On a remote island somewhere off the coast of Florida near the Everglades, slime-corroded hands finish sabotaging some radio equipment -- the only form of communication for this isolated outpost, and then a pair of rubbery flipper'd feet stalks ever closer to a bikini-clad beach bunny sunning herself in the shade (?) on the docks. And this long and lingering look at these *ahem* ‘assets’ continues until the music on her transistor radio gets interrupted by a newsflash, which reveals yet another local fisherman has mysteriously disappeared in the vicinity, causing her to turn it off before she starts applying copious amounts of sun-tanning oil all over her scantily clad frame.
Meanwhile, whoever or whatever was attached to those flipper'd feet reaches the waterline undetected, submerges, and then those slimy hands break the surface and seize the blonde beach bunny by the ankle and pulls her toward the water.
And despite her valiant efforts, the doomed girl is violently wrenched from the dock and pulled to the bottom, where she is drowned by her still not yet fully visualized attacker, who then drags her off to parts unknown in, I have to admit, a grotesquely pleasing opening credit sequence where a serene aquatic theme serenades as the victim is slowly towed along by the leg in the crystal clear water, like some obscene live-mermaid show. And while we’re still not sure if this was supposed to be a man in a wetsuit, or an amphibious monster, or a man in a wetsuit pretending to be an amphibious monster, our answer will come soon enough and the evidence will explain why we only saw the POV, hands, and flippers so far, and I will keep you all in suspense a little while longer before the big reveal which is so, so, so worth it. Trust me.
Sometime later, a boat pulls up to the very same dock, where Dr. Richardson (Nagle), a noted marine biologist, whose island research compound this is, disembarks with the rest of his party, including his daughter, Karen (Hawkins), his top assistant, Dr. John Hoyt (Morrison), and four other female victims -- I mean, fodder, to be stalked and killed by the killer while in some state of undress -- shoot, no, wait, I mean four other plot conveniences, who are all dressed rather snappily, I might add, who’ll be properly introduced right before their untimely and ghastly demiseseses. There. Perfect.
Anyhoo, one can’t help but notice this research compound resembles more of an immaculate palatial mansion than a secluded fish laboratory nestled near one of the world’s largest swamps as Richardson’s party gathers around a table by the outdoor kitchen, wet bar, and swimming pool. And as Karen serves everyone refreshments, they address the most pressing question of the day. No. Not the inexplicable absence of Richardson’s other lab assistant, Ruth (Lee), whom we briefly met earlier right before she met her untimely and ghastly demise, but the huge honking contusion on Richardson’s forehead. (More on this production mishap later.) And once that is put to bed, Hoyt announces he’s invited a gaggle of college student pals to the island for a party this afternoon, triggering a mass-panic among the womenfolk, who quickly scramble for their assigned rooms to properly primp and preen for this pending shindig.
But their path is suddenly blocked by the spectral appearance of Richardson’s other assistant, Egon (Vella), which elicits several gasps from the startled guests due to his horribly disfigured face. And once the shock wears off, and Hoyt properly introduces Egon, and scolds him for constantly sneaking up on people, the worm turns as these ladies start poking fun at his appearance and laughing at his posture, especially Louise (Kane), which draws a stern rebuke from Richardson and Karen, whom Egon obviously dotes on as he slinks behind her for protection from this uncalled for ribbing. And after a dictated hollow apology, once this rabble finally clears off, Egon, obviously hurt, says they’re just like all the others, had no right to laugh at him that way, and then singles out Louise, adding she shouldn’t have said those things, which can be read as a plea or a threat or both.
Meantime, the men are drawn back to the docks with the arrival of the county Sheriff. Seems he’s recovered the body of one of those missing fisherman in the swamp and was looking to get Richardson’s opinion on the cause of death due to the strange condition of the corpse. Drawing back a tarp, the Sheriff (Stanton) reveals the waterlogged cadaver, which is covered in bruises and a series of strange welts. And after a cursory examination both Richardson and Hoyt agree if these welts weren’t so large it almost looks like the work of a Portuguese man o’ war; a sea critter similar to a jellyfish with a very nasty sting. Egon contests brushing this theory off, asserting it is possible to breed one of that size but no one takes him seriously. With that, Hoyt suggests the Sheriff perform some toxicology tests on the victim to rule it out completely and, before he leaves, Richardson asks to keep an eye out for Ruth, who he assumes headed back to the mainland.
