Sting of Death (1966) -***½
There’s a very good chance that this will be the most difficult review I ever write. Mind you, there’s no intrinsic reason why that should be. Sting of Death has a great hook for the introduction, given director William Grefe’s status as perhaps the most nationally prominent operator within Florida’s independent movie industry during the 60’s and 70’s. It isn’t a film that three fifths of everyone in the world has seen, and the other two fifths have heard all about, so I have a fair chance of finding something new, or at least unexpected, to say on the subject. And the premise is so mind-fuck crazy that the plot synopsis would practically write itself if I let it. So what’s the problem, you ask? The problem is that I’m writing this review for Stingathon ‘09, the B-Masters Cabal’s tenth-anniversary roundtable— and more to the point, so is the whole rest of the gang! Yes, for some unfathomable reason, we’re deliberately unlearning the lesson that Brainathon ‘99 taught the original B-Masters back in the waning days of the 20th century, that turning us all loose on the same film simultaneously is a terrible idea that can lead only to repetition and redundancy, and I can barely write a sentence without paralyzing myself from second-guessing. My first instinct, of course, is to dig into the history of Florida’s indie exploitation scene, but I’m sure Lyz Kingsley is going to do that, too, and she’s frankly better at it than I am. Nathan Shumate and the Stompers of Tokyo between them can be counted on to snag all the best one-liners, and they’ll also have screen caps to back them up. Dr. Freex remembers the 60’s firsthand; I won’t be a bit surprised to find out that seeing Sting of Death at the drive-in was one of his formative moviegoing experiences. Ken Begg will describe every line of dialogue and change of camera angle, rendering all other imaginable dissections of the film’s story superfluous. And Teleport Keith not only grew up in Florida, but actually dated the stepdaughter of one of Grefe’s starlets— he’s got the human interest angle sewn right the fuck up. My odds aren’t getting any better while I sit here trying to think of something, though, so I guess I’ll just dive in now, and hope for the best.
We begin with one of those perfect opening scenes that tell you everything you need to know about the movie to follow. An attractive blonde who will later be identified as Ruth (Judy Lee) is sunbathing on the pier serving the home of her boss, marine biologist Dr. Richardson (Jack Nagle). Unbeknownst to her, she’s being stalked by a man in a wetsuit, filmed in the sort of tight, identity-concealing close-ups that were becoming a signature feature of the gialli at about the same time. Something about the prowler seems to imply that he’s more than an ordinary knife-wielding (or in this case, screwdriver-wielding) maniac, though. His wetsuit— the gloves and flippers especially— is covered in crud that looks horribly suggestive of organic decay (in fact, it looks rather like the dissolving flesh effect on the monster in The Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Beast of Blood), and whenever we see his feet and lower legs, a mass of weird blue and purple filaments is visible hanging down from somewhere above the frame. Who- or whatever he is, the prowler smashes the radio transmitter attached to the house, then slips into the water to attack Ruth from below. Once he’s finished with her, the prowler spirits her body away in a disturbingly beautiful underwater shot that has him swimming languidly along just inches below the surface, dragging the dead girl behind him by the hair amid a great drift of those strange, colorful filaments. What makes this such a perfect introduction to Sting of Death is the combination of gorgeous and inventive cinematography, cleverly suspenseful editing, amusingly innocent salaciousness, and hints of something awe-inspiringly silly going on just at the limits of our sight. The whole movie will be like that, except that the awe-inspiringly silly will move closer and closer to center stage throughout.
Dr. Richardson is not alone when he returns home. Riding the boat with him are his daughter, Karen (Valerie Hawkins); his partner and Karen’s love interest, Dr. John Hoyt (Joe Morrison); and four girls of varying degrees of cuteness who I guess are friends of Karen’s. It never really becomes clear what the scientists are doing, but their studies have something to do with a reef, and with the breeding habits of Portuguese men o’ war. There’s also a third man involved in the research, a heavily scarred, slightly menacing, and socially retarded bloke by the name of Egon (John Vella, from Wild Rebels), who has an unnerving habit of walking silently up behind people. Bear that last bit in mind, folks— that’s a plot point a-bornin’. The same goes for a brief visit from the sheriff a short while later, when he swings by with the body of a fisherman who was reported missing recently. The deceased is covered with nasty welts that would look an awful lot like severe jellyfish stings if they weren’t so damn big. This prompts a strange argument between Egon and his fellows over the maximum theoretical size of the Portuguese man o’ war, Egon contending with stubborn stridency that the creatures can grow far larger than is generally assumed. That subject is dropped, however, before the men get back to the house. There, the big topic of conversation is the whereabouts of Ruth, who apparently was really looking forward to seeing Karen again after a whole semester of her being away at college— but that too gets dropped with surprising completeness once the subject of the party comes up. That would be the one Hoyt is throwing in Karen’s honor, to which he has invited pretty much the whole biology department from the little university that funds his and Richardson’s work. The girls all feign great offense (John has sprung this on them with such suddenness as to leave them only fifteen minutes to render themselves fuckable), but don’t you let yourself be taken in by the display.
