WILLIAM GREFE: “Outlaw of the Everglades” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

Greetings, cinematic swamp stalkers! In this article, we’re gonna load up on both gator and mosquito repellent and head down to Florida to look at the films of a real maverick and one of the last great regional film-makers, William Grefe!

Long time followers of Wormwood know how attracted we are to renegade B-movie directors and actors who never let a cheap budget get in the way of an entertaining flick. It used to be that there were quite a few regional film directors who made and released movies in certain geographic areas. One thinks of Earl Owensby in North Carolina, Bill Rebane in Wisconsin and Don Dohler in Maryland. But perhaps the most successful and prolific was Mr. William Grefe who was headquartered in his beloved Florida. This sharp cookie personifies low budget regional film-making like few others.

He’s a lifetime resident of the Sunshine State, having being born in Miami in 1930. He still resides there. His is a wild and woolly tale of true “guerilla” movie-making, always looking for that extra buck and taking risks to get the film done. Many of Grefe’s movies fall into the “bad” category, it must be admitted, but none ever fell into the “dull” category. They were rip-roaring grindhouse entertainment all the way and put Florida and its swampy environs on the map.

Grefe was one of those utility players who could do a little bit of everything. He was a writer, a cinematographer and even a bit actor in addition to being a director and a producer. In the wild and wooly days of the 60’s, you really had to wear multiple hats if you were doing regional and low budget films. Grefe wore more hats than Carmen Miranda during his long career.

The first significant credit I see for him was the 1963 racing-themed crime drama “The Checkered Flag”. Well, everybody has to start somewhere and you could tell Grefe was kind of rough coming out of the blocks with this very cheap feature. It’s a mean-spirited movie about the devious wife of an arrogant race car driver who enlists a naïve rookie driver to help bump him off. Bill was a racing enthusiast and that is clearly visible here. Much of the footage was shot at the old Sebring Raceway and will give a nostalgic buzz to anybody who remembers the raw days of racing. The actors were all Florida based stock actors who gave, shall we say, “enthusiastic” performances. The ending of this grim little film is actually pretty unexpected and almost makes it worth sitting through the generally mediocre picture.

The very next year Bill was back at it with a different kind of racing in “Racing Fever”, which he wrote as well as directed. This time the racing involved speed boats, which was a big deal in Florida back in the day. Two of the stars of “The Checkered Flag”, Joe Morrison and Charles R. Martin, returned to duty here. If  anything, this was cheaper and duller than “The Checkered Flag”, which at least had a shock ending to perk things up. At this point, Mr. Grefe was not showing a lot of promise as a film-maker, but this was soon to change when he dived into the world of monster and horror movies.

1965’s “Sting of Death” changed the game for Big Bill and produced one of the most jaw-droppingly goofy movie monsters to ever grace the silver screen. Now I, Dr. Abner Mality, have seen some doozies in my time, such as the man-eating carpet sample of “The Creeping Terror”  and the squawking buzzard puppet of “The Giant Claw”, but the star creature in this movie beats even those for cheapness and improbability. How about a human jellyfish who stings people to death with his tentacles? Believe me, the concept is even cooler than the end result…you just literally cannot believe what you are looking at when this thing lumbers onto the screen.

Grefe called together his usual collection of Florida friends and stock company actors to head on out to the Everglades and film this towering cinema classic. The many problems inherent in filming in a huge swamp infested with gators, snakes, leeches, etc never bothered Bill and seemed to be just minor obstacles to be overcome.
“Sting of Death” was written by none other than perennial H.G. Lews leading actor William Kerwin, who had a very robust exploitation career even outside of H.G.’s gore operas. Here he cuts loose with a wildly entertaining monster story combining many absurd elements. 

Joe Morrison returns as “Dr. John Hoyt”(probably named in tribute to the venerable character actor), a reclusive scientist who experiments on jellyfish in his remote Everglades lair. The Doc has a swinging party girl for a daughter, who would love to use Dad’s pad as the scene of a wild party.  Sure enough, Karen and her obnoxious teens friends manage to make their way through miles of swamp to hang loose on Hoyt’s island, where they dance wildly to Neil Sedaka’s monster hit “Do the Jellyfish”, which must be heard to be believed. They also throw insults and wisecracks at Dr. Hoyt’s ominous assistant Egon (played by another Grefe friend, John Vella).