Then, though he is welcomed to attend, Richardson, feeling this party will be a little out of his age-bracket, takes the boat and heads out to a nearby reef to check on one of his experimental hatcheries. Egon, meanwhile, seeks out Karen, who presses him on the secret experiments he’s been concocting in his shack way out in the Everglades. But before he can finish his invitation to come see for herself, they are interrupted by the noisy arrival of Hoyt’s college friends, who immediately seize the opportunity to pick on the ogreish Egon’s appearance en masse when he tries to join in on their dancing and gyrating, who quickly flees from this pretty heartless ridicule, despite Karen’s protests, and, completely humiliated, leaves the island altogether by airboat.
And once they’re done making fun of the handicapped, these collegians and grad-students and borderline Hitler Jugend return to their konga-lining, Caucasian flailing, and barely controlled seizures around the pool as, once again, the camera tends to linger on shaking hinders and shimmying boobs, but mostly hinders. This rump respective perspective goes on for like six hours, and then Hoyt and Karen check out long enough to share a quick kiss in the kitchen while on a snack replenishing run. Back at the pool, as the dulcet tones of Mr. Neil Sedaka takes over the soundtrack the gesticulations that follows are, I think, an attempt to follow his melodic instructions on how to “Do the Jellyfish,” whose maneuvers turn out to be just as nonsensical as the lyrics.
And while the Jellyfish they be doing, these young adults are so enthralled by the music and keeping the beat, no one notices a familiar flippered menace crawl through the surrounding shrubbery and submerge into the pool completely unnoticed. And if you find that completely ridiculous, just wait until Louise dives in to cool off, does a few laps, and STILL doesn’t notice this intruder lurking at the bottom of the pool. And if you don’t find that highly implausible, as well as utterly ridiculous, just wait until this reasonable human facsimile of a man o’ war attacks her, complete with trailing streamers of stingers. She screams, it slimes her, and still no one notices her thrashing about with her attacker until the dancing finally stops and one solitary girl spots Louise floating belly-up in the pool.
And when they pull her out of the water, the girl is barely alive and covered in those same telltale bruises and bloody welts. And while Hoyt and Karen move the injured girl inside, the monster finally makes its presence known, emerging from the pool in force, it’s tentacles whipping and stinging as it rampages through the crowd and returns to the sea. With that, the party-goers panic and decide to vacate the island as fast as possible, playing right into this monster’s hands as they pile into the boat, cast off, and head toward open water where, unbeknownst to them, their wholesale slaughter will soon begin in earnest...
Regional and niche filmmaking in America was nothing new by the 1960s, but things kind of accelerated during this decade, especially in the State of Florida, which drew all kinds of soon to be exploitation legends to its sandy beaches and crystal clear waters to make some movies on the cheap like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Dave Friedman, Barry Mahon, Larry Wolk, Robert Ground, and the Kerwin brothers; not to mention Brad Grinter, Doris Wishman, Ivan Tors, or K. Gordon Murray, who all plied their trade in the burgeoning drive-in markets with explicit sex and buckets of gore and, oddly enough, transforming foreign films into family-friendly matinee staples.
Enter Richard S. Flink, a very successful Miami Beach-based building contractor, who suddenly wanted to cash in on this regional boom and become a film producer -- even though he had no idea how, but he didn’t think it looked all that hard. And on the heels of Mahon’s nudity-fueled Pagan Island (1961) and Lewis and Friedman’s gorenographic Blood Feast (1963), Flink took the plunge by producing and directing a mash-up of both: Six She’s and a He (1964) -- a/k/a Love Goddesses of Blood Island, where a stranded soldier is captured by a tribe of sadistic women, who torture and dismember all men who land on their shores. Only fragments of the film survive, but from what little remains one can easily see the film was gory as hell, totally bonkers, and morbidly hilarious.
