Death Curse in
The Everglades

by Ken Marten

THE FIRST TIME I SAW THE EVERGLADES was on TV, although at age 7 or 8, I was too young to realize what I was seeing. To a northern Michigan kid, there was no difference between the Amazon Rainforest, the African jungle where Tarzan was king, and the Florida Everglades — especially on a black-and-white Magnavox. They all had one thing in common: Warmth. Obviously, whatever and wherever I was looking at had never known an icicle.

It’s a myth that Michigan has no summer. There are several months — or at least several hours — every year when the northern natives discard long johns for bathing suits and expose their pallid limbs while proudly proclaiming that they love Michigan’s change of seasons and eagerly await the coming cold weather. A land of eternal short sleeves and no snowdrifts? How boring.

The vehicle that introduced this exotic locale was Death Curse of Tartu, a horror film that floated to my northern nook of the state in the early ’70s on the first information superhighway of my lifetime: Cable television. It ushered the youth of Rogers City, a misnamed outpost on Lake Huron’s coast with a population around 5,000, from the three-channel Dark Ages to a TV Renaissance, led by luminaries like Popeye, Gilligan, Larry, Moe and Curly. With arctic winds screaming off the Great Lake and mountains of plowed snow reaching the lower branches of naked oaks and maples, we’d peer through frosted front windows at bundled adults toiling with shovels, shudder sympathetically, and return to our TV enlightenment.

Prime time for me was Saturday afternoon with the dial locked on WKBD Channel 50, a non-network iconoclast from far-off Detroit. My buddies and I would gather in somebody’s living room to get the crap scared out of us first by ‘Creature Feature,’ which usually starred radiation-soaked behemoths like Godzilla and his brethren. It was followed by ‘The Chiller Movie,’ which was more straight horror with haunted houses, vampires and Vincent Price.

Both were the sort of homegrown show that sandwiched film segments between commercials for regional products and used car lots. Once staples of stations across the country, they withered away with maturation of cable and its 24-hour movie channels, then with the advent of VHS tapes and DVDs, which enabled film addicts to record or buy their favorites rather than wait for them to be aired.

And that’s exactly what happened in 2006 when I stumbled onto Death Curse of Tartu in the horror section of a local movie store three decades after the film first frightened me. Being one of my Chiller favorites, I’d have paid any price. But coupled as a two-for-one with Sting of Death, it was a steal at $9.99.

While nostalgia set in, the boast on the DVD packaging hooked me further: “Filmed deep in the Florida Everglades.” Coincidentally, I was planning my first ever trip to Florida — a week in March at a pal’s Cape Coral condo — and a visit to the Everglades was on the to-do list.

Generally, critics aren’t kind to Tartu. For just one example, ‘VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever’ gives it a “woof” — zero — out of one-to-four bones and describes it as “a low-budget flick so bad it’s funny.” It’s a definitive drive-in, B-movie effort with bikini-babe victims and questionable acting. Tartu director and screenwriter William Grefé, a lifelong Floridian, confirms low-budget status in the DVD’s bonus audio commentary, noting that it was shot in 1966 over 7 days for about $27,000. He wrote the screenplay in 24 hours.

The Tartu plot is the standard blasphemers-disturb-an-ancient-legend-and-it-takes-revenge: An archeology prof and his wife lead four naive students into the Everglades. The kids awaken the corpse of Tartu, a 400-year-old Seminole medicine man, after making out and dancing to a swinging ‘60s number on his grave. “Horror” ensues, as Tartu’s spirit takes the form of dangerous critters and the students meet untimely deaths.

It was all terrifying to an 8-year-old. Less so for an adult. But that doesn’t mean I like Tartu any less. I’m a fan of low-budget horror today precisely because these films made me cower beneath the beanbag 30-plus years ago. The tell-tale signs — shoddy acting, lame effects, exploitation — are endearing today. Fans don’t overlook these qualities; instead, we acknowledge and embrace them for what they are. I laugh at the rubber tarantula in Tartu’s tomb that doesn’t move for 10 minutes and the flesh-tone tights worn by the resurrected medicine man, but I don’t dismiss the film.