Egon has a secret of his own. He has his own hidden lair and he’s conducted experiments on himself…experiments which turn him into a human man o’ war jellyfish! How cheap and crazy is the jellyfish man? It’s obviously a guy wearing a painted wetsuit with plastic tentacles glued on…no attempt is made to cover up the seams of the costume. Best of all is the creature’s head…it’s a big plastic bag of water surrounding a human head! One of cinema’s goofiest creatures for sure. The monster is played by Florida stuntman Doug Hobart, who featured in many of Grefe’s movies, particularly “Death Curse of Tartu”, where he played Tartu.

The rest of the movie sees the jellyfish man chasing lovely Karen and the other female partygoers through the swamp and killing the male partiers with a mere touch of its lethal tentacles. One of the fetching young ladies is a very beautiful Deanna Lund, who would wind up on the “Land of the Giants” TV show in a couple of years and later marry Larry King!

It’s all cheap, wacky and absurd, but the movie has an energy that Grefe’s previous films lacked. Word soon got around that “Sting of Death” was a drive-in howler that couldn’t be missed and it cleaned up on the regional Florida circuit. This was Bill’s first real success…many more swamp shockers were to come!

Next up was one of Grefe’s seminal films, the teen horror epic “Death Curse of Tartu”. Filmed in many of the same locations used for “Sting of Death”, this movie sums up Bill’s “Florida Grindhouse” style of movie-making perhaps better than any other. The movie played at drive-ins well into the 70’s and was also featured on many late night TV horror shows. It tells the simple story of a bunch of brainless teenagers looking for a good time who decide to party on the tomb of the dreaded witch doctor Tartu. You wonder if these kids compared notes with the ones in “Sting of Death”. Surely they were in a competition to see who was the most clueless. At any rate, all the frantic dancing, smooching and probable frenzied coupling greatly offends Tartu’s restless spirit. Played once more by Doug Hobart, we see the toothy mummy Tartu only sparingly throughout the movie. Kind of a shame, because in a low budget way, the make-up is effective and miles beyond the silliness of the jellyfish man in “Sting of Death”.

Tartu is determined to have revenge on the hormone-crazed kids and he stalks and kills them using a variety of animal forms. Snakes, cougars and even a shark do the witch doctor’s bidding. The animals used in the movie belonged to trainer Frank Weed, who has a small part in the movie, and apparently some of them were pretty dangerous to work with. That sort of thing never bothered Mr. Grefe, who dove in with gusto…a kind of real-life Carl Denham.

Loaded with shots of jiggling female breasts and buttocks, “Death Curse of Tartu” was brilliantly marketed to the regional drive-in crowd and made a tidy profit for Bill. His film career was picking up steam. During this period, he also became associated with Ivan Tors, the Hungarian film-maker who created animal-based TV shows like “Gentle Ben” and “Flipper” as well as hard science oriented SF films. Tors loved to film in watery locations and Grefe wound up doing second unit work on many of Tors’ projects.

Bill made another movie the same year as “Death Curse of Tartu”, “The Devil’s Sisters”. The movie was considered lost for many years until Grefe finally tracked down one good print in Germany and paid handsomely for it. I have never seen the movie, but it certainly sounds much different and much more intense than any of Grefe’s previous films. It was a pure “roughie”…an exploitation film with sex and violence just short of the “X” rating. The movie tells the grim tale of a woman who answers a classified ad for a job and winds up as a sex slave in Mexico. Although filmed mostly in Florida, “The Devil’s Sisters” is one of Grefe’s few movies to have no Floridian connection in the actual story. The final 8 minutes of the movie was left out of the German print, so Grefe himself narrated the end of the movie and used storyboards to illustrate what happened. I can’t comment much more on this film, but I would sure like to see it. One thing’s for sure, this one lost about as much money as “Death Curse of Tartu” raised.

Grefe didn’t let the failure of “The Devil’s Sisters” slow him down. He was now plowing into his most prolific period and latching onto every grindhouse trend that hit the scene. 1967’s “The Wild Rebels” was his contribution to the red hot biker movie craze, the story of a down on his luck stock car driver who gets recruited into a biker gang and becomes their getaway driver for a bank heist. The bikers have cool nicknames like Banjo, Deeter and Fats. Played by John Vella from “Sting of Death”, Fats is the most memorable character because a surfboard to the skull has rendered him incapable of coherent speech. His caveman-like grunts are the source of much hilarity here. This movie would never be anybody’s pick for an Oscar, but in those great innocent days of the late 60’s, “The Wild Rebels” was just the thing to chase a cold sixpack with. Grefe not only directed this one, but wrote it as well.

