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.
In 1946, the town of Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, was rocked by a series of brutal attacks on its citizens from February to May that left five people dead and three seriously wounded. The psycho, who wore what seemed to be a white pillowcase with eyeholes cut in it, caused quite a panic among the townsfolk, and the local and national press had a field day sensationalizing the gruesome events. The case was dubbed “The Texas Moonlight Murders”, and the mysterious maniac “The Phantom Killer”. Famed Texas Ranger M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullus was brought in to lead the investigation and rounded up a few suspects, but no one was ever formally charged with the grisly crimes. To this day, the case has never officially been solved.
Forty years later, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce produced, directed, and costarred in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, a film based on those infamous past events. Pierce had grown up a movie-mad kid, and had a variety of show biz related jobs, including TV weatherman, running his own ad agency, and set decorator for films like WACO and PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW . In 1972, he borrowed $100,000, grabbed a 35mm camera, hired a bunch of locals, and made his own film, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a horror tale about the fictitious Foulke Monster who lived in the swamps of Arkansas. Released by South Carolina-based Howco International, the low-budget regional thriller raked in almost five million bucks at the box office, mainly in drive-ins and on the Southern circuit. Pierce’s next solo effort, the action comedy BOOTLEGGERS (starring a pre-CHARLIE’S ANGELS Jaclyn Smith), also did well, but a pair of Westerns (WINTERHAWK, THE WINDS OF AUTUMN) didn’t, so the Arkansas auteur returned to horror with this creepy little gem.
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN isn’t perfect – there’s a lot of padding involving an inept cop named Benson intended for comic relief. In fact, Pierce himself plays the dumb cracker, and director Pierce should’ve told actor Pierce to cut the crap and get out of the story’s way! That story, written by Earl E. Smith (who also has a role, as a shrink brought in to consult on the case), is one of those “the incredible story you are about to see is true… only the names have been changed” types, as intoned in Vern Stierman’s narration. Our Phantom Killer debuted two years before Michael Myers, four years before Jason, and eight before Freddie, making him one of the first (if not the first) of the silent slashers (well, silent except for the chatty, pun loving Freddie).
The opening scene is pretty damn frightening, with our hooded killer emerging from the woods and attacking a young couple parked out on Lover’s Lane. On a rain-soaked night three weeks later, Deputy Norman Ramsey hears shots fired out on a lonely back road, and discovers two dead bodies. The town is now up in arms, literally, as area gun shops quickly sell out. Texas Ranger Capt. J.D. Morales (like I said, “the names have been changed”) vows, “I plan on catching him… or killing him”. But in another three weeks, the killer strikes again, this time a pair of teens out late after the prom, and he ties the girl to a tree and murders her in an skillfully directed and edited scene involving a trombone! The final attack finds The Phantom shooting a man down as he sits in his easy chair, then stalking the man’s wife (effectively played by GILLIGAN’S ISLAND star Dawn Wells) with a pickaxe, as she barely escapes with her life.
Besides the former castaway Mary Ann, the cast features Oscar winner Ben Johnson as the Texas Ranger Morales. I don’t know if it’s just Johnson’s laconic style or he’s walking through the part, but he doesn’t seem very interested to me. Better is Andrew Prine as Deputy Ramsey, who acts like he’s actually invested in his role. Stuntman Bud Davis plays The Phantom Killer, and he’s quite menacing with his size and heavy breathing underneath that pillowcase mask. The rest of the cast is populated by locals and non-actors; the victims give it their all in the wide-eyed screaming department under Pierce’s direction.
Charles B. Pierce directed a few more films (including a BOGGY CREEK sequel that later got the MST3K treatment), but none of them matched the success of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. The movie began the onslaught of psycho-killer films to come, and slasher fans can be grateful for that. It’s certainly not the greatest film ever made, but Pierce, like other regional auteurs working outside the studio system, did the best he could with what he had. Like Herschell Gordon Lewis and George Romero before him, Pierce helped usher in an entire new horror genre, one that’s still going strong today.
While flipping through the channels late one Saturday night, I came across a title called THE PROWLER. It was not a remake of the 1951 film noirdirected by Joseph Losey and starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, but a slasher shocker with a couple of noir icons in the cast, namely Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. Intrigued by this, I decided what the hell, let’s give it a watch! And though Tierney and Granger are in it, their screen time is limited, and I discovered the real star of this film is makeup/special effects wizard Tom Savini.
The plot is your basic “psycho-killer on the loose terrorizing coeds” retread, but the backstory was enough to hook me. We begin with newsreel footage of the troops returning home from WWII in 1945, and a graduation dance at a California college. Pretty young Rosemary Chapman, who wrote her soldier boy a Dear John letter, is with her new beau out in a secluded area, when suddenly a masked, pitchfork-wielding soldier sneaks up and brutally murders them both, leaving one red rose in Rosemary’s hand. (Side note: the MC at the dance is played by Carleton Carpenter, who had a brief career as an MGM star in the early fifties, and scored a #1 hit record dueting with Debbie Reynolds on “Aba Daba Honeymoon”). Flash forward to 1980, and the college coeds are about to stage their first graduation dance in thirty-five years. Senior Pam McDonald is dating Deputy Sheriff Mark London, who’s put in charge of things while his boss Sheriff Frazer (Granger) leaves for a fishing trip. Old Major Chapman (Tierney), who likes to watch the coeds undress from his home across from the dorm, disapproves of staging another dance at the scene of his daughter’s death. Oh, and there’s a robber/killer in the neighborhood, and enough suspicious characters in town to fill a police lineup, like simple-minded delivery man-boy Otto!
