DECEMBER 10 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : DEATH CURSE OF TARTU
You know, for years now, I've been asking the question, "Why is it that, in horror movies, Christianity is so helpless?" Egyptian religion, Hindu beliefs, Daoist magic, etc. always work when either creating a monster or destroying it, but it's relatively rare for a character's Christian faith to protect them from a monster, unless the monster is a standard European vampire. This question brings me to today's movie. Therefore, without any further ado, I give you...DEATH CURSE OF TARTU (1966).
A man dressed in cowboy duds struggles through underbrush, finding his way into a cave-like area characterized by enormous cobwebs. With his little mustache, the man looks like a chubby Richard Boone. The cave is revealed to be a tomb, and the man's escape is blocked by a sudden boulder-fall. A shadowy humanoid shape appears, and kills the man. All we see so far are the shadowy figure's leggings.
The credits are played as the roll of paper the man was carrying, with the writing done to look like blood. In the background, very stereotypical Native American music plays. It kinda reminds me of the opening credits for EEGAH! (1962), in a vague sort of way.
We then cut to two guys in a canoe, one in a blue shirt, the other in a hat. They're paddling slowly through what I'm guessing are the Everglades. With all the horror movies that take place around there, you'd think people would learn to stay out -- Jellyfish-men, Giant Leeches, and Tartu's Death Curse.
Blue Shirt (aka Billy) won't go further into the swamp, as it's a place of evil spirits and shamans who turn themselves into giant alligators. Mr. Gunter, his companion, is disappointed in Billy for believing these old superstitions, but Billy is a Seminole Indian, and his people have pulled dead men out of the swamp who desecrated Seminole burial grounds. Mr. Gunter sends Billy off for supplies and to pick up the Tisons, and then goes for a walk on a hillock of solid ground they found.
Hmmm, so we've got a local Indian steeped in the superstitions of his ancestors, and a white man who scoffs at them. Gee, I wonder how this will end?
I can't understand the composition of some of the scenes of Mr. Gunter's walk-montage. Why does the music turn ominous and the camera zoom in when he pulls the rusty old kettle out to make coffee?
Suddenly the music turns into Native American chanting, we see a mummified alligator, and then a fellow whom I can only assume is Tartu starts rocking back and forth in his sarcophagus -- his eyesockets are blackened and his nose painted to create the illusion of a skeletal face, and his skin looks like dried oatmeal. The film then cuts back and forth between Mr. Gunter and Tartu's rockin' bachelor pad -- I'm diggin' the skull and serpent motif, Mr. Tartu.
I'm getting really confused as to whether it's day or night for Mr. Gunter -- there's a big snake (looks like a python or anaconda to me) invading his camp and it looks dark there, but then we see Gunter walking around in full daylight. The snake suddenly attacks Mr. Gunter -- or rather, it turns to rubber and he wraps it around himself. It's more convincing than the giant octopus in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, but not by much. Rather than sticking around to eat Mr. Gunter, the snake disappears into the undergrowth.
We cut to Billy meeting the Tisons the next day. They discuss a discovered burial mound that Billy wants to stay away from. That's funny, I don't recall Tartu's tomb being officially discovered...Huh? Anyways, Billy knows all about Tartu from his ancestors, and relates the legend to Ed Tison, patriarch of the Tison clan. Ed's very derisive of Billy's beliefs, and Billy refuses to accompany them back to the hillock with its burial mound.
The Tisons go out on one of those awesome fan-boats (or, I guess, "air boats" is the technical term) I was raving about in my review of STING OF DEATH. They (Ed Tison, Julie Tison, a guy in a tan shirt, a girl in a red shirt, a girl in white jeans, and a guy in a red shirt) get their air boat stuck, and have to walk the rest of the way to the island. The four who have no been named yet are all younger, being in their late teens or early 20s, and WHINY. The Trekkie in me is amused at the number of red shirts on display here. White Jeans sounds like she's one of the Chipmunks. These six people apparently make up an archaeological expedition.
