This is the sort of movie that leaves you torn, and not in that good, existential, pondering-the-essential-plight-of-mankind way, but in the should-I-laugh-or-should-I-cry way. Laugh because you know you and your friends are going to have fun ripping it to pieces like slow-cooked roast. Cry because you always hope for more creativity in an essentially hidebound proposition like a monster movie, but when that creativity gives you a menace like this...
Oh, let us start from the beginning. It will hurt more that way.
The beginning actually gives the viewer some hope for What Is To Come: while generic "rock and roll" plays (read: what the library music company considered rock and roll), a slimy, monstrous hand grabs a screwdriver and starts poking at some electronic equipment. I mean, it's so slimy, it leaves gross little chunks on the table. This is, for the monster mavens among us (perpetually six years old) GROSS and COOL. The poking provokes a flash, and then we're at the source of the generic rock: a blonde sunbathing on a pier with her transistor radio.
Because this is a Monster Movie, when the music ends it is time for a "WFUN News Break!" provided by the Backstory News Agency. It seems there have been some mysterious deaths and disappearances in the area, mainly fisherman working close to the Everglades. This is underscored by those monstrous hands getting closer and closer (we suppose) to the Blonde, leaving slime on the tree trunks they are hiding behind (GROSS! COOL!), until this stalker finally slips into the water. The exposition on the radio discomfits the Blonde, causing her to switch off the radio and apply more suntan lotion to herself, which is the cue for those monster hands to rise from the murky water and pull her in.
Now, this initial monster attack is well-done. You know, splashing, screaming, she makes it to the dock and almost to safety, then is pulled back under to her doom. Her dead body will be dragged underwater to some ultimately unknown fate while the credits play.
It's well-shot, and pretty well-paced - a good opener. But it is also shot through with unfortunate little clues that let you in on what awaits you in the Larger Picture Experience:
First of all - that electric flash I mentioned earlier? Usually accomplished with a flash pot and some minor pyro? Possibly some cheap lightning animation from some local production house. Not here, Johnny. There's cheap animation, but it looks like it's from a commercial package, a generic red starburst that would not be out of place on the 60s Batman series. All it requires is a BIFF or POW written in it. More appropriately, a ZAP. Or even more to the point, a SUCK.
Alright, that's brief, that's okay. It's behind us now. We can progress to the fact that our monster appears to be wearing swim fins. And a wet suit. There's a little bit of customization on both, enough to tell us that maybe it's not swim fins and a wetsuit. But no, no, I'm sorry. That's definitely swim fins and a wet suit.
The underwater photography is beautiful, very well done. When the camera is under the surface, the water is crystal clear, but go up in the air and the water looks very murky and lake-like. Almost as if they were filmed in two different locations.... naaaaaaaah. What are the chances?
And the final clue that we are going to be in for a rough ride is the following credit:
I will give you a moment until the screaming stops.
From this point, We are introduced to a ton of characters, as a boat pulls up to what I presume is the Dock of Doom and disburses a crowd of college cuties. In the rough and tumble of exposition which follows (all unaided by a handy transistor radio) we will find out that this is the hereditary island home of Marine Biologist Dr. Richardson (Jack Nagle), and his daughter Karen (Valerie Hawkins) has arrived for Spring Break with a bunch of her sorority sisters(blah blah blah). I don't recall if we ever find out which sorority, but chances are it's something like Phi Beta Cannon Fodder. The IMDb lists them by their hair color, which, truthfully, is about as much characterization as we're going to get.
Dr. Richardson is an absent-minded professor sort, which is good for exposition purposes. The handsome young Dr. John Hoyt (Joe Morrison) has come to assist Richardson since Karen left for school. The blonde WFUN listener was Ruth, the Girl Friday, who is missing. And then there's Egon. Ah, Egon...
John Vella is Egon, and I guess we should count ourselves lucky that they didn't go all the way and name him Ygor. Richardson's other assistant, Egon has some burn scars on his face and some makeup slapped over one eye, which somehow makes him hideously grotesque to the girls. Well, not Karen, who has known him for years, but the others act like the Elephant Man just walked into the room, giving a leper a piggyback ride. Louise - one of the girls who shall become infamous to us in a while - teases Egon that he is cute and should be her escort to the party. Louise has, of course, just written her own death warrant, because although the movie would like us to think otherwise, it is pretty damned obvious that Egon is the sort to put on wet suits and swim fins and stick screwdrivers into generic electronic equipment.
Oh, did I say party? That's right, there's a party in about twenty minutes! Did I forget to mention that? Well, so did the men-folk. They thought the girls would like to party down with a bunch of biology students from the nearby college, but the gals are outraged that they've been given such short notice to get ready.