The party scene is an absolute marvel to behold. The crowd from the university (“mostly seniors and grad students,” Hoyt clarifies) cruise up the canal to Richardson’s private island on the edge of the Everglades in a great, big motorboat, boogying all the while to that curious music that movie-making grown-ups thought teenagers listened to in 1966. I’m not sure what you call that stuff, and I’m equally unsure whether anyone ever actually listened to it. Also, you can smell the dickhead on the university guys from halfway to Miami, so you just know they’re going to fuck with Egon the second they see him and his scarred-up face. What you won’t anticipate is the pirate-speak affectation that suddenly comes over the ringleader as he and his friends chase Egon down and surround him by the pool, but there the boy is, all “Hold it, me hearties— there’s a rogue amongst us!” and “Let’s hang ‘im from the yardarm!” Now, those of you who spend a lot of time on the internet may be aware of a phenomenon that recurs every September 19th, known as Talk Like a Pirate Day. I loathe Talk Like a Pirate Day, so Cap’n Assface here would be putting himself on The List at this point even if Egon weren’t my main identification figure in the movie. Egon breaks through his encirclement after an indecorous period of cowering, clambers into the driver’s seat of his airboat, and speeds away into the swamp. Meanwhile, the kids fire up Karen’s portable turntable, pouring forth a song by Neil Sedaka called “Do the Jellyfish.” You need to see this, you really do. It’s a big, outdoor dance party, right, and the song is nominally one of those “here’s how you do this dance we just made up” things, so you’d expect all the kids out on the patio to be performing the same movements, especially since there’s a choreographer listed in the credits. They’re not, though. For the great bulk of the scene, no two pairs of dancers are doing quite the same thing, and most of them aren’t doing anything that even vaguely resembles what the next couple over are up to. This becomes particularly hilarious when the shot cuts to a girl doing the Monkey at the exact moment when the lyrics declare that the Jellyfish is “nothing like the Monkey.” Furthermore, the camera now develops a nearly obsessive interest in the girls’ butts, and since Sedaka’s song plays out in its entirety, that means we get to spend a lot of time watching them jiggle. This would be a little more enjoyable if their bikinis fit more flatteringly, I have to say. Another thing I have to say is that I liked “Do the Jellyfish” a lot better as the peppy, Trashmen-inspired garage-rock song that I heard in my head when I first saw the lyrics printed out a couple of years ago; the real music is tepid pseudo-ska bullshit.
Anyway, while all that’s going on, the partygoers amazingly fail to notice the filament-bedecked guy in the rotting wetsuit sneaking— sneaking silently, mind you— across the yard and into the swimming pool in broad daylight, in full view of each and every one of them. Louise (Sandy Lee Kane), indeed, is so oblivious to his presence that she still fails to notice him even when she dives into the pool herself! That goes badly for Louise, as Filament Guy grabs her by the face and does something to her that’s difficult to interpret at first. All we can be sure of is that the prowler’s touch leaves odd, reddish streaks on the girl’s skin. The matter is clarified somewhat when Filament Guy hoists himself from the pool and attacks the rest of the partiers; when he’s finished with the boy who led the taunting of Egon earlier, the kid looks remarkably like that dead fisherman the sheriff was carting around. Wait a minute— those filaments… Oh no. No, there’s no way… Oh, but there is! Yes, there’s no other explanation! The monster in this movie is a were-jellyfish!!!! I can’t wait to get a good look at him…
The were-jellyfish runs off after stinging the crap out of Louise and Cap’n Assface, leaving Richardson and Hoyt to figure out what should be done with the victims. Louise isn’t in too bad shape (Amazing. A monster movie in which facial lacerations are not instantaneously fatal!), but Cap’n Assface has lost an eye and is very clearly in a world of shit. Jellyfish Man wrecked the radio earlier, so there’s no way to call for help. Consequently, Richardson rounds up all the university people, and sends them off on their boat to get Cap’n Assface to a hospital. Too bad Jellyfish Man has already taken a hatchet to the planking on that boat’s bottom, huh? The boat lasts just long enough to get too far down the canal for anybody to come to the rescue, then sinks right smack in the middle of Jellyfish Man’s pack of trained Portuguese men o’ war. Guess I don’t need to feel bad about being unable to make any headway on that script for Beach Party Holocaust anymore, do I?
