Asylum of Satan (1972)
"Asylum of Satan was a training ground, and we paid the price." (Investor D. Irving Long, Courier-Journal 2/2/75)
Cheap, tacky, and brimming with bottom-of-the-barrel charm, William Girdler's debut feature revels its sub-zero production values. Filmed in Louisville in late 1971 for about $50,000, the plot involves a lovely concert pianist (Carla Borelli) who's abducted by an evil Satanic doctor sporting a muppet-fur goatee (Charles Kissinger, also starring in drag as the evil sorceress Martine). A confused Borelli finds herself locked inside an insane asylum with an odd assortment of mutes, cripples, and weird ghouls draped in bedsheets. One by one, Dr. Specter ritualistically slaughters the patients to gain immortality. The murders build up to a virgin sacrifice, with Borelli as the intended victim. Can Borelli's ugly boyfriend annoy authorities into action before it's too late?
Despite an occasional sparkle of slick photography, Asylum is wrought with bad dialogue, stiff (though sincere) acting, and laughably ineffective scares. The not-so-dazzling effects include dimestore plastic snakes, spiders, and a rubber devil suit left over from Rosemary's Baby. (See Grip of Satan for a first-hand glimpse into the making of Asylum.)
Girdler launched Asylum of Satan with the assistance of many Louisville investors. The local response to the finished product was lukewarm, as Asylum did not generate huge box office receipts. Shortly before his death, Girdler signed over the rights to Asylum and his next movie to his original investors so they could make back the money they put into the films.
A complete plot summary is available here.
Three on a Meathook (1973)
Girdler's second film has far less personality than its predecessor, but the brilliantly titled Three on a Meathook still retains a sleepy grass-roots appeal. Loosely (very loosely) based on the exploits of famed Psycho Ed Gein, the plot focuses on a young country boy convinced he's a vile murderer with a lust for female blood. The story opens with a bunch of girls who drive to a secluded rural spot expressly to go skinny-dipping. When their car breaks down, our sheltered hero Billy (James Pickett) offers to take them back to his house for the night. Billy's father (Charles Kissinger) objects to the house guests, and he informs us that Billy has slain women before. The girls are murdered during the night. Billy doesn't remember anything but dad blames him for the deeds.
The ever-supportive father sends Billy into Louisville to cool off a bit. There, Billy meets Sherry Steiner at a drab bar. He endears himself to Sherry by passing out drunk and pissing in his pants. The two become consumed by a whirlwind romance. Billy insists on bringing the lass back to his farm against protests from dad. Sherry arrives with a sappy blonde girlfriend who's killed while Sherry and Billy have sex on a sofa. The film's climax boasts a mind-boggling twist that I won't blow for those who've yet to view the film.
Filmed in the spring of 1972, Three on a Meathook could well be Girdler's most amateur effort, though the ludicrous ending more than makes up for the bad dialogue and robotic acting. Pat Patterson, a special effects artist who worked on several Herschell Gordon Lewis films, provided the gore. Because of the low returns generated by Asylum of Satan, Girdler did not have the same amount of investor support in respect to Meathook's budget. Joe Schulten, a local realtor and personal friend of Girdler, provided most of the money for the film. Lee Jones and John Asman also chipped in. The rest came out of Girdler's trust fund. The film was made with less than $30, 000 in about a month (some figures state the budget was $18,000). According to Joe Schulten, Girdler shopped Meathook around Hollywood in an attempt to show off how much he could commit to film on a tight budget. Consequently, he befriended AIP executive David Sheldon, who became a key collaborator on future Girdler offerings.
Three on a Meathook has earned notoriety in cult film circles based on its bizarre and well-edited theatrical trailer. You can view this gem by visiting the downloads section. Also take a gander at the extended plot summary.
The Zebra Killer (1973?)
Girdler moved into the world of black cinema with the limited release of Zebra Killer (aka Panic City; Combat Cops). Mysteriously lost to the winds of time, Zebra Killer is an ambitious yet rarely-seen black cop/white cop thriller starring Austin Stoker, Charles Kissinger, James Pickett and D'Urville Martin. The always suave Stoker portrays what's best described as the world's dumbest, most obnoxious police officer. He's on the trail of a serial murderer who eventually kidnaps Stoker's equally stupid girlfriend. Despite numerous clues, Stoker still can't figure out who's behind the sadistic killings. So he steals smutty magazines, busts pimps, lounges at bars, practices karate with his white partner, and (yes) eats fried chicken instead of tracking down the culprit.
Stoker botches a few more opportunities to capture the assailant, and even gets his ass kicked by James Pickett before finally taking out his man. There is a happy ending: Stoker turns in his badge when the killer is snuffed, thus allowing viewers to sleep at night knowing that their local police force is NOT populated by morons.