Tan Shirt starts hearing drums and freaks out, though no one else hears anything but the wind. I'm good friends with some archaeologists-in-training, and this has to be the worst expedition I've ever seen. A professor (I'm assuming), his wife, and four grad students who are at each other's throats before the expedition is even officially underway.
Ed gets to work translating the pictograms incised on a rock Gunter found before dying, and the kids go down to the "beach" to "roast marshmallows." Ed and Julie briefly get intimate as soon as they're alone. Bow-chicka-bow-wow...They're interrupted by Ed's concerns about Gunter's whereabouts. Julie then inquires about the rock, the mood lost. It predictably tells the story of Tartu with Witch-Doctor.
Meanwhile on the beach, the kids are stripping down to their undies and getting frisky. They've actually got marshmallows roasting! We learn some names here -- White Jeans is Cindy, and Tan Shirt is Tommy. They get up and start go-go dancing, the men fully clad and the girl's in their bras and panties. They apparently got the same camera man from STING OF DEATH, as the camera focuses on the girls' asses. Granted, they're not packing much up top but...anyways, as soon as the music stops, Tommy is thrown into the water, and his girl (Red Shirt from before, now she's Leopard-Print Undies) gets thrown in on top of him.
Their revelry causes Tartu to awaken! And we're told that Leopard-Print Undies' real name is Joanne. Tommy and Joanne race to the other side of the lake, while Cindy and Red Shirt Guy start swapping saliva again.
A shark appears out of nowhere to attack Tommy and Joanne. Ed Tison shows up and shoots at it, but to no avail. Tommy and Joanne disappear, with only a severed limb to be found. Cindy goes into hysterics, collapsing into Johnny's (we finally learn Red Shirt Guy's name!) arms.
The remaining four decide to leave, but their air boat has been torn apart by alligators! The scene cuts to Tartu in his coffin, rocking back and forth. He seems to do that a lot. Is it the undead Seminole Witch-Doctor equivalent of laughter? Is he just trying to get comfortable? Does he have gas? I bet it's gas. Decomposition farts, ewwwww.
Meanwhile, Ed Tison suddenly turns into Billy, talking about superstition and mysticism and all the questions that science has no answer to. He remembers Billy telling him about a man killed by a tiger in the Everglades -- it's the only explanation for a shark killing in fresh water -- TARTU! He's behind the mysterious deaths!
Johnny goes for help, and now everyone can hear the mysterious drumming and chanting. It starts to look like Johnny might make it, but he's being pursued by a viper (water moccasin, I think), and it's getting dark. The snake gets him, and it's obviously A POLE DISGUISED AS A SNAKE WITH A HEAD ON THE END. I'm serious. Remember the scene in CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) in which James Earl Jones straightens out a snake and uses it as an arrow? That's what this looked like! HAHAHAHAHAHA! Johnny just get jabbed right in the face with it! And the snake keeps jabbing him like that as he tries to escape!
This raises a question though...how far does Tartu's influence extend?
Meanwhile, Cindy wakes up screaming, after having a nightmare in which Johnny died. A nightmare that exactly matches the actual events...was she having a vision? We've had no other inklings that Cindy might be psychic. Ed thinks that the only solution is to find Tartu's resting place and destroy the Seminole Ghoul.
Before long, they find Tartu's grave (it was under where Gunter found the inscribed stone) and in it, Gunter. Cindy freaks out, runs out of the tomb, falls down crying, and is subsequently menaced by an alligator. The tomb door closes behind her, sealing Ed and Julie in. Cindy can't get back in, and ends up running from the gator again.
Oh man, is Tartu going to reign victorious? I hope so.
Ed tries to blow the door open with powder from opened bullets and a fuse made from his wife's shirt. Miraculously, this works, and they run out to find Cindy. Cindy meanwhile, rushes into the water to escape the gator, slogging through slowly as the gator gains on her.
Here's a tip folks: If on the run from a large crocodilian, DON'T go into the element that it's more at home in then you are.
