Wednesday, May 11, 2016

They Came from the Swamp DVD Review

The following review will be featured in Monsters from the Vault #34 when published later this year, however, I wanted to spread the word about this EXCELLENT documentary from director Daniel Griffith as soon as possible. I encourage everyone to pick up a copy before it sells out!

They Came from the Swamp: The Films of William Grefé (2016; Ballyhoo Home Entertainment, Two DVD Collector's Set). Available from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures (, $29.99 SRP.

Reviewed by Bryan Senn


So announces the colorful flyer for this colorful new documentary about the unsung godfather of Florida-based drive-in filmmaking, William Grefé. In the 1960s and '70s, Grefé supplied Southern drive-ins (and, in some cases, cinemas around the country) with crowd-pleasing exploitation fare like the swampland double bill Sting of Death (the first—and only—film about a jellyfish-man!) and Death Curse of Tartu, the Willardesque snake-fright flick Stanley, and the Willard-meets-Jaws variation Mako: The Jaws of Death.

Before watching this documentary, I had seen only a handful of Grefé's films. While I'd enjoyed them to varying degrees (particularly the cheesy entertainment of the jellyfish-man delivering the Sting of Death, and the creepy-crawly ooginess of Stanley), I never thought of Grefé as being a maverick auteur. Hell, I hardly ever thought of Grefé at all. But after getting to know the man and his swampy oeuvre through this thoroughly engaging overview of his career, I was eager to seek out more of his films.

Unpretentious, soft-spoken, self-effacing, patient, and overall a heck of a nice guy (according to those who worked with him), Grefé admittedly is not the most dynamic of speakers. Fortunately, the stories he tells (such as one involving the disastrous meeting of a valuable 1,000-year-old Chinese vase and a clumsy film crew) keeps interest high. And Daniel Griffith, They Came from the Swamp's director/producer/photographer/editor, livens up Grefé's on-camera presence by interspersing pertinent comments and stories from a plethora of interviewees. Thankfully, apart from a few bon mots by film historian Chris Poggiali, and some general comments from later indy filmmakers Frank Henenlotter and Fred Olen Ray, the documentary keeps to actual Grefé personnel—from actors and contemporaries (like fellow exploitation pioneers David Friedman and H.G. Lewis), to cameramen, sound men, and even Grefé's long-time script girl—making this a engrossingly up-close-and-personal bio-doc.

Organized as a career overview, They Came from the Swamp charts Grefé's moviemaking year by year, beginning with 1963's The Checkered Flag, and going through I Eat Your Skin (which Grefé worked on as second unit director), Racing Fever, Sting of Death, Death Curse of Tartu (shot in just seven days in the Everglades), The Devil's Sisters (shot in ten), The Wild Rebels, The Hooked Generation, The Naked Zoo (starring Rita Hayworth), Live and Let Die (more second unit work, complete with gators), Stanley, The Godmothers, Impulse (starring William Shatner), Mako: The Jaws of Death (with Richard Jaeckel), Whiskey Mountain (his final film as director), and 1985's Cease Fire (as producer).

Through interviews and clips, augmented by fascinating behind-the-scenes footage (someone seemingly always brought along an 8mm camera to his shoots), we learn such intriguing tidbits like how Christopher George, not Burt Reynolds, was the first choice to play the lead role in Deliverance; and how just before shooting was scheduled to start, Grefé simply transformed his script about stock-car racers into one about bikers when Corman's The Wild Angels became a huge indy hit. (The result: The Wild Rebels.)

Augmenting the exceptional documentary is a cornucopia of bonus features: The usual still gallery (with an unusually excellent assortment of behind-the-scenes photographs), a trailer collection (covering most of Grefé's oeuvre), a tantalizing docu-short on Crown International (who aspired to be the "new AIP") that just begs to be expanded to feature length, a ten-minute "Mako: Jaws of Death" promo piece, and two Bacardi Rum industrial films directed by Grefé, including a seventeen-minute pirate-themed promo short called "Barcardi: The Mixable One" that stars... William Shatner! But the most gratifying extra of all is the complete, rare, 1977 Grefé feature film Whiskey Mountain, starring Christopher George (the first time it has been issued on DVD). Yes, one of the many extras on this two-disc set is a full feature film! Being a Christopher George fan (who can forget the backwoods exploitation classic Grizzly?) made me appreciate the icing on this Whiskey cake even more, as this heretofore obscure effort (shot in the same area as Deliverance) proved to be an entertaining—and sometimes hard-hitting—hicksploitation winner. Talk about bang for your buck…

Smoothly edited to keep things lively and interest high, and featuring some wonderful clips and behind-the-scenes footage, this exhaustive (but by no means exhausting—I could easily have continued on for twice its length) capsule of a fringe filmmaker remains both edifying (at least for those interested in vintage exploitation moviemaking) and entertaining. And like the best filmmaker documentaries, They Came from the Swamp makes one want to view more of this intrepid moviemaker's work.

1 comment:

  1. Jim, check your email for hosting invoice, I am getting bounces from your account. Thanks, Mark