Review Date: March 8, 2006
Released by: Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment
Release date: 2/10/2001
Region 0, NTSC
The plot of Death Curse of Tartu
is introduced by Sam Gunter (Frank Weed
), a grizzled, obnoxious white guy who lands via canoe on the banks of a clearing in a remote corner of the Everglades. Though he is intent upon making camp, his Seminole Indian guide Billy (Bill Marcus
) refuses to stay there, saying the area is cursed. Gunter scoffs at him and writes the idea off as superstition, and in the end he is forced to set his campsite up by himself. Unfortunately for him, all the effort goes to waste because he doesn’t survive very long. A giant boa constrictor drops out of a tree onto him and squeezes him to death in a most unpleasant-looking way.
Gunter was working with one Ed Tison (Fred Pinero
), a professor of archeology who was planning on doing some work in the Everglades with a group of his students. Amongst the youngsters planning on going are Tommy (Gary Holtz
), Cindy (Mayra Cristine
), Johnny (Sherman Hayes
), Joann (Maurice Stewart
) and Ed’s wife Julie (Babette Sherrill
). Gunter was supposed to go ahead of them by a day and set up their campsite. Having no clue as to what happened to him, the group shows up at Billy’s outpost on the edge of the swamps. Billy gives them the same warning he gave Gunter, telling him the story of Tartu, an Indian witch doctor who swore he would seek revenge on anyone who defiled his burial ground by taking the shape of animals. Ed doesn’t believe the story any more than Gunter did, so Billy just gives them several air boats and sends them on their way. They arrive at their destination to find Gunter gone without a trace. Ed assures them that he probably just went hunting, and they all settle into their tents.
That night, as Ed and Julie romance, the other youngsters dance to the radio and fool around. While during a bout of horseplay Tommy and Joann are tossed off a bank into a pond and begin swimming around. But the fun doesn’t last long, and Cindy and Johnny are horrified when they see a dorsal fin heading towards them. They scream for help as they are attacked and pulled underwater by a shark. Hearing their screams, Ed and Julie arrive too late to offer any help. When Johnny asks how it is possible for a shark to be in fresh water, Ed replies that it isn’t possible. The phenomenon, combined with the constant beating of drums and chanting that they keep hearing in the background, is enough to convince them that something supernatural really is happening. Tartu is back, and boy is he pissed off!
Sting of Death
opens with a sunbathing beauty meeting her death when she is pulled off the dock she is lounging on. She is dragged underwater by a strange creature that is only partially glimpsed. We quickly learn that the girl was a research assistant to marine biologist Dr. Richardson (Jack Nagle
), who operates a laboratory on an isolated private island off the coast of Florida. Also assisting him in his research is the young and handsome Dr. John Hoyt (Joe Morrison
) and the deformed and somewhat sinister Egon (John Vella
). Though Egon is an excellent worker, the two scientists regard him as something of a crackpot due to the fact that he has some very bizarre theories about breeding large man-of-war jellyfish. When the local sheriff brings the scientists the body of a fisherman found in the nearby swamps – it seems that a number of fishermen have disappeared recently – Egon insists that the stings and welts on the corpse are that of a giant jellyfish, and although the doctors agree that it looks like jellyfish stings there couldn’t possibly be a man-of-war big enough to kill a man like that.
Dr. Richardson’s daughter Karen (Valerie Hawkins
) is returning home from her university for summer break, and she has brought several of her girlfriends with her to stay for a few weeks. As a surprise, the two scientists throw them a party by inviting their students from the local university. A boat arrives carrying the group, who turn out to be obnoxious party animals. Seeing that Egon is deformed, they surround him and make fun of him in a most cruel way, causing him to jump in an airboat and drive off into the nearby swamps. Karen, who has always had a fondness for Egon, is horrified by their behavior and she and Dr. Hoyt scold them. But soon enough the incident is forgotten and the group gets back to the party. One girl decides to jump in the swimming pool and is promptly attacked by the same creature seen at the beginning, which had been hiding at the bottom of the pool. She is gravely wounded and another boy is also severely hurt when the monster flees the scene.
The partiers are ordered to get back in their boat and take the injured man to the hospital on the mainland, and to send the sheriff back out to the island (for some reason the injured girl is left at the house). They embark, but never get to their destination, as the creature sabotages their boat and it sinks, and they are all killed by huge man-of-war jellyfish that are swarming through the water. Not realizing their fate, the rest of the folks on the island await help from the mainland. But, one by one, they start to be stalked and killed by the monster, all the while Egon remains missing. It seems that the misunderstood man is a much better scientist than anyone realized, and his experiments with jellyfish have become dangerously advanced...
