Kentucky’s Ed Wood: William Girdler and the Asylum of Satan

It’ll just be a matter of time before William Girdler has his own reconsideration — or reckoning, if you will — in the history of cinema. If the blood feaster, Herschell Gordon Lewis, can get a section on the Criterion Channel, then look for Girdler’s one day. He was a prolific, guerrilla-filmmaking veteran of war who set out to start his own film production company with his brother-in-law, ended up in Hollywood making what is maybe the most successful Jaws ripoff to date, and over a six year period, directed nine features and wrote six, only to die a martyr at the hands of the cinema itself in a helicopter wreck in the Philippines as he was location scouting for his next film. As he fostered his obsession, he found his place, working with the likes of Tony Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, and Pam Grier. To this day he’s relatively unknown, generally under-appreciated by the late-night TV horror crowd, and yet persists as an underground, underdog hero, especially in the state from which he hailed, Kentucky.

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Exteriors of the asylum in the film were shot at a mansion in Glenview, while the interiors were shot in a warehouse off the Ohio River.

And a quick personal note: Perhaps I’m biased on the Bill Girdler front, given so many of my two-to-three degrees of connection to the filmmaker’s history. As a former manager who programmed midnight features at a local theater in the very town Girdler was from, I was bound to connect to a few folks who consider themselves experts on the local low-budget midnight grindhouse king of Louisville, so I’ve heard his name for years from folks who really do know a lot about the matter. My many thanks to my own personal Girdler aficionados, and former theater managers themselves, Dave Conover and Beau Kaelin, for finally making me sit down to watch his first film.

And who would’ve guessed it, Asylum of Satan might just be as definitively Louisville as it gets — and not just because Louisville around this time of year is a real-life asylum for Satan, being wedged right in the center of the hot, humid Ohio Valley — but rather the “relatively small potatoes, with a big heart, and lots of charm” appeal oozes the same charisma as the city itself. (And, hey, you want a little tour of the 1971-set cityscape? Check out all the scenes of TV-commercial-extraordinaire-turned-leading-man Nick Jolley driving Girdler’s cute, tacky, yellow 914 Porsche around town!)

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Nick Jolley, one-time leading man, driving past the Big Four Bridge, which connects Louisville to Jeffersonville, Indiana over the Ohio.

Asylum of Satan is indeed, just as the title suggests, an asylum horror flick; perhaps akin to the Amicus-produced Asylum from the same year, but less anthology-based, it feels more like Shock Corridor meets Rosemary’s Baby. Simple in premise, dirt cheap in budget, but surprisingly effective with certain scare tactics and wholesome in its cheese. The gorgeous Carla Borelli is our entrapped damsel, the victim of a Satanic conspiracy (supervised on set by the Church of Satan itself, who sent an advisor to serve for Girdler on the set) which is headed by the evil Dr. Specter, a hilariously goatee’d Charles Kissinger, a regular for Bill (and Louisville’s own years-long Fright Night host, the Fearmonger, on our local FOX-affiliate, WDRB), who comes across as a deliciously villainous, Rust Belted version of Hammer-era Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, willing to do ham only with the utmost class and style… and not afraid of a little Hitchcockian cross-dressing either! It’s ultimately up to our leading lady’s boyfriend, who doesn’t exactly ooze protagonistic sex appeal, to annoy the police into searching the asylum in which she’s trapped — ultimately revealing the asylum’s direct connection to Satan himself.


Don’t get it wrong — this is cheap, low-grade, and was meant to be made for money (but don’t call it bad!) At one time or another, it was probably a heart-stopping name to speak around a wealthy Louisville investor, causing Vietnam-like flashbacks of money wasted. As one of the film’s investors noted in the Courier Journal in 1975, “[The film] was a training ground, and we paid the price.” The investors did eventually gain the rights to the film after it bombed, and after Girdler signed the rights away, so they could make their money back. (Today, it’s hardly available on DVD and is free on YouTube… great work, guys!)

A fantastic interview with Don Wrege, the then-17-year-old kid who served as the set’s clapperboard operator, reveals Girdler as a businessman first, filmmaker second. He was interested in making money and films, in just that order. It’s an assertion that ties Girdler directly to the genre’s other great “businessified” passion directors — think of the infamously budgeted Ed Wood, or the gimmick-master, ticket selling guru, William Castle — and there’s truly a great charm in that, ultimately revealed in the oddly oxymoronic, haphazard dedication on display, which grew that retrospective legend I’ve come to respect.

