Monday, 9 May 2022

Death Curse Of Tartu

Tartu Detour

Death Curse
Of Tartu

USA 1966
Directed by William Grefé
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: I guess this has spoilers.

Death Curse Of Tartu was shot in just seven days and came about because director William Grefé could only sell his recently shot film, Sting Of Death (reviewed by me here), to a distributor if it was double billed with another horror picture. And I’m finding this one kind of bizarre because, although in a lot of ways it’s just as awful, possibly more so, than the aforementioned jellyfish-man movie, I actually kinda liked this one.

Okay... so the film involves an isolated island in the sub-tropical wilderness of the Everglades in Florida. An explorer finds a cave on a burial mound and a mummy gets out of a tomb and kills him. Then, in probably the only really interestingly done part of the film, the mummy drops some papyrus scripts on the floor and the camera jump cuts to them and we find the opening credits on them with the title music, such as it is, playing in the background as the mummy’s hand slowly removes each piece of paper from the top of the pile to reveal the next credit. The film has a credit for two song writers but no scoring credit and the over the top nature of some of the score used against the images (especially at the start of the movie) and the repeating of only a couple of tracks over and over, later in the film, leads me to believe the music for this movie is either plundered from another production or, more than likely, just needle dropped in from a music library.

Now, apparently, a lot of Seminole Indians lived in this territory and the character of Billy, who’s in a couple of scenes in the first half an hour as a kind of Indian guide to the local region, is one of these. He takes another professor out to the place where the burial mound can be found a long walk away on the island but will go no further. He tells the professor, as he tells the professor’s friends the next day when he gives them a map to get to the island, that the place is haunted by the spirit of an old witch doctor named Tartu, who comes to life as a mummy and transforms into various creatures to kill those who trespass on his land. Native drums and indian cries are heard in the air whenever he is near, as they are perpetually throughout the movie, due to the repeated use of some audio library track or other.

The guy is left there exploring and finds a rock. Now, the key theme of this film is given away right from here... and it’s padding. This is a movie where we see both this professor... who is soon crushed to death by Tartu in snake form... and also the next bunch to pitch up here... taking forever to walk or airboat in and then every stage of the journey, literally of people just walking around, takes up the majority of the running time. That’s maybe why I found the movie so comforting and reassuring to watch, to be honest. There is a heck of a lot of unnecessary footage here. I’d detected a certain amount of that in Sting of Death but Death Curse Of Tartu really excels at showing you levels of superfluous detail which is of little or no interest (although, like I said, I kind of didn’t mind it in this one, myself).

However, to my shame, there is an early jump scare which actually made me jump. It’s the exact same scare as was used in the first 10 minutes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and here, involves the professor pulling aside a tree branch to reveal a rubbishy, plastic looking skull on a stick while an over the top musical stinger plays. And it’s really useless and non-threatening but, like I said, it actually worked for me. All I can say in my defence here is that I really wasn’t expecting any kind of jump scare in a 1966 swamp movie and that the various, slow paced shots of the professor walking around maybe lulled me into a certain stupor.. which was the exact state of mind needed for this cheap trick to actually work on me. So a big thumbs up to Grefé here for actually getting me good. I was most appreciative of the jolt, for sure. Although I’d defy anyone else to be scared by this... especially since you can see the skull before it’s revealed.

Okay, so the professor is killed and then his friends, Professor Tison (played by Fred Pinero), his wife Julie (played by Babette Sherrill) and two young archaeology student couples...  Cindy (Mayra Gómez Kemp), Johnny (Sherman Hayes), Joanne (Maurice Stewart) and Tommy (Gary Holtz)... all get their airboats through to the island to find their friend and carry on exploring... but all they can find is the strange rock which the professor has dug up. When Tison translates it, we get to hear the back story of the Witch Doctor Tartu for yet a third time. Yay!

The kids go to make out by a lake while the professor stays behind in camp to finish the translation and... also makes out with his wife. Because of all this obvious work and discovery going on, the kids have a radio with them and the director manages to shoehorn a ‘wild and crazy’ teen dance scene into the picture where, once again, he shows a propensity for focusing his lens on the shaking derrieres of the teenage gals as they ‘swing their pants’. However, the punchline to this scene comes when Joanne and Tommy go for a swim in the water. Oh no, you may exclaim. Will a water snake or a crocodile get them? No because... and believe me, I was as surprised as the main cast at this... Joanne and Tommy get attacked and eaten by a shark! Which is preposterous! However, even Professor Tison reminds the audience that sharks don’t live in fresh water* and so it’s by now obvious, of course, that the mummy of Tartu has risen from his crypt and hit upon the good idea of temporarily transforming himself into an out of place shark to kill these two kids. At this point, Professor Tison, who has been downright aggressive in the film when anyone even mentions the possibility of anything supernatural occurring in real life, suddenly says, sweepingly, that “There are things on this planet that scientists have no answer to.” Blimey, he sure stopped being Mr. Cynical on the turn of a penny.

They decide to get off the island and go back to the nearest civilisation but, just like in Sting Of Death when the boat full of kids trying to get help all get killed before that can happen, when Johnny is sent back to wade through the swamp he soon gets ‘snaked up’ by Tartu. When Cindy tells the others the bad news because she saw it in a dream (don’t even ask!), the survivors decide to find Tartu’s mummified form and kill it before it eats or cuddles anyone else. However, the professor and his wife get trapped in the cave while Cindy gets her arm bitten up by Tartu in crocodile form. The bleeding arm doesn’t explain why, in the next shot when the freed Professor is holding her dying body in his arms, she also has blood coming out of her mouth but... I’m suspending my disbelief as much as possible at this point.

The professor and his wife go to confront Tartu in the form of a virile, aggressive native American Indian and manage to finally dunk him into the nearby quicksand. And before you can say Tartu Barado Nickto, the villainous witch doctor re-takes his mummified form... just before his head goes under and he’s then sucked into the murky waters. This is apparently because the guy playing the Indian didn’t want his head under the quicksand so they came up the idea that Tartu would revert back into another actor just before dying. As the professor and his wife walk off with the bitter sting of a sad victory, they seem to have forgotten that they don’t have any boats to get them home. Let’s hope they don’t get eaten by crocodiles on the long journey back then.

I’ve not much more to say about Death Curse Of Tartu and I have to say that, while it’s not a film I could in all conscience recommend to anyone, I did find this one extremely enjoyable and somewhat comforting when it came to observing all the dull, plodding around in the undergrowth scenes. I’d watch this one again for sure. Looking forward to what’s up next in Arrow’s lovely He Came From The Swamp - The William Grefé Collection Blu Ray set and you can bet I’ll report back here soon.

*It’s come to my attention since writing this review that,
certain conditions have allowed this to happen in real life
on occasion, a shark in fresh water... but still.
Whether this information was available when this
was made (considering what the character
in the movie says) is not something I am sure about.

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