Death Curse of Tartu (1966)

*. I like the work Something Weird Video does in keeping drive-in trash in circulation, and I especially like the DVD commentaries their releases come with. In fact, a lot of the time the commentaries are more fun, even a lot more fun, than the movies.
*. This is the case with the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Though only a few of his movies repay a second viewing, Lewis’s commentaries are always bright and entertaining. William Grefé is a step down from Lewis both in the directing and the commenting department. There are fun spots when listening to Grefé, like when he remarks during one of his signature booty-shaking dance scenes that “the girls in the ’60s had a little meat on them. If I shot them now they’d be skin and bones.” But overall you get the sense that he’s a bit surprised that anyone should care about any of this.
*. Grefé’s movies are definitely not worth watching twice, so when I came back to this one I just plugged it in and listened to the commentary. I knew I wasn’t missing anything.
*. By the way, in case you’re wondering, if you take another step down from William Grefé you get Andy Milligan, whose movies aren’t worth watching at all. And since he died in 1991 there aren’t any commentaries. But Something Weird have done what they can for them.
*. So, Death Curse of Tartu. Grefé needed to make a movie quick and he had the funding so he took the old story of the mummy’s curse and transplanted it to the Florida Everglades, changing Tutankhamun to a more Native American-sounding Tartu. Though I don’t think Tartu is a Native American name. It’s actually the name of the second-largest city in Estonia and a residence at the University of Toronto (which is named after the city in Estonia). I lived there for a couple of years. The residence, not the city in Estonia.
*. The mummy idea wasn’t bad, and the way the mummy can turn itself into different swamp critters was kind of original. I wonder what the first film to do this was. Not just something like Cat People where you have a character who may be turning into a particular spirit animal or familiar, but one with the power to be all kinds of different animals. I can’t think of an earlier example of this, though I’m sure it had been done before.
*. Grefé wrote the script in 24 hours and then shot the whole thing in a week on a budget of $27,000. So the only response to complaints about how awful it looks is “What did you expect?” Or as Grefé himself puts it on the commentary track: “You know when you read some critics they’ll compare a movie like this with a fifty-million-dollar horror movie and you know my saying is let the guy who directed the fifty-million-dollar film and had six months, let him try to shoot a picture in seven days and see how good he does on $27,000.”
*. This is a strong defence, and up to a point unanswerable. The point being where Grefé no longer gave a damn precisely because of his limitations. Does it make sense to have Tartu take the form of a shark when (1) there’s no way a shark could crawl out of the tomb as we see the snake doing; (2) Grefé could only intercut stock footage of a shark swimming around with a guy flailing madly in the water in order to depict a shark attack; and (3) there are no sharks in the Everglades? No. But as he says, “”When you write a screenplay in 24 hours what the hell do you want?”
*. There have been low-budget auteurs who have done more with less. Death Curse of Tartu is only functional given its budget, and that’s not nearly enough. It’s just painful to watch the actors struggling through the swamp and reacting to animals that aren’t there. As a movie, it feels like we’re stuck with them in a kind of endurance test. Throughout the commentary there’s joking about how characters who are killed off have been set free. Despite its promising premise and the semblance of a structure to its nonsensical script, it was hard for me not to feel a similiar sense of release at the end.

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