Ed and Julie find Cindy dangling from a tree that she climbed to escape the gator, who is snapping hungrily at her heels as she starts to lose her grip. Ed shoots at the gator ineffectively, as Cindy falls from the tree and gets mauled by the gator. Ed, you useless twit, the gator was ten feet away from you! Seriously, Ed is starting to remind me of the "hero" Mike from MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE.
Having failed to save Cindy, Ed and Julie decide to avenge themselves on Tartu, and return to his cave (his door-closing mechanism irreversably damaged by Ed's twelve grains of gunpowder) and struggle to open his casket. They can't do it! They sit down and try to rationalize everything away, and Tartu opens up for them. From three feet away, Ed shoots it repeatedly with his rifle, and I can only assume he misses -- Tartu doesn't even flinch. Then Tartu transforms from a mummified corpse to a living man, and starts beating the crap out of Ed. Julie flees, Ed's knocked out (presumed dead) and Tartu pursues her. Ed wakes up, grabs a convenient axe (Gunter's) and goes after Tartu.
The movie effectively becomes a silent here. There's no dialogue, just chase music as Julie runs, Tartu pursues her, Ed pursues him. Tartu hits her in the chest with a tomahawk (with a curiously steel blade) but she keeps running. Ed catches up to Tartu, and they wrestle. Julie falls into quicksand, though she seems particularly non-plussed by this situation. Ed manages to toss Tartu into the quicksand and save Julie at the last minute. Tartu turns back into Mumm-Ra and sinks out of sight.
Is it just me, or was this movie kinda...lackluster?
I mentioned MANOS earlier in reference to Ed's seeming uselessness, and it really kind of applies to all the characters. Nobody on the archaeology expedition seemed to be in any way capable of doing anything except dance and make out. They're pretty good at screaming and panicking, with Cindy in particular going into hysterics at the littlest thing.
The special effects, where they existed, were weak -- the snake attacking Johnny in particular. They pulled back for a long shot when Tartu changed from mummy to man, and kept him so shrouded in shadow in that scene that I initially thought the bullets Ed had pumped into him were effective and he was reverting from an animated corpse to an ordinary corpse. Almost all the interactions between the characters and the animals under Tartu's control was accomplished via stock footage, some of it pretty jarringly obvious, at least to me. I definitely saw an alligator change species at one point.
I felt like killing Tommy and Joanne at the same time was too much -- it felt rushed, and that damaged the tension it was supposed to create. Maybe that's just me.
I also think that Cindy's psychic dream about Johnny's death was a cop out.
So I think just one question remains...
How does Tartu turn into tigers and sharks, animals he likely never would have seen?
Overall, I give DEATH CURSE OF TARTU...
ONE BARREL OF TOXIC WASTE.
DECEMBER 10 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : DEATH CURSE OF TARTU
A lot of places have been dubbed “the other Hollywood” over the years (including even the San Fernando Valley, the LA neighborhood immediately adjacent to Hollywood, which has been the de facto headquarters of the American porn movie industry since the late 1970’s), but the city with the strongest claim to the title might well be Jacksonville, Florida. Indeed, Jacksonville was in the movie business before Los Angeles, with its first permanent film studio opening way back in 1908. There was a big difference between Jacksonville and Hollywood, though, even at the beginning; whereas the people who went to LA to make movies starting in 1911 were looking to escape from the monopolistic (and occasionally gangsterish) practices of the Edison-dominated Motion Picture Patents Company, Jacksonville was for all practical purposes the winter retreat of the firms that made up the aforementioned trust. New York in winter was a terrible place for filmmaking in the early years of the 20th century, and once Kalem Studios had pointed the way to the northeastern corner of Florida, the New Yorkers— Edison, Selig, King Bee, Lubin, and quite a few others— wasted little time in following. There were some important Jacksonville-based startups, too (most notably Metro, later to become the first “M” in MGM), but for the most part, the Floridian film industry remained a colonial outpost of New York through the end of the last century’s teen years.
