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He Came from the Swamp: The William Gref - He Came from the Swamp(Blu Ray boxset) [Arrow Video - 2020]

He Came From The Swamp is a recent blu-ray boxset from the folks over at Arrow Video- both in the UK & US. It features seven films from Florida based writer/ director William Grefé, who stands as one of the versatile & consistent names from the US exploitation circuit of the 60’s & 70’s- sure his output was cheap & trashy, but the films were largely entertaining & relatively competently made. His worked featured here moves between silly creature features, crime drama, hippy road movie, light thriller/ horror hag soapiness, sharksploitation, and backwoods thriller.

The four Blu Ray boxset is laid out similarly to Arrow Video's Herschell Gordon Lewis set from a few years back, and the discs menus even used the same artists. So you get two films on each of the four discs- with the 4th disc taking in one film, and a two-plus hour doc from 2016 about the director. Like the Lewis set all of many of these Grefé pictures appeared first digitally as Something Weird releases- so the first four films in the set feature archive commentary tracks brining together Grefé & cult filmmaker/ genre fan Frank Henenlotter- these are nicely chatty, fun & story lined tracks. The final three films feature new tracks with just Grefé- these are full of interesting background on each film, as well as some great stories relating to each film's production. We do get a few new extras on the discs- and these are mainly new introductions to each film by the director, these run between around three-to-five minutes, and are a nice blend of oversight/ memories- the other new extras I’ll mention, as & when we come to them on the discs. Much like the Lewis box, the prints have been given an HD presentation- though none of these are great/ damage free, but I guess these been older exploitation films of the 60’s to late 70’s period you can’t expect miracles.


Disc one takes in two films- Sting of Death & Death Curse of Tartu- both of these are from 1966. So first up we have Sting of Death, this was his third film after two racing car drama/ thrillers 1963’s The Chequered Flag & 1964's Racing Fever.  I guess it’s best to describe Sting of Death as a cheap-creature feature set in the Florida everglades, with the creature been a jellyfish man who stalks then attacks his victims with webbed hands & multi-coloured tentacles.  It’s very trashy drive-in fare, with just about competent filming, & very haphazard acting- that goes from amusingly wooden- to-just about passable. Plot-wise we find highly strung- yet decidedly naive college teen Karen Richardson (Valerie Hawkins)visiting her dad(Jack Nagle), a marine biologist, on his island compound in the Florida Everglades where he studies Jellyfish. Karen invites her loud & buoyant buddies to party & dance at the house- and get we a very tacky jelly fish-themed dance workout around the pool. The friends start taunting the doctor's creepy assistant, Egon(John Vella)- who has a half-burnt face and one eye closed.  Fairly soon they become victims of a wetsuit-wearing. bipedal jellyfish creature- who latter gets revealed having a head that is clearly a man wear a blown-up plastic bag.The first half or so of the film been the mystery of who the monster is?- is it her sleek & toned boyfriend Dr John Hoyt, her rather bumbling & bland father,  one of her friends, or Egon. The films an often unintentionally amusing blend of slow lumbering creature footage, hammy under & overacting, hover boat footage, cheap kills which more often than not just feature red smeared faces, underwater footage, and a tacky-if-kind of the neat underwater lair of the jellyfish man that features naff skulls, green, red & pink lights and a bubbling entry pool.


So next on disc one we, of course, have Death Curse of Tartu, and this film came about due promoter wanting a second film for a double bill with String Of Death, so he paid for this film. Once again we’re in a cheesy & camp horror tip- it focuses in on a strip of wild everglades that is meant to be haunted by a shape-shifting Indian mummy. A group of young 'n' swinging archaeology students & their teachers head to the cursed land- and one by one they get knocked off by the various animals the mummy morphs into- so we get one person crushed to death by an anaconda, a couple getting eaten by a shark with only a crappy mannequin hand remaining, alligator mauling, and later native Indian attack.  The plot I guess has an almost proto-slasher vibe about it, but aside from a few fleeting moody moments, there’s not much scary/ or shocking here- as much of the film soundtrack featured either looping tribal drums or overloud horn bound scoring. We get repeated shots of the tacky looking mummy in its coffin just before each kill, and the characters are gloriously dumb & clichéd 60’s teen- just like Sting we get a cheesy dance scene with a group jiving & jerking in the foliage. The film is campy enough fun, but boy does it really, really drag in places- as we get a lot of shots of folk wandering up & down the cursed land for seemingly little rhyme or reason, making it clear these scenes were added in to pad out the runtime. It’s certainly not as much fun as Sting…as there’s even less gore, and the whole thing is rather repetitive.
On the new extras front on this disc we get two around eleven-minute featurette- Sting of Death: Beyond the Movie – Monsters a-Go Go! – a look into the history of rock & roll monster movies by author/historian C. Courtney Joyner, and  The Curious Case of Dr Traboh: Spook Show Extraordinaire – a ghoulish look into the early spook show days with monster maker Doug Hobart. The first of these was personally of most  interest, as we get a wonderful potted history of roll ‘n’ roll fight pics, including one featuring Elvis in the Scooby-doo like haunted house romp Tickle Me.

