Friday, 15 December 2017

Sting of Death (1965)

Sting of Death, released in 1965, was the first horror movie made by low-budget Florida film-maker William Grefé (although he’d made a couple of race car movies prior to that). It was shot on location in the Everglades and like his next film, Death Curse of Tartu, it makes great use of the setting.

Dr Richardson (Jack Nagle) is a marine biologist. He has his own laboratory and a pretty fancy house complete with pool. His chief assistant is the young Dr John Hoyt (Joe Morrison) but he also gets help from his daughter Karen (Valerie Hawkins) and the slightly scary Egon (John Vella). Egon has a fairly severe facial disfigurement which we surmise was the result of an encounter with some very unfriendly marine creature. Egon has a bit of an obsession with the Portuguese man-of-war so that may have the creature responsible. Egon is hyper-sensitive about his appearance.

Egon also clearly has a bit of a crush on Karen. Possibly more than just a crush.

Grefé certainly understood pacing. He opens the movie with a major scare, with a beautiful young woman attacked by an aquatic monster. Then he slows things down and for the next half-hour it seems like we’re watching a beach party movie. It’s all girls, dancing, pop music and lightheartedness but Grefé makes sure we don’t entirely forget that there’s some mysterious and terrifying danger out there. Then he kicks the horror into high gear with a couple of impressive (considering the small budget) terror set-pieces.

The beach party elements come from the fact that Dr Hoyt has thrown a party for Karen and her friends who are spending their spring vacation at Dr Richardson’s place. Dr Hoyt has invited a bunch of kids from a nearby college. Hence the dancing and the pop music (supplied by Neil Sedaka who was a pretty big pop star at the time). It’s also a chance to have lots of scantily-clad babes dancing. There’s virtually no nudity in this film (apart from a brief shower scene) but there’s no shortage of eye candy. And it’s amazing how often the camera seems to zero in on the posteriors of the young ladies.

The sudden switch to outright horror is handled effectively and then the tension gets ratcheted up. We get a classic horror movie scenario. There’s a terrifying monster out there. We have a bunch of people isolated in a house and they’re out of contact with the outside world because the radio has, mysteriously, been smashed. There are only two men, they are armed only with revolvers, and they have a houseful of frightened teenage girls to protect. Worst of all, they can only guess at the nature of the menace they’re facing.

In fact the alert viewer might already have his suspicions as to the nature of the threat. The average sea-monster is unlikely to have the foresight to put the radio out of action before striking. Actually I suspect that Grefé intends us to guess the nature of the mystery right from the start and it actually makes things scarier.

Some facts just have to be faced squarely. The acting is awful. Absolutely awful. It doesn’t really matter since this can hardly be described as a character-driven movie and the characters are in any case pretty much stereotypes - the slightly eccentric older scientist, the hunky and brave young scientist, the beautiful and virtuous daughter, etc.

It has to be said that most of the young people in this movie are pretty unpleasant. They’re shallow and they’re thoughtlessly cruel. The one exception is Karen. She’s the nice girl. Not quite as pretty as some of the other girls but pretty enough and she has a sense of responsibility and an awareness of, and a dislike for, cruelty. The irony is that her caring ends up being more cruel than outright cruelty.

Grefé also includes some decent underwater sequences which is fairly ambitious for a zero-budget movie. The monster effects are mostly good although the head is a bit of a worry.

The formula established in this movie worked well so Grefé pretty much stuck to it for Death Curse of Tartu as well.

There are some definite hints of Beauty and the Beast here.

Something Weird paired this one with Grefé’s 1966 Death Curse of Tartu (also an entertaining flick) and of course they included plenty of extras including audio commentaries for both movies, the commentaries being done by Grefé himself. He’s a very amusing guy and these are well worth the listen. Somehow Something Weird managed to locate the original negative of Sting of Death and the transfer is superb. The colours are vivid and the image quality is absolutely top-notch.

Sting of Death is lots of low-budget horror fun. This is a great double-feature release. Highly recommended.

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