Sting of Death
Like many of my stories, this one starts out with a girl. Nice girl. Well, not that nice. Something of a catch. We were lying around in my apartment in some state of undress or other — not because we were in the throes of passion, but rather because it was Florida in August, and my air conditioner was broken. Such extreme heat and humidity can make one shed one’s modesty as quickly as one sheds pants or shirt. We were watching something dreadful and delightful, as we tended to do. In this case, it happened to be a low-budget exploitation film called Death Curse of Tartu. At the time, I was still young and not so wise in the ways of obscure movies as I am today, so I didn’t know anything about the movie, the director, or the robust little Florida film industry of the 1960s that produced it. But once the movie started playing on my epic 10-inch TV, something strange happened during the credits.
“That’s my step-mom!” my friend exclaimed.
I thought she was just being flippant. After all, who wouldn’t want a mom named Babette Sherrill? But after a few beats, I realized her exclamation was genuine.
“My stepmom’s name is Babbette Sherrill. How many women are named Babette Sherrill?” And when we got our first glimpse of Babette Sherrill, my friend went into a fit of giddy hysterics. “That’s my step-mom!”
She called immediately down to Miami where her father lived, and asked him what Babette was doing in a crappy low-budget mummy movie. I could hear her dad’s laughter pouring through the phone. Yes indeed, it was the very same Babette Sherrill. Had I my wits about me at the time, I would have arranged for some sort of interview. But I had few wits and a cute girl sitting on the couch next to me, so I must admit my priorities were, sadly, elsewhere. Now that I am older, of course, I recognize the folly of my youthful lust. Since then, I’ve developed a keen fascination with the short-lived but hilariously interesting Florida film industry that was established and maintained by people like David F. Friedman, HG Lewis, Doris Wishman, and the man behind Death Curse of Tartu: William Grefe. Florida’s film industry is a story worthy of a book I’ve been too lazy to properly research and write. Luckily, a few others have gone about collecting the facts and, more interestingly, the reflections and memories of the movers and shakers in those heady by-the-seat-of-your-pants glory days of Sunshine State exploitation film making. Various commentaries on Something Weird DVD releases, and the documentaries Schlock! and Mau Mau Sex Sex can all be combined to piece together a more or less vivid picture of just how nutty it all was.
Ironically, I spent eight years of my life as a cult film nerd in north-central Florida without any real inkling of what had happened just a few decades earlier. It wasn’t until I left Florida in search of colder, more aggressive locales that I started learning about the history of the Florida exploitation film industry. Alas! All those pretentious term papers I could have written on the subject, instead of blithering on about John Woo movies! Oh that I had spent less time deconstructing the mythic symbols of the “heroic bloodshed” movie and more time selling the intellectual aspects of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. Oh Santa! Will you ever get your sled out of that centimeter of sand you got it stuck in? Anyway, what I learned later in life, when I’d given up believing in things and became a dead husk of a man, was that there was a time when Florida was a viable contender for the movie making capital of America. It was a lot easier to get to from New York than was California. It was cheap. It had a varied landscape. The city of Jacksonville had been decimated by fire and rebuilt in a hodge podge of architectural styles that could be passed off as a variety of exotic locales.
But there was also much more racial tension. And union hassles. And the oldsters. And as westerns came into vogue, if you wanted to make even a crappy one, it was hard to pass lush, sub-tropical Florida off as Utah. The Everglades can stand in for the Amazon River or Tarzan’s jungle, but it’s hard to pass them off as the Rockie Mountains or the plains of Texas. I once saw an episode of the GI Joe cartoon where they went to Fort Knox in my home state of Kentucky, and Kentucky was full of cacti, prairies, and rootin’ tootin’ cowboys in ten-gallon hats, firing off their six-shooters into the air as they lassoed a train or something. Anyway, Florida also had the trickle-down from the Bible Belt.
In the end, Hollywood became the home of the mainstream American movie industry, except for the cranky guys who stuck around in New York to be artier. Florida was left to the low-budget exploitation film makers, and for them it was the perfect location. Not only was it still cheap, not only were there left over facilities, and not only was it warm enough year round to film people playing volleyball while nude at one of the state’s “sun worshipers’ colonies,” but Florida was also close to the southern drive-in circuit where most of these films would play. Since distribution at the time was often no more sophisticated than one huckster driving from town to town with a print of his film, trying to convince the local drive-in owner to play it, it was a lot easier to use Florida as a base than far-off California. That the most religious belt of America was also the most voraciously hungry audience for sleazy, gory exploitation films is, well, it’s really not that surprising to be honest.
