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He Came from the Swamp: The William Grefe Collection
Arrow Video, in conjunction with Something Weird Video, gathers together a nice selection of Florida-based exploitation impresario William Grefé in one deluxe boxed set dubbed He Came From The Swamp: The William Grefé Collection. Here's what is inside…
Sting Of Death/Death Curse Of Tartu:
1966's Sting Of Death opens with a scene where a monstrous hand reaches for a screwdriver and destroys a radio before then heading to a dock and murdering a beautiful blonde woman lounging beside the water. The creature (some guy in a wet suit, flippers and some goop) drags her corpse through the water as the opening credits play out over top. From there, a group of people arrives at that very same dock and head into the house nearby. It turns out that this is the home of a Marine Biologist named Dr. Richardson (Jack Nagle) and his daughter Karen (Valerie Hawkins) has just returned from college for spring breaks with a few foxy friends in tow. Richardson's right hand man, the much younger Dr. John Hoyt (Joe Morrison), is also hanging around, as is a manservant named Egon (John Vella), a creepy guy with a droopy eye and some bad burns on his face.
From there? It's party time! A bunch of guys from the nearby biology school are heading over to the beach to party with the girls. From here, a large group of cool kids jump, jive and wail to the sounds of Neil Sedaka's smash hit, ‘Do The Jellyfish.' At any rate, as all of this is going on, the ‘monster' from the opening scene is going about killing people off one at a time…
A lovably stupid movie from start to finish, Sting Of Death can't hide its rudimentary style and low budget origins, but that's half the charm of a movie like this. It's a wonderfully naïve slice of monster movie hokum, fun from start to finish, highlighted by each and every scene of the goofy monster attacks and, of course, the somewhat infamous ‘Well-A-Well-A-Do-The-Jell-A' sounds of Mr. Sedaka's golden voice.
The acting isn't good, but it's fun to watch the cast try. Nagle and Hawkins fare the best of the bunch but the real star of the movie is John Vella as Egon. It's clear from the start that he's no good, but when some of the girls start intentionally flirting with the poor guy just to mess with him, you won't if maybe he's not quite as evil as he looks. Low budget effects work is plentiful and the movie is paced pretty well, clocking in at just eighty-minutes in length, which is the right length for a movie like this.
Made the same year as the first feature, Death Curse Of Tartu takes us deep into a crypt where a beast with a weird skull face (Doug Hobart) rides from his grave and turns into some animals. Elsewhere, an archeologist named Ed Tison (Fred Pinero) leads an expedition into a massive swamp where he hopes to find a missing comrade who has recently disappeared. Along for the ride are a quartet of dumb teenagers and his put upon wife, Julie (Babette Sherrill). None of them realize, yet, that their missing pal was actually murdered by the monster in the crypt, a monster named…. Tartu!
As the story progresses, the quartet of dumb teenagers party and fool around a bit, only for one to get eaten by a shark! Soon their boat gets trashed and one of the girls gets attacked by a surprisingly very real and very angry looking alligator! Will the surviving cast of characters figure out that Tartu is behind this and figure out how to stop his evil ways, or will they all lose their lives in the middle of this Godforsaken swamp?
Not quite as loveable as the first movie, this is still a pretty entertaining little B-movie. The swamp locations give it some natural ambiance that goes a long way and while the makeup effects used on the monstrous Tartu are clearly cheap, there's a genuine weirdness to the look that they manage to create that is strange enough to work. Again, the acting is pretty lousy and our heroic lead archeologist has a tendency to come across as a bit of a jerk, but Grefé and company keep things moving quickly enough that, if this lacks from of the charm of Sting Of Death it still offers a good amount of entertainment value to the less discerning fans of B-grade monster movie schlock that this set is clearly at least partially geared towards!
Hooked Generation/The Psychedelic Priest:
Made in 1968, The Hooked Generation introduces us to a trio of low-level dope dealers: Daisey (Jeremy Slate), Acid (John Davis Chandler) and Dum-Dum (Willie Pastrano). These guys dream big, hoping to one day climb the ladder and make some real money in the narcotics business. To get a start on this, they decide to decide to take out the Cuban smugglers they've been buying from, and then go so far as to kill off the Coast Guard members that show up as the three of them are doing the deed. Unfortunately, they leave two witnesses, a guy named Mark (Steve Alaimo) and his girlfriend. Knowing that they need to do something about these two, our trio of nogoodniks beat the crap out of Mark and rape his poor girlfriend and then make it back to home turf with a pretty massive stash of various drugs only to find that word has gotten out and they don't have any buyers!
