The Rip-Off Cult of Director William Girdler (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

What came next for Girdler was his first hit, the blaxploitation classic Abby (1974). Made with a budget of $400,000, more funky music greets the opening of this The Exorcist (1973) rip-off which made millions at the box-office in its first couple of weeks of release.

Abby (1974) was too much of a rip-off of The Exorcist for Warner Bros. to bear

Girdler noticed when The Exorcist was being shown that many of the people in the lines around the block to see the movie were black. He thought Abby would make money. But it was pulled from cinemas by Warner Bros. who thought there was too much plagiarism of The Exorcist. The money was locked up along with the prints of the movie due to legal troubles, but there was no doubt, Girdler was now a major filmmaker even if it was just on the scale of an American International Picture.

William Marshall finds a relic which will unleash Eshu in the blackly humorous Abby

It is the demon Eshu in Abby which is accidentally summoned by actor William Marshall (1924-2003 Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes) whose voice and image may be familiar to those who saw the earlier blaxploitation films Blacula (1972) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973). It is Marshall’s son’s wife Abby played by Carol Speed (1945-) who becomes possessed and obsessed with the demon Eshu… It has made its way from Nigeria where Marshall is working as an archaeologist.

Was the shower scene an inspiration for Black Devil Doll from Hell?

A cold wind slams doors and disturbs a rocking chair at Abby and her husband’s home in the middle of the night… while Abby later has an orgasmic shower with the demon. This short scene may have inspired the much longer one in Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984).

Juanita Moore with ungrateful daughter Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life (1959)

Speed, as Abby, had been in the previous year’s semi-classic blaxploitation The Mack about a man striving to be a city’s biggest pimp. She was probably chosen because of that role. Juanita Moore (1914-2014 natural causes) was in The Mack and Abby and received an Oscar nomination as the black housekeeper with an ungrateful daughter who passes for white in the classic Imitation of Life (1959). Moore plays Abby’s mother.

Abby looking terribly possessed at the local bar

Abby turns from gospel singing Christian and marriage counsellor into a four-letter word spouting, sex crazed neighbourhood pariah. It all begins when she has a coughing fit at her husband’s sermon… Oh, the shame!… She then kicks her husband in the family jewels one evening in the bedroom while crying out: “Shit! You haven’t got enough to satisfy me!”

Wizards (1977) trailer

It’s all delivered in a Mercedes McCambridge-like (1916-2004 natural causes) voice just like The Exorcist but this time it is provided by the voice of Bob Holt (1928-85 heart attack) who worked on films such as Ralph Bakshi’s (1938-) animated Wizards (1977) as well as providing a voice for the Mogwai for the original Gremlins (1984). The voice of the demon in Abby is an instant classic and, best of all, is the very amusing dialogue which it spouts. I’m sure it was intentionally tongue in cheek yet shocking.

Actress Mercedes McCambridge voiced the demon in the original The Exorcist

The last straw for Abby’s social standing comes when she says to the husband of one couple that she is counselling that she’s going to “f#*k the shit out of him”. My favourite scene though is the relatively mild moment when Abby sings “Here we go round the merry go round” over and over again while dancing and attacking a well-wisher until it induces a fatal heart attack in the poor woman.

Abby is a classic rip-off exploitation film and, again, it delivers some of the most incongruously profane dialogue from the mouth of actress Speed.

Abby ripped off The Exorcist right down to the subliminal imagery

“She’s a good Christian girl and she isn’t mentally ill and she isn’t crazy,” cries Moore hysterically about her daughter’s escapades for which there is no medical explanation.

Abby won’t stay in hospital, saying to the nurse: “I’m going home, bitch”, while departing violently and bowling over other patients in her wake… It’s up to father in law Marshall along with hubby and her brother played by Austin Stoker from The Zebra Killer to save Abby from Eshu and herself.

Abby quad-like poster

Again, the film is hard to take seriously, essentially a shocker it seems to have been half-crafted as a black comedy for those who know The Exorcist and it is on that level that it works best… But having said that, the scenes with Marshall carry gravitas simply because of his booming voice. There’s the usual levitation scene and don’t forget the contact lenses and the bushy eyebrows. Add some foaming from the mouth and Girdler has created another masterpiece with the final exorcism carried out at the local bar.