 


Moving onto disc two and we have two more films- first up is The Hooked Generation- this is from 1968, and is a crime drama focusing in on a drug-dealing gang. The film opens introducing us to the lead members of the gang, who are in the cabin of a boat- we have Acid(John Davis Chandler), whose constantly strung-out on heroin- and he’s shooting himself up over the film's credits. There’s the darkly tanned and goatee bearded Dum Dum( former World Light heavyweight Boxing Champion Willie Pastrano), the seemingly laid-back yet devious Daisy(Jeremy Slate) a bead necklace wearing, feathered hair & shade wearing stoner- who has a rather Peter Fonder quality. The group are waiting for the Cubans to turn up with a drug stash- when they appear they’ve put up their price by $2500- and one thing leads to another with the Cubans been shot, then the gang burn their boat- and this starts the escalation in the gang's troubles- we have a boat full of coast guards, a twenty-something couple who gets kidnapped, and a gang of FBI agents. The film moves from the boat, onto their grimy & murky hideout, to a flashy & exotic drug-taking den, onto the everglades. The film runs a tad too long for what it is at the one hour & thirty-four-minute mark- so it does drag at points. The key gang members are fairly memorable & effective in their roles- but Chandler as the unbalanced 'n' clammy junkie, and Slate as the cool-yet- deadly gang leader get the best scenes. We have a few fights- gun & hand to hand, some largely bloodless shootings, a few fairly tame attacks on women, and few drownings. As crime dramas go The Hooked Generation is passable enough, but it’s a pity there isn’t a bit more edge/ brutality here, and the pacing goes off a little from-time-to-time.

The second film on disc two is 1971’s The Psychedelic Priest(aka Electric Shades of Grey)- this seemingly didn’t get a full release at its time of making, only properly appearing on Something Weird Video in 2001 as a double bill with The Hooked Generation. It’s a pity it didn’t see the light of day back when it was made, as it’s a passable/ entertaining enough hippy road movie with a few decidedly grim/ bleak turns. The films focus is Father John(John Darrell)- a young catholic priest, who when we first meet him is telling off a group of teens for smoking Pot- the group offer him a drink, and it turns out it was spiked with Acid- next, he has a decidedly budget-if-effective enough trip- with 'end on tunnel' lens effects, burning red sun in orange sky, and eerier spinning church light effects. Next time we meet the Father he’s seemingly left the faith, and is travelling to LA- he’s decidedly unkempt with lank creasy hair & stubble. Fairly soon he meets up with initially timid hitchhiker, and after some chatting & time together they bound. Next, he come across a just about to give birth women, who they quickly take to a van where a group of hippies & a dropped-out African American doctor hang out- after the birth the three head off, later stopping for a bite to eat at a roadside dinner- the doctor gets snatched by redneck cops, and we find out he’s been bloody killed in one of the films more shocking downbeat moments. From here the pair set off once more, and things really go from bad-to-worse- with the whole thing ending in a fairly effective circular manner. Darrell isn’t half bad as the dropped-out priest, though at times his dialogue seems badly dubbed over- the supporting cast is passable, and the films around one hour twenty minutes flows by well enough- which is surprising when you considering there was no real script.
New extras wise here we get two featurettes from Author/ film historian Chris Poggiali - these run around eight minutes each, and find him discussing each film in turn- the most interesting of the two is for The Hooked Generation, as he discusses wider drug/ hippy gang films.

 

Moving onto disc number three and first up we have 1970’s The Naked Zoo- which is best labelled as a swinging & soap-bound drama, with light thriller elements and slight traces of the horror hag genre. The film focus in on sleek & smooth young author Terry Saw(Steve Oliver)- who is liberally bedding women left, right & centre. Most of the women he dumps after, but one seems to stay front & centre in his mind is Mrs Golden(Rita Hayworth) - a rich middle-aged woman who also seems to be semi supporting Terry’s lifestyle. As the film goes on & he beds-then-drops more women, we find out Mrs Golden husband is wheelchair-bound, and one night when Terry visiting the Golden's house the husband starts shooting at the pair of lovers, but during this shoot out he runs into a wall & dies.
The film sort of shifts & shambles along rather- with Terry repeating been a gad & belittling women, we get some moments of fleeting flesh & some neat enough tripped out moments- but like The Psychedelic Priest, these are lo-fi. Oliver is good enough as the smug Terry, Hayworth gets a few bitchy moments- but she never really get chance to truly go all out horror-hag. As for this type of late ’60s/ 70’s drama/ light thriller The Naked Zoo is enjoyable enough, it’s just a pity there wasn’t a bit more bite & sleaze to the whole thing.