This is a small bit of levity in a flick that is noticeably bereft of even the smallest dollops of (intentional) humor. We are invited to laugh at the wimmin-folk, all in a tizzy 'cause they need more time to get prettified, or the men-folk, for being befuddled that their good intentions have earned them such ire. However, what we should take from this instead is an essential lesson that will allow us to more easily get through the next hour of screen time: If any character in this movie were to appear on Jeopardy opposite a bag of hammers, the smart money would be on the hammers.
I have got to step outside the story for a moment - I'm sure you won't mind, nothing much is going on anyway - to address something that struck me. When we first see the youthful Hoyt, he's leaping from the boat to moor it, and is wearing a bright red-and-white striped shirt and light blue slacks, the sort of ensemble that makes you immediately think, "Look! A Gondolier!" When Egon startles the girls by silently entering the room - he may have issues, but he moves like Batman - he's wearing essential the same outfit, but the stripes on the shirt are a dark yellow and darker blue, the pants equally dark. It's an effort to visually paint Egon the polar opposite of Hoyt, and it's about as subtle and thoughtful as the wimmin-folk humor.
Oh, damn, it's time to go back to the movie, isn't it?
Richardson's supposedly-secluded research station/mansion is starting to look like Grand Central Station as Sheriff Bob's boat hoves into the dock with a brand-new corpse - yet another mysterious fisherman death. Richardson and Hoyt give their bewildered expert opinion - that the wounds look like they were caused by jellyfish tentacles, but that's impossible! Jellyfish are too small! Egon, though, has long been of the opinion that not only can jellyfish be herded like cattle, but they can also be caused to grow larger. There is absolutely no benefit I can see from this line of scientific reasoning, outside of "Because I'm a scientist. That's what we do." but... ha ha! That's Egon!
I'm also disturbed that Sheriff Bob has to motor by to get tips on forensic procedures from a couple of marine biologists, but I admit I'm surprisingly conservative that way.
The boatload of college kids arrive, and boy howdy, do we have a visual for the perils of binge drinking here. I particularly like the guy that falls overboard, then swims to the dock while continuing to drink. Wait! What's that music? Why it must be the dulcet tones of Mr. Neil Sedaka! Why, that's not so bad. Maybe our misgivings were for naught. The kids gyrate on the pier for a bit, until one spots Egon, standing nearby and seemingly (oh, the horror) enjoying the music a bit, so immediately the collegiates form a ring around the unfortunate honorary hunchback and begin tormenting him, despite Karen's tearful entreaties and Hoyt's embarrassed protestations. Egon breaks away and makes a run for it in his air boat, but you know that enough death warrants were signed right there to cause a paper shortage in the county for the next three months.
It's not long before a figure with monstrous swim fins slips into the house swimming pool - which is a good thing, it's almost 25 minutes since our last Monster Moment - just in time for the party to spill outside for a big dance number. If we thought that last blast of Sedaka was all that was required of a "Special SInging Guest Star", we were engaging in false comfort, my friends, as we now get to hear the entirety of "Do The Jellyfish". In fact, I see no reason why you at home should dodge the bullet the rest of the B-Masters and myself have taken many times over. Take this, you bastards:
If worse comes to worse, you can always count the number of gratuitous butt shots (a longtime staple of the beach movie) to pass the time. Or, notice the chunks of slime our monster hand leaves on the poolside and go GROSS! COOL! Or reflect that the guy telling you "Don't be a donkey" is trying to rhyme "Cinderella" with "jellyfish". Or consider that this new dance craze "The Jellyfish" appears to be as amorphous and shapeless as its namesake. You can consider all that. I'm getting a drink.
There is something about Florida swimming pools that makes everything in them invisible, as Louise - that's the cute redhead who collapses into Hoyt's arms at the end of that clip - announces herself to be overheated and is going to jump into the swimming pool, clothes (and monster) and all. Which she proceeds to do, with portentous dialogue from Karen and Hoyt: "You little fool! You'll kill yourself!" "Oh, I'm sure she'll survive." Ha! Louise, you will recall, was the first to sign her own death warrant, as she encounters Mr. Swim Fins in the pool - and I guess along with the inherent invisibility of the pool, you can add soundproofing, as no one notices Louise's plight until she's floating on the surface, unconscious and bloody.
The monster waits until they've hauled her to land before decloaking (by climbing out of the pool) and attacking one of the male partygoers - though not, we note, the one who led the Egon-baiting - before heading out to sea. Richardson tells Hoyt to get his medical kit and radio for help. But... the radio has been smashed! My God! Jaws totally ripped off this movie!