After some exposition introducing us to the future victims (intercut with our masked killer preparing for carnage), we get down to the gore! A young lad gets ready to join his ladylove in the shower, when suddenly The Prowler attacks, stabbing him through the head with his bayonet, then impaling said showering girl under the running water with his pitchfork, leading to a fairly neat transition scene of coeds cutting cake at the big dance (complete with a generically lame 80’s rock band). Pam and Mark have a tiff, and when he accidentally spills punch on her dress (spiked, of course!), she heads back to the dorm to change. Big mistake, Pam, for the killer is still in the house, and though she manages to escape, he stalks her, when suddenly she’s grabbed by the wheelchair-bound Major. Breaking free of the geezer’s clutches, she runs headlong into Mark, uttering the obvious words, “Someone was chasing me”. No shit, Pam!
Our heroes decide to investigate the Major’s house, and though he’s nowhere in sight, we get more exposition about the 1945 psycho-soldier who was never found, including a red rose pressed in a photo album. The next victim is attacked in a pool, her throat slashed by that bayonet, followed quickly by a slaughtered chaperone who gets it through the neck. While a couple of horny kids (one of whom is Thom Bray, soon to gain fame as nerdy Boz on TV’s RIPTIDE) sneak down to the basement for some private canoodling, Pam and Mark do some more investigating at the local cemetery, discovering Rosemary’s grave unearthed and the pool victim’s body in place of the deceased. Returning to the Major’s house, the lights are cut off and Mark is knocked unconscious. The lights go back on, and Pam finds Rosemary’s decaying body stuffed up the chimney, then she’s once again stalked by the masked psycho-soldier through the house. Hightailing it up to Rosemary’s old, sheet-covered room, our girl hides in the first place any self-respecting killer would look, under the bed! But apparently, the psycho-soldier (or the screenwriters) hadn’t seen enough of these films, because he trashes the room looking everywhere EXCEPT UNDER THE BED!
Pam bolts to another room, and somehow manages to trap the killer’s pitchfork in the door, snapping the tines off (what, now she’s Wonder Woman?). He bursts through the door and is about to claim another victim when suddenly (things happen suddenly in these films, have you noticed?) he’s blown away by… simple-minded Otto (and what’s he doing there, anyway?). But it’s not that easy to kill a psycho-killer in this kind of movie, and after wasting Otto, The Prowler tussles with Pam, unmasking as (SPOILER ALERT) Sheriff Frazer! Pam reaches for the gun and Blows His Head Clean Off in a gruesome special effect by Savini that scared the beejezus out of me (well after all, it was late at night!). There’s one final scene involving Pam that’s fairly startling and we’re done.
You can throw logic out the window while watching THE PROWLER, as it’s full of unanswered questions: Why is Sheriff Frazer on a killing spree? Was he the original soldier that killed Rosemary? What happened to Major Chapman? Did he just vanish into thin air? Why didn’t the killer waste Mark instead of knocking him out? Why didn’t he look under the damn bed? Where the hell did Otto come from? And what of those two horny teens in the basement? Did they get killed, or did the nerdy Thom Bray finally get lucky? Director Joseph Zito and screenwriters Neal Barbera (son of TV cartoon king Joe Barbera) and Glenn Leopold (who wrote for Hanna-Barbera) leave a lot of strings hanging, and though it’s slow-moving in places, especially during those exposition scenes, the film still manages to generate some suspense and plenty of frights courtesy of the great Tom Savini. Zito would go on to direct some big hits for Chuck Norris (MISSING IN ACTION, INVASION USA), the Dolph Lundgren starrer RED SCORPION, and Jason Voorhees himself in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (which as we all know wasn’t the final chapter after all).
Besides the all-too-brief appearances by Granger (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT , Hitchcock’s ROPE and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN), Tierney (who doesn’t even rate a speaking part; he just sits in his wheelchair looking menacing) and those previously mentioned, the cast is for the most part unknown. Vicky Dawson (Pam) came from the world of Soap Operas, and once costarred in the short-lived Saturday morning series HOT HERO SANDWICH, which was evidentially geared toward pre-teens discovering the wonderful world of puberty! Christopher Goutman (Mark) also came from the soaps, as both an actor and later a director. The rest of the players aren’t anybody I’ve (or probably you, unless you’re one of them or their relative) ever heard of, but that’s okay. Slasher films like THE PROWLER weren’t meant to be star vehicles, they’re instead all about the gore, and as I said earlier the real star of THE PROWLER is Tom Savini and his genius in making this outrageous stuff look believable enough to scare the pants off you. He certainly succeeded with this little gore-fest, especially if you’re watching late at night… alone in the dark!