Death Curse of Tartu
and Sting of Death
were both directed by William Grefé, a Florida-based independent filmmaker who had a moderately successful career directing exploitation films for the drive-ins. But that’s not the only thing they have in common. Both films had extensive location shooting in the Florida Everglades. Both films feature monsters designed and played by Doug Hobart, a self-styled make-up artist who gets kudos for creativity. And, of course, both films are also cheap, silly and outlandish.
It’s hard to evaluate exactly which of the two films is the best, as each has different positive and negative qualities. Out of the two, Death Curse of Tartu
is the most atmospheric and moody. Grefé gets a few bonus points for his willingness to drag his cast and crew miles out of the way into a wetlands hellhole. As difficult a task as shooting in the Everglades must have been – and this film features substantially more location shooting than Sting of Death
– it was worthwhile. There’s just no substitute for a real live swamp. There is an eerie ambience to the whole movie, a feeling of dread and isolation. It really does feel like these characters are miles and miles from anyplace. The use of real animals, either through stock shots or original footage made for the film, often lends a strong element of believability to the story, even if some of the special effects (like the plastic shark fin chasing the actors or the close-up of the cottonmouth snake that kills one of the characters) are not well executed. The “nature has decided to kill us” aspect is probably a better use of screen time than if Grefé had simply decided to have the mummified Tartu running around strangling people. It’s a level of believability that is lacking from its companion film. And, before, I leave the subject of believability, I should also add that sharks living in fresh water is not as far fetched as some might believe. The bull shark, a vicious man-eater that is second only to the great white and tiger sharks in terms of fatal human attacks, is not only able to thrive in fresh water but has been known to swim thousands of kilometers up rivers such as the Ganges, the Amazon and the Mississippi.
The problem with Death Curse of Tartu
is that it is so laboriously slow. The beginning scenes leading up to Gunter’s death seem to last forever, and it’s because they do. Ed Tison and his students are not introduced until about nineteen minutes into the film, and since the picture runs a scant eighty-four minutes, the movie is therefore almost a quarter over by the time we even meet our main characters. Add to that all the time spent hearing warnings from Billy about Tartu, then the amount of time showing them traveling out into the Everglades, then all the goofing around before the shark attack and…well…you’ve started to lose most of the interest you had in the movie. It would be one thing if the build-up was handled better, but it isn’t.
Still though, one must keep in mind that Death Curse of Tartu
was an extremely rushed production. It was written in the space of about twenty-four hours (having myself written a feature length screenplay in under forty-eight hours, I can attest what an exhausting task that actually is) and went into production ten days later. Under those conditions, trying to ask anybody to create a quality product was probably pointless. Grefé was out in a swamp shooting with other people’s money on an impossibly tight schedule. That he was able to scrap together enough footage for a movie is impressive. That it is actually somewhat watchable is even more so.
Sting of Death
is an entirely different case. It is better paced and looks far less rushed. However, it is also far sillier and less believable. Unlike its companion feature, it puts far more of an emphasis on dramatic scenes, romantic exchanges and other lengthy passages of dialogue. This is usually the type of material that inexperienced actors have the biggest problems with, and here giving it to them was a mistake. The acting is pretty bad. Not the worst I’ve ever seen, granted, but still, not very flattering. The characters that they play are usually flat and stereotypical. The only one who is interesting at all is Egon, and even he is given an inadequate level of development. There’s just no way for an audience member to make any sort of connection with any of the characters or the performers that play them. It also doesn’t help that even the hero comes across as a jerk who lectures Egon about how little he knows about science.
The movie is most enjoyable when viewed simply as a foolish and cheap horror movie. Jellyfish, with their beautiful coloring, amorphous form and sinister, long stingers, might make an effective menace in the right circumstances. But not here. Not one bit. The scene in which the boat sinks and the partiers are killed by hordes of jellyfish is hysterically funny, as the actors scream and try to swim away from what are obviously floating plastic bags. The monster itself is even funnier. The idea of a jellyfish man is so ludicrous that it’s hard to believe someone actually invested money in the idea, and it would have been ridiculous even had the monster costume involved been better. The costume, which consists of flippers, a wet suit, some mangy hanging stingers and a colored plastic bag over the actor’s head, looks like a kid’s Halloween costume. The 50’s and 60’s saw a good many monsters which were ludicrous either in design or execution, and in this case the monster is both.
Death Curse of Tartu
and Sting of Death
are of a special breed of horror movie. Their appeal to modern horror fans is probably quite limited due to their lack of gore, zombies or perverted serial killers. They are often crudely made and do not betray much talent on the part of Grefé or his collaborators. But for those who enjoy watching old-school monster movies they are enjoyable in their own ridiculous little way.