Zebra Killer owes its title to the then-famous Zebra Killers murder case in which a Muslim extremist group went on a large-scale killing spree in San Francisco. Released on a very limited basis in the states, the film played as Panic City in Europe before being banned (presumably for an implied rape scene and/or the blackface angle). It was re-released domestically with the title Combat Cops in 1974.
Girdler reportedly found investors in Chicago to fund Zebra Killer, notably Arthur Marks of Detroit 9000 fame. Look for cameo appearances from producers Mike Henry and Gordon C. Layne! An extended summary with commentary is available here.
Essential Girdler viewing. A camp masterpiece from start to finish, Abby must be seen to be believed. Starring William Marshall (Blacula), Abby is a blatant rip-off of The Exorcist. So much so, The Exorcist's producers sued Girdler and AIP for copyright infringement and had Abby pulled from theaters. In reality, Abby not only steals from The Exorcist, but it also borrows ideas from Rosemary's Baby and other popular horror flicks of the period.
Marshall plays a Von Sydow-styled minister who accidentally releases an ancient African sex demon. The demon somehow possesses Marshall's squeaky clean daughter-in-law Abby (Carol Speed), who then tries to have sex with everyone she meets while speaking with a male voiceover that sounds like Chucky from Child's Play. All of the lead players put forward first-rate performances, especially Marshall and Speed. The impressive star-studded cast is topped off by Juanita Moore, Austin Stoker, and Terry Carter.
During an interview published in What It Is, What It Was!!, William Marshall said he was displeased with Abby because it didn't delve deeply enough into African culture. He also expressed disappointment with the script, claiming improvements he was promised never materialized. (Girdler co-wrote the script with G. Cornell Lane.) William Marshall might have injected the details of the Yoruba religion into the plot, as he lectured on the subject at several universities throughout the 70s.
Abby was a surprise box-office smash. It earned nearly $4 million in its first month of release (Abby's budget was approximately $100,000, though Girdler inflated figures for both the profits and the budget). In its day, Abby was a larger theatrical hit than Blacula. Girdler was very honest about the inspiration behind his film, and naively told the Louisville Courier Journal prior to the lawsuit, "Sure, we made 'Abby' to come in on the shirttail of 'The Exorcist.'"
Abby was not the only Exorcist-inspired film targeted by Warner Brothers. Italian-made flicks such as Beyond the Door and House of Exorcism also prompted lawsuits. Abby was the only movie withdrawn under the ominous WB threats. As it appears, Warner Brothers and Sam Arkoff of AIP struck a bargain in which WB would release the frozen revenue generated by the film to Girdler and company. In return, Arkoff and Mid-America agreed never to air or distribute the film without WB's permission. Girdler saw no profits from the film. The case was settled a few weeks before he died.
For a painfully complete synopsis of Abby, click here. Girdler also co-produced Abby. To this day, Abby remains officially unavailable on video, which is a crime. It's certainly one of the most enjoyable blaxploitation entries of that decade. Cheeky fun for everyone.
Sheba Baby (1975)
Girdler's next blaxploitation venture is widely considered the weakest film to vaunt Pam Grier's name. Grier stars as a detective who travels from Chicago to Louisville, KY to save her father's loan company from some local thugs. Grier battles a host of black mob strongmen and "crashes" an outrageous yacht party to see justice served.
David Sheldon says Sheba Baby was his idea. He and Bill sold the project to Sam Arkoff by pretending that a script was completed. They then pulled an all-nighter to pen the script, and they delivered it the next morning. "Yes, we wrote it in one day!" Sheldon exclaims.
Stunning as always, Pam's 2000 or so costume changes throughout Sheba Baby are all aesthetic delights. Girdler seems much more interested in molding a coherent (if somewhat bland) story than he seems interested in exploiting Grier's finer attributes. His use of Grier falls far short of the thrilling excesses seen in Jack Hill's Grier vehicles. A nude scene was actually cut from the PG-rated US release, but it appears in some overseas versions of Sheba.
Sheba Baby was a sensation in theaters and it played for several years. Girdler indicated that Sheba Baby was one of his least favorite films, and he did not hold fond memories of his working relationship with Grier. Regardless, Sheba Baby is dopey and fun. The Monk Higgins' soundtrack is simply terrific, as are the Barbara Mason vocal performances. (Note: The song snippet in the opening Flash Animation comes from Sheba Baby.)
The film also stars Austin Stoker and Charles Kissinger. Keep your eyes peeled for a special encore performance from D'Urville Martin's Zebra Killer pimp suit. Sheba Baby was the last movie William Girdler directed in his native Kentucky.