Grave Encounters: A Tribute To Louisville’s Horror Heritage (PART I)

Hello again, my Louisville friends. It is your host, the Phantom of the Ville, back to tell you more spine tingling local tales and offer up more chilling fun to cool your Summer Halloween fever. This week we’ll be paying tribute to Louisville’s history in horror cinema where the roots run deep.

Long before Louisville was ground zero for a zombie apocalypse in Dan O’Bannon’s cult classic, “Return of the Living Dead” (1985), the River City was home to its own breed of horror film auteurs. In fact, the director of the very first sound horror film, Universal Studio’s “Dracula” (1931) staring Bela Lugosi, was born and raised right here in Louisville, KY. Tod Browning, who would first direct the most infamously lost silent film of all time, “London After Midnight” (1927), with the Man of 1,000 Faces himself, Lon Chaney, and would go on to direct the controversial “Freaks” (1932), was one of us!

Recently I journeyed deep into the Southern Gothic nether regions of our own Cave Hill Cemetery (main gate at 701 Baxter Ave in the Highlands) to pay tribute to one of Louisville’s unsung horror heroes. While many visitors to Cave Hill’s massive and majestic grounds come to visit the grave of Colonel Sanders or to see the amazing statue of the Frito-Lay Magician, Harry Collins, I recommend Halloween and horror fans seek out the grave marker of Louisville’s greatest cult filmmaker, William Girdler.

William Brent Girdler was born in Louisville, KY in 1947 and only lived a short 30 years when he died in a helicopter accident while scouting locations for his next film in the Philippines in 1978. Considering his short directing career before his untimely death, Girdler delivered an impressive number of drive-in shockers that have gone on to garner a loyal cult following. His most famous and profitable film was the 1976 “Jaws” knock-off, “Grizzly,” about a killer grizzly bear on the loose in a national state park.

There are a total of nine William Girdler films to seek out, the first five of which were actually shot in and around the city of Louisville. His first horror film, “Asylum of Satan” (1972), was mostly shot in Girdler’s small downtown studio, as was his second luridly titled film, “Three on a Meathook” (1973). After the topical revenge thriller, “Zebra Killer,” Girdler’s next two local films were staples of the popular grindhouse ‘blaxploitation’ trend of the time. The notorious, “Abby” (1974), found Girdler the focal point of a law suit by Warner Brothers who claimed his demonic story was just a black version of “The Exorcist.” I’m not saying it was, but it definitely was.

Perhaps Girdler’s best Louisville movie is “Sheba, Baby” (1975), an action film staring cult icon Pam Grier which shows off plenty of great Louisville locations including a boat chase on the Ohio River!

Then suddenly Hollywood took notice and Girdler managed to talk his way into a bigger budget film, although still far less glamorous than the blockbuster it sought to emulate. However, “Grizzly” (1976) was a major success on the drive-in movie circuit and Girdler’s career as a horror director was cemented. His next two films, “Project:Kill” (1976) and the nature-runs-amok epic “Day of the Animals” (1977), both featured the pre-comedic performances of Leslie Nielsen.

His last (and certainly his weirdest) film was the mind boggling, “The Manitou” (1978), staring Tony Curtis as a phony psychic who must do battle with a 400-year old Native American demon growing out of a tumor on Susan Strasberg’s neck!

Although I recommend making your trip to Cave Hill Cemetery an adventure, as there are many beautiful and breathtaking memorials to see, I will give you the exact location of William Girdler’s grave marker. You’ll find it in Section 30, Lot 55, Grave 7-A. Right down the street at Wild & Woolly Video you’ll also find an entire rental section devoted to Girdler’s films if you’d like to watch some of these unusual homegrown horror films.

Now let your journey begin, and I will return shortly with another related quest to another Louisville horror hero’s final resting place not far away!

~ The Phantom of the Ville

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