Both films are presented in their original full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Death Curse of Tartu
is clearly the inferior of the two, for a number of reasons. If this was the best that Something Weird could do then it was the best they could do, but it doesn’t look so hot. The image has a generally soft appearance, and although it is by and large free of substantial print damage, there are several isolated spots which have a considerable number of specks, scratches and blemishes. Reds and dark blues are oversaturated, yet all the other colors have a faded look to them. Flesh tones have an abnormally reddish appearance. The compression is also lacking. Artifacts pop up during scenes of camera movement, or around the periphery of moving objects like branches blowing in the wind. Sometimes flat surfaces like people’s clothes will also become pixilated.
Sting of Death
, on the other hand, looks terrific. Nobody who reviews this release can seem to stop marveling at how great the transfer is, something that is all the more amazing when one considers the circumstances it was found under. Only a limited number of prints were ever struck, and when Something Weird unearthed the negative for this release it was discovered that the entire thing was covered with mold. After going through four separate labs they finally located a facility that was able to remove the mold and do a new transfer, resulting in the maginificent image quality seen here.
Other than flesh tones (which sometimes take on a purplish tinge) the colors are absolutely beautiful and the image practically sparkles. The level of detail and clarity is well above average and there is little in the way of significant print damage, though specks, scratches and blemishes still pop up on a regular basis. However, there are still some problems with some shots appearing overly dark and some minor artifacting visible.
Both films are presented in their original Dolby 2.0 Mono soundtracks. Death Curse of Tartu
sounds rather muffled and flat. The volume is recorded awfully low, and there’s lots of popping and crackling on the soundtrack. The good news is that the dialogue is still clear and intelligible.
Sting of Death
suffers from similar issues. Everything has a flat sound and there’s intermittent background noise audible. Still though, like its companion feature it’s at least always possible to understand the dialogue.
The most important extra here is the set of audio commentaries featuring William Grefé and cult director Frank Henenlotter, who serves as a moderator. Running the entire length of each movie, the two directors effectively balance the discussion between the films themselves and talking about the rest Grefé’s varied filmmaking career, of which we get a good overview (in particular the two have a fascinating chat about Impulse
, a 1974 Grefé production starring William Shatner as a psycho killer). The commentaries are both humorous and informative, and aspiring low budget directors just might find some useful wisdom contained in them. Unfortunately, the audio quality of the recordings is not great. Everything sounds muffled and you’ll have to turn the volume on your TV up before you can understand what these guys are talking about.
The next features are two short subjects. The first is a thirty-minute condensed version of a 1964 film entitled Love Goddesses of Blood Island
, which was produced by the same man who produced Sting of Death
, Richard S. Flink. It tells the story of an aviator (Bill Rogers
) who gets washed up on a stereotypical island ruled by women. It starts out as a typical adventure/exploitation story, but by the end takes a surprising twist into H.G. Lewis-style bloody mayhem. Needless to say the full version of this demands
a DVD release, and it is a hell of a lot more fun than the second short on this release, called Miami Or Bust
. Looking to have been shot sometime in the 1960’s, it starts out as a typically scenic (and boring) travelogue, but then deteriorates into adult film territory when a flabby and unattractive middle-aged woman strips nude and begins dancing around. Clocking in at twelve minutes, this revolting display runs, to put it politely, unnecessarily long and is not something I want to watch again. Ever.
The release is rounded out with trailers for both films, as well as trailers for The Wild Rebels
, The Jaws of Death
and Racing Fever
, all of which were also William Grefé productions (I’ve seen the latter two of those four and trust me, you’re not missing much).
Sting of Death
and Death Curse of Tartu
are both movies that will appeal to a limited group of viewers within the fan community, but within that group they may find admirers like me who can enjoy schlock of this nature. Sting of Death
should be of particular interest to fans; while its companion feature has been viewable on video and TV for decades, this DVD release marks the first time it’s been available to the public at large since its initial release. The startlingly good quality of the transfer is another plus, and serves as a counterweight to the disappointing presentation of the other film. With the excellent set of audio commentaries added this release gets a hearty recommendation for all fans who appreciate low-budget monster movies.
Death Curse of Tartu
Movie – C+
Image Quality – C-
Sound – C
Sting of Death
Movie – C
Image Quality – B+
Sound – C
Supplements – B+
- Running Time – Death Curse of Tartu - 1 hour 24 minutes
- Running Time – Sting of Death – 1 hour 20 minutes
- Not rated
- 1 Disc
- English 2.0 Mono
- Commentary tracks with William Grefé and Frank Henenlotter
- Condensed version of Richard S. Flink’s Love Goddesses of Blood Island
- Miami Or Bust short feature
- William Grefé theatrical trailers