operatives. Eventually fed up with the program’s use of mind-control drugs, and after learning his students were in fact being recruited as government assassins, he not only quits, but threatens to go to the press with the story. As in Peckinpah’s original, this makes him both a danger to the Feds and a target for assassination. Much action, espionage, car chases, and double crosses ensue.

In technical terms, the picture was miles ahead of his first two features. The actors were pros, the lighting and sound were better, the sets and locations more elaborate, and the whole thing had a new slickness about it. Okay, so it wasn’t a Peckinpah film, and at the time Leslie Nielsen didn’t exactly have the box office clout of James Caan. Another problem was that while The Killer Elite had made money, it hadn’t been THAT big a hit, and hadn’t exactly been hailed as a classic of the form.

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Even though Girdler and his producers were able to sneak Project: Kill into a couple theaters, he no longer had AIP’s connections and network at his disposal so they were never able to wrangle any kind of coherent national distribution. And those few people who did see it at the time didn’t care much about the sub-Bond onscreen skullduggery. After that, Girdler parted ways with Sheldon and Flaxman, albeit amicably. For a few weeks anyway.

Shortly after the Project: Kill fiasco, in the summer of 1975 Flaxman was driving from New York to L.A. in an RV. Jaws had just been released, and exactly how massive it was going to be was abundantly clear. Along the way, Flaxman stopped at a campground, but was warned by a park ranger to stay inside the RV, as a large and hungry bear was prowling the area. That got him thinking, and shortly thereafter he and Sheldon got together and knocked out a killer bear script in about a week. It was easy, considering the framework they needed was still playing on half the movie screens in the country. Trade out the water for the forest, swimmers for campers, and a big shark for a big bear, and you’re good to go.

Girdler read the script, loved it, and immediately decided they should all go back into business together. Cheap knockoffs, after all, had become his specialty.

The funny thing is, to this day, in spite of what everyone, including the audience, the critics, the stars, the stars’ agents, and the film’s distributor, may have said about it, Flaxman and Sheldon insist Grizzly was an original film inspired by personal experience, and was not in any way a cheap low budget Jaws knockoff.

Yes, well…

Although it’s reported Warner Brothers was interested in the film, Girdler instead opted to set up a distribution deal with Film Ventures International and Edward L. Montoro. It made sense. A couple of years earlier Warners had threatened to sue Girdler and AIP over Abby, and Montoro had likewise been threatened by Warners, and for the same reason, over his 1974 film Beyond the Door. It was a perfect match. While Montoro maintained national distribution rights, even before shooting started he cut a deal with Columbia for the international rights. And with everything going their way, and a budget of just under a million dollars, they were able to bring in an impressive cast of character actors including Richared Jaeckel, Andrew Prine, Christopher George, and (once again) Charles Kissinger.

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While initially, like Jaws, they planned to intercut real grizzly footage with a mechanical bear, well, someone left the mechanical bear out in the rain one night and it rusted, forcing them to use a real bear throughout. Teddy, the 11-foot grizzly in question (four feet shorter than the film claims, and seven feet shorter than the tagline claimed), was described as “trained but not tame,” which explains why you almost never see actors and the bear in the same shot.

While copping Jaws’ storyline almost scene for scene, Grizzly lacked all those things that made Jaws what it was: humor, complex and interesting human characters, a great soundtrack, sharp pacing, real suspense, atmosphere, genuine shocks, and a slam-bang ending. It also featured what may have been the most inappropriate opening credits theme of the era, with the possible exception of The Legacy. None of that mattered. Being the first high-profile US-produced Jaws ripoff out of the blocks, Grizzly brought in an estimated $40 million worldwide, which Montoro, in standard fashion, decided to keep for himself. It led to yet another lawsuit, this one brought by Flaxman and Sheldon.

(As an ironic sidenote, in the early ’80s, long after Sheldon and Flaxman won the suit, Sheldon went to Hungary where he co-wrote and produced Predator: The Concert, an erstwhile Grizzly sequel with an all-star cast and a Hungarian rock band. The film was never completed.)

Before anyone knew how much Grizzly had made, and before the lawsuit got underway, Girdler charged ahead, re-teaming with Montoro and bringing back most of Grizzly’s cast (along with Leslie Nielsen and Michael Ansara) to shoot the quickie follow-up, Day of the Animals.

