William Girdler: 70s Horror Icon Director. Article by Nickolas Cook
In the past two decades, much has been written about the importance of the 1970s horror films. After all, the decade saw the release of some of the most iconic American horror films in the history of cinema: Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, and Dawn of the Dead. It was a decade of lost American values, still bloodied by the disillusionment of the Vietnam War, the Kent State Campus massacre, and the still troubling racial issues that have plagued America since its founding. In a cathartic reaction, exploitation cinema, in all its variegated forms, was at the top of its game, suckling on the bountiful tit of European cheapjack movies, and drive-ins, still one of America's favorite summer pastimes, were catering to an audience eager for late night blood and scream extravaganzas.
One of the lost icons of this time in American cinema was William Girdler. In the span of seven short years, he made nine feature films, most of them in horror, before his untimely death at the early age of thirty.
Fresh out of the Navy, in his early twenties, Girdler started Studio One Productions, in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. His first feature, the low budget Asylum of Satan, found release in only a handful of theaters, and was almost universally panned as nothing more than exploitive garbage. But this didn't stop him from hitting the studio again for his second feature film, Three on a Meathook.
And although his films didn't get much in the way of reviews, they did garner the attention of Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures. Arkoff handed Girdler a contract to direct three films in the, then popular, black-exploitation genre. The Zebra Killer, Abby (a competent rip off of The Exorcist), and Sheba Baby, starring Pam Grier, were all minimally successful, enough to get him noticed by larger studios. So when he finished his commitment to American International Pictures, he left to pursue other genres.
After directing Leslie Nielson in the political thriller, Project: Kill, he found himself in Clayton, Georgia filming the now legendary cult classic, Grizzly. Running the gauntlet of the drive-in circuit, it became one of 1976's biggest box office hits. However, even his most ardent fan cannot discount its obvious debt to that summer's blockbuster Jaws. But that doesn't change the fact that Girdler created one of the 70s' most enduring animal-on-the-loose horror films.
With the success of Grizzly, the studio gave him a larger budget, an all star cast, and more creative control, which brought him back into the forest and hills to film the cautionary tale, Day of the Animals. But this second attempt at man vs. nature wasn't as successful as Grizzly, and left Girdler floundering for direction.
He found direction in Graham Masterton's cult classic, best selling horror novel, The Manitou. His most expensive production to date, the film was viewed as a huge gamble for the up and coming director. Another mediocre film could have ended his career at that point. After months of planning, shooting, and post-production special effects, Girdler had the movie in the can and ready for the summer crowds. The Manitou was a huge box office success, topping even Grizzly from the year before.
Sadly, Girdler never had a chance to enjoy his well-earned success. In 1978, before the release of his last film, he was killed in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting for locations for his tenth feature film.
Though largely ignored by mainstream film buffs, and sorely under-appreciated by trash genre devotees, William Girdler Sr. remains one of Hollywood history's most prolific directors. Had he lived, it is possible that he would have become the next John Carpenter, or even Alfred Hitchcock.
In April 2006, Shriek Show re-released his classic Grizzly on a special edition DVD. Most of his films are still available on the Internet, and several DVD's are in the works for the release the rest of his films.
ASYLUM OF SATAN (1972)
THREE ON A MEAT HOOK (1973)
THE ZEBRA KILLER (1973)
SHEBA BABY (1975)
PROJECT: KILL (1976)
DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977)
THE MANITOU (1978)
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Nickolas Cook lives in the beautiful Southwestern desert with his wife and three pugs. He is the Fiction Moderator for the Shocklines Writing Group, the Chat Host for The Lost and The Damned Message Board and the Writers' Forum Moderator at ARWZ. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in several magazines. He collects jazz and blues, and is still trying to learn how to play the trumpet like his hero, Miles Davis. Visit Nickolas at his web site at The Horror and Jazz-Blues Review, his Myspace page, his blog, where you can read his free ongoing serial novella A Kind of Blue.