Without many other options, our three would-be gangsters hightail it back into the swamps of The Everglades to lay low for a while, unaware that the cops are much closer than any of them realized.
This movie is not amazing. It's passably entreating and a genuinely interesting counter-culture oddity of its time, but it is not going to blow you away. The Florida locations give the picture a nice, believably scuzzy ambiance but the acting is nothing to write home about and the movie, sadly, lacks tension. It's directed without a whole lot of style and it's tough to get too wrapped up in the characters because we have trouble believing them as real people, rather than poorly written imbeciles. The film gets bogged down in a few too many scenes of inane dialogue that adds nothing to the narrative and the pacing is poor throughout.
Bonus points for casting Blood Feast's William Kerwin as a cop, though.
Filmed in 1971 but not released until thirty years later, The Psychedelic Priest is… reasonably awful, actually, but like Grefé's other work it has enough weirdness to it that it'll be of interest to those with an interest in drug films and cinematic counterculture oddities.
What little story there is revolves around Father John (played by real life John, John Darrell), a kindly priest who cares about the troubled young people that hang out in his neighborhood. His attitude changes considerably when he unwittingly drinks a can of soda laced with LSD! After a few hallucinations that probably sounded more intense on paper (if there was a script) than they turned out to be on film, Father John is just plain ol' John, a scruffy looking hippy type who decides to take a road trip to find the real America. As he travels around the country, he picks up a pretty blonde gal named Sunny, after she's almost raped, and they hit it off.
As they travel together they help give birth to a baby with some help from a friendly black dude. This becomes important a few minutes later when they local law comes down on the black guy for being a black guy, leading John to stand up for him as best he can. It doesn't end well, despite John's efforts. Eventually John and Sunny split, which breaks John's heart and leaves him wandering aimlessly hoping to find her.
A low budget road movie without much of a plot, The Psychedelic Priest is an interesting movie, even if it has a seriously weak narrative. It's basically John just zipping around and having a string of more-or-less unrelated encounters with people. We're probably supposed to think that all of this is opening up the third eye of a square priest but John seemed like a pretty open minded priest to begin with, so that aspect falls a bit flat. Still, this has plenty of footage of weirdos being weird in it and it's got a pretty boss soundtrack too. The cinematography isn't fancy but it is effective enough to work.
The Naked Zoo/Mako Jaws Of Death:
The Naked Zoo, from 1970, tells the story of Terry (Steve Oliver), a writer who hasn't had a hit in a while and who seems to be consistently between projects. When he isn't writing, which seems to be most of the film, he parties pretty hard, indulging in drug and alcohol abuse and sleeping with any woman he can get his grubby little hands on. How does he pay for this if he can't get a book finished? He pimps himself out as male prostitute, catering to the endless stream of lonely, older women that seem to call his neighborhood home.
Enter Helen Golden (Rita Hayworth), a woman married to Harry (Ford Rainey) an aging man unfortunately stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. With Harry unable to satisfy her, she turns to Terry for some company. When Harry catches them in the act, he understandably reacts angrily, falling out of his chair, banging his head and dying on the spot. Terry splits the scene and hooks up with Pauline (Fay Spain), another lonely woman who Terry takes advantage of while he tries to figure out how to make sure Helen doesn't squeal to the cops.
It's kind of amazing that Rita Hayworth would appear in a picture like this, but even if it's the starlet in what are clearly her golden years, it's still definitely here and she's still got that inimitable screen presence that made her a star. The film, like all of the director's work, was made on a shoestring budget but Hayworth gives this one her all and the picture is all the better for having had her in it. Steve Oliver is also pretty decent here as well, and both Ford Rainey and Fay Spain do decent work in the film as well.