The wounded guy is loaded onto the party boat to be taken to the mainland for medical treatment, as Louise is, remarkably, not considered bad enough for such premium treatment (though later we will see she's hurt badly enough to require constant sedation). So all our partygoers climb aboard, unaware that our monster is sabotaging the boat - with a hatchet, no less.
Following this is pretty much the entire reason to watch Sting of Death. The engine craps out, the boat is beginning to sink - all this is relayed to us by off-camera conversation, as is the news that an unusual number of jellyfish are gathering around the foundering craft...
It is almost impossible to put into words the full effect of this sequence, but I suppose I have to try. What is floating toward the boat is... sandwich bags. And not even a whole lot of sandwich bags. Sealed sandwich bags floating in the water, with some paint poured into them to try to match the iridescent colors of a Portuguese Man-O-War. Underwater shots show streamers attached to their undersides for tentacles (and a couple of those shots almost work), but above the surface... there have to be some close-up shots, the language of film demands it, but the close-ups on the "jellyfish" are deliberately out-of-focus. It doesn't help.
So the entire boatload of people are wiped out by sandwich bags. It's almost enough to keep you from noticing that the sinking boat is completely different from the boat they were riding.
Well, as fellow B-Master Ken Begg said, after I watched this for the first time in his presence: "You have to admit... you've never seen that in a movie before."
So, yeah, now I guess we can go home and... oh noooooooooo WE STILL HAVE HALF A MOVIE LEFT TO GO! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
*Sigh*. We now go to the underwater lair, where it is revealed that Egon is the monster. Yeah, I know. I was paralyzed with shock and surprise, too.
At the hacienda, Louise is getting no better, the Sheriff hasn't come, but that doesn't mean that *SCIENCE* cannot march forward. Yes, Richardson and Hoyt are going to go into the swamp to check their "breeding traps", whatever those are (hey, I'm no marine biologist. I might have been had I known they get to carry around black bags full of morphine). So after a love scene betwixt Karen and Hoyt, we have that other great cinematic time-waster, AN AIR-BOAT TRAVELOGUE through the Everglades. The two biologists take two of the girls with them, because some monster murder mayhem will also help pass the time.
Thus we find out where Egon lives - a shack in the swamp where he can oversee those "breeding traps" and lord it over his aquarium full of jellyfish. While Richardson does something scientific in the next room, one of the girls remembers she left her cigarettes in the air boat. And although there is a monster on the loose, someone smashed the radio, and there are people missing - they let her go back to the boat, alone. With predictable results.
You know what? This is a fairly respectable sequence, if you avoid thinking about the girl running in exactly opposite the direction in which help lies. And staying in the muddy marsh rather than the more solid grassy shores. And, even though stumbling through muck, she's still moving faster than the monster. And...
Aaaah, what the hell. You get some good looks at the monster suit, or at least as much as they want to show us at this point...which is likely still too much:
There is, at least some suspense and horror there. Especially compared with the rest of the movie. Which should tell you something.
Well, she's missed - eventually - and the remainder of our party get back on the boat to search for her. Finding her scarf and some bubbles, they go diving for her, and the blonde who said she was a diver apparently flunked the Buddy System part of class, because she swims off and gets waylaid. Richardson and Hoyt are rapidly racking up points on the Worst. Marine Biologist. EVER list by apparently having only two minutes of air in their aqualungs. Oh, well, they were just college students, they vanish all the time, let's go home.
This leaves us with - hmmm. Karen, and let's see - Susan? let me check the IMDb... Frosted Blonde? Yeah, I guess that's Susan. (Blanche Devereaux) Susan's going to check on Louise, and then take a shower. I'll save you some trouble - like most of the other characters, you can forget about Louise. She's never going to turn up anywhere ever again in the movie. Probably the actress had been sent home by this time, because Susan just calls "Louise? Louise?" through an open door, then gets down to the serious business of giving us some drive-in titillation by doffing her clothes (it's 1965, though. Put those tongues back in your mouths, men-folk).
Naturally, this is a bad move on Susan's part, since Hitchcock had defiled the sanctity of the shower back in 1960 with Psycho. It's likely a bad idea to remind viewers of a better movie, but there's a reason Hitchcock and Bloch did it that way: the vulnerability of the victim and the violation of the private space are quite primal, and require little work on the filmmaker's part to get a frisson of identification and terror out of the audience. This time, really, is no exception.