William Grefe wasn’t what I would call a major player among these minor players — which means, ironically, that he achieved something closer to mainstream success than the rest. Certainly he didn’t operate on the scale of, say, Hershell Gordon Lewis. But his contributions to the cause are, for my money, considerably more Florida than many of the other movies that came from that era. His duo of South Florida monster movies concern themselves with things that are quintessentially south Florida: bikinis, go-go dancing beach parties, The Everglades, swamp mummies, jellyfish, and of course, airboats. I don’t know when exactly Florida passed a law saying all films set in Florida had to include at least one airboat scene, but it’s obviously a law. People have often complained that nothing brings a film’s momentum to a screeching halt quite like a scuba diving scene, but I’d put a prolonged “toolin’ around in an airboat” scene up against even the dullest diving scene any day. Luckily, Sting of Death doesn’t ask us to choose between the two and includes them both.
As the film opens, we’re in familiar territory, as a guy in a wetsuit and diving fins is passed off as a monster. We’ve seen this already in Creature of Destruction. At least Sting of Death has the common decency to drape some veiny dangly bits on the wetsuit and cover it in some moss or something to make it look more monstrous. Creature of Destruction didn’t even bother to try to cover up the zipper. Neither of them try to conceal where the wetsuit ends and the flipper begins, resulting in a couple of inches of regular human flesh, which lead me to wonder if this was truly a crappy monster costume (just wait until we see it in its entirety) or if it was actually just supposed to be a guy in a wetsuit who happens to partially transform into a monster. If it is just a guy who happens to be wearing a wetsuit when he turns half jellyfish, then how come when he’s on land he doesn’t just remove the fins?
The inspiration for this movie is obviously the monster movies of old — specifically The Creature from the Black Lagoon (or possibly just The Creature Walks Among Us), so Grefe plays it coy with the monster — as much to build “suspense” as to mask the cheap, shoddy nature of the beast that will eventually be revealed. Thing is, he teases us with the cheapest, shoddiest parts of the monster. If you’re going to reveal the scuba fins and wetsuit, then you’ve pretty much tipped your hand that the monster is going to be somewhat less than inspired looking. Might as well show the whole thing. Or maybe Grefe is trickier than we think. By slowly exposing the worst aspects of the monster costume, it makes the eventual reveal of the whole ludicrous thing seem less disappointing by comparison.
Well, whatever the intention was, the monster does what all swamp monsters do: sneak up on a chick in a bikini and pull her underwater. Except that he’s not that good at it, so it takes a while. Most things in this movie take a while, but at least this one involves a girl in a bikini. Wait until we get to the “this airboat scene takes a while.” The above-the-water scenes were all shot on location in the Everglades, or at least on one of the many residential canals of south Florida. The underwater photography was done in Rainbow Springs a couple hundred miles to the north. That’s because you can’t see underwater in the Everglades or in those canals, where as Rainbow Springs is a crystal clear snorkelers’ paradise (and an easy place to pass your open water dive certification). Which means I’m declaring here and now that the dramatic change in water clarity we all make fun of in Zombie Lake was actually a clever homage to Sting of Death.
Somewhere amid all this, you might notice that there are scenes that show the woman hanging off the dock while lying on her belly, but when they show the same shot from underwater, she’s obviously sitting down and dangling her feet in the water, but pay that no heed. It turns out that all sorts of strange things have been happening out in the swamp. A bulletin announces that everyone should be on the lookout for two fishermen who mysteriously disappeared in the Everglades. Because fishermen who go missing in an environment known mostly for labyrinthine backwaters full of nigh indestructible alligators and, as Death Curse of Tartu taught us, great white sharks, always results in a nationwide alert.
This chilling prologue completed, the movie proper kicks in. A group of college students are on their way to a house in the Everglades owned by Karen’s (Valerie Hawkins) marine biologist father (Jack Nagle), because there’s nothing college students in Florida want to do more than skip the beach and go party in the swamp with someone’s research scientist dad. While Karen and her inner circle await the arrival of a group of people who, we will learn, couldn’t possibly have any friends in real life, the sheriff shows up with the body of a missing fisherman in tow. The docs take a look at the completely nondescript wounds on the corpse’s face and immediately ascertain that they could only be made by a Portuguese man-o-war — except that it would have to be one of an impossible size. Not so impossible maintains Egon the deformed handyman, who himself likes to dabble in marine biology as a hobby. The doctors think Egon’s attempts to formulate biological theories are cute, and they send the sullen man scampering off to weep as he flips through old back issues of Hunky Biologist Beat magazine.