This one doesn't feature any 'monsters' (unless you count Terry as a monster, and you could), this is more of an exploitation picture with some intensely melodramatic moments. For the most part, it works. It offers up a bit of sleaze, some soundtrack contributions from none other than Canned Heat, and some solid acting. The plot isn't the most intense and those hoping for another horror picture will no doubt be left scratching their head, but this one builds quite nicely to a reasonably intense finale and offers up plenty of curiosity value in addition to being pretty entertaining.
The feature version of The Naked Zoo on this disc is Grefé's original director's cut. The bulk of this version was scanned from the original 35mm negative but that negative was recut to represent Barry Mahon's ‘spiced up' version of the film. Arrow has recreated William Grefé's original director's cut by splicing in the footage unique his version "from a badly faded and warped 35mm work print" and with "the audio was sourced from a 35mm double edged track print and a 35mm track negative." As such, there are moments where there is a noticeable drop in quality when digging into this original version of the movie, but it's far better to have it here in this version than to not. The Barry Mahon cut is included in the extra features on this disc, so we get both cuts here, which is nice.
Mako: Jaws Of Death
Back when he served his country in The 'Nam, an American soldier named Sonny Stein (Richard Jaeckel) was being chase by the Vietcong he'd been waging war with only to have his ass saved by a surprise visit with a Mako Shark! This changes his mind about sharks, and he becomes a fan of Makos in particular.
With the war in the rear view mirror, Sonny winds up in The Philippines where he gets a glamorous job in the marine salvage business. When a chance encounter with a Filipino magic man turns Sonny into the proud owner of a strange medallion, he realizes that he's now able to telepathically communicate with his favorite ocean predators. He takes this medallion back to his home in Florida he winds up trying to defend the sharks from a scientist hoping to use them for his nefarious research plans and the owner of a nudie bar who (seriously) wants to come into possession of some sharks to be used in an act as his club!
Made in 1976 in the wake of the box office success of Jaws and clearly meant to cash in on that success, Mako: Jaws Of Death is an enjoyably weird mix of action, adventure and strange supernatural elements that make for a movie that is, if not exactly good, at least weirdly interesting. Richard Jaeckel is pretty decent in the lead here and Harold ‘Odd Job' Sakata also pops up in a supporting role here, which is always a good thing.
There's some impressive shark footage in the movie that adds to the tension in a few key scenes and an interesting environmental message in the picture at a time when that wasn't as common in movies as it is today. Jaeckel aside, the rest of the cast is pretty uneven but again, Grefé paces the picture pretty well and manages to do a nice job of taking advantage of the locations afforded him. It's still very clearly a picture made without a massive budget, but despite some obvious flaws and a romantic subplot that adds nothing at all to the movie, like most of his other work, it's an entertaining enough film that's worth checking out.
Whiskey Mountain/They Came From The Swamp:
Released in 1977, Whiskey Mountain follows four friends: Bill (Christopher George), Dan (Preston Pierce), Diana (Roberta Collins) and Jamie (Linda Borgerson). They're off on a motorcycle trip into the wilds of North Caroline in search of some rifles that Diana's grandfather supposedly stashed out there during the Civil War. Before he shuffled off this mortal coil, he left her a map that shows them buried near the titular Whiskey Mountain, so armed with this knowledge, they head out to see what they find uncover.
Almost immediately upon their arrival, the local redneck population takes issue with their presence and make no bones whatsoever about trying to hide this from the new arrivals. When the four friends setup camp for the night, the rednecks burn their camping gear and the harassment continues the next day, getting increasingly violent as time goes on, resulting in two rapes. There's no one around to help them, even the local law, Rudy (John Davis Chandler), turns a blind eye to what's happening, and it turns out, making matters worse, that the locals are involved in some illegal activity that they're very much prefer be kept quiet. Who will survive and what will be left of them?
Featuring musical contributions from The Charlie Daniels Band, Whiskey Mountain was clearly intended to cash in on the success of John Boorman's Deliverance but it's pretty entertaining if never all that original. Grefé, to his credit, stages a surprisingly effective double rape scene where the audience only hears, rather than sees, what's happening, with the sound of a Polaroid camera going off adding to the tension and unease inherent in a situation like this. It's a surprisingly dark and serious moment in a movie that is otherwise a fairly standard hicksploitation thriller. Some nice slow motion action set pieces harken back to the films of Sam Peckinpah and while the movie takes its sweet time getting moving (the first third of the picture plays out like someone's vacation footage, not much really happens aside from motorcycle riding), it builds to a surprisingly effective finale that you just might not see coming.
