He could’ve been a contender: The films of William Girdler

June 4, 2011

It has been a long while since The Black Saint has decided to bless his acolytes with a column here on my good friend’s blog. It has been a time of upheaval & turmoil in my mausoleum. You know, the usual stuff us deities have to endure every now & then: Riots, coup attempts on my dark throne, the suffering I made those responsible to endure (That took a LONG time)! But all is well now & I am finally ready to write some sacred words on my favorite director of all time: William Girdler!

Who is William Girdler you ask? Infidels!! William Girdler was one of the best if not the best exploitation director of the 70’s. I am pretty sure that if you frequented your local bijou in the 70’s you’ve probably seen some of his work. At the very least, you’ve seen some of the posters for his work or perhaps a trailer for one of his films. And what films!! What I intend to do here is to fill you in on his small body of work & describe the joys therein. Sadly, Girdler was taken from us in a tragic helicopter accident while scouting locations for what would’ve been his magnum opus. But I will discuss what little is known of that later.

Quite honestly, there isn’t that much available information om Girdler available. We can say with some certainty that he was born in Kentucky on Oct. 22, 1947 & his full name was William Brent Girdler. He died on Jan. 21, 1978 in the Philippines at the tender age of 30. In his lifetime, he directed nine films, all of which I will discuss briefly here as I have only so much space here. I did manage to speak briefly to the great Andrew Prine who worked with Girdler in the late 70’s. As soon as I mentioned Girdler’s name, Prine’s face lit up like a Christmas tree! “A wonderful man, truly gifted & a talent that was just about to bloom. I loved him as a director & as a person as well”. As I watched his films, I understood what Mr. Prine was talking about. There is a certain joy in watching a Girdler film, something that’s hard to describe. Especially since none of his films were comedies or family films. He dealt with straight up horror/action films…not a lot of joy in his scripts. But there is a certain exuberance in all of his work, it’s evident that he was enjoying all of his time behind the camera & his actors/crew enjoyed working for him. His films are never boring (although there are those who claim otherwise). And although most of them were derivative as he tended to hop on whatever was hot at the time box office wise & make a cheaper version of it, they were always well made & fun to watch.

Girdler himself had said of himself that “I’m constantly called an egomaniac. But you have to have an ego to survive. I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not, I’ll never be a D.W.Griffith”. These words in and of themselves say a lot about the man. He was a director who knew what he wanted & didn’t mind telling other people what his wants were. Despite all that, he was loved by those who worked for him. He had a vision for all of his films & he stuck to his vision, despite what pitiful budget he had to work with. He got the most from what he had. His initial foray into directing was in 1971 with the release of “Asylum Of Satan”. There was another film released that year with a similar title called “Brotherhood Of Satan”. As a matter of fact it was a far better film than “Asylum…” but I will attribute that to the (obviously low) budget Girdler had to work with. The plot of the film deals with Lucinda, a pianist who finds herself at the Pleasant Hill Sanitarium only to discover that she has been transferred (by her regular doctor) into the care of the oddly named Dr. Specter. Why she’s in the asylum she doesn’t know nor does she know why she was transferred into Dr. Specter’s care. She also discovers that the other patients are clothed in white cloaks & hoods. This is to say the least, disturbing to her. And there’s the strange chants she hears at night behind a locked door…

Her boyfriend, Chris, attempts to find out why she has been transferred & is told by Specter that she cannot receive any guests. Chris goes to the local police dept. & has them come to the sanitarium only to find it abandoned as if it has not been occupied in years. Meanwhile, Dr. Specter is killing off the few friends Lucinda has made. You see, he plans to sacrifice Lucinda (whom he believes is a virgin) to Satan in order to receive the gift of eternal life from the big guy himself. The plan is to have Satan rape Lucinda as the final act of devotion but it turns out that Lucinda isn’t a virgin after all & Satan, pissed off that he didn’t get first dibs on her, destroys Specter & his followers. In the end, Lucinda is rescued by Chris & the police but as they exit the building..Chris is possessed by Satan.

As I said earlier, Girdler had the habit of jumping on whatever was hot at the box office at the time & attempting to capitalize on it. Besides “Brotherhood Of Satan”, there was also “Daughters Of Satan”, “The Mephisto Waltz”, etc..etc..But these films were fairly well regarded in their initial release (especially “Brotherhood Of Satan”, a truly chilling film) so a low budget movie dealing with Satanic rituals seemed to be the ticket at the time. In films of this ilk, logic can be thrown out the window. What’s more important is the mood within the film. Atmosphere is everything in this type of film & Girdler nails it, despite the lower than low budget he is saddled with. The sanitarium that is the focus of the film is a perfect example of this. Is it the abandoned building that Chris & the police first encounter? Or is it the pristine one that Lucinda is living in? It’s a sort of Satanic Yin/Yang that we see here. The asylum seems to shift between realities depending on who’s in it. Why? We’re never told but it is while jarring at first, eventually memorable. Who’s to say what a person’s state of mind dictates the perception of his surroundings?

What absolutely KILLS the film are the ridiculously cheap visual/makeup effects. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of money to go around but good lord..these are some hokey effects! Fake plastic spiders being pulled on by strings, rubber snakes, And a truly lousy looking Satan outfit with what seem to be ping pong eyes are on display here. And not just for a quick second or two either. Girdler seems to be reveling in the cheapness of it all. Now to be fair, it was his first film & I would imagine some exuberance on Girdler’s part took place of some common sense. But that doesn’t change the fact that the shit looks awful. But because of it’s intense atmosphere & the questions it asks about one’s sanity “Asylum Of Satan” is worth watching & a fair first outing as a writer/director for Girdler.





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