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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sting of Death

Reader “Robin” suggested that Sting of Death (SoD) might be a good addition to this sci-fi collections. Admittedly, SoD was passed over when this study was viewing through films of the 60s as most sources classified it as horror. Upon deeper examination, SoD does have a hint of sci-fi and turns out to be a fitting follow-up to the two recently reviewed films from the 40s, The Bat (’40) and The Flying Serpent (’46). All three films feature a ‘mad’ scientist using his creation to kill off people he does not like. This similarity does not make SoD a good film. It’s relative obscurity is not undeserved. It does, however, deserve inclusion.

Quick Plot Synopsis

A slimy, rubbery hand of the “monster” sabotages a two-way radio. The monster then pulls under the water, and drowns a blonde sunbather. Under the title and credits, the mostly-hidden monster ferries the dead blonde to an underwater lair. When Dr. Richardson, his adult daughter Karen and Dr. John Hoyt return to their island compound in the everglades, Ruth’s absence is noted, but of much concern. Egon is the slightly disfigured, but otherwise normal assistant to Doc. Egon is smitten with Karen and professionally jealous that the hunky Dr. John replaced him as Doc’s assistant. A boat load of rowdy young adults (classmates/friends of Karen) come to the island to spend spring break helping Doc do his research on sea life and evolution (?). The visitors are rude and insensitive to Egon: teasing, chasing, laughing. The youth proceed to dance around the pool to a peculiar pop tune by Neil Sedaka: “The Jellyfish”. The monster lurks in the pool and attacks Louise (one of the taunters of Egon). She is pulled out, but the monster then attacks the young man who taunted Egon. Both suffer from ‘horrible’ stings, but are not dead. Most of the youth take the injured man to the hospital in Doc’s big boat. The monster damaged the boat, so it stalls and founders. A ‘swarm’(?) of regular jellyfish (plastic bags floating on the water) “attack” the sinking boat. Much panic, flailing and screaming ensues and drags on too long. Eventually, all the youth are dead in the water. Back on the island, the other youth are stalked and killed one by one. Eventually, Egon captures Karen after professing his love for her. She faints. He absconds with her via his airboat. Doc and John pursue in their airboat. A long chase through vast tracts of everglades grasses ensues. Engine trouble for Doc’s boat gives Egon time to get to his underwater entrance to his secret ‘cave’ lab. He takes Karen there and professes his great love for her. She rebuffs his creepy mauling form of love. Perhaps in an effort to persuade Karen of his merits, Egon monologues about his ‘genius’. He was able to grow giant (20”) jellyfish when everyone said he could not. His secret was: seawater, electricity and human blood. Breathing deeply from the fumes thus created, is what turns Egon into the jellyfish-man-creature. He transforms. John appears with an underwater flare. They spar and wrestle and dance around in the cave while Karen looks passive and sick in the background. John drops his flare in the big aquarium tank with the ‘giant’ jellyfish. This somehow throws off the magic of Egon’s “science”, causing the jellyfish monster to swoon and all his sparky electrical equipment to smoke. Sensing an immanent explosion, John tries to get Karen to flee. She’s worried about Egon, who has partially un-transformed. In a last ditch show of humanity, Egon-monster tells John to save Karen from the impending explosion. John and Karen swim away. Once on Doc’s airboat, the undersea cave ‘explodes’ (makes a lot of bubbles). The three ride off into the everglade distance. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
For those who love ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ films, SoD has a lot to offer. The monster costume is bad enough to bring a smile. On the plus side, Grefe and Fink did fill the cast with some pretty young women, if 60s styles don’t bother you.

Cultural Context
Indie Club — Southern California had a virtual lock on film production, even in the low-B grade films. Cheap and quick as they were, the Poverty Row studios were still in California. That did not stop some people from trying to spark alternate movie industry hubs. William Grefe was a south Florida director/writer who thought Florida could be the new Hollywood. Grefe, along with producer Joseph Fink and a handful of others, created several B films in the mid-60s. They had a crowd of regulars for workers and actors. None of their films even approached the work of Poverty Row, but that did not stop them from trying. They were a group making movies!

Low B — SoD was born with low expectations. Grefe had written and directed Death Curse of Tartu in 1966. (Fink was the producer). Tartu was a low-B film itself. Grefe and Fink needed to create an even cheaper film so Tartu could be released as a double feature. William Kerwin was a busy third-tier actor and jack-of-all-trades (production manager, sound man, camera man, writer, etc.) Kerwin provided a screenplay (with Al Dempsey another bit actor) for a monster movie that was a mishmash of traditional tropes. Kerwin’s story might have made for a less risible film with a bigger budget (better monster costume) and more time, but SoD was born to be the B film for an already low-B first feature.