Grefé, who now lives near Fort Lauderdale, isn’t hard to find. He has a website. He shared his perspective.

“American critics tend to judge independent films with major studio films on the same level, and the comparison just isn’t accurate,” Grefé said. “To shoot in the Everglades was a nightmare back then. You had to lug around cameras that weighed 300 pounds. The editing process was also a nightmare. We didn’t have digital or any of that modern stuff. I defy [Stephen] Spielberg or [George] Lucas or any of these giants to shoot a film in seven days with $27,000 and a 300-pound camera.”

Grefé is a career filmmaker and is still active. He’s a sought-after personality at horror conventions around the country and has a following of young filmmakers who revere his independent work. And that’s the key word — “independent.” It’s sometimes a euphemism for “low-budget,” but it always means working outside of the major Hollywood studios, without Hollywood stars and without the Hollywood publicity machine.

Within that frame of mind is how I view and deconstruct a film like Tartu today.

Watching film of anywhere doesn’t compare to plunging headlong into the place and allowing the climate to seep into your pores, the smells fill your nostrils, the unfiltered sounds echo in your ears. I found the Everglades so enchanting, I paid not one but two visits to Florida’s “last frontier” (according to tourism brochures) where the breeze, as it rattles brittle palm fronds and dabs the taste of salt on your lips, is always warm.

To a Michigander of any age, it’s like a different planet. Giant reptiles as common as clouds. Trees that walk and strangle. Long-legged, long-billed birds with rainbow plumage. No elevation. Even the airboats are alien; while there are more registered watercraft in Michigan than in any other state, I’ve never seen an airboat plying the Great Lakes.

Tartu first opened that door. Grefé and his camera-lugging crew actually turned the Everglades into one of the film’s characters, like Vienna in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, or New York City in NBC’s various “‘Law & Order’ series.

Shooting on location is a must for achieving setting-as-character, and it’s painfully obvious whenever the film’s victim slop through the muck. At times, Tartu is pointedly Everglades exploitation, with its focus on deadly snakes, a man-eating alligator and shark (I suppose the water was extremely brackish), and life-sucking quicksand, which I’m not sure is found in the region. There’s not an anhinga or manatee in the lens. “In any horror movie, you play up the dangers,” Grefé explained.

But surrounding the Everglades’ dangers is its environmental beauty: the mangroves, the hammocks, the palm trees, the endless fields of saw grass. It makes for lush, albeit soggy, scenery, and I suspect Grefé was aware of its on-screen potential. Tartu is just one of several films he shot in the Everglades, along with Sting of Death (1966) and Stanley (1972). In fact, Grefé could lay claim to a sense of “independent film ownership” to the Everglades similar to director John Ford’s association with Monument Valley, also known as ‘Ford Country’ because he shot so many Hollywood westerns at that rugged patch of scenery on the Utah/Arizona border.

‘Grefé Country’ isn’t merely an accolade to a filmmaker. It’s also a testament to the allure of the Everglades, to the power of nature and its ability to awe our senses and mystify our imaginations. Further proof is Grefé’s observation that many sites where he filmed on the Everglades’ fringe have since given way to slice-of-paradise homes and condos.

Tartu even includes hints of Florida’s cultural facets not found elsewhere. The film stars Cuban émigré Fred Pinero as the wise and wily archeologist — an independent forebear of Indiana Jones — and features Seminole actors in bit parts.

So, is Death Curse of Tartu schlock? A woof on the rate-o-meter? Low-budget elements notwithstanding, it depends on how wide the viewer is willing to open his eyes. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I can’t think of a more beautiful place than the Everglades to make a film. Thanks to Tartu, my eyes were opened. •

July-August 2012

Death Curse of Tartu
was shot in 1966 over
7 days for about $27,000.
William Grefé wrote the
screenplay in 24 hours.

Tartu is just one of
several films William Grefé
shot in the Everglades.

“To shoot in the Everglades
was a nightmare.”

William Grefé