Then the rest of the kids arrive. These are your typical hedonistic, decadent college students, doing things like forming conga lines, dancing spastically to Neil Sedaka songs (this also goes on for a while, but it still involves bikinis), and taunting poor deformed Egon (John Vella). I didn’t know that once people were in their twenties they still taunted people by gathering around them in a circle and laughing and pointing for minutes on end. When he finally breaks through the circle and flees, they all run after him, continuing to point and laugh and heckle. Even after he speeds away on an airboat and their host Karen is screaming at them to stop, they all gather at the edge of the dock and continue still to laugh and point as Egon drifts off into the swamp. What the hell?
You may think at this point that you’ve accidentally started watching a different movie. The bright colors, the idiotically dancing “teenagers” speaking in “hip” lingo, the palm trees — even Egon wouldn’t be totally out-of-place in an AIP beach party movie. This innocent revelry and harassment of the freak goes on for far too long — the oh-so-ironic “do the jellyfish” scene alone goes on for like five minutes, because I guess if you were going to pay Neil Sedaka for a stupid song, you might as well use the whole thing — until finally the movie serves up some sting of deathin’.
Things get worse when, not long after being brutally taunted and harassed by the circle of guffawing young things in swimwear who conga line away from him after he escapes their assault, Egon takes an emotionally charged airboat ride (sadly not set to the song “Sound of Silence”), angrily dives into the water, and minutes later one of the kids is assaulted by the monster that has, in the middle of the poolside party, slipped into the pool without being seen, and there remains without being seen. No one notices. Not the partygoers. Not the girl — even after she’s swum a couple of laps while, for some reason, fully clothed. She went swimming in a swimming pool with half-man half-jellyfish standing in it and get stung to death, so I guess she got what she deserved. Have you ever seen a swimming pool? Can you imagine not noticing a half-man half-jellyfish standing in it?
Her death throes attract the attention of the other vile coeds, all of whom rush to the scene and are confronted by the hideous monster. When word of what they’ve seen gets around to Dr. Richardson and his trusty assistant Dr. Hoyt (Joe Morrison), they decide to pack off some of the kids back to the mainland with their deathstung friends, while the doctors, Karen, and a random selection of other kids stay behind with a different death stung kid to… well, who knows? But good for those who stayed behind, because the boat back to the mainland is besieged by a bunch of inflated baggies containing colored goo. The boat capsizes, and everyone dies in a horrible fashion that doesn’t seem so bad considering that these are grown men and women who randomly spied a guy with a deformed face, chased him down, surrounded him, pointed and screamed and laughed at him, then conga lined off. It’s hard to feel that they didn’t get anything other than what they deserved. Alas that there’s no scene of Egon… err, I mean, whoever turns out to be the monster… yelling, “Yes! Yes! Go forth my minions! Laugh at me will they? I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” as wave after wave of little inflated sandwich baggies issue forth from his grotto of doom.
In a predictable movie, all this hinting that Egon is somehow the monster would peg him as the obvious red herring; the character who is so loathsome we assume he’s the monster, when in fact it turns out the monster was actually Giles, the captain of the football team. Not one to bow to cliché, though, Grefe boldly takes the character obviously painted to be the monster and reveals that character actually is the monster. Unfortunately, this is the climax of the movie. It occurs a little more than halfway through, which means we’re left with another forty minutes or so with very little to fill it. That means Grefe is about to pad this movie out with lots of diving and speeding around in airboats. Steel yourself. There’s not even any more leering low-angle shots of bikini-clad rumps to ease the tedium. However, what waits at the end of the movie is, I assure you, well worth the airboat ride.
Back on the island, Hoyt, the Richardsons, and Karen’s random friends go to Egon’s house to warn him that a monster jellyfish is roaming around. When they find him not at home, one of them wanders down to the dock by herself to pick up some cigarettes she left on the boat. I assume Grefe meant this as a comment on the powerful addictive nature of nicotine. “So addictive that they will make you wander around the swamp by yourself when you know full well there is a murderous jellyfish-man on the loose.” When they discover she is missing, they mount a search and rescue mission that consists of tooling around the swamp until they randomly stumbles across some bubbles, which they assumes must be from the missing girl! Because nothing else in the swamp water could produce bubbles. They then take time to don scuba diving apparel, because what else does a potentially drowning woman at the bottom of a swamp have to do other than wait for her rescuer to suit up properly?