Abby doesn’t projectile vomit but she foams at the mouth

According to the credits Girdler didn’t do the script for The Zebra Killer nor Abby. Girdler did, however, provide the ‘original’ story for Abby.

“Jealousy. They’re all jealous of my magnificent powers,” says Eshu through Abby. It could be Girdler referring to himself jokingly as the master of low budget classics, as he did have great powers in terms of exploitation in the end.

Abby (1974) trailer

Just before Abby was pulled from cinemas Girdler told Louisville’s Courier Journal: “…I don’t consider myself a rip-off artist. Ripping off an audience is a much more serious thing than ripping off a story… I consider myself someone who recognises something that works and then uses that idea as General Motors does.”

Watching what terrible prints that do exist of this film today doesn’t help but its content more than makes up for it.

Sheba, Baby (1975) quad poster

Girdler’s last American International blaxploitation flick is the Pam Grier (1949-) movie Sheba, Baby (1975). The film was apparently written in one day by Girdler and Abby’s producer David Sheldon (no info) after Girdler sold the idea to AIP’s Sam Arkoff.

It would be the last film he would film in Kentucky and he wasn’t fond of the experience as he didn’t get along with Grier. With second unit shot in Chicago, the film is considered the least of Grier’s films when compared with Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974).

Pam Grier looking cool which culminated in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997)

The title song, which isn’t sung by Grier, mentions “Louisville Nights/Knights”. A lot of people put down Sheba, Baby but at least the prints of the film on disc are pristine which makes the experience a little easier to take. As a result, it appears to be Girdler’s most polished film to date.

Grier touches down in Louisville airport in the hope of helping her father who is, apparently, in serious trouble with gangsters. She meets with Austin Stoker in his third Girdler movie and the adventure begins with a car bomb.

Pam Grier’s Coffy (1973) trailer

What lay behind the beef between Girdler and Grier, I don’t know. Maybe it was his ego and perhaps she wasn’t terribly happy with the script and the fact she wasn’t working with director Jack Hill.

Anyway, Grier is a crack shot with a pistol as she wipes out those responsible for her father’s death… Sheba, Baby uses a large yacht for the climactic action of the film and there’s a bitch brawl during a party that rivals the one between Grier and Linda Haynes in Coffy.

Pam will take on the local gangster who up til now has been doing all right

Having seen The Zebra Killer, finally, I can easily say that Sheba, Baby is the least of Girdler’s blaxploitation pics, although it did good business at the box office.

For his next film, Girdler went to the Philippines to make Project: Kill (1976) which stars Leslie Nielson (1926-2010 pneumonia) and was filmed in 1975.

Sheba, Baby (1975) trailer

Existing prints are again scratchy and the film only had a limited release. This is probably because it simply is very ordinary and I’ve viewed it a few times. It doesn’t grab me as there is little action. If Girdler was looking for the magic of the Pam Grier films which were filmed in the Philippines, it went sorely missing in Project: Kill. Local actor Vic Diaz (1932-?) appears to give the film local credentials. Perhaps it was popular in Manila.

Artwork from a DVD cover for the un-extraordinary Project: Kill (1976)

It is Girdler’s movie worth watching the least despite the fact he talked it up in the press which you do when you promote a movie, especially an ordinary one.

Grizzly (1976) is a quantum leap in Girdler’s filmmaking skills. He also had a bigger budget and this and his last two movies Day of the Animals (1977) and The Manitou (1978) have some beautiful transfers to watch on your big screen.

A great poster for the Jaws-like rip-off Grizzly (1976)

Described as Jaws in a fur coat or Jaws with Paws or even Claws, the film opens with the logo of Atlanta, Georgia based producer Edward L. Montoro’s (1922-) Film Ventures International. The logo features a Georgia peach.

Montoro’s company went broke and he apparently fled with a million dollars in the end

Montoro, like Girdler, had incurred the wrath of Warner Bros. with his release of another The Exorcist rip-off, the Italian made Beyond the Door (1974). Montoro had an ego which apparently demanded control but he also had the money investing $700,000 into Grizzly.

