Writer: Al Dempsey
Stars: Joe Morrison, ‘special singing guest star’ Neil Sedaka, Valerie Hawkins, John Vella, Jack Nagle and Doug Hobart
In 2017, if anyone asks me what Facebook is for, I’ll reply that it’s clearly for sharing brief clips of bikini-clad teenagers gyrating to the groovy sounds of Neil Sedaka singing about jellyfish. Thank you, Gary, for letting me know of the existence of Sting of Death, a 1965 movie from filmmaker William Grefé, who went on to such legendary bad films as Death Curse of Tartu, which somehow got a great distribution (I own a VHS copy on PAL) and Mako: The Jaws of Death aka Killer Jaws. This one is so bad that I’d have to go back to my days writing Cinematic Hell reviews for Cinema Head Cheese to find something worse. The battle is now on to determine the worst Florida Everglades monster movie; is Sting of Death worse than Don Barton’s Zaat or is that one shot wonder out there on its own? Right now, six years adrift from my last viewing of the latter, I’d honestly plump for this one because it has the usual bad elements: horrible script, horrible monster and horrible acting, but adds in that ‘special singing guest star’, Neil Sedaka.
There’s another thing that can’t be ignored here either, which is the incredible ineptitude of the manly men protecting a bevy of beauties on Dr. Richardson’s unnamed paradise island in the Everglades. Everything will be fine, say Richardson and his assistant, Dr. John Hoyt, because they have guns. Sure, they have guns, but they also have a habit of protecting these ladies by leaving them alone so the monster can get them. At one point they even go diving with one, who’s promptly snatched away underwater by our monster, and they don’t even notice. They just get back on their airboat and return to base, sans one damsel in distress. It’s pretty bad when our educated scientists can’t even count to one. It’s very possible that the only thing that they notice at any point in the movie is a door that was open but is now mysteriously closed. How they can acknowledge such subtle plot points but not the major ones like missing girls, screams from upstairs or the most obvious villain in movie history, I have no idea.
Yes, folk, it’s all downhill from here. For a start, with Ruth gone, we need new people on this island, so a boat promptly arrives at her jetty containing a bunch of bimbos in high heels, who IMDb politely list by name and hair colour, just in case we might have thought they had something beyond looks to contribute to the film. There are five of these ladies, who arrive with their hosts, Dr. Richardson and Dr. Hoyt. It’s Richardson’s island, on which these scientists enjoy their much needed seclusion to experiment with ‘sealife and evolution’. They’ve obviously given that seclusion up for a couple of weeks, while Karen, Richardson’s daughter, takes her midterm break from college in the company of her friends. What’s more, the good doctors invited the biology department too for a welcome back party. They’re already partying hard on the boat when they arrive twenty minutes later with beer bottles and dance moves and are so eager that they dance on the dock, which is hardly big enough for a couple of dozen revellers!
We learn this when Sheriff Bob pops over with a dead fisherman for the doctors to look at and suggest what might have killed him. They identify the welts on the body as just like those caused by the Portuguese man o’ war, a creature resembling the jellyfish that has venomous tentacles. They know this because they work with them every day, but these welts are far too big for creatures that never grow above eight inches. The doctors fluster around trying to reconcile the obvious with the impossible, ignoring Egon and his knowing pronouncements that it’s entirely possible to grow them to giant size. ‘You can understand it, doctor,’ he explains, ‘if you’d just listen to me.’ But no, everyone dismisses Egon, whether they think he’s a nut, a freak or a retard, or whatever term was in vogue in 1960s Florida. Soon those biology students will actually surround him like he’s a cornered animal and poke at him until he breaks free and runs away. What are they, six years old? But hey, that’s how this monster movie is built.
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this scene now, but I’m still not convinced I’m not dreaming. There are only two lines and a chorus, repeated over and over with minor changes, but the poetry of the piece cannot be understated. ‘Well-a,’ he begins, ‘I’m saying fella, protect your Cinderella.’ Can’t argue with those rhymes, right? ‘And do the jella, the jilla jalla jella.’ OK, Neil, I’m sensing some floundering now. ‘It’s really swell-a to do the jella-jellyfish.’ I should add that a few of the dancers may be trying for actual jella-jellyfish moves here. ‘Monkey, don’t be a dunky, it’s nothing like the monkey.’ At this point, I’m not sure if Sedaka was on drugs; I have no idea what a dunky is and what lyricist would rhyme a word with itself? ‘It isn’t funky or anything you junky.’ I think we’d better go back to something safer, Neil. ‘It’s something swell-a, the jilla-jalla-jellyfish!’ No, how about you pretend it’s a dance? ‘Hey, it isn’t hard to do so you can learn it too. Hey now, let’s do it now. If you don’t know the way then I’ll show you how.’
You see, Grefé didn’t have much of a budget and Dempsey didn’t have much of a clue. We’re just over half an hour into an eighty minute movie and we have a substantial cast of characters clogging up the story. What better way to get rid of most of them than to send them off by boat on a serious errand and have the jellyfish man promptly hole it with an axe to spill them all out into the water? As it sinks, one of the ladies points at the various collections of balloons floating along the surface and cries, ‘Jellyfish!’ In most movies that would have been redundant, but in this one it’s actively useful because nobody in their right mind would think that these things are living creatures. They do look a little better when shot from underneath, with their trails of beads, but wow, not from the surface! I thoroughly enjoyed these hilarious scenes of mass slaughter because I was firmly with the monster at this point. These biology students are getting their just desserts. Kill them all, Portuguese Man o’ War Man! Kill them all!
She’s Deanna Lund and she’s not the first to go. She and Donna accompany the doctors to Egon’s place and the latter has to return to the boat to retrieve the cigarettes she didn’t put in her dinky little purse. That allows the jellyfish man to creep up on her in the wide open space around the boat and stalk her screaming into the everglades. See, smoking kills, folks! She is game for this scene, at least, and it’s actually believable for this character to fall over every two yards for perhaps the first time in film history. It’s far less believable for John and Jessica to fail to hear her screaming herself hoarse, but they do finally catch on and head on out in the airboat to find her. They find her scarf and dive, but those incredible protectors, Drs. Richardson and Hoyt, apparently forget that Jessica is even with them. They fail to notice when the monster pulls off her mask and it’s like she was never in the picture at all. They surface when their air runs out after five minutes (huge tanks these) and eventually head back home on their own.
There are two surprises to come and neither of them has to do with who the jellyfish man is. The island contains two doctors, one daughter and four lady guests, all four of which are killed off by the end of the picture - and Egon, the traumatised, possibly brain damaged wannabe scientist who is the only one to believe that Portuguese man o’ war can be bred larger than eight inches across. Anyone who fails to see that he’s the monster after his first ten seconds on screen hasn’t been watching enough monster movies. One surprise is that a thoroughly family friendly horror film like this suddenly decides to have Blanche Devereaux (‘Susan, frosted blond’) strip off to be murdered by the jellyfish man in the shower. Now, we only see this naked frosted blond from behind frosted glass, but still. The other is just how hilariously awful the monster costume is when it’s fully revealed. Yes, folks, the scariest thing to people in the Everglades isn’t an alligator or a venomous snake, it’s a man in a wetsuit with a plastic bag on his head.