Next on disc three, we have 1976’s Mako: The Jaws of Death- from its title & poster artwork you’d think this was another straight Jaws rip-off, but in reality, it’s a fairly distinctive & original shark film. With a nice blend underwater footage, some neat set-ups, an effective soundtrack that moves between brooding-to-tense organ/ jazziness and a nice moody led soundtracking. The film kicks off in a fairly standard manner- where sees three men trying to catch a shark with a hook & fishing line- all of a sudden a driver suite wearing figure cuts the fishing line, jumps on board the boat & kills all three men. Fairly soon we find out the driver is Sonny Stein(Richard Jaeckel)- a brooding loner who lives out in swamps, though pops into the local bar to pick-up scraps for his friends- these friends are sharks. From here we get a dodgy vet who wants to breed a shark in captivity, and a huge cigar-chewing bar owner who wants to use one of Sonny’s friends in his female tank dancer act- initially Sonny helps both of them out, but expectedly things don’t go to plan. Jaeckel is great as the mean & moody loner, the supporting cast is fairly good/ memorable too & we even get Harold Sakata( Oddjob) as one of the local shark stalking goons. I’d say that this is certainly the best film of the set, and a worthy/ memorable exploitation film in its own rights.
Extras on this disc- aside from the already mention new directors commentary, is another 'beyond the movie' featurette- this funds Michael Gingold discussing nature vs. man films, before moving on to discuss sharksploitation films in general & of Mako: The Jaws Of Death- this runs around the eight-minute mark. We get two audio-only interviews- ones with Jen Bishop who played the underwater/ dancer love interest in Manko, and the others with Mako screenwriter Robert Morgan- this each run around ten minutes. We also get a more flesh bound version of The Naked Zoo.

 


Last up there is disc four- and we have one more film and the two-hour doc on Grefé. So the last film we have in the set is 1977’s Whiskey Mountain, which is a backwoods action/ thriller- that edges towards horror, but never fully gets there. The film focuses in on the two 30 something couples- Bill( Christopher George) &  Diana( Roberta Collins), and Dan(Preston Price) & Jamie (Linda Borgeson)- who decide to go up into woods ‘n’ mountains to find one of their grandfathers stash confederate guns, which they hope to make big bucks from. Both Bill & Dan are experienced motocross riders- so this means the four can get nicely deep into the backwoods. Initially, the film is relatively easy-going, with fleeting moments of threat- but as we move on, and get deeper into the woods the group's stalker gets more dangerous/ sleazed with his warning offs moving from setting a fire around their camp, cutting the rope on their raft cutting, and stealing panties. George is as always likeable enough 70’s rogue, Dan looks like a spit for Tobe hopper is passable though slightly bland, and both Collins & Borgeson are ok, with the latter coming off the better with more spit & passion with her performances. Most of the hillbillies are not that threatening, aside from a large grey-haired & potbellied one. For the first hour or so the film largely stays in low-key thriller/ drama setting. After this things start to turn a little more uneasy & tense- we get an effective attack shown via Polaroid’s, victims screams, and leering hillbilly chatter. There are bridges blown up, vans over-turned, a shoot-out, and a helicopter related( though fairly obvious) twist. All in all, it’s a passable enough backwoods 1970's thriller.

Made in 2006 They Came from the Swamp: The Films of William Grefé- runs two hours and six minutes. It was directed by Daniel Griffith- who has one hundred and thirteen directorial credits to his name- most of these been featurettes/ docs about film, so as expected They Came from the Swamp is a very well put together doc. It begins with Grefé talking about his youth, been in the navy, working as a fireman- then making his first film The Chequered Flag, which did well enough for him to become a full-time filmmaker. As we move on we get a good selection of interviews from cast, crew, and other exploitation directors/ producers. The doc covers all of Grefé’s sixteen feature-length films, with around ten plus minutes for each film- he also discussing his other work including work on the 1973 James Bond film Live And Let Die. Grefé comes across well, down-to-earth and never pretentious/ pompous. The others been interviewed come up with some great & amusing stories from their time working with Grefé. On the whole, They Came from the Swamp is a very thorough and well put together doc- which will be of interest to anyone who is interested in exploitation cinema.
Aside from the already mention introductions & commentary, there’s no more new extras on this disc. We do get a few interesting archive extras- taking in a 2015 featurette about the US independent distributor Crown International- this runs around the seventeen-minute mark- featured are Chris Poggiali & Grefé,  it covers the companies formation, key figures behind the company, poster art & films the company put out-a great watch. We get a selection of cut scenes from the doc,  a short & onset footage.

It’s great to see He Came From The Swamp boxset coming out- as Grefé is certainly one of the more quality bound US exploitation directors, and he hasn't really got the praise & respected he deserves. All told it’s a largely well put together boxset from Arrow Video- sure the films prints here aren’t the greatest, but they're passable for exploitation films of the ’60s & ’70s. So if you’re a fan of exploitation or grindhouse cinema, you most certainly need to be investing in this set.

Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5

Roger Batty
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