Billy Reed, the legendary sports writer who covered Ali’s fights, the Kentucky Derby, and the World Series, apparently pulled the short straw at the office on this day.

When the film premiered worldwide at the now-closed, sadly vacant Vogue Theater in St. Matthews, my city-within-the-city (the Vogue is right around the corner from my old house, the school at which I teach is right down the street), Billy Reed wrote that the actors wore tuxedos as if they were in Hollywood and “it was not Graumann’s Chinese, but it was a worthy try.” That seems to tap directly into the soul of the movie. Amidst the mix of occasionally phony, occasionally effective horror, lined along all the fake water snakes and crawling bugs and devil make-up falsely purported to have been stolen from the set of Rosemary’s Baby, there really is heart. And there’s merit. And there’s love.

And that’s clearly the Girdler touch.

Tyler Harris is a film critic, English teacher, and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.

American Grotesqueries: Engaging with The Birth of a Nation in Times of Crisis

Watching The Birth of a Nation as George Floyd’s funeral unfolds on national news is just asking for an incendiary response, not only from the public, but from within the soul. There were several times when I felt so appalled, totally disgusted, tempted to just turn it off and return another time, maybe in like a decade. For a brief moment, my power even went out, as if a sign from the heavens. I had to face a few internal questions as I continued forward: Should I be doing this? Is this really the right thing to do right now? By the end, I was sold — sold not on the fact that watching The Birth of a Nation at this point in our nation’s time is a dangerous idea, but that not watching The Birth of a Nation at this point in our nation’s time is actually the dangerous option. We can’t censor the past under any circumstances; we have to confront these kinds of things and, surely enough, time will be our great decider (and no, I’m not talking about Confederate statues — tear them down, please, with fury and might). In this case, time doesn’t do a thing. This is, tragically, as timeless a film as has ever been born from the cinematic expression, wholly and uniquely American in all its grotesque, reprehensible glory. 

It is categorically impossible to engage with Birth of a Nation in a truly positive sense, despite D.W. Griffith’s absolute genius. The irony runs red in the fact that this — this, of all the films out there — helped to establish our modern, matured cinematic language of sweeping camerawork, intimate close-ups, cross-cut parallel action sequences, and more. What’s alarming is that Birth of a Nation’s cultural contribution extends even further beyond the cinematic landscape and into the political sphere. In 1915, this was absurdly, radically popular, bringing in audiences in swaths unlike any film that came before it and rekindling the burning crosses of the KKK. One can’t simply defend it as a product of its time. Griffith knew exactly what he was doing in adapting Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel, The Clansman. At the same time that he was forging a new mode of storytelling, he was also provoking the masses with a deeply malicious intent. 

The film’s own popularity was boosted by Griffith’s outrage over the controversial reaction to his racist movie. “How dare the NAACP challenge my film?” he seems to ask, declaring in a title card at the beginning of the movie that censorship is not to be feared, as if those who tried to ban the film simply couldn’t handle the truth. What truth does Griffith propose, exactly? A foul defamation of history, attempting to recreate two eras of the American past — the Civil War and the Reconstruction, split in two by an incredible sequence featuring the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — placing them solely in the hands of soured Southern loss. 


Griffith twists and manipulates logic, situating Birth of a Nation’s message in an anti-war context, while seeking to declare war on the truth itself. Ku Klux Klan members are heroic in this setting, galloping in on horses to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to save white femininity from the degradation of the recently freed black savages. It’s hardly anything but antagonizing, unlike Griffith’s own gravesite, which sits just outside of the city in which I live on a long country road, modest and cozy in its simplicity when you visit it, but brooding an insidious notion just below the soil.

It is actually, perhaps, irresponsible not to approach this kind of material right now, given that it’s as prescient as ever. The irony behind Griffith’s opening title screed against “censorship” is that it’s the only subtextual notion from the film that should be embraced. Do not sweep something as ugly as this under a rug of revisionism, despite the fact that it tries to do the same. Do not be afraid of a film like this. Face it. Engage with it. Critique it. Unleash your anger and frustrations upon it. After all, as America slowly reveals itself as a failed experiment, one that might just be irredeemable and irreparable, it’s our job as cinephiles to trace back our own passions and see just exactly where things may have gone wrong in our own medium, to understand that even our most beloved pastime’s functional nature was founded on a ground of anti-blackness.

Tyler Harris is a film critic, English teacher, and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.