Hot on the heels of “The Wild Rebels” came “The Hooked Generation”, a drug-drenched tale of dope pushers who run into trouble when they try a deal with Cuban crooks. Surprisingly, this movie was a real cut above Grefe’s past movies, with a tight plot, decent acting and some tense scenes. As always, the movie was drenched in authentic South Florida atmosphere and even featured a couple of well known Florida boxers, “Butterball” Smith and Willie Pastrano, in minor parts. You can actually find this one on a Something Weird double DVD paired with “The Psychedelic Priest”. What a trip!

Grefe was super busy in this period  Not only was he churning out his own films, but he was still working with Ivan Tors and getting second unit jobs with other directors who wanted to make use of his ability to do slick underwater or boat-based scenes. Grefe would actually help shoot the shark scenes in the James Bond smash “Live and Let Die”, the biggest blockbuster he was ever associated with.

But even though the mainstream called, Bill refused to give up his sleazy Florida flicks.  1970 brought “The Naked Zoo” into the fold and for this trashy epic of murder,infidelity and general trashiness, Grefe somehow got to work with one of the most glamorous actresses of all time, Rita Hayworth! Rita was far from her glory days here, but she hadn’t sunk quite as far as Veronica Lake did in “Flesh Feast”.  She plays the wife of a wheelchair bound millionaire who cheats on him with a younger man, played by Steve Alaimo, who was in most of Grefe’s 70’s movies. Ford Rainey, a reliable character actor on TV, played the crippled, suspicious hubby, while old-time comedian Joe E. Ross had a small role. There’s even a party scene where the band Canned Heat is playing! This is a tawdry, trashy film, but one you can’t take your eyes off of.

Grefe was now in the hottest, busiest part of his career. 1972’s “Stanley” is one of his quirkiest and best remembered films, one that he co-wrote as well as directed.  The movie is frankly a knockoff of the killer rat movie “Willard”, which was very popular at this time. Only instead of a rat, the “Stanley” of the title is a rattlesnake who does the bidding of his master, a disturbed Seminole Indian played by prolific character actor Chris Robinson. “Stanley” is not a mere ripoff of “Willard”, it’s a strong film in its own right, with a pitch black sense of humor and some very interesting quirks. The snake scenes were absolutely authentic and there are some hair-raising stories about near-fatal incidents involving them during the making of the movie. Robinson is suitably creepy as the unhinged hero and almost everybody in the movie is a nut of some kind, especially the drugged-up poacher “Psycho” and the stripper who bites the head off live snakes as part of her act. This movie is dripping with a kind of decadence peculiar to the Florida Everglades.

Bill’s next psycho killer movie escalated insanity to the next level. This was 1974’s “Impulse”, an almost indescribably sleazy thriller that featured William Shatner at his most bombastic and overblown as the lady-killing maniac centerpiece of the movie. Much is made of Shatner’s full blast acting style and in many cases, the criticism is not justified, but in “Impulse”, Grefe must have let Shat off his leash completely because you have to see his performance to believe it.  Shatner plays Matt Stone, who saw his mother raped by a Marine when he was a kid and who killed the rapist with a samurai sword. Incidentally, the lustful Marine is played by H.G. Lewis’ favorite “go to” actor, Bill Kerwin.

Stone has grown up to be a paranoid, manipulative killer who cheats widows out of their money and then cold-bloodedly kills them. Shatner is the very definition of mid-70’s sleaze, dressed to the hilt in horrid leisure suits and sporting Elvis-style mutton chops. At one point, he chases Harold “Oddjob” Sakata around in a car wash and uses him as a human punching bag. The movie also featured a slumming Ruth Roman as one of Stone’s victims. “Impulse” is like a bad train wreck…impossible to take your eyes off of and absolutely made to play at a steamy Florida drive-in.

