Halloween Havoc!: DEATH CURSE OF TARTU (Thunderbird International 1966)

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!

Florida filmmaker William Grefe

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.

Halloween Havoc!: BLACK MOON (Columbia 1934)

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I thought I’d seen, or at least heard of, all the horror films made during the 1930’s. I was wrong. BLACK MOON was new to me when I viewed it recently as part of TCM’S Summer Under the Stars salute to KING KONG’s  main squeeze, Fay Wray. It’s a voodoo tale also starring square-jawed Jack Holt and Pre-Code favorite Dorothy Burgess . The director is Roy William Neill, who would later work with genre giants Karloff (THE BLACK ROOM), Lugosi and Chaney (FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN), and helm eleven of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone.

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The film open with the pounding of jungle drums, and we see Nita Lane (Burgess) is the one pounding them in her luxurious home. Nita grew up on the Caribbean isle of San Christopher, where her parents were murdered during a native uprising. Hubby Stephen (Holt) is against Nita returning to the island, but can’t dissuade her, so he asks his secretary Gail (Wray) to accompany his wife and young daughter Nancy (Cora Sue Collins).

Nita is visited by a man named Macklin (Lumsden Hare), sent by Nita’s Uncle Raymond to keep his niece away from San Christopher. The blood sacrifices have returned to the island, and Nita is warned to steer clear. “You can’t stop me”, is her reply, “I’ll come and go when and where I please”. Unable to reason with her, Macklin goes to Stephen’s office, and has a knife thrown in his back by a native assassin for his troubles. Meanwhile, Nita hears the steady beating of the voodoo drums in her head.

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Nita is treated like royalty by the natives upon her return to San Christopher. Uncle Raymond tries to persuade her to leave, but there’s no talking to her. Gail is worried about Nita’s bizarre behavior, and wires Stephen to come to the island. The telegrapher is found hanging, and soon Nancy’s nurse is found dead. Nita replaces the nurse with her  former nanny Ruva (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), and becomes more ominous looking by the minute.

Stephen charters a schooner from ‘Lunch’ McLaren (Clarence Muse), who fears his girlfriend is about to be sacrificed by the voodoo cult. The two men sneak into the jungle and observe the weird ceremony, with frenzied drumming and feverish dancing… and Nita presiding over it as the White Priestess! The High Priest is about to chop off ‘Lunch’s’ girls head when Stephen shoots him. The two run away in fear, not witnessing Nita finish the bloody job!

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Uncle Raymond tells Stephen the truth about Nita- after her parents were killed, she was watched over by Ruva, and initiated into the voodoo cult as their priestess, taking part in their murderous sacrificing rituals. Raymond sent her away when he found out, and thought being married and having a child had cured her of her bloodlust. Later, Nancy has a nightmare and Stephen gives her some water, not knowing it’s been loaded with a voodoo drug by Nita, meant for him. The child survives, but soon the natives trap Stephen and company in the estate. They manage to escape, and now the cult demands retribution in the form of a new sacrifice… Nita’s own daughter Nancy!

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Dorothy Burgess excels in the role of Nita, with her ominous looks and wild-eyed dancing. Neill and cinematographer Joseph August bring a great sense of dread to the proceedings, and the shadowy camerawork is film noirish in its execution (pardon the pun). BLACK MOON isn’t particularly scary, but has enough good moments to qualify as horror. It’s an obscure title that’s rarely seen today, and is worth going out of your way to find, especially for Golden Age horror completests.