Another girl decides to take a nice long shower after this, because being stalked by a killer monster is no excuse for dirty hair. Those people thus dispatched, Egon finally returns and is left in charge of Karen while Hoyt, Dr. Richardson, and Hoyt’s freakishly gigantic forehead (seriously, it’s like Metaluna big) try to repair the mysteriously broken radio — something they probably should have done before they set about wandering around in the swamp. Of course, by now we all know Egon transforms into the monster. We also find out that he loves Karen, the only woman who didn’t surround him with a group of her friends and kick at him. He spirits her away to his secret grotto lair (the sympathy we might be supposed to feel for him is undercut somewhat by the fact that he has taken the time to accent his lair with human skulls) with lighting by Mario Bava, and we get a tour of his experiments, which consist of keeping some inflated baggies — I mean, baby monster jellyfish — in an aquarium while a Jacob’s Ladder sits nearby. Only Dr. Hoyt can save her now, because he’s one of those well-tanned, well-muscled scientists like Fabien Cousteau or… actually, most of the marine biologists I know are pretty bad-ass. And no, my sister didn’t make me write that just because she was a marine biologist before becoming a cavewoman.
Like most made-in-Florida exploitation films of the era, Sting of Death contains more padding than movie. Some of that padding comes in the form of William Grefe’s camera leering salaciously at bikini-clad bottoms shaking wildly to Neil Sedaka tunes, so I suppose we can forgive that. But bikini bottom close-ups can only get you so far in a monster movie, even with me, and once they start breaking out the diving and airboat scenes, Sting of Death gets as difficult to trudge through as the murky, gator-infested swamp that is its setting (actually, much of the film was shot along one of Florida’s many vacation-home lined canals, meaning that Grefe had to shoot everything from an awkward, high angle, so as not to show the rows of well-maintained lawns and homes on the other side of the water — a trick he accomplishes quite well, actually).
But at the same time, there’s a frothy, candy-colored sort of atmosphere about the movie that makes the padding easier to get through than it is in other, similar movies. Maybe it’s just because old Florida and Florida film making is a subject of great interest to me. Maybe it’s because we know all these wretched, Egon-tormenting kids are going to eventually be killed by a jellyfish-man. Maybe it’s my adoration of hip movie kids spouting hip lingo and go-go dancing idiotically. Whatever the case, the irksome bits of Sting of Death didn’t irk me all that much.
And even if they did, all would have been forgiven once the monster shows up. The wetsuit draped with garden hoses and moss is topped off with what appears to be a translucent garbage bag, the jumbo sized variety one might use to collect grass trimmings or fallen leaves — it’s a thing of inexpressible beauty. The bag is inflated — sometimes better than others — and you can see the actor’s head inside the bag (the actor being make-up and effects artist Doug Hobard, who also appeared as the vengeful mummy Tartu in Death Curse of Tartu, and as “the dead fisherman” in Sting of Death). The combination of giant semi-inflated bag head and diving fins means that the monster moves awkwardly in its best moments. When it comes down to the climactic fist fight in an exploding lair between Hoyt and the monster, well let’s just say that Hoyt does his best to make us believe that the monster has any dexterity at all, and the monster does its best to make us forget that previously, anything it touched died instantly. Karen just flops about in the background and suffers from the vapors.
When he’s not padding the movie out with gratuitous go-go dancing and conga lines, Grefe actually isn’t a bad director. It’s a terribly paced movie, and having your big finale halfway through the movie was perhaps ill-advised. But the photography by cameraman Julio Chavez is nice — colorful, well-framed, taking full advantage of the lush Florida landscape. That may not seem like that great an accomplishment if you haven’t watched an HG Lewis movie. Grefe knows what to do with his locations. And the pacing outside of the non-padding scenes is pretty good most of the time. Grefe actually seems to know what he was doing as a director. Things are well-edited for the most part, and he avoids most of the gaffes that make these movies such obvious amateur efforts.
Compare, once again, the HG Lewis, who obviously never gave a shit about the artistry behind anything he made (as evidenced by the fact that, in commentaries and interviews, Lewis talks about almost nothing but money). It shows in his films, which while sometimes entertaining, look like they were thrown together by and starring a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t care. Grefe was no master artist, but it’s obvious that he actually cares about making a movie. It’s a silly movie, sure, but hardly as incompetent as you might be lead to believe. Hell, he even manages to wring a little pathos out of the story in the form of Egon, whose only dreams in life were to have his jellyfish research taken seriously and to not be surrounded by circles of cackling, pointing college students. It’s well-worn territory, to be sure, but it’s still more thought than was put into other productions by other people.