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While being another man-vs.-nature killer animal movie, this time around it seems Girdler wasn’t ripping off Jaws as much as he was ripping off 1973’s Frogs, which also placed it squarely in the popular eco-disaster subgenre. Most people seemed to miss the Frogs connection, leading a lot of viewers to mistake it for a direct Grizzly sequel. But instead of one oversized predator going funny in the head and gobbling up tourists, this time a hole in the ozone layer drives all the gentle woodland creatures a little kookoo bananas, and suddenly hikers are being attacked by wolves, bears, bobcats, stray dogs, rattlesnakes (lots of rattlesnakes), and vultures.

And wouldn’t you know it? As all hell breaks out in the animal kingdom, way up there in the higher elevations without a radio or phone or anything is a group of tenderfooted stock character types on a two-week survival hike! So you’ve got your crippled football player (Christopher George), your wise Native American (Ansara), your scientist (Jaeckel), your asshole advertising executive (Nielsen), a bickering married couple, a pair of newlyweds, and even a divorced and whiny overweight Jewish mother from Beverly Hills and her 12-year-old son. Yes, the pickings couldn’t be much better.

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In technical terms, the film is very much a throwback to Girdler’s first two features. Even in its original theatrical release, the picture was muddy and gray, obviously shot on the fly with a minimal crew. Beyond that though, the overall atmosphere is unrelentingly grim, and it has nothing to do with the bloodthirsty fauna. In fact the actual animals play such a minor role here it’s easy to forget about them. They pop up every now and again, but mostly we’re forced to endure these loathsome humans. The sky is perpetually overcast, and the humans do nothing but bicker and bitch and scream at each other, so much so it’s actually a tremendous relief when they start getting eaten, one after another.

There’s no humor, no tension, nothing but an overwhelming sense of despair and rancor. Maybe that was the whole point, that humans are assholes who screwed up the environment and deserve what they get. I can go along with that, but in 1977 I left the theater feeling dour and depressed about the whole experience, and seeing the film again 40 years later my reaction was much the same. I’m as bloodthirsty as the next guy, but it’s just an incredibly ugly and unpleasant movie to sit through. I do admit one scene, in which a man fleeing a savage pack of wild dogs tries to hide in an abandoned car, where he’s bitten by a rattlesnake before being mauled by the dogs as the little orphaned girl he was trying to protect watches from another car, still gives me a chuckle.

Day of the Animals wasn’t nearly the hit Grizzly had been, but enough of one to get girdler a contract with Columbia and a whopping $3 million budget to make yet another Exorcist knockoff, this one with an all-star cast.

My God, my God, what a thing of wonder is 1978’s The Manitou. Nothing in Girdler’s past gave any hint he was capable of something this damnably weird. Here Girdler wrote the script himself based on a cheap horror paperback. Along with the familiar Exorcist trappings (young woman possessed by an evil spirit, expert called in to dispel it, much grotesquerie in between), Girdler hopped on yet another then-popular bandwagon by giving the film an American Indian focus. Five years earlier the same sort of genre-mashing had worked for Abby, right? At least for those two weeks. So why not give it another go? Native American culture was playing a major role in all sorts of subgenres at the time (vigilante movies, killer animal movies, environmental monster movies, even werewolf pictures), so why not Exorcist knockoffs? 

A very confused Tony Curtis stars as a fake psychic whose ex-girlfriend (Susan Strasberg) finds she has the reincarnation of a 400-year-old evil Indian medicine man growing on the back of her neck!), so he hires another, if reluctant, medicine man (Michael Ansara, pretty much reprising his Day of the Animals role) to get rid of it. The less said about the rest of the film the better, save to say it ends with a naked Strasberg and a naked deformed midget of a reincarnated evil medicine man trading laser blasts out of their palms. In space.

It’s all very bright and fast and gross and weird and funny (sometimes intentionally), and from scene to scene it makes absolutely no goddamn sense at all. How I love this picture, and if not for The Manitou I’d find very little reason to give a toss about Girdler. But because The Manitou exists, I do.

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Well, the film confused and disgusted audiences and critics alike, and it wasn’t nearly the hit Grizzly had been. Girdler nevertheless soldiered on, flying down to Manila to scout locations for a buddy film about a couple of drug smugglers. Andrew Prine was already tapped to star. Maybe it was ironic Prine had played a helicopter pilot in Grizzly, because while in Manila, Girdler hitched a helicopter ride with a student pilot to check out a few locations. As the story goes, the student pilot tried to swoop the copter beneath some power lines, but missed. The helicopter exploded, and neither body was ever recovered, meaning we’ll never have a chance to see his Nice Dreams knockoff.