We all know how exploitation maestro William Girdler’s career (and, sadly, life) ended — in 1978, at the tragically early age of 30 and after having directed numerous B-movie hits such as The Manitou, Three On A Meathook, Sheba, Baby, Day Of The Animals, Abby, and his most successful feature, Grizzly, he was killed in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for his next project.
Guess he never should have left Louisville, which is where more or less all of his previous flicks had been lensed, including the one we’re here to take a look at today, his 1972 debut effort, Asylum Of Satan, which he directed, co-wrote, and composed the soundtrack music for when he still hadn’t been on this Earth for a quarter-century (specifically, he was 24).
It’s a good job this isn’t the film he’s best known for, to be sure, since it’s a pretty choppy affair that feels hopelessly padded even at a meager 78 minutes, but hey — we all gotta start somewhere, right? And if I made a movie at that age (or, hell, even now) it would probably be a damn sight worse than this is. But that’s probably as close to “praise” as we can honestly get here, since Asylum Of Satan bears all the hallmarks of a work done by somebody who’s definitely learning on the job as he goes along.
Oh, sure, it exudes a reasonable (though far from overwhelming) amount of the kind of low-grade charm that these regional low-budget (this was made for a reported $50,000) efforts often do, but it’s nowhere near enough to save this haphazard, plodding affair from its own unique blend of lethargy and outright confusion. On the one hand it definitely feels like Girdler probably wants to scare us — he just doesn’t seem to know how to go about doing it, nor does it feel like he’s got either the time or the inclination to figure out where and how he’s missing the boat.
The set-up here is a reasonably interesting, if cliched, one : our heroine, a young lady named Lucina (Carla Borelli), wakes up in an insane asylum with no clear idea of how she got there or why she can’t leave. Her “therapist” is a quietly threatening type named Dr. Jason Specter (Charles Kissinger), and his staff seem every bit as , well, “off” as he does. Her fiance, Chris (Nick Jolley), comes calling one day but is quickly brushed away by the not-so-good doctor, which prompts the would-be groom to enlist the aid of local police lieutenant Tom Walsh (Louis Bandy), who relates that it couldn’t have been Dr. Specter he spoke to since — get this — the man’s been dead for years. However, prior to his demise, Specter had, in fact, been “picked up for devil worship” on more than one occasion (funny, I didn’t realize any religious practices were illegal in this country).
Anyway, to make a (too) long story short, Dr. Specter’s alive and well , obviously, and his supposedly “abandoned” asylum is still operating — in fact, it serves a very special purpose : he kidnaps young co-eds and brings them there to prepare them for their future role as human sacrifices to Lucifer himself!
Between all these half-baked “revelations” we’re treated to several ineptly-staged “trippy, dreamlike” sequences, but by and large things don’t really threaten to get interesting until the devil finally makes the scene right near the end — and that’s only memorable for all the wrong reasons. Take a look at Girdler’s version of the so-called “Prince of Lies” and you”ll see why :
Yeah, I agree — Ed Wood probably would have done a better job. And so would his actors have. The performances in Asylum Of Satan are uniformly cringe-worthy, but not in that “fun” or “camp” sort of way : they’re just flat-out listless, unprofessional, and bad. As is the script, As is the uninspired camera work. As is the painful musical score. As are the sets. As is the pacing. As is — well, you get the idea.
Still, you’ve gotta give Girdler credit for persistence. He didn’t give up after this one even though any sane human being probably would. He pressed on and got a little bit better with each successive attempt. There’s certainly nothing here to suggest that we had a genuine auteur on our hands, but damn if that isn’t exactly what he ended up becoming. All of which is enough to make you wonder if he cut some sort of deal with the devil in order to overcome his obvious deficiencies as a film-maker and achieve commercial success. The circumstances surrounding his death would certainly lend some credence to that theory.
Asylum Of Satan is available on a double-bill DVD from Something Weird Video which sees it paired with the equally incompetent, bust vastly more interesting (not to mention fucked up), Satan’s Children (which was one of the first films I ever reviewed for this very blog). It’s presented full frame with mono sound, both of which are less than stellar but perfectly adequate all things considered. Extras are the usuaul SWV assortment of exploitation stills, artwork, and short subjects, most of which feature, as you’d no doubt expect, a Satanic theme. It’s a reasonably fun little package, but hardly worth the exorbitant prices it commands on eBay, Amazon Marketplace, etc., owing to its out of print status. All in all, this is a flick that only die-hard Girdler completists need to have in their home library.