Grefe’s next project may have been the most insane of his career. It was certainly his worst movie and his most obscure: “The Godmothers”. A G-rated comedy spoof with a name inspired by “The Godfather”, this atrocity was the brainchild of none other than Mickey Rooney, who co-wrote and produced the film. It was such a bomb that it mainly served as a complete tax write-off for Rooney. Grefe directed the film, which featured two fat and ugly guys who dress in drag to avoid marrying the daughter of a Mafia boss. Midget actor Billy Barty and “Big Mouth” Joe E. Ross played henchmen for the mobster, as well as a guy named Socrates Ballis (!).  The two cross dressers portray geisha girls and airline stewardesses in their painfully unfunny attempt to avoid matrimony. Actor Danny Aiello made his first screen appearance here in a microscopic part.

Most of Grefe’s movies were “bad” but very entertaining due to their energy, but there was no hope for “The Godmothers” and I’m sure both Rooney and Grefe were glad to see this one sink out of sight. Comedy was not Grefe’s forte.  It remains a very hard film to find.

Like most exploitation directors, Grefe was very quick to spot trends and hop on board. In 1976, there was no bigger trend in the movie world than killer animals, thanks to the huge popularity of “Jaws”. The drive-ins were flooded with crude ripoffs of the Spielberg blockbuster and Bill got in on the action with “Mako: The Jaws of Death”.  Like most of Bill’s films, this one got ripped apart by critics, but personally, I think this is one of the most way out and inventive of all “Jaws”-inspired movies. It was more than just a killer shark on the rampage. It had much more in common with “Stanley” and thus, “Willard”.

Richard Jaeckel plays a Vietnam soldier who is miraculously saved from death when a Mako shark eats a pursuing Vietcong soldier. Jaeckel’s character Sonny is so overcome by gratitude that he develops a mystical connection to Mako sharks and vows to become their protector. He even gets a handy magic medallion that gives him the ability to command them! A scientist who wants to exploit the sharks and a sleazy strip club owner (is there any other kind?) who wants to make them part of a stripper extravaganza (!!!) run afoul of Sonny and he uses his finny friends to wage bloody war on them.

The movie is not quite as exciting as it sounds but it is an original take on the subject and Grefe’s underwater photography was outstanding. The movie was advertised as being done without “mechanical” sharks or protective cages, which actually puts it on a level above “Jaws” itself.  The movie wound up as a long lasting staple on the drive-in and late night TV circuits and made a tidy sum for Grefe.

By 1977, the movie business was beginning to change. The giant studio blockbusters were taking over and crowding out the smaller companies and regional film outfits. Drive-ins were closing by the dozens. The meatiest days of William Grefe’s career were coming to an end, but unlike other exploitation mainstays, the wily Floridian managed to adapt to changing times and kept making product through the VHS boom right into the days of DVDs.

1977’s “Whiskey Mountain” was the last of Grefe’s traditional Florida drive-in flicks. A biker film with overtones of “Deliverance”, this one featured Christopher George (star of “Grizzly”!) and hot mama Roberta Collins in a tale of bikers who run afoul of a clan of degenerate hillbilly drug dealers. The market for films like this was starting to evaporate even in 77 and this one didn’t make the splash it probably would have even 2 years earlier.

“Whiskey Mountain” really marked the end of Grefe’s career directing traditional regional drive-in fare. He still got behind the camera plenty of more times, but never quite in the same way, with the same films. He got a nice lucrative gig directing promotional films for Bacardi Rum and doing a lot of second unit work, usually involving the Everglades or the ocean in some way. He decided to work more as a line producer than a director when it came to films and he’s been quite prolific in that role. A lot of the movies he did in that department were in keeping with his past track record…including “The House Next Door”, “Masterblaster” and “Escape”, none of which are going to bring home a lot of gold statuettes but which likely provided a lot of entertainment to those seeking a release.

William Grefe is still kicking and still haunting his beloved Florida. He’s been a guest at numerous conventions in recent years and his body of work is attracting more recognition now than it has in years. A lot of people are interested in his fearless and “get your hands dirty” approach to thrifty film-making, which produced more adventure than his actual films. A very nice documentary about his career was made in 2016: “They Came From The Swamp: The Films of William Grefe” and I recommend it.

When Bill finally departs this world, it will bring an end to a rowdy and fun era of American film. But the films themselves will always remain. They’re as much a part of Florida lore as giant gators and Key Lime Pie.