Death Curse of Tartu: Good Grefe

Death Curse of Tartu directed by William GrefeDeath Curse of Tartu directed by William Grefe

Death Curse of Tartu directed by William GrefeI see it every time I fly down to Ft. Lauderdale to visit my family: the dividing line between civilization and the primeval. As the plane banks west from over the Atlantic, one can view below the sprawling metropolis of the city and its suburbs … until one’s eye hits that dividing line. The line is drawn straight as a rule for as far as the eye can see, the line separating the habitations of Man from the greenish-gray expanse that is the Everglades. The demarcation never fails to impress, no matter how many times one makes the trip. And from my two personal experiences into the Everglades, as a casual tourist, I can tell you that I cannot imagine a more hellacious environment in which to be lost or stuck: almost 2,000 square miles of empty sawgrass prairie, freshwater marshland, mangrove swamps, pinelands, hardwood hammocks, and sloughs. But not quite empty, of course; the area just teems with all sorts of wildlife, both harmless and inimical, there in one of the most inhospitable environments in the southeastern U.S. (The thought has always struck me: How did Ponce de Leon and his men trudge around this area, back in 1521, dressed in their full gear?!?!) But despite my imaginings concerning the very unpleasantness of the area (and I’m not denying that there is also much in the way of beauty to be seen there … just that the place, for me — who am not a lover of heat, humidity and dangerous critters — is something of a steaming hellhole), it is hard to conceive of having a worse time there than the seven characters in the 1966 film Death Curse of Tartu suffer through. The film, written and directed by one William Grefe, was just one of the filmmaker’s three offerings that year, the others being something called Sting of Death (supposedly featuring some kind of mutated jellyfish monster!) and The Devil’s Sisters (a true crime tale taking place in Mexico). It is a film that just barely manages to get the job done, but that ultimately squeaks through pleasingly.

But the film does not begin too promisingly, to be sure. During its first 15 minutes, we see a man named Sam Gunter (Frank Weed, a Joel McCrea type, who was also the “animal trainer” for the film; the first actor in this film’s no-name cast) endlessly prowl around his Everglades encampment, after having been warned by his Seminole guide Billy (Bill Marcus) that the spirit of Tartu — an Indian witch doctor who had died 400 years earlier — protects the area from desecration. Tartu had been buried nearby and, as legend has it, can turn himself into various animals to take vengeance on those who would profane his burial mound. And surely enough, Sam is soon attacked by a humongous constrictor and smothered to death in very short order. And then his colleagues arrive on the scene: anthropology teacher Ed Tison and his wife Julie (Fred Pinero and Babbette Sherrill), and two student couples: Tommy and Joanne (Gary Holtz and Maurice Stewart; I know … Maurice?) and Johnny and Cindy (Sherman Hayes and Mayra Gomez; I told you it was a no-name cast!). Despite finding the Indian tablet that Gunter had discovered, and despite being able to decipher its dread warning regarding Tartu, Tison still insists, “Anyone that believes in that should believe in ghosts, goblins, and the Wicked Witch of the West!” But, of course, the vengeful spirit of Tartu IS in fact quite real, and before long, changes into a shark (in the freshwater canals of the Everglades, no less; serves those dumb kids right for taking a swim in the dubious-at-best waters there!), a poisonous snake, and a relentless gator to eliminate the pesky intruders. And then matters somehow grow even worse, as Tartu himself returns to life in the human flesh (played by the surprisingly handsome Doug Hobart) to finish off the job …

Death Curse of Tartu is a distinctly amateurish production that still succeeds, somehow. The acting is just barely passable and the script was surely no Oscar bait. Sections of the film seem to drag interminably (such as that opening sequence), while others come off as mere sops to the teenage audiences of the day (such as the section in which the four teens turn on their transistor radio and start gyrating wildly on the shores of the swamp … the girls in their bikinis, natch). Still, the film does manage to build to a fair degree of suspense, and the body count is quite high (five out of the seven main characters don’t make it through, and there is no way of predicting which ones will survive the ordeal). Part of the reason for the film’s success, it must be said, is the overly dramatic and quite frenetic musical score by Al Green (yes, THAT Al Green, here billed as “Greene,” although I’m not sure if he was responsible for all the film’s background music or just the tune that the teens boogie to). And that Mayra Gomez … what a screamer she is, offering up perhaps the best instance of sustained caterwauling that I’ve heard since Fay Wray cowered before King Kong in the depths of Skull Island, and Carol Ohmart retreated before that living skeleton in House on Haunted Hill. Just listen to Mayra shriek for a good solid five minutes (!) as she flees from that preternaturally persistent gator! What a pair of lungs! The film is atmospheric (yes, it was indeed shot in the Everglades) and somehow convincing, ultimately, and each one of its characters, even the two who manage to come out alive by the end, suffers some terrible experience in it. Ultimately, Death Curse of Tartu is a surprisingly pleasing film, as mentioned, and one that reinforces my conviction not to cross that barrier line into the Everglades anytime soon…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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  1. “The script was not Oscar bait.” Sandy, you crack me up.

    I’ve love to the see the behind-the-scenes documentary of this valiant cast scratching, slathering on calamine lotion, etc.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    I’m hoping that they filmed this thing in the middle of the Florida winter. If not, the shoot must’ve been hellacious….

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