Tuesday 27 December 2016

Sting of Death (1965)

Director: William Grefé
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.

To be fair, it’s clear right from the start, even before our good doctors show up, just what we’re getting ourselves in for. A lovely young thing by the name of Ruth is sunbathing in the shade, listening to KFUN’s award-winning news, which tells her and us that fishermen are vanishing all over the Everglades. We naturally wonder if this could be connected to the odd hand we just saw use a screwdriver and a borrowed cartoon explosion effect from the Batman TV show to destroy a radio. It’s black, smeared in red slime and there are tendrils dangling off it. That’s less impressive than the destruction, given that he stuck the screwdriver into a gizmo that isn’t even attached to anything. He must be a magical monster! Anyway, as the news ends and Ruth applies her suntan lotion, we see that this monster is wearing a wetsuit, flippers and what appear to be long strings of flexible neon light tubes. It drags her into the water and back to its lair; the latter are the best shot scenes in the entire film, which unfold behind the opening credits.

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!
These scenes establish a few things. We learn that the Florida youth of 1965 want nothing more than an opportunity to jiggle their butts and the film crew want nothing more than an opportunity to capture them on camera. The cameraman occasionally feels he should have delusions of artistic grandeur, so rotates the camera so we can even watch those butts jiggling upside down! We learn that college students in Florida are a number of years older than the American norm but they all think that they’re eighteen, even if they’re thirty. We learn that Dr. Hoyt is an idiot. Sure, he’s a grad student assigned by the university to help Richardson’s work, but he honestly thinks that women can get ready for a party in a quarter of an hour. We learn that Egon has a habit of ‘appearing suddenly’, which is either a shock for the ladies because he has a disfigured face or because the disfigurement varies in severity as the film runs on. And we learn that Egon is a valuable worker but nobody listens to him, even when he’s being overtly sinister.

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.
Well, that and Neil Sedaka. The clip that drew me in to this debacle was a dance scene featuring whichever biology students hadn’t coupled up and vanished into empty bedrooms already. They jiggle their butts just like they did in the previous dance scene and, in fact, some of the shots are exactly the same. I recognise those butts! I also realise that a couple of the girls most frequently used in close-ups aren’t actually at this party, which is surprising given that there are plenty of jiggling butts that were. What makes it so surreal, though, is the song, which has to be heard to be believed. Neil Sedaka was a pop star in the early sixties, but he peaked in 1962 with Breaking Up is Hard to Do topping the charts for a couple of weeks. His style of music was rendered utterly obsolete by the arrival of the Beatles and, as Wikipedia subtly puts it, ‘In 1964, Sedaka’s career began a sharp decline.’ Surely nobody has ever fallen faster because only a year later, biology students in bad monster movies are dancing to his magnum opus, Do the Jellyfish.

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.’
So, do you want to c’mon and do the jellyfish now? I think I’ll pass too. How about you, ‘Louise, dark redhead’? ‘Oh, that killed me!’ she comments and we realise the level of genius that the script by Al Dempsey, with uncredited assistance from Herschell Gordon Lewis regular, William Kerwin, was working at. Guess what’s about to happen to Louise? Yep, she leaps into the pool, against every suggestion thrown at her, and is promptly stung viciously by the jellyfish man who’s been hiding in the transparent water during that dance scene. Nobody notices until the deed is done, but one bystander who stands around the pool like a lemon gets stung too before the jellyfish man escapes. What’s most hilarious is that Ben has to be taken to the hospital on the mainland immediately but Louise stays behind to be treated on the island. Why? They have the same injuries and, if they’re taking one person, why not take the other one too? I actually wondered about sixties sexism for a moment here, but the truth is a little more mundane.

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!
Once this is done, we realise that we’re back to the core group exactly, except that Louise stays upstairs in bed while the rest eat. The actors were mostly either starting out or are known only for William Grefé movies. Jack Nagle was debuting on the big screen as Dr. Richardson after a single episode of Everglades on TV back in 1962. He’d retire in 1976 after Mako: The Jaws of Death for Grefé. He made more films than our lead, Joe Morrison, who was ending his career here after four features with only a couple of episodes of Flipper still to come. Neither are remarkable in any way, but the ladies are far more notable, if mostly because they’re wearing bikinis. Valerie Hawkins, playing Karen Richardson, did play the Texaco Girl in a series of commercials and she was able to land roles on a number of TV shows, from Get Smart to I Dream of Jeannie. This was her debut, but she’d be done by 1970. Three of her four friends started and ended their careers here, which leaves only ‘Jessica, honey blond’ to find a real place on the screen.

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.
Lund was a busy girl as her career began. She made four thoroughly varied pictures in 1965: this monster movie; Once Upon a Coffee House, a folk singing extravaganza released on DVD under the glorious title of Hootenanny a Go-Go; an Italian comedy called Run for Your Wife; and the most expensive A.I.P. movie at the time, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, playing one of Vincent Price’s bevy of golddigging robots. She kept busy for a few years until her big break arrived, hired by Irwin Allen to play Valerie Scott on Land of the Giants. After two years of that show, she’d married Tim Matheson and cut back her roles substantially. I can’t say that she was great here, but she was clearly not only the best actor of the bunch but the only actor of the bunch. It’s not surprising to find her the only one who would go on to better things. I should add here that John Vella, who plays Egon on land, isn’t the John Vella who would appear with the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI, whatever IMDb happens to say; he was only fifteen at this point.

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.
At the end of the day, the clip from this movie that serves as a music video for Do the Jellyfish is quaintly hilarious and the trailer is horrible and funny, but the film itself is a painful experience. It’s badly acted, badly scripted and badly directed. The characters are annoying, the rules of cinema are broken and the laws of physics are ignored. The monster is laughable and his lair, which has its very own natural airlock in the floor, is even more laughable. I’m presuming that the camera didn’t record sound, so dialogue was dubbed in later and doesn’t always quite match lip movements. There’s a great deal of repetition and, dare I say it, there’s also a lot of redundancy. Most of the script doesn’t make the remotest sense if we think about it and we can only be distracted by ladies in bikinis for so long. The very last line is the most telling of all. Once the girl and the day are saved, Dr. Richardson proclaims that, ‘Someday man will find an answer!’ There’s no question in the film to answer, so he can only be talking about why Grefé made it!

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