Naturally, that was a big part of the reason for Jacksonville’s decline as a movie town during the 1920’s. For those who were trying to dodge the MMPC monopoly, Florida was nowhere near far enough away from New York, and Metro’s move west was not the only example of California-bound talent migration. World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic weren’t kind to northern Florida, either, causing a noticeable shrinkage in the region’s population. Local politics turned against filmmaking in 1917, with the election of Mayor John W. Martin, who was loudly moralizing against the movies before the Dos, Don’ts, and Be Carefuls were even a twinkle in Will Hays’s eye. And most importantly, the more successful the Hollywood studios became, the more their business model resembled that of the New York trust they had supplanted. Jacksonville remained a major nexus of production for race pictures until the end of the silent era, but by 1930, there wasn’t much for Floridian filmmakers to do at home except to shoot newsreels, educational shorts, and industrial training films.
Or so it was, anyway, until 1948, when a seven-to-one majority of the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission in United States v. Paramount, and ordered the dismantling of vertical integration throughout the motion picture business. The studios were forced to sell off their theater chains, and large-scale block-booking was disallowed, leaving the industry titans severely weakened at exactly the moment when cinema first began facing serious competition from television. The “Big Eight” (MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, RKO, Universal, Columbia, and United Artists) responded by making fewer, more carefully vetted films; the newly emancipated theaters responded by seeking replacement product wherever they could find it; and the massive dislocation of the old supply-and-demand balance opened up unprecedented opportunities for would-be producers who had formerly been shut out by the studio system. Some of these new players were Hollywood independents, like American International Pictures. Others were importers of foreign films, like Joseph Levine. And others still were small-timers all over the country, eager to expand beyond the likes of sex-hygiene one-reelers for the armed forces and scare films for driver’s ed classes. In places like Jacksonville, where there was plenty of production capacity lying fallow, the time was ripe for a golden age of cheaply made and regionally distributed exploitation movies. As the 1960’s dawned, Florida (including not just Jacksonville, but Miami as well) had come full circle, becoming both an attractive winter shooting location for exploitationeers based in New York and Chicago, and home to an indigenous, drive-in-oriented filmmaking scene.
That brings me to William Grefe. Unlike a lot of the drive-in luminaries who worked in Florida during the 60’s, (Doris Wishman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joseph Sarno, etc.), Grefe was actually from there, and he remained based in the Sunshine State throughout his career. He had a nearly Corman-like eye for emerging trends, and while he was never the first to do anything, he was quite frequently the second. Also like Roger Corman, Grefe got his start as a feature director with a couple of racing movies, Checkered Flag (essentially what you’d expect) and Racing Fever (about power-boat racing, rather than the usual dragsters or stock cars), before moving on to other, more profitable pastures. His first step in the direction of such bigger and nominally better things as Mako: The Jaws of Death was the mind-boggling teens-vs.-monsters flick, Sting of Death. The second came literally weeks after that film was in the can, when it became clear that the distributors (the newly launched and very optimistically named Thunderbird International Pictures) would be unable to find Sting of Death a mate for the all-important double bill before the inception of drive-in season in mid-April of 1966. Grefe wrote Death Curse of Tartu during a single 24-hour blowout, and was out in the Everglades shooting just over a week later.
Death Curse of Tartu follows a template that has been in wide use among lousy American horror movies since at least 1922’s The Headless Horseman— hook the audience in with something cool early on, so that maybe they won’t notice you boring the shit out of them until at least the end of the second act. A cowboy (Brad Grinter, who would later earn lasting infamy as the director of Blood Freak) lets himself into a cave somewhere in the Everglades. If the sliding, hexagonal stone block covering the entrance is any indication, somebody would really prefer he didn’t. Sure enough, no sooner is the cowboy inside than the stone swings shut behind him, and a mummified Indian medicine man (Grefe’s usual makeup artist and corpse impersonator, Doug Hobart) clambers out of the stone sarcophagus in the center of the cave. (Who knew the Seminoles made stone sarcophagi? I sure didn’t.) The mummy transforms into the likeness of his living self (transforming into Bill Marcus while he’s at it), and bashes in the cowboy’s skull with a stone-headed mace. Then he relieves the slain cowboy of a bundle of scrolls on which someone has considerately inscribed the title and the opening credits.