Well, hey, now we're just down to Karen, Hoyt, Richardson and the Phantom Louise, so it's time for Egon to show back up. Jiminy, somebody sunk their regular boat, so they can't run to the mainland (though why they didn't do that night before, when the boat was still intact...), the two air boats are almost out of gas and wouldn't make it, so the only thing left to do is repair the radio. Here, Egon, you take the only gun on the island, and protect Karen...
Ladies and gentlemen, that sound you hear is the Bag of Hammers confidently wagering everything on Final Jeopardy.
Of course, Egon is going to finally admit his love for Karen, and confess to the killings, causing Karen to faint (wimmin-folk were still fainting due to shock well into the 70s). He loads her onto his air boat (after tenderly placing a cushion from the driver's seat under her head - a nice touch) and makes his escape with Hoyt and Richardson - who have finally grown something more than a single synapse between them - in hot pursuit. Too bad that their air boat craps out halfway through the chase, and not due to the aforementioned gas shortage either. It's something having to do with spark plugs and connectors. Or something. BAH.
Egon tosses Karen into the water and dives with her down into his lair, where he monologues away, revealing that he ran electricity from his shack above to this underwater cave (which doesn't explain how he dug through solid rock, or got that huge piece of equipment in the wall through that little hole in the floor AAAAAAA MY BRAIN HAS A CHARLIE HORSE
Anyway. He's making really big jellyfish down there. more than twenty inches across, using "seawater... electricity... and human blood! Mixed with the chemicals I stole from your father's lab!" And, by turning on the jacob's ladder near the jellyfish tanks (wherein an inflated trash bag writhes) he can also do... this!
This is standing there at the aquarium while progressively more goop is slathered on his face, until he leans in and apparently puts that inflated trash bag on his head. I don't know. What I do know is our monster is suddenly standing there, and I had sort of surmised... no, hoped, really... that Egon had been putting on his swim fins and wetsuit prior to the transformation, but no... that really is our monster suit.
Yeah, here, take a good look.
In that still, it doesn't look too bad. It looks like a giant Man-O-War perched on some guy's body. But, alas, in the movie it moves, and the absurdity of seeing the man's head in the center of the inflated bag is only amplified by having him hunch over repeatedly, thrusting the very obvious seam running atop the bag into our faces.
Good God, let's just get this over with, shall we? Well, no such luck, my friends, as Hoyt finally finds the lair, but the only weapon he has is a flare. Well, when you've watched as many genre movie from the 50s through the 70s as I have, you know that if you don't happen to have a death ray, an ultrasonic cannon, or a steady stream of positively-charged particles, a fire extinguisher or a flare will do just as well.
I ain't even gonna shrink this one, folks. Just enjoy:
The result here, however, is an exceedingly dull confrontation as Hoyt and the jellyfish man circle each other repeatedly, Hoyt channeling some juvenile delinquent movie, waving the flare around as if to say, I'm gonna cut you, man! I'm gonna cut you! Probably not helped by the fact that makeup man Doug Hobart, wearing his own creation, probably can't see crap through that bag. There is some half-hearted grappling, and the flare falls into the aquarium, which has the totally unexpected result of causing the electronics to spark and smoke, the jellyfish man to collapse, and the trash bag to melt off Egon's head. Oh, flares - is there anything you can't do?
Hoyt bodily hustles Karen out of the cave, as she has seemingly discovered she actually cares for Egon, or something, the cave blows up - or at least someone lets loose a ton of bubbles - and all that is left is for some one to say "He tampered in God's domain," but the movie is gonna deny us even that.
I'm going to have to say, I've seen worse but rarely more dull movies. The plot is strictly by the book, the characters make cardboard seem positively thick by comparison, and the monster ... Well, really, the thrust of the Man-In-A-Suit Movie is having the guy wearing the suit walking around waving his arms going "Rar I'm a monsta!" and some sweet young thing going "Eek a monsta!" (and likely fainting), so the whole reason for watching these movies is, hopefully, the novelty of the suit. Man-in-a-suit movies live or die on that suit. Monster movie mavens like to say "Gross! Cool!" Tex Blaisdell managed some amazing suits on a budget, like the ever-popular Tabonga and the Amazing She-Creature. The William Grefe's makeup guy, Doug Hobart, probably had a makeup budget in the tens of dollars, and alas, the result is....
So props on a novel concept, at least. Is that enough to support watching Sting of Death? That will depend on your love of concepts unsupported by adequate resources, your tolerance for thin characterization and bland dialogue, and your acceptance of gratuitous butt shots.
And any fear you may have of sandwich bags .
No, I...guess I hadn't seen that before.
- November 22, 2009