The Circle Closes: Béla Tarr’s Satantango

Bells echo from a tower that doesn’t exist. The bellowing and snorting of cattle reverberates from the inside of a factory. It starts with one of many dirty, consumerist livestock, as they begin to pour from the opened gates of the dilapidated, crumbling building like blood seeping from a wound. They mingle with the outside world in the way that same wound’s blood might wisp about and spread after dripping into a glass of milk. Moaning, searching, the cattle skitter about slowly but surely, some attempting to graze, some mounting one another in excitement. Around them is a barren, sodden environment of muddy, wet road. There doesn’t seem to be a blade of grass in sight. The piercing cold, grey skies have eliminated any and all greenery. The trees are bare, coated only in wet, freezing rain. The cattle continue to roam, further and further away, until finally they turn a corner and disappear. The circle closes. 

Satantango was shot in the anemic fields of Hortobágy directly after János Kádár, the longtime communist leader of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, had finally stepped down. Béla Tarr returned to his homeland to begin working on the film, which he had been planning for years prior. The quickly crumbling infrastructure of Eastern European communism sets the stage for an otherwise languid, slow-paced affair.


This is a film, first and foremost, about time and its relation to humanity. Whether it’s about how time slowly chips away at us, or how we slowly chip away at it, I’m not sure, but Tarr meticulously pieces together this constricting, plodding experience with the confidence and expertise only a cynically depraved Hungarian of his stature can. Scenes play out in full, tinged with harsh, bleak environs, creating a completely realized atmosphere of existential disquietude. The camera is always lingering, always present, roaming about the lives of the villagers at the heart of the narrative, coercing the audience into a similar struggle of existence. We are constantly both moving and staying stagnant, all at the behest of our coercive god-like auteur. We end up much like the characters, facing an indifferent, harsh reality, merely trying to scrape out a meaningful existence amidst an ever-shifting matrix of influence.

Watching a movie at this length, a monolithic 432 minutes, both exhausts and exhilarates. It promotes a feeling of invincibility, as if you’ll never need to watch another movie again, or that you can watch literally any movie ever now… which is extra ironic, given the lack of invincibility embedded within the subtext. Either way, Béla Tarr has made me stronger.

Tyler Harris is a film critic, English teacher, and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.

On Andrzej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe: The Greatest Film Never Made

“Don’t forget what we escaped, just to repeat with impunity what we believe in.” 

The life of man in nature, as Hobbes tells us, is brutish, poor, and short. Cruelty seems to be our only virtue. Violence is inherent. Built into our being is the all-pervasive need to tribalize, to colonize, and to kill. The principle of human exceptionalism holds humanity in the highest regard and, of course, human exceptionalism is a concept created by… you guessed it… humans. Selfishness emanates from us; our species is forcibly meant to be the galaxy’s shining hill. With On the Silver Globe, Zulawski crucifies any remaining notion of human exceptionalism that may remain within your naive soul.


Notoriously difficult in production and known for being, unfortunately, an unfinished product due to Poland’s government shutting down the film’s creation mid-stroke, Zulawski’s sci-fi sand punk philosophical scribe is a daunting, exhausting experience. About 1/5 of the film was unfilmed as the Vice Minister of Poland’s Cultural Affairs forced production to a halt and had the sets and props destroyed. Ten years later, Zulawski would return to The Silver Globe and finish it, inserting into the missing sections a narration of what otherwise would have taken place in the narrative. Where it suffers from being unfinished, it benefits in acting as an enigmatical, broken transmission from the cosmos beyond.

The film is split between a deeply subjective, POV-oriented narrative of a new Eden and an omniscient, wandering grotesquerie of the dark ages in a newfound world. This new world is founded by a group of astronauts who have left Earth, presumably to escape man’s political constraints and form a colony of freedom. These astronauts postulate philosophies about freedom for the majority of their young time on this new planet, which drives home even further the restrictions of humanity’s abilities, the fact that we, collectively, are trapped in this hellscape because of ourselves. Zulawski posits the question at the beginning — can humanity be successfully restarted without our very worst qualities hindering the species from further development and evolution? With the rest of the film, from the entrance of Marek, our new world’s fated messiah, Zulawski answers his own question with a resounding, haunting display of war, organized religion, death, and destruction. You already know the answer. So does he.

You can watch On the Silver Globe as part of Exmilitary’s current Eastern European Apocalypse series here.

Tyler Harris is a film critic, English teacher, and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.

Apocalyptic Mania: Briefly Interpreting Zulawski’s Possesion

Warning: light spoilers ahead.

Chaos. Order. Chance. Faith. It’s enough to make one go mad. 