A totally indeterminate amount of time later, Sam Gunther (Frank Weed, the animal handler for both Death Curse of Tartu and Grefe’s later Stanley) is canoeing into the same stretch of the Glades in company with a Seminole named Billy (also Bill Marcus; the dual casting wasn’t meant to do anything but save money, but I kind of like how it implies that Billy is descended from the mummy in the cave). Gunther was expecting Billy to be his guide throughout whatever he had planned on getting up to out here, but the Indian is adamant that he will do no more than drop Gunther off and tell somebody named Tyson where to find him. There’s an old Seminole burial ground hidden someplace in this particular patch of swamp, and it inevitably is said to be inhabited by evil spirits. Westernized, educated, 20th-century Native American or not, Billy has seen enough dead bodies hauled home from the area over the years to believe that his ancestors knew approximately what they were talking about. Billy also points out to Gunther the extraordinary silence of the hummock (Marcus and Weed bafflingly pronounce it “hammock”) where he and Sam have stopped. Both men know the Everglades well enough to recognize that something funny is going on when there isn’t a bird, frog, or singing insect to be heard for miles around. Be that as it may, though, Gunther will not be dissuaded from pitching his camp, and thus it is that he succumbs in short order to the titular death curse. This time, the deceased shaman does not wait for his grave to be violated directly. Turning himself into a ten-foot anaconda, he heads straight to Sam’s camp and does away with the interloper immediately after the latter uncovers some large stone artifact that we don’t get to see clearly.
The Tyson Sam and Billy were talking about turns out to be college archeology professor Ed Tyson (Fred Piñero, the star of Grefe’s long-lost “white slavery in Mexico” sleaze-fest, The Devil’s Sisters). Ed and his wife, Julie (Babette Sherill, also of The Devil’s Sisters), are on their way into the Everglades with four of his students, presumably to rendezvous with Sam Gunther and take advantage of his experience and expertise in locating old Indian sites. Tyson is a bit taken aback to see Billy at home instead of out in the swamp with Gunther, but he doesn’t push the issue too hard when Billy explains his reasons. All Ed asks is that Billy refrain from saying anything about Seminole death curses to Julie or the kids.
You can see why Tyson would want it hushed up, too. Julie, Johnny (Sherman Hayes), Cindy (Mayra Gomez Kemp), Tommy (Gary Holtz), and Joann (Maurice Stewart, whom the sharp-eyed might recognize as one of Sting of Death’s anonymous jiggling butts) are all the kind of people who recoil from virtually any sort of wildlife, and who just about shit their pants when confronted with anything dead. (My favorite line in the whole film: Ed demands of the students, “Now how are you people going to study archeology if you’re afraid of a little skull?” when they stumble upon a pike-mounted cranium that once decorated the lair of a certain were-jellyfish.) Just imagine how they’d react in the face of a dead guy who can turn himself into alligators and anacondas and whatnot! On the other hand, one really does have to side with the pack of fraidycats on the subject of what Sam Gunther’s absence from his campsite might imply for his or anyone else’s safety out there in the swamp. Nevertheless, Tyson is even more dismissive of sensible worries than he is of “superstitious,” “irrational” ones, and he quickly concocts the first in a series of increasingly unpersuasive innocent explanations for Gunther’s vanishing act.