Flink directed the film under an alias, Gordon Heaver, as did the film’s screenwriter, Al Dempsey, who was really William “Bill” Kerwin, who starred in several H.G. Lewis pictures -- Blood Feast, Goldilocks and the Three Bares (1963) and 2000 Maniacs! (1964), and who, along with his brother, Harry, crewed for several other local exploitation producers and directors. In fact, once you dig into it, it’s kind of amazing how much cross-polinization of casts and crews happened during this delightful spurt of Florida-exploitation.
Unlike a lot of exploitation filmmakers in the burgeoning scene, Grefe was a native Floridian. Bitten by the acting bug early, after spending several years in summer stock his career plans were interrupted by a stint in the Navy. After he got out, Grefe found himself married with three kids and working full time as a fireman in Miami to make ends meet. However, Grefe stayed in the game, shifting from acting to writing screenplays. And after several years of rejections, a local south Florida outfit headed by Herb Vendig optioned his script for The Checkered Flag (1964). Here, Grefe was invited to the shooting location in case rewrites were needed, and then fate stepped in when the slotted director fell ill and withdrew from the production. And after a quick meeting in a hotel room, Grefe was suddenly promoted to director; and this simple twist of fate launched one of the most fascinating runs in independent regional exploitation filmmaking.
Following up The Checkered Flag with Racing Fever (1964), Grefe moved the action from stock cars to thundering speedboats. And after writing, directing and producing that one, he actually worked for Del Tenney for a spell, who was down in Key Biscayne to shoot something called Caribbean Adventure, which was only a working title because Tenney didn’t want the locals to know he was actually filming something called Voodoo Bloodbath. Here, Grefe rounded up a local crew to help film the production and wound up serving as an assistant director. Once filming wrapped, Tenney took the footage back to Connecticut, spliced it together, didn’t like what he saw, at all, and shelved the film until producer Jerry Gross unearthed it in 1971 while looking for a double-bill for I Drink Your Blood (1970), got the rights, and finally sent it out as I Eat Your Skin (1970). And turns out Tenney was right all along. It was a pretty terrible film.
Apparently Kerwin knew Grefe, which got him the job on Sting of Death. But while Grefe was the director it soon became clear Flink would be calling all the shots; much to his hired hand’s consternation. First, in an effort to save money, despite Grefe’s warning about the colossal mess they were about to make, Flink mandated his own mansion be used for Dr. Richardson’s lab, which was located on Miami Beach, which is not really on an isolated island, requiring many bizarre camera angles to prevent any neighborhood houses from being seen. And as the production progressed and the location was slowly wrecked by both cast and crew, Flink’s wife was ready to kick them all out.
Also, since the waters of the Miami Beach canals weren’t very clear, Flink chartered a large boat to take them out onto the ocean to film the underwater scenes. And despite several storm warnings, Captain Flink forced his captive cast and crew several miles out, where the wind and chop were so bad they almost lost a diver in the swells. With that, a compromise was reached to film all underwater scenes at Rainbow Springs nearly 300 miles away, where the calm and crystal clear waters would prove worth the effort. Here, Flink doubled as Richardson in the underwater scenes, even though he’d never scuba-dived before because he was too cheap to haul the actor to the location. And that storm actually turned out to be a hurricane, causing some sound problems later, requiring the actors to over-emote over the howling winds in a couple scenes to prevent any looping costs.
Flink then struck again when he required them to use his friend’s hunting cabin deep in the Everglades for Egon’s lab. And so, after several hours of skirting along the Tamiami Trail by air-boat, when the crew arrived and started to set up, the cameraman accidentally dropped all the batteries into the water, which forced them to retreat back down the trail and wait for replacements, losing them a whole day of shooting. And I believe it was during this excursion when actor Jack Nagle whacked his head on one of the boats while trying and failing to get out of it, resulting in that huge contusion on his noggin that required a quick rewrite to explain the hideous thing away. But it is kinda fun to watch how it shrinks and grows from scene to scene, allowing the viewer to suss out the film’s chaotic shooting schedule rather easily.
But as these mini-disasters kept piling up, one can kind of sense the shift in the balance of power away from Flink to Grefe on the production, who did the best he could under some very trying circumstances, matching shots in editing from at least three different locations on some occasions, and turned nothing into almost something despite being saddled with one of the dumbest plots and quite possibly the goofiest damned monster this side of Ro-Man Special Agent X-J2. Yeah. Thus far, Grefe has been pretty coy with the man o’ war who walks like a man, giving us plenty of looks at its gooey hands, flippered feet, and Rastafarian tentacles, when not simply relying on a POV shot. And turns out there was a pretty good reason as to why we haven’t seen the monster’s head yet.
