Although I don’t claim to be a particular fan of the microbudget horror, fantasy, and science fiction films of this era – as I am most certainly reminded regularly from my reviews on Herschell Gordon Lewis’ films here on the site, but part of me was excited to dig into this latest box set dedicated to the strange works of director William Grefe. All of these films were new to me and each disc of the set will be covered in a series of articles here on the site – which reviews the films on each disc. So, hop in your swamp boat with me, buckle in, and let’s take a dive into the works of Grefe in this gorgeous new release from Arrow Video, He Came from the Swamp: The William Grefe Collection!
Here is disc one: Sting of Death and Death Curse of Tartu.
STING OF DEATH (1966)
Director: William Grefe
Riding on the coattails of the boom of science fiction horror films in the 1950s and the silly, teen romps in beach party flicks, this colorful ode to the duality of both genres is one that probably came a little too late to capitalize on either in any real way. Sting of Death, which features a jellyfish man who terrorizes an island/swampy area, the family there doing oceanic research, and the various teens that (I guess) live there, features all of the silly elements one would want from a trend film of the era. It’s slathered in a luscious color scheme, which looks pretty incredible thanks to the new restoration from Arrow, there are some pretty young people in various states of clothing, and the quick and simplistic story makes it an easy to consume watch. Even the creature, an obvious man in scuba gear with an inflated plastic bag with wires on his head (a jellyfish, in case you were wondering,) is something of an entertainingly silly concept. Worthy of note, due to the sheer daftness of how simple but fun it all is.
While the script is often thin enough that I’m sure the typewriter punched through it with every letter, there is a sense of purpose and fun to the material that makes Sting of Death of a decent watch. Either you buy into the 60s monster mash, teen beach aesthetic or you don’t, but the film’s ‘too serious for its own good’ approach to the material makes it a fantastic cult cinema find. With its bland or hammy performances, microbudget effects, and overzealous and under executed swamp boat chase, it’s hard not to recommend Sting of Death just for the sheer effort, even if it’s hardly an inspired piece of creative filmmaking.
DEATH CURSE OF TARTU (1966)
Director: William Grefe
In the introduction to the film for this latest release, director Grefe notes that to get Sting of Death released they needed to quickly make another film to release it as a double feature and that’s how Death Curse of Tartu was born. Having just finished the film, it’s fairly obvious that this story must be true. This B-roll film feels fairly rushed. Not that there isn’t quite a bit of fun to be had here, but the script, characters, and concept are all weakly developed and stripped down to the basics to get a structure up so they could film a movie around it.
As with the previous film, keep the expectations in check. Death Curse of Tartu is very much a micro-budget horror flick that feels stitched together to try and create the most 60s teen thrills as possible. There’s only a couple of locations, most of it in random swampy areas outside in the Florida Everglades and the film makes very little effort in developing characters outside of love-struck teen couples and the capable archeologist adult couple (they come in pairs, I guess) that boil down to pure caricatures. The fun idea behind it, where a previous archeologist accidentally resurrects a witch doctor named Tartu that takes the shape of swamp animals (gators, snakes, and sharks – oh my!) to kill those who stumble into his glade, does entertain. Random footage of killer animals spliced together with poorly acted terrified teens does come off as unintentionally humorous and makes Death Curse a fantastic drinking flick, but don’t ask for much more than that. By the time the third act rolls around, with Tartu himself running around in a modernly problematic final fight, it’s easy to see why this has the cult status it does. It’s not quite as fun and effective as Sting of Death, but Death Curse of Tartu is just campy fun, even if it’s never something that rises above that.