We must conclude that the kids buy their professor’s bullshit, too, because otherwise there’d be just no way to account for what happens next. At about high noon on the first night of the Everglades camp-out (the day-for-night cinematography in Death Curse of Tartu is worse than anything you’ll see this side of The Eye Creatures), Johnny interrupts Ed in the midst of translating the carvings on that big stone thingy that Gunther discovered (and which the undead medicine man strangely did not reclaim after killing Sam), and mentions that he and the others want to go down to the riverbank and roast some marshmallows. No, really. And Tyson, despite having just deciphered enough of the carvings to know that they spell out the vow of a Seminole shaman named Tartu to rise from the dead in animal form and slaughter anyone who dares disturb his rest, and despite having also begun to entertain worries of his own about the missing Gunther, thinks nothing of sending the four students along their merry way unsupervised. Furthermore, there is every indication that Tyson commits this gross abdication of chaperonal responsibility for the sake of an opportunity to get groiny with Julie. What the fuck, Ed Tyson?!?! Johnny, Cindy, Tommy, and Joann are thinking groinally as well, marshmallows or no marshmallows, and they quickly discover a very interesting fact about Tartu: he does not approve of go-go dancing. Evidently awakened by the raucous teen hullabaloo down the hill from his cave, Tartu takes the form of— get this— a shark, and proceeds to gobble up Tommy and Cindy (who had inexplicably decided that going for a swim in the most disgusting water in the American South was a fine idea). This— finally!— convinces Ed that something untoward is going on around here, and a plan is hatched to send the fleet-footed Johnny off to summon rescue, while the others try to find Tartu’s grave and destroy him. They’ll have a little bit of help in the latter department from Tartu himself, who concluded his carven threat with a boast that only “Mother Nature” could defeat him. Awfully sporting of Tartu to put a “here’s how to stop me” clause right there in his own curse, even if it is kind of a vague one…
Sting of Death vanished almost without at trace when the initial double bill finished making the rounds, but Death Curse of Tartu had real legs. Frank Henenlotter recalls it playing on 42nd Street as late as 1976. That makes a certain amount of sense, for although Death Curse of Tartu is rather the less entertaining of the two films, it’s also far and away the more conventional. I mean, sure— I’d much rather watch a movie about a mad scientist who turns himself into a jellyfish than yet another take on the venerable “leave my tomb alone, goddamnit!” theme, but as I’ve observed in other contexts, catering to my tastes is frequently a lousy way to make money. What most saves Death Curse of Tartu from being just another shitty mummy movie with the setting shifted from Egypt to the Everglades is the utterly daft way in which Grefe employs Tartu’s shape-shifting ability. It’s amusing enough that Tartu can take the forms of animals that aren’t normally found in the Glades (like, say, stock-footage sharks), but the anaconda and Billy’s story about finding a dead man once who appeared to have been mauled by a tiger collectively prove that the shaman can turn himself into creatures that he should never even have heard of! I also really enjoyed the prologue’s unintended implication that Tartu killed Brad Grinter because he wanted to study the credits to his own movie, memorizing the names of the responsible parties for the sake of a more specifically targeted death curse in the future. And while it’s nowhere near as important an element in Death Curse of Tartu as it was in this movie’s original co-feature, the continuation of Sting of Death’s “monsters exterminate the beach party” angle is sure to be much appreciated by my fellow Frankie-and-Annette-hating grouches.
Meanwhile, there are a handful of things that Grefe did legitimately right here, intermingled with all the more conspicuous stuff that he botched to one degree or another. Frank Weed’s wrestling match with the anaconda is a very impressive set-piece; you can see at once why Grefe would cast the reptile-wrangler himself in the part of Sam Gunther, because any actor in his right mind would have resigned the instant he figured out what was being asked of him. Snake-lover though I am, you won’t see me inviting a constrictor that much bigger and stronger than I am to coil itself around my neck and upper body! The Everglades locations are once again very well and thoughtfully employed, to the extent that the swamp itself becomes easily the film’s most compelling character. And on a related note, Death Curse of Tartu, like its companion piece, features some generally excellent and occasionally even inspired cinematography and editing from longtime Grefe collaborator Julio C. Chavez. Chavez— and a lot of the other people Grefe worked with over the years, for that matter— had fled Cuba when Fidel Castro’s Communists took over in 1961, and although he had been a player of some note in his home country’s small and mostly inward-looking film industry, he spent his first few years in Miami working a succession of the shit jobs one typically associates with Hispanic immigrants to the United States. Grefe gave Chavez a chance to resume his real career, and the director was so pleased with Chavez’s work on Racing Fever that their partnership would continue until Grefe effectively retired from the movie business after 1977’s Whiskey Mountain. We primarily have Chavez to thank, I think, for the fact that Death Curse of Tartu’s within-scene pacing and fluidity are so much better than those of the film as a whole, and for the air of technical professionalism it puts forward even though most of the equipment used on the shoot was cheap, primitive, and sometimes flat-out improvised.