But keep sticking with it, trust me. The payoff will be worth it as we still don’t get to see the creature’s head while it lurks under the water and takes an axe to the bottom of the boat. And before the panicked students shove off and head for the mainland with the critically wounded, they get orders from Hoyt to send the Sheriff back fast once it’s discovered the radio has been destroyed. Thus, not realizing they’re slowly sinking until it’s far too late, the boat hasn’t even cleared the channel before it runs into a horde of what I think is supposed to be some large jellyfish blocking their escape route and massing to attack -- or something, which is undoubtedly being orchestrated by the monster.
Now I know what you’re thinking. These, uh, jellyfish sure do look like some garbage bags tied-off around some colored balloons and bedazzled by several strands of beads to me, too, but let's just roll with it, OK? I mean, the actors sure do when the boat finally capsizes and dumps them all in the drink, where the, uh, heh, sorry, jellyfish attack without mercy and sell the hell out of this as they scream and thrash about and try not to pop and sink anything until all is silent and this great slaughter comes to an end with a dozen or so corpses silently floating out to sea.
This, of course, means we are dealing with some kind of mad-science induced man ‘o war lycanthropy -- a Were-Jellyfish, if you will. Noodle that for a bit as we cut back to the island, where Richardson reassures his remaining guests everything will be fine. And so sure is he, he still plans on taking Hoyt out to check on the rest of his hatcheries, leaving the women to fend for themselves. So, it should come as no surprise that several of them ask to tag along.
And so, Jessica (Lund) and Donna (Etleman) join the men as they first check on Egon’s shack in the swamp, where they don’t find him but do find a large aquarium full of man o’ wars so Richardson can pontificate to Jessica how deadly their sting is. As for Donna, alas, she picked the wrong time to head back to the airboat for a smoke, where Egon in full Were-Jellyfish mode is lurking, who then chases her deeper into the swamp, and then keeps on chasing her, and chasing her, and chasing her, until the reel of film is exhausted before Donna finally decides to help out, plops down near the water’s edge, and lets the monster catch up and finish her off. Here, we also get a brief glimpse of the monster’s head and a hint of the true glory to come.
Anyhoo, Donna’s death rattle wafts back to the shack alerting the others to her plight. A few surfacing air-bubbles in a nearby lake convinces Richardson that Donna is in trouble underwater. And so, they take time to scuba-gear up, meaning if she wasn’t dead by drowning before, Donna most certainly is now. And once underwater there’s no sign of Donna, and then Jessica lingers too far behind and is snatched away by the Were-Jellyfish never to be seen again. Meantime, Richardson and Hoyt find the entrance to Egon’s underwater cave but have run out of air before they can explore it any further. And after a cursory search for the now missing Jessica, they pull anchor and head back to the island...
… Where Karen’s last unmolested guest, Susan (Deveraux), fulfills our cheesecake quotient by stripping down as tastefully as 1965 standards and practices would allow before hopping in the shower. And as we watch her naked body through the frosted glass, the Were-Jellyfish manages to sneak into the house, navigate a staircase in those flipper'd feet, waddle into the bathroom, and kill her without alerting Karen despite her friend screaming bloody murder. Nope. Apparently, Karen was taking a nap as she kept vigil over Louise, who is still writhing and whimpering due to her massive injuries, until her father and Hoyt return and wake her up.
Thus, the plan now is to no longer wait for the Sheriff but to abandon the lab altogether. (And I’m pretty sure Donna, Jessica and Sarah would’ve really appreciated this Plan B being Plan A.) And while the men move Louise to the boat, Karen goes to round up Susan, finds her mutilated body, screams, and then runs out of the house, where she plows right into Egon, who confesses he did all of these terrible things so they could be together at last. With this news Karen faints, and Egon takes her to his airboat and skedaddles off to the secret lair.
