Death Curse of Tartu, Sting of Death, The Hooked Generation, The Psychedelic Priest (1966, 1968, 1971)
Directed by: William Grefe
Written by: Quinn Morrison, Ray Preston, Terry Merrill, William Grefe, William Kerwin
HE CAME FROM THE SWAMP – The William Grefé Collection
4 Disc Limited Edition Set, Available on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video
HCF Review Part One – Disc 1 & 2 Review
Sting of Death (1966)
Student Karen Richardson (Valerie Hawkins) visits her marine biologist father (Jack Nagle) and his assistants John (Joe Morrison) and Egon (John Vella) at their research haven in the Florida Everglades. Accompanied by a group of her friends, Karen looks forward to spend a few days partying and relaxing to celebrate finishing her studies. However, when her friends are attacked by a mysterious creature, her father suspects the injuries may be a result of something related to the Portuguese Man O’ War they’ve been studying. The reality is somewhat deadlier!
Having never seen a William Grefé movie before, I wasn’t sure what to expect but first film in this collection, Sting of Death, certainly sets the tone for what I suspect the rest of the movies will be like: low budget with a mediocre story but containing a passion for filmmaking despite the finished result.
In this creature feature, if I can even call it that, a jellyfish-man hybrid is revealed as the villain of the piece from the very opening scene albeit we’re teased with a limited glimpse. Not content with offing female researchers and fishermen, jellyfishman targets anyone who he sees as a threat. When we meet the rest of the characters, it’s pretty obvious who the jellyfishman’s true identity is, following typical narrative tropes to create the perfect poster boy for the antagonist. The basis of the story is one we’re all too familiar with: bullied guy secretly loves girl, takes revenge on his bullies and anyone he deems a threat in order to woo girl, but girl only sees him as a friend. Enter actual love-interest to sort creepy admirer out as he takes his rejection badly.
The performances just about scrape through whilst the storyline, about a bunch of marine researchers who’s facility becomes the hiding spot for a much bigger jellyfish threat, is strained to say the least. However, nothing could prepare me for the costume and FX of their tentacled villain, even with the limited budget. From coloured plastic bags and strips posing as a swarm of man o’ war with their tendrils dangling like ribbons, to unconvincing human-jellyfish hybrid complete with a helium-esque balloon, that wouldn’t be out of place at a 60th birthday bash, the creatures of this feature lack the realistic threat or visual menace desired but you can see effort has been put into the ideas. I’ll give them a point for creativity but the results are just laughable and turn the on-screen threat into a joke. Fortunately, the sound department manages to salvage the film with a score that always provides the desired tempo, even to the point of making the on-screen action more enjoyable than it actual is. Work that one out!
Despite its issues, Sting of Death is still watchable and has an ambition about it that’s to be admired. I will credit the film that it manages to create a straight narrative, complete with some creative underwater shots and even an airboat chase scene through the Everglades. Not many B-movies can say that!
DEATH CURSE OF TARTU (1966)
Ed Tison (Fred Pinero), his wife Julie (Babette Sherrill) and four pupils head on out to an ancient Indian burial ground in the Florida Everglades as part of an archaeology field trip. Before the trip, local guide Billy (Bill Marcus) warns Tison that the location is said to be haunted by dead native Americans but, putting it down to superstitious nonsense, Tison goes ahead on the trip as planned with fellow teacher Mr Gunter already there awaiting them. Whilst in the Everglades, the group discover an old tablet that Tison manages to to decipher. Detailing an ancient warning of a witchdoctor named Tartu (Doug Hobart), that curses anyone who disturbs the lands, Tison decides to keep quiet about the discovered translation suspecting more tribal hocus pocus. However, when his pupils start being picked off by impossible predators, he realises there’s more to the curse and horror stories than he first thought.
Written in 24 hours and made as an accompaniment to STING OF DEATH so that the film could be played as a double bill at the drive-ins, DEATH CURSE OF TARTU is a step-up from the headliner and is by far the superior movie of the two with a better calibre of performances and characters that actually feel like real human beings. For instance, the teenagers are fun-loving individuals and like most youngsters, are more interested in copping off down by the swap shore than hanging around with the teacher, but being apart and segregated from their peers puts them at risk…
Not only does the story of DEATH CURSE OF TARTU exceed its predecessor, but the villain is more of a threat too and is executed wonderfully for maximum impact by slowly building up to a confrontation toward the latter end. Adding an extra dimension to the titular villain of the piece is the use of wild animals, controlled and willed into existence by the spirit of Tartu, the disgruntled Native American tribesman who isn’t too pleased about his people’s land being trampled on and abused by the white man. Cue lots of scenes involving real-life snakes, alligators and some underwater shark footage to play off against the screaming students as they find themselves face to face with death whilst frolicking in the Everglades.
Whilst it still retains the low budget, independent vibe of the first film, DEATH CURSE OF TARTU seems the more polished affair as if Grefé had learned from his past mistakes and realised what was needed to make the film more enjoyable for the viewers. It has action, suspense and danger, all of which hit the mark thanks to the editing and the fine sell from the cast involved in the film.
Each film shown on the disc has optional introductions by director William Grefé. I enjoyed watching these after watching the movies for the first time, as they show quite a few shots from the movie that could confuse or potentially spoil elements for you. In these short, couple of minute introductions, Grefe shares a few trivia tidbits about the movie and the making-of process.