DECEMBER 10 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : DEATH CURSE OF TARTU
This double feature disc packages together two zero-budget horror movies by Florida-based schlock auteur William Grefé. They're both really, really bad — though the 2nd feature, Sting of Death, is actually rather fun in a supercheesy, MST3K kind of way. Throw in some choice exploitation trailers with a couple of gonzo short subject reels and you should have an enjoyable time zoning in front of the tube.
There is the matter of Death Curse of Tartu, however.
The flimsy plot of this bargain-basement groaner concerns an evil 400-year old Seminole witch doctor, the titular Tartu (Doug Hobart), who's very touchy about his sacred burial mound deep in the Everglades. When an archeology professor and a group of students disturb his resting place, the coffin-bound Tartu transforms into various "spirit" animals as a means to kill them. These include a giant anaconda, a shark (in fresh water?), a poisonous water moccasin, and a flesh-hungry alligator. Finally only the professor and his girlfriend are left alive; they discover Tartu's burial chamber and come face-to-face with the Indian wizard in a struggle to the death.
For the most part, Tartu is a real chore to sit through. (At least without listening to the audio commentary; see below.) The movie was made for only $27,000 in 10 days and definitely looks it. The doomed students' impromptu go- go dancing — in the middle of a swamp — provides some laughs, and a couple of the animal attacks are both creepy and silly at the same time. There's also an energetic (if inept) fight scene at the end. But too much of the running time is spent with various characters silently trudging through the muck, an endlessly-looped recording of an Indian chant playing on the soundtrack. This gets to be pretty irritating before long, as in nails-on-chalkboard irritating. Ugh.
Death Curse of Tartu is cheesy all right, but decidedly on the stale side.
Grefé's Sting of Death is another kettle of (jelly) fish altogether. Filmed the year before Tartu, both features eventually ran as part of a drive-in double bill in 1967. With its shimmying dancers and outrageously ridiculous monster — one of the most pathetically goofy I've ever seen — one can't help but be entertained. This is definitely a flick the MST gang should've had in their crosshairs.
On an island at the edge of the Florida Everglades, biologist Dr. Richardson (Jack Nagle, who goes through the entire film with a head injury that keeps changing size) maintains a scientific research facility that looks an awful lot like a hotel. With the aid of hunky assistant John (Joe Morrison) and scarred handyman/amateur scientist Egon (The Wild Rebels' John Vella), he's conducting some vaguely referenced experiments on Portuguese Men O' War. Research takes a back seat, though, with the arrival of Richardson's pretty daughter Karen (Valerie Hawkins) and a group of her sorority sisters on a break from studies. John and Karen hit it off while poor disfigured Egon sulks under the cruel ribbing of some of the girls. A boatload of John's grad student friends soon shows up; before you can say "Jilla-Jalla" they're all dancing with rhythmless Anglo-Saxon abandon to the fey vocal stylings of Neil Sedaka, who provides two rock 'n' roll atrocities to the soundtrack. (Though he doesn't appear on camera, Sedaka is listed in the credits as "Special Singing Guest Star". His Ska-flavored "Do the Jellyfish" has to be heard to be believed. The song's ridiculous lyrics are reprinted on the disc's Chapter Listing insert card.)