Luckily for Karen, Hoyt spotted them leaving, notes his girlfriend’s unconscious state, puts two and two together, and he and Richardson are soon in hot-pursuit, leaving poor Louise who knows where. And this merry pursuit exhausts a whole ‘nother reel of film before the pursuing airboat suffers some engine trouble, which puts them far enough behind while they suss it out to give Egon time to swim Karen down to his super-secret lair. Here, Egon gets to monologuing as he menaces the revived girl, and goes into full mad scientist mode as he reveals how his formula of sea water, electricity, certain chemicals, and human blood created a new hybrid man o’ war of unbelievable size.
But this was only phase one of his experiments, as Egon moves to give Karen a practical demonstration of phase two, turning on his equipment, before once again giving his creation in the aquarium a faceplant. And when he peels it off, his face full of goo, Egon raves how they all laughed at him. And before his metamorphosis is complete, he warns a reluctant Karen that if he can’t have her, then no one will. With that, Egon turns toward her to reveal, finally, in all its glory: the Were-Jellyfish monster.
But this errant missile lands in the aquarium, which detonates for some reason, and this has an extremely detrimental effect on the Were-Jellyfish, who instantly keels over and, rather messily, reverts back to Egon. The monster defeated, Hoyt tries to escort Karen out of the lair but she refuses to leave without Egon. But his injuries are fatal, and his equipment is overloading and threatening to explode. Hoyt promises to try and come back for him once Karen is safe. But once they leave the cave and reach the surface, Egon’s lair goes up in one massive belch of air-bubbles, bringing the menace of the Were-Jellyfish to an end. And as Hoyt shuttles them back to civilization, when a sobbing Karen asks her father how something this horrible could’ve ever happened, her father has no answer.
Since it’s limited release in 1965, The Sting of Death has been rightfully known by the few who’ve actually seen it for two things: one, the goofy-assed Were-Jellyfish; and two, the contribution of Neil Sedaka’s hideously infectious piece of bubblegum pop, “Do the Jellyfish.” (Well, three reasons if you count the wholesale slaughter of the Frankie and Annette clones.)
As the legend goes, Sedaka was in Miami performing at one of the resorts, who was then approached by Flink and offered $2,000 on the spot to whip up an original song for the feature. Sedaka agreed and worked with Al Jacobs, who provided the rest of the score, and threw the song together over a weekend. The result of this collaboration is actually pretty catchy and is legendary among the B-movie brethren. And kudos to Jacobs, too, who would score almost all of Grefe’s films, for his additional efforts give Sting a Death a lot more oomph than it probably deserved, soundtrack wise. As for Sedaka, he would return to contribute another song and teach us all how to do “The Water Bug” in Playgirl Killer (1967). Sedaka would also have a cameo in that film, which was written by Bill Kerwin, who also starred.
As for the Were-Jellyfish, it’s architect was a man named Doug Hobart. Starting in the late 1940s, Hobart ran and hosted a traveling midnight spook-show called Dr. Traboh and His Chamber of Monsters, which featured appearances by the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolfman, and five Dancing Dragonettes, joining the likes of Dr. Draculas Den of Living Nightmares, Ray Mond’s Voodoo Show, Chan Loo’s Horrors of the Orient, and Dr. Silkini's Asylum of Horrors to name but a few of the hundreds of spook shows running amok at the time. Hobart’s regional showcase ran for over a decade and covered all of Ohio and parts of Kentucky and Indiana, where he performed in theaters and school gymnasiums. In 1958, Hobarth provided the monster for a failed local TV pilot called The Professor (1958), where a Communist sleeper agent turned unwitting Americans into werewolves to upset the global balance of power.
Sting of Death would be Hobarth’s first credited work in the Florida exploitation boom. How he came to be there exactly is unknown, but with his skills at stunts, makeup, grue, and sleight of hand, as well as being an expert at bodily dismemberment from many running spook-show gags, he would definitely be an asset to any production. And if you ever needed a corpse in your production, Hobarth was your man. And so it came to be that Hobarth slapped together this remarkable -- nay, unforgettable, monster suit together.
It’s origins as an off the rack wet-suit are obvious; as are the rubber gloves and the flippers, which are sometimes attached to the legs, other times both socks and skin are clearly visible as the monster clomps around. The strings and streamers of beads and pipe cleaners for tentacles were a nice touch, but the cherry on top was the inflatable trash bag used to represent the head-like polyp.