Last but not least, They Came From The Swamp is filmmaker Daniel Griffith's 2016 documentary on Grefé's career. This two-hour opus is about as thorough as you could ask it to be, covering everything there is to cover and then some without ever feeling dull or uninteresting. Grefé may not be as well-known or prolific as fellow exploitation pioneers like H.G. Lewis, David Friedman or Doris Wishman but his filmography is no less interesting, cashing in on trends as they start to get hot while still putting his own wonky stamp on most of his work.
Interviews with William Grefé himself make up a lot of the picture's running time but we also hear from filmmakers Lewis and Friedman, Frank Henenlotter and Fred Olan Ray as well as actors like Chris Robinson, William Shatner, Joe Morrison, Gary Crutcher, John Davis Chandler and Steve Alaimo. As such, we hear plenty of stories in Grefé's own words but also get to hear from those who worked with him. The movie paints a picture of a filmmaker that was fairly ambitious and driven but who took no issue with chasing what was hot at the box office in order to make a few fast bucks. Complementing the interviews are clips from the different films being discussed as well as a fascinating wealth of archival material culled from various TV newscasts, outtakes, old photos and various other bits and pieces of Grefé-related ephemera. As such, it does a great job of covering the director's work and significance in the exploitation film arena, shedding some welcome light on the background of a man who is legitimately a bit of an unsung hero in this regard.
Production values are solid. Griffith's picture looks great, it's nicely edited and put together and it's more than just a collection of talking heads going over Grefé's life and work. It paints a big picture but also delves into the details, covering his family life, his influence and influences, his part in the filmmaking scene of Florida and the south and lots more. It's seriously interesting stuff and a great addition to this collection.
Each film in this set is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Specifics are as follows:
Sting Of Death: is framed at 1.85.1 widescreen and was transferred from the film's original 35mm negative. This feature looks excellent. The elements used were in great shape, the colors are handled really nicely and look bold, bright and appropriately brash when they should, but never oversaturated. The presentation is filmic throughout, there are no issues with any noise reduction or edge enhancement and the strong bit rate keeps compression artifacts at bay.
Death Curse Of Tartu: is also framed at 1.85.1 widescreen but was transferred from an archival 16mm print that was presumed to have been made for television broadcast. As such, this is a grittier, grainier looking image that handily surpasses the old DVD release but which won't necessarily wow you with the type of clarity you might expect from the format. Still, detail is pretty solid considering the source material. There's damage noticeable, sure, but it isn't distracting and overall the picture benefits from a nice, naturally film-like presentation with strong detail, depth and texture than it has had on previous formats.
The Hooked Generation: Presented in 1.33.1 fullframe, the picture here is gritty and grainy but quite clean in terms of actual print damage. Colors generally look quite good as do black levels, and everything looks naturally filmic, as you'd hope it would. Detail is pretty solid given the film's low budget origins and there are no digital anomalies to gripe about here. All in all, this looks quite good, and is a substantial improvement over the old DVD release.
The Psychedelic Priest: The 1.33.1 fulframe presentation is a bit rougher than the rest of the features in this collection, but given its release history that makes sense. Print damage is common throughout at varying levels of severity, colors can and do look faded and black levels are inconsistent. Still, it's watchable, and very filmic, showing no problems with compression, edge enhancement or noise reduction. Again, this looks much nicer than the other 2001 Something Weird Video DVD release of the movie.
The Naked Zoo: This one is framed at 1.85.1 widescreen and looks quite good. It's appropriately grainy, adding to the film's seedy atmosphere, but presented in very nice shape without much in the way of actual print damage, just some specks here and there. Colors look nice and detail is quite strong throughout, there's good depth and texture as well. This was scanned from the original 35mm negative and looks very strong.
Make Jaws Of Death: Also framed at 1.85.1 widescreen, this picture also benefits from a strong video presentation when compared to past home video releases but there are limitations that you have to keep in mind here. There's a little bit of color fading in a couple of spots but for the most part the colors generally look really nice, especially the many scenes shot outdoors in the daylight. This was taken from two 16mm prints so it isn't quite as clean looking as some of the other pictures in the set but overall, it's fine.