The apocalyptic mania at the heart of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) is rooted deeply in both ontology and cosmology. This is a film, in the end, about our end. With that comes a frightening acknowledgment of life and death. Much like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), the audience is subjected here to two branching, reactive states of hysteria in regards to an exacting, lingering proposal of death. It’s a hysteria emanating from the devastation of all we find to be good and right. In Zulawski’s diegesis, God — or what we’re led to believe is God — can be discovered in the corner, or on the bed, in various stages of rebirth. He has been oozed into the world, forced from a virginal birth of blood and slime. He is an assimilation, perhaps even an expulsion, of hate, the failure of love. As Mark and Anna’s marriage disintegrates into madness, the disease of life, manhood, womanhood, and death is slithering its grip on finality. It isn’t a coincidence, then, that Anna’s other lover notes for us that the only way to find God is through disease. Indeed, in life we find death; through death, we find life. But what kind of life? 


There is much posturing to be found online and in cinematic circles about Possession and what religious or social subtexts Zulawski implanted within it. I would argue it’s quietly political, more than anything, similar to Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), wearing a devilish smirk as the film’s finale drops its bombs… quite literally. As Mark’s double, God himself, has fully formed himself, so has our end. And wouldn’t you know it — chance, or faith, chaos, or order, has granted him the ability to hunt down Anna’s double, who’s taking care of a child smart enough to know when not to answer the door and when to hide in the tub of water, just as the sirens begin to ring their earth shattering song of ruin.

Many Polish people born in 1940, as Zulawski was, can attest that just because the sirens are ringing, just because the bombs are dropping, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end. The climax of Possession actually posits a new beginning, perhaps the same beginning that can be found after death. One where God is hovering just behind the frosted glass of the front door, a doomed silhouette bringing with him the unknown.

Tyler Harris is a film critic, English teacher, and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.

An Irishman in Hollywood

Two films, one year, three histories. Altering history isn’t easy, but leave it to the power of Martin Scorsese and the retro-fitting of Quentin Tarantino to formulate an indelible mark that sets into question our very own notions of the past. We are, of course, talking about The Irishman and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, a pair of 2019 films that are today still immensely popular fodder for cinephiliac conversation, but are somehow overlooked in their entwining subtexts.


The Irishman begins with a title card — I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES — which foreshadows a conversation between teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa and budding gangster Frank Sheeran, future friends fated for tragedy. The film is bifurcated with two performances, one indulgent and one deeply understated. Pacino’s indulgence allows the veteran to fall into his iconically shouty, spastic gruffness, but because he brings an emotional dignity and devastating gravitas to each scene in which he stars, he’s able to effectively steal the film. At the heart of the movie, though, is Robert De Niro’s soft-pedal portrayal of Sheeran. He’s unemphasized and unmoved, capitalizing on Sheeran’s lack of empathy, penchant for sociopathy, and ultimate isolation. Frank kills his best friend, his only friend, Jimmy, at the top of the last third of The Irishman, granting us a peek into the “what if?” of history, spiraling both the audience and Sheeran into a purgatory of regret. Scorsese utilizes these performances in dual fashion to tell the sprawling story of an American dream — all that individuality, familial responsibility, and work ethic America is meant to represent — left for dead, devastated, and ruined in a nursing home. 


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood also features two male leads, one equally showy, one equally downplayed. DiCaprio is hilarious and fantastic as Rick Dalton, an aging TV star of the 60’s who is coming closer and closer to being booted into character actor territory from his place in stardom. Whereas he used to hold his own against the heavy in Bounty Law, along with his guest spots on Hullabaloo, he now finds himself a “sexy, evil Hamlet” on the set of the Lancer pilot. His stunt double, long-time friend, and gopher, Cliff Booth, is the yin to his yang. Pitt, who won an Oscar for his role, plays it cool — and, yes, he is very, very cool in the role, sporting a Champion t-shirt, enjoying episodes of Mannix, fixing roof satellites, killing Manson cultists… all in a day’s work. Yes, history is also altered here by Tarantino, albeit in a more extreme, brutal, perhaps even hilarious way. 

It would’ve been really easy for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to wade into that morose pitfall of discovery — that our favorite movie stars bleed red just like we do and that it’s up to the nastiness of the world to prove it to us with a knife — but the film has just a little more to say than that. It presupposes all the above and then asks, “What’s the point in living in a world like that, when you don’t have to?” Tarantino understands the power of film, the world-building that comes with a movie camera. If he wants to live in a world in which Sharon Tate’s murder was halted by an acid-trip-experiencing stuntman, then by God, who’s to stop him? It’s the same for Scorsese’s work — a career of examining Catholic guilt through the lens of street urchins, disturbed protagonists, and gangsters. If Scorsese wants to alter the past, provide a fate for Jimmy Hoffa that’s otherwise nonexistent, in order to examine grief and remorse, then he should be allowed to do so. Why should history be followed by these men?