And so, yes, there was a very good reason Grefe kept the monster's head just out of frame for the vast majority of the picture. I can’t even fathom trying to submerge that headpiece, but would dearly love to see some outtake reels where they tried. Now, Hobarth subbed in for actor John Vella when he was in Were-Jellyfish mode, so that’s him doing most of the killing, and that’s him donning the inflatable head piece for the climax, where it becomes quickly clear that Hobarth couldn’t see a damned thing while he was wearing it, which also explains why he seldom wore it while he got his murder on. I mean, with those flippers, he could barely maneuver as it was on land, resulting in some pretty turgid chase scenes. And I love how during the climax, when Karen screams at the first reveal, she’s soon out of breath and panting by the time the monster actually gets close enough to menace her.
Now, you may be asking yourself, Wasn’t that a little dangerous, tying a plastic bag around your head? And the answer would be, Yes. Yes it was. Hobarth would later recount running out of air while filming the climax, overheating, and passing out. And as you watch the fight, where Hobarth is obviously using that flare as a beacon as he blindly stumbles around and reaches for his opponent, you can see the bag rapidly deflating as the oxygen inside is replaced with carbon dioxide. I tell ya, one can only watch and boggle, folks. As Lyz Kingsley said in her review of The Sting of Death over at And You Call Yourself a Scientist, “[Hobart] rose to the challenge by whipping together a monster so hilariously, so mind-bogglingly inept, it almost circles right back around and becomes a work of sheer genius."
Hobart would also team up with Harry Kerwin for some very effective special makeup effects, too. The scarring on Egon is top notch, and at the end, when Egon’s dreams go up in smoke and it looks like the back of his head detonated on impact is startlingly effective. (Pretty sure they borrowed H.G. Lewis’ secret recipe for Kaopectate based stage blood, too.)
Acting wise, I think Grefe got the best he could out of his cast. Joe Morrison was a holdover from Grefe’s first two films, and comes off fine as a poor man’s John Ashley. The script does Valerie Hawkins no favors, as Karen is the worst kind of dense; and so, one hopes Hawkins was into the method if you know what I mean. John Vella actually brings some pathos to Egon. But the rest of the cast is pretty much a blur as they are all just there to be ogled at and get killed. Sharp eyes will spot future Land of the Giants co-star, Deanna Lund, as Karen’s friend, Jessica. She was Larry King’s fiancee at the time of filming, whose career in broadcasting began in Miami.
Once filming wrapped, and all efforts to find a second feature to attach to it failed, Flink and the boys at Thunderbird Pictures turned to Grefe to bail them out and cook something up quick and have it ready to release in less than four months, which netted the equally gonzo Death Curse of Tartu (1966), which Grefe wrote in less than 24-hours and started shooting about twelve hours later. He made his April deadline, and this notorious double-feature hit the southern drive-in circuit a month later. Alas, it never went national, which is too bad. More people really need to see these movies.
And before I wrap this up, one should also note how freakin’ amazing Sting of Death looks, and how much the amazing Technicolor just pops off the screen. The too blue water, the fashions, the hairstyles, just BOOM and KAPOW! I swear, each and every frame looks like a mint postcard from 1965, or a spread from a catalog or travel brochure of the same vintage. The film was shot on 35mm and was almost lost forever due to some invasive mold damage when the folks at Something Weird Video got a hold of the original print. And after two labs took a pass, saying the film was unsalvageable, a third worked a miracle, preserving this vibrant piece of utter nonsense and filmmaking chutzpah in digital perpetuity and we, as film watchers, are better for it.
What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 19 reviews down with 7 to go! Up Next: Death by trombone.
The Sting of Death (1965) Essen Productions Inc. :: Thunderbird International Pictures / P: Richard S. Flink, Joseph Fink, Juan Hidalgo-Gato / AP: Hank Rifkin / D: William Grefé / W: William Kerwin / C: Julio C. Chávez, Julio Roldan / E: Julio C. Chávez / M: Al Jacobs, Lon E. Norman / S: Joe Morrison, Valerie Hawkins, John Vella , Jack Nagle, Sandy Lee Kane, Deanna Lund, Lois Etelman, Blanche Devereaux, Doug Hobart, Judy Lee, Robert Stanton