If you’re a b-movie maker and you want to make a feature about a killer animal there are three factors you have to keep in mind. The first is how novel your animal is. While there are certain advantageous to following the pack, your movie will get more notice if it features an animal that hasn’t been done to death. Even most Jaws rip-offs featured animals other than sharks. Second, you should be able to realize the animal onscreen within your budget. This is why the gorilla was so popular in pre-1970s movies: it was an animal with the potential to kill and could be included in even the cheapest film for the cost of a costume rental and the salary of an actor stupid enough to wear that rented costume. Thirdly, and most importantly in the context of the movie under discussion today, that animal should be scary. It should be a killer, and it should reside in the deepest, darkest nightmares of the audience. In other words, it probably shouldn’t be a jellyfish.
William Grefé’s Sting of Death is a killer jellyfish movie. And not just a killer jellyfish movie, but a werejellyfish movie too. It’s safe to say it’s possibly the only killer jellyfish movie, almost certainly the only werejellyfish movie, and absolutely, 100% certainly the only werejellyfish movie to feature an original song by Neil Sedaka. Which makes it the best Neil Sedaka-graced werejellyfish ever made. A quick scan of Sedaka’s credits reveals soundtrack work on no fewer than 39 films and television episodes, including stints on The Monkees and The Partridge Family. If it hadn’t been for Where the Boys Are five years prior, Sting of Death might well be remembered as Sedaka’s first big break in the moving pictures business. And not to digress too far so early in the review, but wouldn’t “Sedaka” make a great name for a giant monster? “Get out of the way, it’s a battle royale between Anguirus, Baragon, and Sedaka!”
Sure, you could start small with a film called just Sedaka (Sedaka emerges from the depths of Brooklyn to dominate the Billboard charts) and build over the course of a few movies like Godzilla vs Sedaka, but it’s just a hop, jump, and a skip from there to Son of Sedaka, Mecha-Sedaka, and Abbott and Costello Meet Sedaka before finally flaming out in a bad taste inferno like Sedaka Goes Disco. Actually, we’re pretty sure Sedaka had everything to do with disco but there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that he ever met Bud Abbott or Lou Costello. Which is a shame, really – they probably would have gotten along well, don’t you think? A trio of world-class entertainers like that?
So right, Sting of Death. Not a bad title, Sting of Death – ominous yet simple. It gets right to the point. You know there ain’t many people gonna survive that sting, right? Because it’s the sting of death. It says so right in the title. The mood is set. Incidentally, there are apparently only two other films known as Sting of Death – a 1921 silent film from the UK and a 1990 Japanese domestic drama. There’s not a lot there to challenge this flick for rights to the name recognition. Certainly no gyrating posteriors, no candy-colored bikinis, no annoying early ’60s pop tunes to grab hold of your neurons for days on end – all things which present themselves in an unrelentingly repetitive fashion during the 1965 Sting of Death‘s scant 80 minutes. One would think it would be possible to endure just about anything for 80 minutes so long as it were regularly punctuated by the sight of attractive young women clad in not very much and jiggling about like well-postured seizure victims, but it turns out that’s just not true.
Sting of Death is set entirely on an island in the Florida Everglades, which provides “the isolation necessary to my work” – or so it is explained helpfully to us by Doctor Richardson as he escorts the aforementioned bevy of nubile young ladies to the scene of their eventual demise. They’re arriving for (spring? Summer?) break, invited by Richardson’s exceedingly winsome daughter, Karen, for a bit of getaway fun-time at an exceedingly dull research facility. Also occupying the island are the exceedingly handsome Dr. John Hoyt (Joe Morrison) and the exceedingly hideous lab assistant, Egon. It is a sign of the state of storytelling at this point in movie history that none of this character setup (all elaborately spelled out in tedious exposition dialogue) is played with even the slightest irony or self-consciousness.
Before all the main characters are introduced we know there’s a monster about, thanks to pre-credit sequence where a woman is pulled off a dock by the scuba-suited threat. The movie is careful not to show us the monster’s head, though, which might explain why when all three of the male leads are introduced we’re given reasons to think any of them might be the monster. Dr. Richardson has a disturbing and ever-changing dark spot on his forehead that he explains is the result of his being attacked at some point earlier during a burglary of his lab. John is suspiciously quick to try to get away from girls once they come ashore on the island. And Egon is just ugly, which rockets him to the top of any list of potential psycho monsters.
If the identity of the monster was ever supposed to be a secret, it’s blown barely more than a scene later. A bunch of college students boat into the island and a impromptu dance party erupts on the dock. When the lead frat boy (easily identifiable by the receding hairline so typical of movie college students in the 1960s) sees Egon trying to join the party he forms the other kids into an instant lynch mob, taunting Egon for his obvious inferiority to the rest of humanity. Egon is knocked down and eventually forced to flee on his airboat. Karen is horrified by this development, but she soon forgets all about it when the new dance sensation by Neil Sedaka, “Do the Jellyfish,” is put on the record player. For the record, the dance that goes along with the song involves putting your arms behind your back, bending over at the waist, and thrusting your face repeatedly at your partner. Considering that your partner is doing the same thing, the chances of a major face-mashing collision must be close to 100%. (Pssst! Dr. Richardson! Did you get that head injury by practicing your dance steps in the mirror?)
Before long the monster rears his ugly offscreen head, ambushing lonely bathers in a crystal-clear swimming pool, dragging them under while they skin-dive, and even pouncing on young ladies in the shower. All of these attack scenes only reveal the monster from the shoulders down (if that), featuring loving closeups of its scuba fins and rubber-hose tentacles. Who filmed this, Doris Wishman?
The movie’s highlight has to be the jellyfish attack on the jerk-ass college students as they leave the island on the boat. Egon sabotaged the boat so it starts sinking, and through some method never explained he compels a school (flock? ooze?) of jellyfish to attack the college students mere feet from a shore none of them seem interested in swimming to. The multitude of jellyfish is represented by about 10 fancifully colored plastic bags.
When we finally get to the money scene, Egon’s transformation into a jellyfishman, the results couldn’t be more hilarious. Tracked back to his Scooby-Doo lair, complete with Jacob’s ladder and prop skull, Egon transforms into his monstrous form to fight the flare-wielding John. The revealed monster, with Egon’s head still visible inside the inflatable jellyfish head, has to be one of the least effective monsters in cinema history. The jellyfish man isn’t even silly enough to be camp, he’s just embarrassing.
William Grefé would go on to another decade of Florida-based b-movies, though from this point on he’d stick to killer animals rather than hybrid monsters. We’re going through another cycle of killer animal movies (there’s even a video label devoted to them), so it’s inevitable that another killer jellyfish movie will happen if we wait long enough and SyFy continues to make money. And, if we’re very lucky indeed, Mansquito vs. Jellyfishman will be made. Here’s hoping for that wonderful day.
This review is part of the latest B-Masters Roundtable Review, Stingathon ’09. Wow, it’s been a long time since that happened, huh?
Not convinced? Need to see for yourself? Check out the official Something Weird Video YouTube video below, which includes Sedaka’s big song.