Project Kill (1976)
"(Project Kill) is the beginning of what I can do if I'm given the opportunity. Here I'm not pinned down by cliches or lousy material. It's the only picture I'm really proud of." (William Girdler, Courier Journal 1975)
Leslie Nielsen (pre-comedy makeover) stars as a MKULTRA guru who decides to leave his post as a drug-enhanced military killing machine. When the feds suspect that he's going to blow the lid off their experimental drug operation, they send Nielsen's best student (Gary Lockwood) to hunt him down. The feds aren't the only ones who want Nielsen, and soon he is pursued by an Asian gang intent on stealing Leslie's secrets.
The film's pace is steady, but becomes bogged down with long stretches of (often flubbed) dialogue. Pat Kelly explains, "I think the lines got flubbed in Project Kill for several reasons. No dialogue coach; actors had very little time to learn lines; many foreign actors were used to long silence periods; and Bill was under pressure to get it in the can quick."
A veteran character actor, Nielsen is more visibly professional than anyone else in Project Kill. He delivers the clunky dialogue like a champ. It can be safely said that Nielsen carries 90% of Project Kill. But his poorly choreographed hand-to-hand combat skills coupled with his Mr. Roper-styled polyester wardrobe just don't add up to a believable onscreen action-hero persona. Lockwood is even less convincing as a government junkie-puppet with a short fuse. Nancy Kwan is lovely yet under-utilized as Nielsen's paramour. The climactic fight sequence between Leslie and Lockwood is not to be missed.
Project Kill might be Girdler's most even offering despite any creaky acting. Filmed in the Philippines, the movie marks his brief departure from screenwriting. The screenplay was adapted by Don Thompson, based on a story penned by co-producer David Sheldon. Girdler was initially slated to produce the film with Sheldon in the director's chair. However, Sheldon experienced problems raising money, so Girdler ended up directing. The original distributor for the film was found murdered mafia-style shortly before the film's scheduled international release. Consequently, Project Kill remained tied up in an estate dispute for a stretch of time.
You can read an extended summary here.
A shameless Jaws rip-off from start to finish. Grizzly's mimicry is so acute at times, commercial breaks become your only respite from nagging memories of something much damper and scarier. An 18-foot bear stalks innocent campers in Georgia. Officials won't shut down the park, so the bear's dirt-diggin', body chompin' rampage extends to multiple victims. Christopher George plays the park ranger who must slay the beast before more campers die. The most enjoyable scene is the one in which the bear stalks a nude chick showering in a waterfall (just hum the "da-dahh da-dahh" Jaws theme while you watch it). The characters are so snarky and unlikable, you end up cheering-on the bear's bloody rampage. The bear even dismembers a saccharine-sweet child in a genuinely unique movie moment.
Grizzly drags in a few spots but it's never boring. Rest assured, the final bear vs. rocket launcher sequence is completely worth weathering the useless characterizations.
The plot evolved from a scary bear Harvey Flaxman encountered during a family camping trip. David Sheldon thought the story would make a great follow-up movie to Jaws. He and Flaxman wrote the screenplay together and Sheldon planned to direct the feature.
Meanwhile, Girdler read a copy of the Grizzly script that was lying on Sheldon's desk. Bill offered to find financing for the pictureas long as he could direct. Sheldon agreed. With the help of Lee Jones, Girdler secured funds from the infamous Edward Montoro in the span of a week. Sheldon says that Warner Brothers was interested in filming the script and they were furious it had been signed to Montoro. The Warner Brothers deal also boasted a much meatier budget but it was too late for Sheldon and Flaxman to accept.
Grizzly is Girdler's most successful movie. It was the top-grossing independent film of 1976, beating Monty Python and the Holy Grail in box office receipts. The movie went on to earn over $30 million (it was made with a budget of $750,000). Similar to Girdler's Abby experience, legal issues prevented him from seeing his share of the proceeds. Edward Montoro's decision to keep the profits for himself eventually led Girdler, Jones, Sheldon, and Flaxman to sue. Bill was so broke after Grizzly he moved into Leslie Nielsen's California guesthouse, where he lived for the next year.
