William Grefé was a fixture on the Southern exploitation film scene during the 1960s and 70s. His career stretched from working as second unit director on Del Tenny’s infamous I Eat Your Skin to directing the shark sequences for Live and Let Die. On his own, he directed fourteen films including Stanley, Impulse, Mako: The Jaws of Death and The Wild Rebels. Sting of Death was his first horror film, and probably still the only Portuguese man o’ war monster movie.
A woman sunbathes and listens to the radio. As we hear about missing fisherman, a strange-looking hand pokes at some wiring. She starts rubbing suntan lotion on herself and we see she’s being stalked by what appears to be a wet suit with limp pool noodles attached to it. Apparently hoping for some love at first sting, the creature drags her into the water.
Dr. Richardson (Jack Nagle) and his assistant Dr. Hoyt (Joe Morrison) are doing marine biology stuff somewhere in the Everglades. His daughter Karen (Valerie Hawkins) and some of her sorority sisters are coming by for Spring Break. After a party gets out of hand and some locals harass the doctor’s other, deformed, assistant Egon (John Vella), the bodies start dropping with a vengeance.
By any objective standards, Sting of Death is a terrible movie. First and foremost, it features “Special Singing Star Neil Sedaka!” whose performance of “Do the Jellyfish” is the film’s one truly horrifying moment. The creature hides in a swimming pool and nobody notices, including the girl who decides to take a swim. There’s an attack by sandwich bags with paint in them pretending to be Portuguese man o’ war. You get the idea.
Surprisingly though, mixed in with the bad effects and padded out underwater and air boat scenes there’s a bit of nudity I wasn’t expecting. It’s shot through a frosted glass shower door and somewhat obscured, but you can still make out Susan’s (Blanche Devereaux) assets surprisingly clearly. That must have been shot as an incentive to get dad to take the boys to the show.
But for those of us with an interest in the history of the genre, Sting of Death is a must-see. The script, credited to “Al Dempsey” was actually written by William Kerwin. His career as an actor and writer spanned everything from H.G. Lewis’s Blood Feast to Absence of Malice with Paul Newman. Deanna Lund who would go on to do TV’s Land of the Giants and films like Elves and Transylvania Twist turns up as Jessica, one of the sorority girls.
It’s the kind of cheese that went from being a staple on the drive-in circuit to a staple of late-night TV. And, in an age of big-budget, mainstream horror, we need to remember small regional films like Sting of Death. It may not be a great film, but it was the kind of film that introduced many of us to the genre. And for that reason alone, it’s worth watching.
Fantasia is presenting a restored print of Sting of Death from Arrow films as part of this year’s festival.