Posts Tagged ‘william girdler’

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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 ManitouThree On A MeathookSheba, BabyDay Of The AnimalsAbby, 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).

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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 :

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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.

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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.

Not so long ago we took a look at Pam Grier’s finest hour, Coffy, and I thought it would be fun to follow it up quickly with a re-watch, and subsequent review, of a flick that’s generally considered to be one of her more uninspired starring turns, namely late exploitation king William Girdler’s 1975 offering Sheba, Baby.

A lot of the criticism this flick comes in for is frankly pretty well-founded — far from being “Hotter’n Coffy” and “Meaner’n Foxy Brown” as the tag line on the poster claims, this is a pretty tame and formulaic affair, with Pam pretty much just running through the motions. Here she portrays one of her fairly standard characters, a tough-as-nails Chicago P.I. named Sheba Shayne who comes home to Louisville, Kentucky (where Girdler shot most of his early work) when her dad’s neighborhood loan operation is vandalized and the old man himself attacked by some vicious hoods trying to run him out of business  who work for a mid-level loan shark/all-around operator named Pilot (the always-reliable D’Urville Martin) who in turn works for a higher authority who goes by the name of Shark (Dick Merrifield) and is busily consolidating control of all the various rackets in the black neighborhoods around town. Honest businessmen like Sheba’s pop and his partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker, with whom Sheba subsequently rekindles an on-again/off-again relationship) hasn’t got a chance when the crime lords decide that legit loan operations are standing in the way of the 20-30% vig they can charge desperate people who have no legit alternatives to take their custom to.

Along the way Pam goes undercover and tries to lure the crime bosses in with her always-alluring feminine wiles, kicks a lot of ass, takes a bunch f names, tussles with lazy, crooked cops who are in for a piece of the action — you know the drill. It’s not like she’s gonna lose in the end or anything, and even though there’s a twist of pathos added when her dad gets killed about halfway through the flick, you know that sooner or later (in fact, in just about 90 minutes’ time), our gal Sheba is bound to bring down the whole operation.

Sadly, Sheba, Baby is pretty light on the mayhem and violence front, with what few killings there are being relatively bloodless affairs, and Pam’s ample — uhhhhmmm — assets are more or less obscured throughout with only some almost-but-not-quite nudity in a couple of spots, but I still don’t think this thing would garner the PG rating it got at the time if it were released in this day and age (to those who say that you can get away with more in the movies these days I humbly beg to differ — plenty of PG-rated flicks in the 1970s had more sex and violence that many contemporary R-rated features).

On the technical front, Girdler, who would go on to give us such notable exploitation classics as Grizzly and Day Of The Animals before dying in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for an upcoming film project at the tragically young age of 30, and who co-wrote the script for this feature, struggles a bit. He doesn’t seem to have mastered anything beyond basic point-and-shoot filming techniques at this point in his all-too-brief career, and the editing is uniformly amateurish throughout, which especially detracts from some key action sequences.

All in all, though, I can’t be too hard on Sheba, Baby. Even in a by-the-numbers effort like this one, Grier still oozes charisma and bad-ass sex appeal and can carry a film on attitude and poise alone. She shines more brightly when she’s got better material to work with, of course, but even her substandard fare usually gives her enough (even if it’s only just enough) to sink her acting chops into, and her natural dynamism has a way of carrying even the most hackneyed scripts further than they deserve to go. Simply put, she’s essentially the only reason to see this movie, but she’s more than enough.

I guess I can’t really recommend Sheba, Baby to anyone but the most diehard Pam fans or blaxploitation completists, but it’s still got more going for it than most of what comes out of the Hollywood meat grinder these days and certainly isn’t any more formulaic than, say, the latest Michael Bay blockbuster. It hasn’t got the soul of a Coffy or even a Foxy Brown, but it’s still not a bad way to spend an hour and a half of your life by any means.

Sheba, Baby is available on DVD from MGM, who see to have acquired nearly all of the old American International Pictures catalog,  as part of its Soul Cinema line. It’s pretty much a bare-bones release, but the widescreen anamorphic transfer and mono sound are perfectly serviceable. It’s also playing all this month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite TV systems, and is certainly worth a look if there’s nothing else on TV — which, let’s be honest, there pretty much never is.