Fortunately for the viewer a humanoid monster crashes the party, attacking and injuring two of the kids before disappearing into the swamp. (The creature's touch causes a painful sting like that of a jellyfish.) The students take the most seriously injured reveler aboard their boat and head for the mainland to seek medical attention and contact the police. The sequence that follows is a veritable laugh riot. Sabotaged by the monster, the boat starts sinking (suddenly it's a different boat, by the way); the passengers end up floundering in the water. One by one they're all killed by a school of 'deadly' jellyfish — which are actually just inflated plastic sandwich baggies. This is easily the stupidest thing I've seen in a movie in a long, long time... and I haven't even described the monster yet! Back on the island, the main characters start to get worried when the sheriff never shows up — they don't know that John's pals are gator bait. Egon, the extremely creepy handyman, is missing as well. (One would think this might set off alarm bells but everyone in the movie is as dumb as a bag of hammers.) On an excursion to find him two of Karen's sorority pals are killed. Then the monster returns to the island for more mayhem...
Egon is the monster, of course; he morphs into a crazed human-jellyfish hybrid when struck by the urge to kill. This is realized by having Tartu's Doug Hobart don a wetsuit, slather some goo on his hands, and place an inflated plastic bag over his head. (Even the "Hefty bag" critters in Attack of the Giant Leeches looked more believable than this!) Wisely Grefé keeps glimpses of Jellyfish Man limited to hands and flipper-adorned feet until the last 5 minutes of the flick. The climax is hysterical, featuring what has got to be the lamest Man vs. Monster face-off in American film history.
Cheese lovers should enjoy Sting of Death. It's got a pathetically silly monster and uncoordinated white folks dancing to bad '60s tunes — a combo that never fails to deliver unintentional laughs. However, I don't find swamp-traversing airboats to be particularly cool in any way... There are plenty of spots in the movie when it's okay to raid the fridge or take a leak without hitting the pause button.
If you're expecting to see pristine transfers of obscure, zero-budget independent films almost 40 years old, then forget it. Tartu, dark and blemished as the print is, looks better than it did on video or broadcasts on the TNT cable channel. Sting of Death fares much, much better, with rich, vibrant color and only minimal print damage. Sound quality is serviceable for both titles, with the edge again going to Sting.
As I've come to expect, Something Weird crams in a lot of extras. Both Tartu and Sting come with audio commentaries. These feature Grefé and Frank Henenlotter (director of Basket Case and Frankenhooker) discussing each film in particular and Florida's indie film scene in the '60s and '70s in general. Both are quite enjoyable, filled with amusing anecdotes about the cheapness of the productions and the rigors of filming in the Everglades. Especially funny are Grefé's numerous stories about working with dangerous wild animals and the travails of the underpaid actors. These talks are highly entertaining; my only complaint is that Grefé sounds like he's sitting 10 feet away from the microphone.
Two short subjects are also included. Miami Or Bust — a rather wretched early '60s stag film — starts off like a dull Florida travelogue before switching to a woefully middle-aged stripper cavorting naked around a motel pool. (Oh, the horror!) The second offering is a bizarre 30 minute excerpt from Love Goddesses Of Blood Island, an exploitation cheapie about shipwrecked men washing up on a tropical isle populated by bikini-clad Amazon women. One would think they'd have it made... Of course only torture and death await them at the hands of these savage lovelies. One poor guy gets disemboweled and beheaded Herschell Gordon Lewis-stye. (As Tartu and Sting both contain only mild bits of gore and no nudity, the "Blood 'n' Guts" and "Bare Flesh" icons listed above are for the content of these shorts.)
Apart from the commentaries, my favorite extras are the six theatrical trailers for Tartu, Sting, and four other Grefé-helmed films: Racing Fever, The Wild Rebels (which really needs a DVD release), Mako: Jaws of Death, and the rattlesnake thriller Stanley. I'm a big trailer fan, you see — can never have enough of 'em!
Note: The packaging lists extras — an exploitaion film art gallery and "Horrorama" radio spots — that are nowhere to be found on the disc. I therefore must regretfully deduct a point from Eccentric Cinema's overall DVD rating.