Grizzly has a good cast including Christopher George (1931-83 heart attack), Andrew Prine (1936-) and Richard Jaeckel (1926-97 cancer). With what seems a great number of bear attacks which seem to outnumber the death toll in Jaws… It’s a rip-off but not the great rip-off that Great White (1981) was and whose release was smothered by Universal Studios. That film, incidentally, broke Montoro’s company as a result. Grizzly got away and ran wild at the box office.

Another The Exorcist rip-off Beyond the Door (1974) made Montoro a fortune

I missed Grizzly at drive-ins and cinemas as I was too young but finally caught up with it on VHS and on widescreen on DVD. It’s a good movie and worthy of several viewings.

Even though it carries the Paramount Pictures logo, it was produced independently as I have mentioned by Montoro and others, including David Sheldon, who is credited with co-direction and script. Sheldon heard someone had encountered a bear on a camping trip and he thought it would make a good follow-up to Jaws. It eventually made over $30,000,000.

Christopher George always had a cool quotient. Here he is in Grizzly

Grizzly tells the story of campers and hikers along with national park officials being knocked off by the titular bear. As for the bear they used for the film, it was named Teddy and since the good bear from that trainer was already booked, the filmmakers were stuck with Teddy who was apparently rather ferocious. It could all be public relations! But what is probably true is that they held a fish on a pole for Teddy to stand up on its hind legs and then dubbed its blood-curdling roar.

Teddy going for a fish on a pole which made him stand up

By the end of production though Girdler was broke as he only had limited access to his trust fund.

“He only cared about being creative. He couldn’t balance a check book or anything,” said his sister Lynne.

Grizzly (1976) trailer. Despite its success Girdler was still almost broke.

Montoro kept the money but the pair would work together on the following year’s Day of the Animals (1977). This movie has an even better cast than Grizzly with Leslie Nielson acting all macho and daring to call Christopher George “hot shot” one too many times.

This time George is leading a group of campers/hikers through remote mountain country after having been dropped off by choppers. A chopper was used to spectacular effect in Grizzly and there is a hangover effect here. You see, the entire cast get attacked by various wild animals, all caused by aerosol can use and the like which has broken down the Earth’s ozone layer. It was a big deal when I was a kid at school almost on the media scale of global warming at the time.

Day of the Animals (1977) trailer

Thus, Girdler uses it for exploitation purposes in this eco-horror, a genre which was more or less kicked off with Frogs (1972) several years earlier. Other cast members include George’s wife Lynda Day George (1944-) who is looking almost as good as Anne Francis (1930-2011 lung cancer), Stella Stevens’s (1938-) son Andrew Stevens (1955-) from The Fury (1978), Paul Mantee (1931-2013) from Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), John Cedar (1931-2011 leukemia) who was also in Girdler’s The Manitou, Ruth Roman (1922-99 in sleep) who was once so beautiful in Strangers on a Train (1951) and let’s not forget Barbara Eden’s former husband, and father to her late son, Michael Ansara (1922-2013) who was born in the Middle East but who always seemed to end up playing an American Indian.

Actress Ruth Roman (left) with Lynda Day George and real life husband Christopher George

Mantee, Cedar and Ansara would go on to do The Manitou while Stella Stevens would cameo in that film as well.

Day of the Animals doesn’t come close to the violent attacks in Grizzly but there’s still a lot to like as the local sheriff goes to his kitchen for a midnight snack only to get attacked by leaping rats.

“This is martial law,” he’d previously been told about the situation where communities above the 5000 feet level are all prey to insane animal attacks.

Macho Neilson uses the word “hot shot” one too many times to survive Day of the Animals

Montoro, always the rat to many in the business, forked out $1.2 million for the film. It was released the same day as Star Wars so you can guess where all the box office business went. But Montoro made his money back selling the film to teevee where it became popular over the years.

Done with Montoro, Girdler bought himself out by selling him the rights to Asylum of Satan and Three on a Meathook.