Whiskey Mountain: is framed at 2.35.1 and is taken from a print that is a bit worse for wear. Print damage is pretty common throughout and the image is soft in the way that transfers taken from prints often times can be. It's perfectly watchable if you don't expect perfection. Some color fading is noticeable and blacks don't always look as deep as you might want but this is a case of making do with what there is to work with and hey, at least this always looks nice and filmic.
They Came From The Swamp: was shot digitally and so it looks pristine. Framed at 1.78.1, understandably some of the archival material used in the documentary looks less than perfect but the newly created material is clean, colorful and nicely detailed.
The seven vintage films in this collection each get an LPCM Mono track, in English, with optional subtitles provided in English only. Most of the films sounds nice and clean, but The Psychadelic Priest and Whiskey Mountain sound less impressive than the other movies, which has everything to do with the elements that were available. Expect some hiss and some pops throughout. Otherwise, the rest of the movies in the set sound pretty solid, with clean, clear dialogue and properly balanced levels. They Came From The Swamp gets an English language LPCM 2.0 Stereo track, also in English with optional English subtitles. As you'd expect for a recent, digitally made feature, it sounds perfectly clean and very strong.
Extras are spread across the four discs as follows:
Sting Of Death/Death Curse Of Tartu:
In addition to brand new introductions to each of the two films on this disc by director William Grefé, we also get archival audio commentaries for both films with William Grefé and filmmaker Frank Henenlotter that are quite interesting to listen to. Henenlotter keeps Grefé engaged, talking about the origins of the film, pointing out details about the different cast members that appear, talking up some of the tricks of the low budget trade, sharing details on filming locations, covering the release history of the two movies on the disc and loads more.
Beyond The Movie Monsters a-Go Go! is a twelve-minute piece that explores the history of rock 'n' roll monster movies with author/historian C. Courtney Joyner. He covers Grefé's work here but also discusses other classics like The Horror Of Party Beach, how the genre owes a debt to the Universal Creature From The Black Lagoon movies, the rise and fall of the trend and lots more. The Curious Case Of Dr. Traboh: Spook Show Extraordinaire is a fascinating piece that looks into the early spook show days with ‘monster maker' Doug Hobart. Here, over the span of eleven-minutes, he covers the origins of the spookshow phenomena, what made it so much fun for those who were able to experience it first hand, some of the tricks and gimmicks that promotors used to make a profit, movies that proved popular at these showing and more. This would be worth watching just for the old art and advertising materials alone but the content itself is also very strong.
Rounding out the extras on this first disc are trailers for both features, menus and chapter selection.
Hooked Generation/The Psychedelic Priest:
Archival audio commentaries are supplied for both films with director William Grefé and filmmaker Frank Henenlotter. In the track for The Hooked Generation we learn about the cast that he worked with on the movie, using dynamite caps in the movie instead of squibs and the problems that arose with that, what was shot in a studio versus on location, why he puts a dance sequence in everything, the rushed shooting schedule, shooting in Florida and more. In the track for The Psychedelic Priest Grefé speaks about basically making this one up as he went along, shooting without much of an actual script, the score, what he was going for with the movie, it's odd release history, the use of music in the picture, using whoever he came across to act in the film and more. It's a pretty interesting track that sheds a lot of very welcome light on this obscurity.
This disc also includes the eight-minutes Beyond The Movie: That's Drugsploitation! featurette and the eight-minute Beyond The Movie: The Ultimate Road Trip featurette, both featuring Chris Poggiali speaking about what makes these movies interesting, how they compare to other drug and road movies, how Grefé wound up making these movies, details on the production history and more.
Also found on this disc is twenty-three-minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from Hooked Generation that shows off an assortment of random stuff happening on set, everything from makeup to catering to weapons prep. Rounding out the extras is a trailer for The Hooked Generation, a still and promotion gallery for The Hooked Generation, menus and chapter selection.
