[19 May 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.
The grindhouse was never at a loss for cash. But ideas were frequently in short supply. As it grew in popularity, exploitation entrepreneurs soon realized that almost any subject matter was ripe for the perverted picking. It didn’t matter how strange or antithetical it was to the entire raincoat concept – as long as it could be molded into money, they’d peruse it. But no one took this issue to more arcane extremes than Florida filmmaker William Grefé. In love with all things natural and outdoorsy, he originally got his start as a TV scribe. While working on his first official feature – the routine racecar flick The Checkered Flag - the director got sick, and the producer pegged him to finish it off. Bringing the movie in on budget and on time, the success of the drive-in drama bought Grefé a chance to follow his own muse.
Over the course of the next two decades, he would helm features following the dangers of the drug craze (The Hooked Generation), badass biker gangs (Wild Rebels) and the strange allure between man and animal (Stanley, Mako: Jaws of Death). But perhaps no two films were more endemic of his artistic temperament than his initial Everglades extravaganzas – Sting of Death and Death Curse of Tartu. Each used the sweet swamp boogie of the Sunshine State to focus on standard passion pit predicaments like murder, horror, sex and skin, and while one is far superior to the other, both showed that, in the hands of a capable craftsman, almost anything could be considered carnal…or commercial.
Sting of Death (1965)
Over at the Richardson residence, little Karen has just returned from college. And she’s brought along a group of hearty, partying matriculating compatriots to partake of the seemingly bottomless parental hooch. She finds her father, a rather urbane ichthyologist and his hunky, hopefully hetero assistant Dr. Hoyt working on their latest experiment. Daddy’s got a PhD in quantum jelly-fishery and he, along with Hoyt and a mangled manservant named Egon, are trying to determine why squishy Portuguese jam jockeys are so tasty in Kyoto style sushi. Karen’s friends find the physically deformed Egon amusing, in a kind of sideshow attraction carnival worker sort of way. They celebrate their superior Aryan perfection (and Egon’s dashed ego) by dancing poolside to a song about gelatinous marine blobs.
Little do our sun and fun loving youngsters know that the object of their ridicule has an invertebrate plan all his own. Egon has been following in the fish doctor’s foul and fetid finsteps and he’s discovered a way of giving new meaning to the term man o’war. He fiddles with some knobs, does the standard mad scientist thang, and right before our eyes, he becomes a half-human/half super elastic bubble plastic jellyfish creature. And naturally, the first objective on his agenda is to use his awesome Sting of Death to get a little revenge on Karen’s clan for all their peer pressure rejection.
Sting of Death was Grefé‘s first post stock car raceway experiment, and it definitely shows. With a retrograde retarded revenge premise that’s goofier than going skinny-dipping with sand fleas, and plenty of booty bumping business between the secondarily educated, you’d expect your standard b-movie monkey business. But thanks to some sequences of surreal science and a hilarious topic-specific tune by guest vocalist Neal Sedaka playing in the background, what we end up with is a real weird winner. Indeed, along with “A Heart Dies Every Minute” from Doctor Gore and “You Can’t Fart Around with Love” from Roseland, Neil’s natty “Do the Jellyfish” is one flaky, fantastic groove, a welcome addition to that ever-growing grand exploitation canon of cracked pop songstyling.
While it may not seem possible to forgive him for foisting the Captain and his mad cow matron wife Tenille on us from 1974 forward, or that “Bad Blood” barf with Sir Elton John, Neal’s “hip” factor raises the ludicrous level of several segments with his wacky ode to the floppy surf aspic. Anyone who can rhyme ‘Cinderella’ with ‘jellyfish’ (well, kinda) deserves some concrete kitsch kudos. But again, Sedaka’s backdoor braying is not the only freakishly funny thing here. Our main creature is something straight out of a homeless man’s personal wardrobe, what with its soiled scuba suit skin, hose pipe tentacles, and inflated Hefty bag head. Some crushed aluminum cans for proper accessorizing and we’d have the complete skid row ensemble.
All visual vacancy aside, Sting does manage to make us care about the characters, especially the incredibly put upon antihero Egon. Just because he’s facially scarred, with a lazy eye, and even duller sense of self worth, doesn’t mean it’s perfectly acceptable for the gang of groovy social snobs to disrespect him. And they are so mean spirited that you yourself will have Junior High School wallflower flashbacks. As an audience, we develop so much pent up vigilantism at his unnecessary berating that we can’t wait for Egon to mutate and whip a little college creep butt. And when he meets the great fishmonger in the sky, you just may weep a tiny tear…or maybe not. Sting of Death is Beauty and the Beast mixed with an order of Japanese Kurage Su to create a deliciously disturbed delight.
Death Curse of Tartu (1966)
Tartu is just your average workaday witch doctor. The fact that he is a shape-shifting member of the undead merely accentuates his multi-faceted nature. When a bunch of Everglades invaders disturb his everlasting beauty sleep, our miffed mutating madman turns into all manner of swamp beasties so he can quiet the rebel rousing and have a Sealy Posturepedic afterlife. But this won’t faze bored archeology students on Spring break. They see Tartu’s ancestral burial grounds and proceed to go-go dance all over them. So now, not only is he overtired (he gets cranky without his usual 400 years of rest), but he’s been blasphemed as well.
It isn’t long before kids start croaking at the paws, teeth, and scales of mysteriously manifesting critters. Turns out that, when visiting the Sunshine State for a little post exams debauchery, fast talking con men with video cameras and beads are not the only thing to be avoided during binge drinking fueled fun. One should look out for the animalistic antics associated with a four-century-old coffin bound party pooper, a walking corpse who is more than happy to put the Death Curse of Tartu on your book learned behind.
Death Curse of Tartu is a perfect illustration of the aforementioned anomalous approach to exploitation filmmaking. It has a proactively perverse premise - the reanimated corpse of an ancient Seminole Indian witch doctor wrecks havoc on naïve Florida tourists - and the trademark cheesy effects of a typical grade Z quagmire terror fest. But in this case, all the Roquefort in Romania can’t seem to enliven this stilted Stilton saga. Maybe it’s the fact that, as a boogeyman, Tartu doesn’t actually do a great deal. He opens his eyes, rolls over in (and around) his grave, and turns into an angry crawdad to gumbo his victims to death. After just a couple of these creature reconfigurations, we get the distinct impression that a one narrative note is about to beat its plotline pony over and over again.
Tone may also be Tartu’s unmaking. It’s awfully supercilious when it should be just silly. Instead of camp, we get camp-ing. Instead of schlock, we get stock footage leftover from Mutual of Omaha’s Mild Kingdom. It is kind of hard to get wacky enjoyment out of flesh feasting sharks, slithery snakes, and jaw chomping gators, especially when everything is handled in a matter of fact, no real suspense fashion. And who knew that zombie death murders via shape shifting spooks happen seasonally in America’s retirement capital. That’s definitely something you don’t see in the standard tourist travelogue.
About the only thing that keeps you alert during this turgid Tartu is Grefé‘s apparent fascination with the wiggling derriere. Whenever the bopping rock and roll score comes on, the middle-aged teens who are supposed to represent the future of our great land bump and grind like Shriners at a convention - and big Bill’s camera captures their hyper extending hinders in all of their rump shaking glory. If you imagined the Okefenokee Swamp as a slightly more humid Camp Crystal Lake and a dirty-bandaged ex-pool man/tennis pro as Jason Voorhees, you’d have Death Curse of Tartu, except with a lot less blood and laugh letting.