A poster for Girdler’s final masterpiece the rather goofy The Manitou (1978)

He made what is my favourite Girdler movie, his final masterpiece of cult film The Manitou (1978) which he failed to finish. I love it. From the near comic casting of Tony Curtis (1925-2010 heart attack) as a fake spiritualist, to the spirit of a centuries old Indian medicine man bursting out in human form from Susan Strasberg’s (1938-99 breast cancer) neck, through to the spectacular finale which had to have been inspired in part by Star Wars, which has a topless Strasberg shooting laser beams or what not across the universe to quell the Great Old One from coming through a portal to Earth which may trigger some sort of Armageddon. All done on a $2.6 million budget.

Tony Curtis before his hair pieces became too outrageous in The Manitou

There’s something seriously goofy at times about the Manitou. Whether it’s Curtis predicting a bad case of gas in the future fortunes of a client, or an Indian historian played by Burgess Meredith (1907-97 melanoma) brushing aside thick cobwebs as he walks up to his attic study… or even the sight of a little old lady possessed by an Indian spirit, dancing in Curtis’s loungeroom before she literally floats down the apartment complex hallway and gets thrown by a force down a flight of stairs! Now that was a bit creepy.

A spirited old lady in the lounge room before she plummets down a stairwell in The Manitou

“But what about Karen?,” says Curtis for the third time about Strasberg, who is in hospital with the tumour, which is in actual fact a fast growing foetus attached to her shoulder.

I fell for Ansara’s long-haired Indian, something which takes some suspension of disbelief if you know he’s practically as bald as an egg in real life. Actually, Ansara’s gravitas as the Indian medicine man out to help Curtis save Karen/Strasberg is part of why the movie works so well. It’s the best Indian role he played!

The tumour on Strasberg’s neck turns into a fully grown reincarnated medicine man

One of the coolest lines in the movie comes from Curtis: “I do believe though that one person can dominate another one’s mind… I feel that somebody, something, someone is transmitting signals to her and these signals are causing Karen’s condition.”

Writer Graham Masterson

Girdler discovered the source novel at the airport in London. Written by Brit Graham Masterson (1946-), who was the former editor of the British edition of Penthouse, Girdler read the book on the way to Los Angeles and decided then and there to buy the rights for the movie which went for $50,000. It took three months after optioning The Manitou that finance came through and production started a few weeks later.

Girdler eliminated the gore from the novel, dispensing with his usual creation of a drive-in shocker for something classy.

This is shown in his use of prolific composer Lalo Schifrin (1932-) for the second time. He had worked on Day of the Animals and had previously done Dirty Harry. Schifrin had loved exploitation scores ever since he was a youngster and his music for The Manitou is classy and brassy.

I really believed in Michael Ansara’s medicine man wig when I first saw The Manitou

It goes well with the Panavision shots of San Francisco and lifts it from cheddar cheese into something French-like with more bite and taste. You may find it just plain cheesy, however, it’s aged well. But perhaps it has been what seems a lifelong taste for good cheese which compels me to watch The Manitou again and again. It must be coming up to a couple of dozen times by now! Girdler was definitely at the peak of his powers when he made this movie and yet critics dismissed the film unfairly and almost entirely.

Strasberg about to shoot laser beams at the climax of The Manitou

Critic Leonard Maltin said the actors look “properly embarrassed”. Where does that man keep his sense of humour. To quote the possessed Abby: “Jealous”.

The Manitou (1978) trailer

Girdler was so confident with The Manitou that he was beginning to have fun with the material. He had started with his first movie in a warehouse where he basically plonked a camera down on the floor and went from there…

A young, enthusiastic Girdler

However, his screenplays showed promise and his editing was pretty good too. In the end, it bore fruit. It’s a shame he didn’t live to produce more… many more great pictures.

But he was killed before post-production on The Manitou ended. Many said the dismal reviews were from his intentions not being followed to the letter to create the end product after his death.

William Girdler was scouting locations in Manila with a couple of other producers when their young helicopter pilot, who had possibly seen the stunt chopper work in Grizzly one too many times, hit power lines. It has been suggested the pilot tried to go underneath the lines but I don’t know the full scale of the accident.

Thus ended the short but, occasionally brilliant, career of this director.

All that remains of Girdler on screen are some classic exploitation movies

Vale William Brent Girdler!

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