The Naked Zoo/Make Jaws Of Death:
Grefé once again provides audio commentary tracks for each film on this disc. The first track covers how the film was edited by its producer, working with Hayworth and how she wound up in the movie, casting the picture, the script, the locations and more. The commentary for Mako covers the use of sharks in the movie, the different locations used for the film, working with Jaeckel, where some of the ideas for the movie came from, the supporting cast and lots more. Both of these are interesting and informative talks that do a nice job of detailing the history of these two pictures.
There are also a few featurettes here starting with Beyond The Movie: That's Sharksploitation!, which is a seven-minute piece with Mike Gingold that covers the history of shark movies, how the success of Jaws led to an onslaught of movies wanting to capture its success and some of the highs and lows in the genre. The Aquamaid Speaks! is a ten-minute audio interview with actress Jennifer Bishop about her work on Mako where she talks about how she got into the business, what it was like on set, working with Grefé and her thoughts on the film overall. Plenty of nice archival photographs of her career used here to give it some visual flair. Sharks, Stalkes, And Sasquatch! is an audio interview with writer Robert Morgan that lasts for ten-minutes and covers his career origins, writing Mako, working with Grefé and more.
We also get and original Mako: Jaws of Death trailer and ten-minute promo spot, a thirty-second CBS promo, a two-minute behind the scenes segment taken from an archival newscast and a fifteen-minute Super 8 version of the movie. The disc also holds a still and promotion gallery for each film, intros to each film from the director, menus and chapter selection.
Whiskey Mountain/They Came From The Swamp:
Grefé provides a commentary over Whiskey Mountain that is as interesting as his other tracks. Here he speaks about where he got the idea for the movie from, working with the different cast members, the locations, who he used to play the different rednecks, the rape scene in the film, its distribution history and lots more. Interesting stuff.
As far as the featurettes go, we get The Crown Jewels which is an eighteen-minute documentary that goes over the history of distributor Crown International Pictures, the company that handled some of Grefé's films and plenty of other exploitation classics. Grefé is interviewed in here as well as Chris Poggiali and Gary Crutcher. We learn here how Newton 'Red' Jacobs, got his start, formed Crown and went on to fairly massive success with genre fair at theaters and drive-ins across the country. Lots of great archival material and clips are used throughout to keep this visually interesting as well as historically interesting.
The disc also contains a short film entitled Bacardi And Coke Bonanza '81, a seven-minute look at what does on at the Davie Rodeo Arena. It is what it sounds like, cowboys roping cattle, riding bulls and broncos and doing what they do. Half way through it turns into an advertisement for Bacardi and Coke, which is amusing and strange. It's a glorified ad rather than a traditional short, but it's got some retro charm to it. On Location: Grefé In Miami is is a five-minute archival featurette where Grefé shows off some of the more interesting locations that were used in his movies, with some clips from those movies used to show what things looked like then versus when this was shot.
Finishing up the extras are trailer and a promo gallery for Whiskey Mountain, four deleted scenes from They Came From The Swamp, a bonus trailer gallery of other Florida-related exploitation pictures (The Weird World Of LSD, Fireball Jungle, The King Of The Jungle, The Magic Legend Of The Juggler, Bloody Friday and Super Chick, menus and chapter selection options.
Included in the set alongside the four discs is a hardcover fifty-five-page insert book that contains a selection of never-before-published interview with William Grefé and a new foreword by the man himself as well as credits for the features, credits for the Blu-ray boxed set and technical notes on the presentation of each film. Each disc fits in its own clear, slim case and contains some neat reversible cover art for each release done by the Twins Of Evil. Those same Twins also provided a reversible poster featuring newly commissioned. All of this fits nicely inside a sturdy cardboard case, it's quite a handsome package all together.
He Came From The Swamp: The William Grefé Collection is an excellent release from Arrow Video. This with an affinity for regional filmmaking and low budget genre fair will have no problem looking past some of the limitations of this set and be able to appreciate the less than perfect presentations as the substantial upgrades that they are. They movies may have been made fast and cheap but they never skimp on entertainment value, with even the lesser entries offering something to keep you engaged and interested throughout. The set is loaded with extras documenting Grefé's fascinating career and the feature length documentary and deluxe packaging are a pair of fantastic cherries on top of a sinfully delicious cinematic sundae! Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.