CERT: 18 | FORMAT: BLU-RAY | RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 30TH
Back in the 1960s and 70s, William Grefé specialised in low-budget grindhouse / exploitation fare for the late-night drive-in crowd. Based in Florida, he made full use of the surrounding countryside and local celebrities with varying degrees of success. Freely admitting to creating many of his films without a script (which often shows, but in a fascinating and intriguing kind of way), some of these films saw moderate success at the time while others failed quite miserably indeed. Apart from a handful of limited DVD releases in the early 2000s (which are pretty tricky to get hold of these days), Grefé's films have languished in the more obscure corners of the cult cinema world for many years – until now. Arrow Films have taken the best available prints of seven of these most magnificent works of art, polished them up to the highest possible standard and released them on Blu-ray for the very first time.
Sting of Death and Death Curse of Tartu were released as a double bill, and are presented here together on the same disc for the full 1965 drive-in experience. Set in the Everglades, with copius overlong shots of the cast mucking about on airboats, the two films take care of the supernatural / horror side of things in exquisite fashion. Sting of Death follows a bunch of college kids on a short break in the wilds of Florida, where they encounter a terrifying mutated jellyfish man-monster (a man in a wetsuit with what appears to be a large opaque pillow on his head). Expect wholesome 60s-style go-go dancing freakouts, lingering close-ups of boobs and bums in bikinis, a couple of excellent rock n' roll tunes, unbelievably massive plot holes and a tremendous jellyfish attack where the jellyfish appear to be tiny plastic bags filled with brightly coloured paint bobbing about on the surface of the water. It's a tough act to follow, but Death Curse takes things a step further with its tale of a shapeshifting witch doctor hell-bent on defending his sacred burial ground from a team of archaeologists. Locations change mid-scene, dubbed-over dialogue is repeated like a bugged NPC in a videogame, more bikini babes shake their "thang" like there's no tomorrow, and Tartu's vengeance (which takes the form of a variety of animal attacks) and the climactic showdown are truly a sight to behold!
Drugs and general weirdness take centre stage on disc two's The Hooked Generation and The Psychedelic Priest. Of the two, The Hooked Generation offers the most entertainment value by far, following a three-man gang of drug runners trying to escape the FBI who are closing in fast. The bad guys are really despicable, spending the majority of the film shooting people, mistreating their female hostage and generally causing chaos wherever they go. It's a bit like a 1960s version of the motel scene from The Devil's Rejects, only spread out across Florida's overgrown waterways. Then, in The Psychedelic Priest, a man of the cloth drinks some pop that has been spiked by some mean teens, which sends him off on a journey of self-discovery. One of the more plotless / scriptless (and, without wanting to be too cruel about it, talentless) entries in the set, it's slow going but still manages to be watchable in a "why haven't I turned this off yet?" sort of way (top tip: you might find it more agreeable if you spike your own drink before pressing play).
Next up, a "twilight of her career" Rita Hayworth stars in The Naked Zoo, which forms the set's low point. The story of a matronly lady finding lust and excitement with a younger man isn't really up to much, even when her wheelchair-bound husband finds out what she's up to and sets out to get his revenge. Its visuals make for a nice snapshot of the era, but that's about the best thing you can really say about it (unless getting two versions of the film - the original, and a re-release with added nudity and an appearance by blues rockers Canned Heat - are plus points). This is followed by Mako: Jaws of Death, a 1976 effort that sought to capitalise on the shark craze that was sweeping cinemas thanks to the release of Jaws just one year earlier. It flips the script in a nice way, making the sharks into sympathetic characters rather than the killer mammals from the sea that you might expect, and has some ridiculously absurd scenes that you just aren't going to find anywhere else. A real curiosity, and ranks just below the movies on disc one in terms of enjoyment value.
Lastly, the final disc includes Whiskey Mountain, where a gang of deranged bikers hassle a bunch of kids in the wilderness (there's almost a bit of a theme going on here, isn't there?), and a two-hour extended version of 2016's They Came From The Swamp, a tremendous documentary that features interviews with Grefé along with many cast and crew members recounting their memories of working on set. There's plenty more behind the scenes stuff across all four discs, with several films including archive commentaries from previous releases, featuring Grefé chatting away with Basket Case director (and B-movie aficionado) Frank Henenlotter, and there are plenty of other featurettes and mini-documentaries covering various aspects of 1970s underground movie-making.
As you'd expect from 50 year old low-budget films, the scripts, acting, special effects, cinematography, editing and overall audio / visual quality vary wildly across the board, but every film has its merits and the restoration job that has been done to each movie is really ten out of ten. You wouldn't get away with handing this set to a serious movie buff, of course, but if you're a fan of obscure cult cinema then it definitely shouldn't be missed!