The monster is utterly ludicrous, but it’s ludicrous in such a delightful way that it’s hard to feel cheated. Consider again the wetsuit monster from Creature of Destruction. That was just a guy in a wetsuit, wearing a fright mask. By comparison, Sting of Death‘s jellyfish-man is draped with multi-colored hoses and has a giant inflatable bladder for a head — that effect alone was obviously a nightmare to maintain. And then they have him swimming and engaging in fight scenes as well! That they put a considerable amount of effort into something so obviously shoddy is far more endearing than if they’d just been lazy about it from the outset. And whats even more endearing than that is that this is just an old-fashioned monster movie, and I love those. Exhausted as I am by modern horror, with all its jumpy cutting, washed out yellow or blue-tinted color palettes, and focus on torture and bickering, it makes me happy to go back and watch a movie that is bright, colorful, and feels no needs to sell itself as grim and gritty or “realistic.” It’s still full of obnoxious teens, but at least we don’t have to watch an hour of them arguing with each other and being obnoxious. They taunt Egon, thus establishing their expendablity, then most of them are wiped out in a single baby jellyfish attack. End of story.
So yeah — there is plenty to be laughed at in Sting of Death — most of it surrounding the monster’s appearance and the endless go-go dancing. But there’s merriment amid the mayhem, and the result is that I had a good time watching the movie. Perhaps, as I said earlier, being interested in the overall subject of exploitation film making in Florida makes Sting of Death more appealing to me than someone whose interests might lie elsewhere, like in humanitarian work or fighting infectious diseases. But for anyone who has an interest in scraping a movie together, in working outside the establishment of Hollywood, or in independent film making in general, I think the Florida film makers of the 60s are a must-study case. They learned their trade. Some of them on the job, some of them by coming up through established studios or, more likely, while working on industrial and corporate training films. here is a craft to their film that is sadly missing from modern exploitation film making. The relative ease of acquiring digital video equipment means there are more people making more movies than ever before.
Sadly, in most cases the advances in technology have equated to a decrease in the overall quality of the work being done. One need only wade ankle-deep into the morass of micro-budget horror films or, even more tragically, the Japanese shot-on-video exploitation market, to see just how lazy and incompetent exploitation film making has become. Without the learning curve for the equipment and techniques, no one bother to learn much of anything. Without the cost of film equipment and processing, lab work, film editing equipment, people tend to work sloppy. Scrape some friends together, put an 18-year-old in a trenchcoat and call him a FBI agent, point your HandyCam at him, then call it a movie. There’s nothing wrong with it, really — I like that every idiot in America is making shitty horror films, and I don’t have to watch them. But it’s unfortunate that so few of them seem committed to learning the trade the way one was once required to do even for a movie as half-assed as Sting of Death. Part of what interested me about film in the first place was that it is equal parts art and vocational trade, and much of what interests me about the Florida exploitation film scene is that it is so rife with stories that illustrate it as such.
Cigar chomping hucksters mixing with community theater actors, industrially trained cameramen, mad visionaries, ruthless exploiters, shameless promoters — the entire process of making a film, from concept to screening, is transparent and easy to follow, far more so than in the twisting corporate corridors of Hollywood. And yet it’s still the same business. It’s not just a bunch of friends who went to the swamp and shot a film because they thought it would be fun. The entirety of the film industry is contained in a movie like Sting of Death, and because it’s more open, smaller, and outside the realm of corporate protection, understanding film as a process, a business, a vocation, and an art form is much easier to do in this ridiculous film about a jellyfish man than it would be in a larger, more mainstream film. Sting of Death, William Grefe, David Friedman, Doris Wishman, HG Lewis — these people are textbooks for people interested in film. Sometimes the textbook is about what not to do, but it’s a learning experience never the less. And I love that about Sting of Death, and about all the films like it. I can’t watch the film without thinking about all that it represents, and yes, that colors my overall perception of its worth.
Fascination instead of entertainment? Maybe, if the difference here makes sense to you, or if you see the difference as being important, or even being a difference. I see the difference between being entertained and being fascinated, but it doesn’t matter to me. I get some of both from Sting of Death, especially once the jellyfish-man is front and center.
Release Year: 1965 | Country: United States | Starring: Joe Morrison, Valerie Hawkins, John Vella, Jack Nagle, Sandy Lee Kane, Deanna Lund, Lois Etelman, Blanche Devereaux, Doug Hobart, Robert Stanton, Tony Gulliver, Ron Pinchbeck, John Castle, Judy Lee, Barbara Paridon | Writers: Al Dempsey, William Kerwin | Director: William Grefe | Cinematographer: Julio C. Chavez | Music: Al Jacobs | Producer: Joseph Fink, Richard Fink