By ROCCO THOMPSON
With a body of work inviting comparisons to that of Al Adamson, Russ Meyer, and – his closest contemporary – Herschell Gordon Lewis, William Grefé is one of the last remaining journeyman filmmakers who helped to usher in the golden era of exploitation. At 90 years old, the Miami native is overdue for wider recognition by cinema fans, and Arrow Video has made good with HE CAME FROM THE SWAMP: THE WILLIAM GREFÉ COLLECTION, a lovingly-restored selection of seven films hand-picked from the schlockmeister’s filmography.
Cinephiles tend to associate Grefé with Herschel Gordon Lewis by virtue of both men’s frequent work in Florida, but unlike America’s Godfather of Gore, he was actually born and bred in the Sunshine State. Born in Miami in 1930, Grefé has remained one of Florida’s few native sons throughout his career: going to Hollywood when the industry demanded but always returning to his swampy stomping grounds to grind out his next wild exploitation picture. “Wild” is an apt word for the type of cinema that buttered Grefé’s bread because unlike the relatively sedate gore films churned out by Lewis, his energetic movies are often bursting with a palpable sense of real-life danger (often of the reptilian or aquatic kind) that’s reminiscent more of the aforementioned Adamson’s schlock oeuvre. Running the gamut from nature-gone-mad thrillers to hippie crime dramas, motorcycle gang features, and straight-up monster movies, Grefé’s filmography is peppered with every flavor and type of exploitation picture the era offered, all executed with his inimitable South Florida flair.
Arrow Video has ingeniously organized this set as four “double-features,” with two films housed on each disc. The first pairs monster movies Sting of Death (1966) with Death Curse of Tartu (1966), while the second unites The Hooked Generation (1968) and The Psychedelic Priest (1971) for a drugged-out double bill. Things get a touch less theme-y on disc three, which presents Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976) and The Naked Zoo (1970), and the set concludes with Whiskey Mountain (1977) and They Came from the Swamp: The Films of William Grefé (2016), Daniel Griffith’s two-hour documentary on the director’s career.
As is the case with so much grindhouse fare, the loglines for Grefé’s films are typically more interesting than the films themselves. The Naked Zoo is a particularly brutal watch (with the inclusion of a slumming, aged Rita Hayworth barely making the experience worthwhile) and Death Curse of Tartu, in which a Native American mummy picks off a trespassing archaeology team, is likely to lull you to sleep long before the central desiccated baddie finally decides to rouse himself and start making with the stalking and the killing. There are some notable highlights though. The Hooked Generation and The Psychedelic Priest make for a fairly engrossing pair, and the latter is especially fascinating considering it was shot without a script as Grefé ambled through the California countryside hiring real deal hippies as day players. The two crown jewels of the set are the most ludicrous: Sting of Death, in which a jellyfish-headed humanoid crashes a happening teen beach (uh, swamp) party, and Mako: The Jaws of Death, starring Richard Jaeckel as a brooding loner who can telepathically communicate with sharks, and uses his ability to nefarious ends.
All seven movies are restored from their best surviving film elements, and each comes with its own host of visual issues. Arrow has, of course, done all they can to make these films watchable, but the damage is extensive. It’s difficult to say how “good” the restoration work is here when the results are so variable, but judging by the company’s previous work, there’s no hyperbole in saying that this is the best Grefé’s films are likely to look, and the best that could possibly have been done with the material provided.
Each disc is stuffed with great bonus features such as galleries, alternate cuts, and film historian interviews, but what really sells this thing is Grefé’s presence. Every single film in the set comes with an optional video introduction by Grefé and, as if that wasn’t enough, features an audio commentary with the 90-year-old director and Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case) in conversation. Grefé is a somewhat dry presence but from the very real danger behind-the-scenes to his insistence that Mako: The Jaws of Death actually predated that other shark movie by one Steven Spielberg, the stories he tells about getting the films made are indispensable, and the fact that he and Henenlotter were willing and able to dedicate just this much time to the project is something of a miracle. Topping it all off is a fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring an extensive, never-before-published interview with Grefé and a new foreword by the filmmaker, himself, plus a reversible poster featuring newly commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil. The discs themselves also feature reversible sleeves featuring newly commissioned artwork for each of the films by The Twins of Evil.
Packed with dope fiends, killer crocs, and a whole lot of watusiing, HE CAME FROM THE SWAMP: THE WILLIAM GREFÉ COLLECTION should scratch any grindhouse fan’s itch for something wild, weird, and wonderful. Though his energetic shoestring exploitation joints suffer from the same weaknesses that plague the work of his contemporaries, Arrow has largely solved any watchability issues with an essential collection of commentaries that add immeasurably to one’s enjoyment of even the worst flicks this set offers. Though it might not quite rival Severin Films’ monumental Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection in its scope, HE CAME FROM THE SWAMP: THE WILLIAM GREFÉ COLLECTION easily gives it a run for its money as last year’s preeminent grindhouse release on the strength of its deference for its subject, director-heavy special features, and how it helps to preserve and uphold exploitation filmmaking as its own, important cinematic genre for generations to come.
HE CAME FROM THE SWAMP: THE WILLIAM GREFÉ COLLECTION is available now from Arrow Video.