Welcome to the weird world of low-budget Florida-based filmmaker William Grefe, whose Everglades-lensed movies are always interesting. Not necessarily good mind you, but interesting. Still, the man did the best he could with what little resources he had. One of his most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) films is the 1966 shocker DEATH CURSE OF TARTU.
DEATH CURSE OF TARTU concerns a husband-and-wife team of archeologists and their students searching for a missing colleague. The teens want to “go down to the lake and roast marshmallows” (and engage in some energetic frugging and heavy necking!), when they stumble on the crypt of Tartu, an ancient Indian “witch doctor”, and his curse. Soon, teens begin to drop like swamp flies as shape-shifting Tartu turns into a snake, shark and alligator, until the lead archeologist translates the ancient tablet, and discovers the only way to break the curse is by destroying Tartu’s remains…
I can see how DEATH CURSE OF TARTU has had an influence on all those slasher flicks to come, with the teens getting picked off one by one in some fairly gruesome (for the time) ways. My favorite is the swamp-shark attack, and even though, as one teen puts it, “Sharks don’t live in fresh water”, it’s a neat little set-piece. The 400-year-old “witch doctor” himself isn’t very scary in the flesh, but when he turns into a swamp creature, look out! The film was initially released as a double feature with another Grefe epic, STING OF DEATH, involving a mutated jellyfish and allegedly cowritten by another maverick filmmaker, Herschell Gordon Lewis!
Grefe’s filmography includes the biker flick THE WILD REBELS, the druggie drama THE HOOKED GENERATION (with biker/western vet Jeremy Slate), the sleazy THE NAKED ZOO (starring of all people Rita Hayworth alongside the rock band Canned Heat!), the WILLARD-with snakes shocker STANLEY, the psycho-killer classic IMPULSE (with William Shatner as a leisure-suited murderer!), and the aptly-titled JAWS rip-off MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH. He also did the underwater shark scenes for the James Bond adventure LIVE AND LET DIE, which is probably his greatest contribution to cinema.
DEATH CURSE OF TARTU isn’t all that coherent, and I was annoyed by a few things in the film, like the constant drumbeats-and-chanting coming from nowhere, and the constant screaming of annoying teen Cindy (though I did love it when Annoying Cindy was mercifully chomped to death by that gator!). But as a proto-slasher movie, it deserves a small amount of credit, as does William Grefe himself, a man with a dream to make his movies his way, without the benefit of a large budget (or any budget, for that matter!). In that respect, Mr. Grefe was a success.