David Sheldon wrote Grizzly 2: The Predator in 1983, which would have introduced Charlie Sheen in his first "major" screen role. Shelved as a result of FX problems, Grizzly 2 is often cited as Kentucky-born George Clooney's big acting break.
Day of the Animals (1977)
The true sequel to Grizzly in both form and subject matter, only this Montoro production sputters to a disappointing conclusion. The story is a cross between Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and The Poseidon Adventure. A hole in the ozone layer drives forest animals berserk in Northern California, and a group of vacationing hikers is caught in the fray. The group includes an Indian, a geeky professor, a handicapped man (!?!), and a weepy blonde babe. Christopher and Linda Day George star as the folks you're supposed to be rooting for. In a most unusual role, Leslie Nielsen plays an asshole, racist, big-shot businessman who rapes a nubile hiker while suffering from ozone-born madness.
Nearly all of the cast members are killed by way of rat, dog, hawk, snake, or mountain lion. Girdler didn't film the real critters in this 1977 release much better than he filmed the plastic critters for Asylum of Satan. The animals are rarely terrifying but they're fun to watch in action. The best scene by far is the one in which a crazed Leslie Nielsen suicide-wrestles a grizzly bear, with the famous "flying rats" scene ranking as a close second.
When asked what it felt like to take on a grizzly bear, Leslie Nielsen told Kevin Danzey in 1980, "I had to weave and play around with a honey bear, and I could wrestle with him a little bit, but there's no way you can even wrestle a honey bear, let alone a grizzly bear that's standing ten feet to eleven feet tall! Can you imagine? But it was fascinating to work that close to that kind of animal."
The movie runs out of steam and ends abruptly, though the gem Nielsen moments (along with the film's breezy pace) make Day of the Animals a highly enjoyable 70s horror entry. Girdler's relationship with Montoro disintegrated during the making of the film, and the two parted when production ended. Montoro re-released Day of the Animals in 1978 as Something Is Out There.
The Manitou (1978)
"I was flying to London to oversee the scoring for 'Day of the Animals'. At the airport in New York, I bought a paperback copy of 'Manitou'. I read it straight through and knew it was a great film. I got off the plane in London and called one of my associates in Hollywood and said, "Sell the cars, hock the office equipment, do anything you have to do to get it, but get it today." (William Girdler, Louisville Times, 1977)
Girdler returned to the typewriter to produce the script for his final film, The Manitou … and it shows. Tony Curtis (replete with funky hairdo) plays a hustling tarot card reader who has a soft spot for Susan Strasberg. Strasberg suffers from an odd tumor growing on her neck that defies all medical explanations. The tumor swells to titanic proportions and finally gives life to an ancient Indian medicine man bent on murder. Michael Ansara, in an unforgettably debonair performance, plays a modern medicine man contracted to defeat the spirit.
Immediately after he secured the rights to Graham Masterton's best selling 1976 novel (for about $50, 000), Girdler began seeking investors in earnest. When a studio asked to see a script, Girdler lied and said he had one. He and several associates (including Jon Cedar and Thomas Pope) then spent the next three days cranking out a screenplay. Three months after optioning The Manitou, Girdler secured his financial backing. Production commenced a few weeks later.
The rushed script is comically cheesy throughout, leaving seasoned actors like Burgess Meredith visibly struggling with their roles. The scene in which Tony Curtis intimidates the Manitou by tossing a typewriter is a schlock religious experience. The A-list performers deliver their lines with the utmost sincerity, thus endearingly over-the-top acting runs unbounded throughout Manitou.
Some of the FX are quite potent. The little Indian gremlin bursting out of Strasberg's neck/back is genuinely icky. The FX in the last scene are another matter entirely. Trust me, you can't say you've lived a full and rewarding life unless you've watched a naked chick shoot cartoon laser beams at an Indian midget (played in part by Felix Silla of "Cousin It" fame). Girdler told Starlog in 1978, "The film's ending is a complete head trip. The effects that you see, well, you've never seen them before."
Very silly stuff all around, though tons of fun. The Manitou also marks Girdler's first role as a solo film producer, but his tragic death on January 21, 1978 prevented him from seeing his masterpiece hit the big screen. Manitou is a majestically campy grand finale for William Girdler's short yet fruitful filmmaking career.