The Irishman does for Jimmy Hoffa what Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did for Sharon Tate — not just giving us a self-proposed alternate look at history, but also attempting to provide some categorical sense of closure. The emotional punch that stems from the hindsight and understanding of what took place in real life is overwhelming by the end of both films. The tragedy at the heart of The Irishman is almost Shakespearean, not just in length, but in the elegiac, time-turned way it looks at aging, empathy, loyalty, friendship, and loneliness. It also reveals an exacting blood relation with Tarantino’s film, in that the joy of each movie revolves around the machismo energy of the male stars, but the heart is revealed in two subtle, heartbreaking female performances by Anna Paquin and Margot Robbie (and it’s no surprise that both movies have been criticized for the lack of female characterization by the reactionary public — can the point of either movie fly any higher over someone’s head?) The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may take place on opposite sides of the country, but they both reveal a whole lot about where we’re from as a country, east to west, and where we are likely (or, unlikely) to go. 

Tyler Harris is a film critic, English teacher, and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.

Capone Film Review: Fonzo’s Haunted House Spectacular

In the heart of downtown Louisville, Kentucky there’s a famed hotel called The Seelbach with a poker room located deep within the confines, tucked away in a claustrophobic corner. It’s known simply as The Al Capone Room. On our wedding night, well past midnight, my wife and I skulked about the hotel as the floors were rattling with the sounds of thumping music and laughing guests. A fundraiser in the ballroom was raising hell through the night. We stumbled upon this obscure room while hunting down the mezzanine in which Paul Newman and Jackie Gleeson had played pool for Robert Rossen. In the Capone Room, there were two chairs, a window lined with white ruffled curtains, and a mirror stretching across the opposite wall — the mirror was purportedly used by Capone, who’d sit across from it while playing cards, to watch his own back. I sat down in one of the chairs and was seized by the quietness of the room. I could hear the clanking of the heat turning on, the vague notions of capital bleeding through the walls from downstairs, but the room itself was incredibly hushed, almost stilted in nature. There’s an immense feeling that can overcome one when sitting in that room, the feeling that royalty, personified and bonafide history, was breathing down your neck. This feeling of immensity is both startling and pacifying. One feels the power Capone held, while also experiencing a sliver of his intense paranoia. In that way, it’s relieving. Sitting in the Capone Room, you realize you are not Capone and you would never want to be Capone. I looked up, only to find myself across the room within the mirror, staring back. 


I think that gets at the heart of what Josh Trank is going for here. The monstrosity of greed, collapsing into itself like a cavernous mistake, eating away at itself in an ouroboros of pain. On the one hand, I understand the negative reviews CAPONE is receiving. It teeters on the brink of being experimental and not being experimental enough. It feels too normal and straightforward and, yet, not normal or straightforward at all. Trank plays with the temporal in a disorienting way that’s both subtle and forthright, as Fonzo’s life deteriorates away. The audience is held into question as you ponder upon what’s real, what’s not real, and even if Capone is faking it all. The subjective nature of the way the narrative is told quickly escapes any notion of a bluff. We recede deep into the strange, haunting corners of Capone’s mind. Is this whole thing taking place within his psychosphere? Perhaps. 

In that way, it’s like a haunted house movie set within a crumbling ether with the ghost of Tom Hardy, dressed only in a diaper and a robe, growling, grunting, defecating, drooling, and gutturally yelling his way into a stupor of lucid reality. Everyone else — Linda Cardellini as Fonzo’s wife, trying to hold things together; Matt Dillon as an old mobster friend, returning to help Fonzo with his dementia, but bringing with him eyeless demons of past violence; Noel Fisher as the suffering son; and Kyle MacLachlan as an ill-advised doctor — all help in the lifting, but it’s Hardy who’s doing the heavy stuff, smothered in Black Mass-esque make-up, scarred and barred, eating away at the screen as furiously as Capone would chomp on his cigars. 

So, I see all your one-star, thumbs down recitations that you had pre-loaded before going into this thing. But, I’m sorry, I can’t just not give the film credit where credit is due. Is it perfect? Hardly. Did I love it? You bet.

Rating: 4/5