Meanwhile, Richardson and Hoyt remain doggedly determined to act as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. While Louise languishes in a spare bedroom upstairs, the scientists plan the next morning’s fieldwork, and remarkably enough, Donna (Lois Etelman) and Jessica (Deanna Lund, from Elves and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine) say they want to come along on the dive. Thus all four head out to Richardson’s laboratory, where both girls are attacked and slain by the were-jellyfish. Here we get another unexpected hint of giallo— and indeed an unexpected hint of later American slasher movies— for Jellyfish Man goes about the task using classic Voorheesian stalk-and-slash techniques. Donna even meets her end shortly after telling her friends that she’ll be right back! But more importantly, this sequence gives us our first clear look at the monster, and let me tell you, it’s everything I dreamed of and more! From the neck down, it’s just a guy in an artfully distressed and scum-slathered wetsuit, but atop the shoulders sits not a head of any recognizable sort, but a huge inflated sac like the float of a Portuguese man o’ war— or like several thicknesses of plastic garbage bags. Whichever you prefer. Those tentacles we’ve already observed depend from the bottom of said float, but it never seems like there are quite the same quantity of them from one shot to the next. Obviously they were the flimsiest part of the costume, and you could probably discern the order in which the monster’s scenes were shot by paying close attention to the number and condition of the tentacles. You can also get a fair idea of how long any given sequence took to film, because the float deflates noticeably as the poor bastard inside it (head makeup man Doug Hobart) uses up the air in the bag. Hobart reportedly came dangerously close to suffocating during the climactic battle.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Donna’s death occurs out of the others’ sight, and all they know at first is that the girl is taking an awfully long time to retrieve her cigarettes from the airboat. Eventually, it dawns on them that such an extended separation is probably not safe when there are were-jellyfish about, but Donna is long gone by the time they go looking for her. Then Jellyfish Man claims Jessica during the search itself, and the scientists are forced to give up and go back home when their scuba tanks run out of air. Susan (Blanche Devereaux), the last of Karen’s friends to remain unmolested by the monster, has been stung to death in the shower by the time they arrive. That’s right, the were-jellyfish even exhibits a mad slasher’s powers of offscreen teleportation. Karen goes berserk when she sees Susan’s body, and Hoyt has little success in consoling her. Egon, on the other hand— who has picked a hell of a time to come back to the island— does rather better, and he leads the hysterical girl off to her room so that the scientists can try to repair the mangled radio in peace. Of course, we all know why Egon really wants to be alone with Karen, right? I mean, who the hell else is left in this movie to be Jellyfish Man’s secret identity? Karen, as the only girl who has ever been consistently nice to Egon, has unwittingly set herself up as Bride of the Beast, and just as soon as the last bit of competition for her time and affection has been eliminated, Egon plans to carry her off with him to his hidden lair in the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s old apartment. Maybe he figures he’ll teach her how to turn herself into a human jellyfish, too. Yeah, let’s just say “I killed everybody you know because I really love you” isn’t a very persuasive pitch.
In the audio commentary to Something Weird Video’s DVD edition of Sting of Death, even William Grefe is powerless to explain where the idea for this movie came from. He was brought in essentially as a hired hand, and he never did quite find out what writers Al Dempsey and William Kerwin were thinking. Personally, I like to imagine that one or the other of those guys saw The Horror of Party Beach and said, “Hey! Monsters eating a beach party! Now that’s a damn good idea!” As for why a were-jellyfish, however… like they always say in movies like this one, some things man was not meant to know. What I do know is that even in this, Grefe’s third feature and first horror film, it’s easy to see why he would eventually rise so much closer to the mainstream than fellow Sunshine State trash-peddlers like Brad Grinter or Don Barton. Although he downplays his own abilities while chatting with Frank Henenlotter on the commentary track, Sting of Death occasionally reveals a degree of directorial skill that was rare indeed in this stratum of the film business. It’s the indifferent acting, impossibly silly story, and undisguised cheapness of production that mark Sting of Death as a native Floridian counterpart to Blood Feast and Invasion from Inner Earth, rather than any vast incompetence on Grefe’s part. He knows how to find and use a good location, he has a surprisingly firm sense of pace (the seemingly endless “Do the Jellyfish” scene notwithstanding), and he does everything humanly possible to wring a scare out of bikini babes being slaughtered by a guy with a giant plastic Portuguese man o’ war on his head. All things considered, I’d say Sting of Death deserves to be hailed among the annals of cinema’s great noble defeats against impossible odds.
Believe it or not, the B-Masters Cabal has been a going concern for a decade now, and we’re celebrating the occasion the same way we (or at any rate, those of us who were members at the time) made our debut: by ganging up on a singularly deserving old monster movie, and kicking the crap out of it. Click the banner below to see the merciless beating continue.