Trope Sampler — Some see in SoD, a low-budget knock off of Creature From The Black Lagoon (’54), though the parallels are few. Both were set in “wet” tropical settings. Both featured some underwater footage. There was also an ‘attraction’ between the monster and the “good” girl. But, there are as many differences between SoD and CFBL as there are similarities. SoD has a hint of Dr. Jekyll to it, as Egon’s experiments appear to have inadvertently turned HIM into the monster. There are hints of The Bat in that the mad scientist uses his creation to kill off his enemies. There is also a touch of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the disfigured Egon being in love with the fair Karen, including the abduction. No doubt, other plot parallels can be found too.

Senseless Killings? — Being a low-B horror film, audiences expected random people to be killed for no particularly good reason. SoD delivers the expected, but actually tried to provide a motive for the murders. During his cave monologue, Egon explained that his experiments to grow really big jellyfish required: 1, sea water. (easy, they’re in Florida), 2, electricity (that magic ingredient since Frankenstein) and 3, human blood. That’s why the “missing” fishermen were missing and why the monster drown the sunbather, then swam her body down to his secret cave. He wanted their blood for his jellyfish experiments. This was very poorly developed in the screenplay, but then, the purpose of the film was more simple — gratuitous violence to sell tickets.

Man or Beast? — The costume for the monster was so cheaply done that viewers could be excused for no knowing if the killer was really supposed to be a freakish beast, or just Egon dressing up as a jellyfish. After all, the beast appeared to be just a guy in a black wetsuit with a plastic bubble on his head and some limp ‘tentacles.’ At times, the actor’s ankles showed between wetsuit legs and flippers. At times, the actor’s face/head were fairly visible within the painted plastic bag ‘head’. Was it really a beast, or just Egon? The answer is easily missed, but lies in the poorly done transformation scene. After his monologue in the cave, Egon fires up his sparky machines. The aquarium bubbles and makes dry ice fog. Egon breathes in the fog. Some slimy lumps develop on his face. Then, suddenly, he is fully beast. As a sentient were-jelly, the beast retains Egon’s mind, but now with deadly stinging power.

Sudden Demise — Another spot where the production did not bother, was making it clear just what killed the beast. Grefe spent a lot of time and footage on agonizingly slow stalk attacks and airboat chases, but only a few feet of film on the turning point. Viewers could be excused for missing it. During the standoff “fight” between John and the beast, John drops his underwater flare into the aquarium tank. The flare, apparently kills the big jelly fish Egon had grown. Apparently, the Egon/Beast was an extension of this ‘murderous creature’. So, when the tank jelly died, the Egon/Beast would too. Why all this would make Egon’s equipment short out, was not explained. Nor why said equipment should explode. Details. Grefe had enough film for a second-feature movie, so just needed to wrap it all up quickly. So he did.

Lite Voyeur — A regular feature in Grefe’s mid-60s B films was a segment in which several youth dance (60s dance moves) to some lite pop music. Grefe would then zoom in close to catch the jiggle of the young ladies backsides and upstairs. These dance scenes did not advance the plot so much as it provided the young male movie-goer with some extra-soft voyeurism.

Bottom line? SoD is a marginal film that suffers from the usual problems of weak acting, poor effects and numerous plot problems. Even as a “horror” film, it is scant horror. There is barely any sci-fi to it, but diligent viewers will find a little bit of the classic tropes in the final reel. For fans of so-bad-it’s-good films, SoD can be entertaining. For viewers who expect believable effects, good acting and a logical plot, SoD will probably be annoying.


Robin said...

Thanks for following up on my suggestion and I'm impressed that you managed to find so much to write about such a slight film. It definitely falls into the "so bad it's good" variety particularly the risible monster costume. And I love the phrase "sentient were-jelly".

Nightowl said...

Glad you liked the review. Thanks for encouraging me to give SoD another look. The film, as weak as it is, is still better than Creeping Terror (the shambling carpet monster), and a few others from the 60s. There IS worse. :-)

Darci said...

Wow, I thought you were going to write this resembled The Blood Waters of Dr. Z. Now I see it was made in 1965, so perhaps the copying went the other way. It just seems too much of a coincidence with both films being made in Florida.

Nightowl said...

Hi Darci,
Hard to imagine someone actually trying to remake Sting of Death, but Dr. Z sure does look like one. The monster costume is only slightly better. The vengeful scientist being an old disaffected Nazi seems to be the "new" bit to the old plot. Thanks for commenting!

orwhut said...

I'm looking for classic low budget sci-fi movies I haven't seen and Sting of Death qualities. Thanks for the blog. I'll be back.