Disc One also comes loaded with a few tantalising special features, the first of which is Sting of Death: Beyond the Movie – Monsters a-Go Go! – an 11 minute look at the partnership of rock n roll and monster movies that accompanied the rise of young people as the focus of the movies in the 50’s, in particular the beach-focused efforts. With each of the William Grefe films focusing on the younger generation and all incorporating music in some way (there seems to be at least one dance segment in the first two discs), this is a rather fitting and insightful history analysis by author and film historian, C. Courtney Joyner.
In The Curious Case of Dr. Traboh: Spook Show Extraordinaire, star and makeup artist, Doug Hobart, talks about how he managed to get his live horror show into cinemas under the guise of Dr Traboh and how a couple of police arrests helped to make his name and show a hit.
Original trailers complete the special features lineup, alongside two commentaries, one for each film, with Basket Case director Frank Henenlotter joining William Grefé to talk about each movie respectively. For fans interested in the concept of filmmaking, especially on a low budget (these are the more exciting productions, with plenty of tales to tell, in my opinion), then you surely cannot miss giving these a listen.
THE HOOKED GENERATION (1968)
When a drugs deal goes south, Daisey, Dum-Dum and Acid go on the run with their stolen stash and make a bid to offload their gear on a willing dealer. However, with the FBI hot on their tail and two hostages holding them up, they’re going to have to play it smart if they’re to evade the authorities and get out of the man hunt alive.
With a production level head and shoulders above its two predecessors, it’s pretty evident that with each film, the quality improves. Not just in the story but also in the way it is shot, the quality of the performances and the momentum of the movie. That’s not to say these films are great but they are more enjoyable as they go on and THE HOOKED GENERATION is the strongest of the four on the first two discs of this boxset from Arrow Video.
In what is essentially a crime caper, True Grit star Jeremy Slate stars as Daisey, the brains behind the operation; world light heavyweight boxer Willie Pastrano stars as the muscle Dum-Dum, and Sam Peckinpah regular John Davis Chandler has fun with his heroin addict character, Acid. The film also stars teen idol turned music producer, Steve Alaimo, as hostage Mark with Cece Stone as his girlfriend Kelly.
As much as the characters here are a bunch of dangerous chancers and wasters, you can’t help but find them a little bit likeable as the antagonists even if you hope they get caught. Their ruthless, senseless approach to any sort of opposition they find themselves against make them a threat that must be stopped. Some of the things they get up to, from killing to rape, can be hard to watch but the worst is done in a way where less is seen and more is imagined. Despite their physical appearances, the trio are cleverer than we give them credit for.
THE HOOKED GENERATION feels colourful, bold and alive, as if the modern world, at that time, finally caught up with it in a movie that has a far bigger reach, in terms of story, than the previous two insular narratives. The manhunt aspect of the drug runners versus the FBI gives Grefé a chance to spread his wings, whilst the drug theme that the movie embraces allows the filmmakers to be more creative at times, especially in any scene involving Acid who’s almost always in a heroin-fuelled haze. This is especially pertinent when Acid visits a hippie commune which is trippy experience if a little comical at times too!
A definite cut above the rest.
THE PSYCHEDELIC PRIEST (1971)
Catholic priest, John (John Darrell), goes on a roadtrip of self discovery after tripping for the very first time, leaving him to question his faith. Along the way, he meets other lost souls trying to find themselves including a young woman named Sonny who’s hoping to turn her life around in LA. John’s journey brings him face to face with many demons but can he come out of it the other side?
For a film that had no script to work off and thus was pretty much improvised, THE PSYCHEDELIC PRIEST, also known as ELECTRIC SHADES OF GREY, is quite a feat. It manages to retain the audience throughout with its contemplative nature backed by songs of the 60’s blaring out the speakers. The film deals with religion, racism, identity, trauma and so much more in its 80 minute running time.
After watching the optional director’s introduction to the movie, it seems that most of the cast outside the main two are actually just hippies they came across and not actual actors which makes the film even more fascinating. This is also Grefé’s first film not shot in the Everglades and is actually one he ventured to Tinseltown (LA, California) to film, a collaboration with Stuart (Terry) Merrill who produced The Hooked Generation. Shot by himself with two other crew members, Grefé’s THE PSYCHEDELIC PRIEST is an intimate affair which plays into its theme of a man trying to find his path in life and where faith comes into that. It certainly captures a time and place and, whilst may not have too much of a narrative, is a great example of indie filmmaking and the youth culture of the time. The songs featured in the film are quite catchy too and compliment what is actually a neat little feat of roadtrip cinema.
Just like the first disc, the second disc comes with optional director introductions for both the films as well as film commentaries with Grefé and Henenlotter. There’s a few special features specifically for The Hooked Generation too including an image gallery and around 23 minutes worth of behind the scenes footage of the shoot, set to music, where we see scenes being set up, make-up being applied to the stars and cast and crew chowing down at the catering table! Rounding off the extras on the disc are two featurettes where film historian and author Chris Poggiali provides a nice little overview of each film, lasting around 8 minutes each.
Check out the second part of the HE CAME FROM THE SWAMP – THE WILLIAM GREFE COLLECTION review by Dr Lenera who gives his opinion on the films and special features of disc three and four in this limited edition boxset.