Arrow Video: He Came from the Swamp - The Films of William Grefé (1966-1977) - Reviewed

Most people are quick to point to Pennsylvania based Herschell Gordon Lewis as the Godfather of the exploitation splatter horror subgenre, a discussion best covered in Arrow Video’s expansive The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast blu-ray boxed set.  But for those keen on the bygone era of regional do-it-yourself exploitation trash filmmaking from the late ‘60s and onward, further digging will land you in the swampy marshy territory of lesser known but equally outlandish Floridian exploitation guru William Grefé.

Though his drive-in flicks ranging from monster movies to drugsploitation, sharksploitation and biker movies were financially successful at the time against microscopic budgets, much of Grefé’s efforts have been forgotten with time.  That is until, as with the aforementioned Feast box, Arrow Video decided it was time to put a spotlight on the prolific and always resourceful Florida based exploitation director’s little oeuvre with a smattering of some of his most infamous drive-in hits.  Named He Came from the Swamp: The William Grefé Collection, Arrow’s boxed set comprises together seven of the director’s features as well as the comprehensive and endlessly entertaining documentary film They Came from the Swamp.   

Though the quality of the films transfer vary greatly, some looking close to unwatchable while others are near pristine, He Came from the Swamp while it doesn’t have everything brings together a broad selection of some of his wildest and most energized regional exploitation cheapies.   

Trying to review these films individually is an exercise in futility as some films soar on their own trashterpiece terminology while others simply scrape the bottom of the barrel and recede back into the mire from whence they came.  Rather than devote more attention to each picture than is necessary, The Movie Sleuth instead will offer a general overview of the films included in this box and whether or the William Grefé Collection is another success like their previously released Feast box.   

After going over They Came from the Swamp first in preparation, the first (and among the best) film on the set is Sting of Death, a monster movie about a giant humanoid jellyfish who wreaks havoc on a small group of students attending a pool party.  Simultaneously a snapshot of mid-60s Floridian suburban life as well as a playground for guy-in-a-rubber-suit antics, Sting of Death is probably best remembered for the Neil Sedaka track ‘The Jellyfish’ which bears a striking resemblance to the equally campy song opening The Blob.   

Loosely connected to it as another swampy monster movie is Death Curse of Tartu about an ancient burial ground which is disturbed by the arrival of, once again, students looking to party which invariably unleashes beastly havoc.  Though treading similar waters as Sting of Death the picture isn’t nearly as fun despite a wild and crazy climax with alligator chase scenes.  The makeup effects of Tartu as well as some unexpected quicksand scenes will get the attention of bygone exploitation aficionados but compared to Sting of Death it doesn’t succeed as well. 

Next in the box are two of William Grefé’s drugsploitation pictures: the tense actioner The Hooked Generation about a group of junkie criminals who murder their smugglers before terrorizing an innocent couple with the promise of weed and wine.  Characterized by taking place out in the open water as well as staging a wild extended shootout sequences, this one is a solid dose of grimy sleazy drugsploitation.   

Paired up with it is the downward spiral flick The Psychedelic Priest about a preacher who tries to connect with the drug youth culture before inadvertently falling into a slippery slope of addiction.  By contrast, this one really meanders into hallucinatory psychedelics and though it wants to be the exploitation trash Easy Rider it never seems to get outside of its own stoner funk.  There’s a reason this one was shelved for years before finally reappearing in this box. 

Probably the strangest and least categorizable one in the set is The Naked Zoo which united William Grefé with none other than Rita Hayworth in one of her final film roles about a womanizing author who has an affair on the side with a married elder woman.  After corrupting the frustrated woman with drugs, the adulterating couple is caught by her wheelchair bound husband one day, sending the three into a wild and increasingly bizarre downward spiral echoing the psychedelic downfall of The Psychedelic Priest.   

If by now this review has turned you off to even considering adding this box to your collection, fear not, for the very reason for owning this comes in the form of sharksploitation mania Mako: Jaws of Death.  Coasting on the crest wave generated by Steven Spielberg’s legendary blockbuster Jaws, this crazy untamed animal concerns a diver who attains an ancient talisman which gives him the ability to communicate and interact with sharks. 

Determined to protect the sharks from fishermen and whalers, he wages war on local fishermen and showman keen on hunting the sharks as well as putting them on display for a cabaret show.  One of the very best sharksploitation trash flicks out there, Mako is best remembered for the actors getting into the water with and taking very real attacks from the sharks in question.  Far more startling than the now legendary shark vs. zombie sequence in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie epic and far more dangerous than even one minute of Open WaterMako is truly a take-no-prisoners exploitation flick and easily the best film offered in the set! 

Lastly, William Grefé makes a startling shift with the ultra-widescreen biker/rape-revenge Deliverance takeoff Whiskey Mountain, a loose remake of The Hooked Generation concerning drug dealers who terrorize a group of cross-country bikers.  Bringing back much of the same cast as The Hooked Generation, this grungy filthy exploitation flick has some wild bike stunts, a harrowing rape scene shown through optically rendered polaroid pictures and more than a few unexpected tricks up its dirty sleeves.  


Having gone through this box was, at times, a bit of a chore but it was an interesting journey into a chapter of regional exploitation filmmaking I wasn’t previously aware of.  Moreover, William Grefé’s Mako: Jaws of Death is such an unhinged sharksploitation flick it more than makes up for the lesser films in the set.   

Overall the box is a solid assortment of forgotten swampy drive-in oddities though having watched the documentary on the man made me yearn for the killer snake flick Stanley as well as the William Shatner starring serial-killer flick Impulse, two films sadly missing from this set.  Newcomers should temper their reactions to these films and the documentary is recommended preparatory viewing before diving into this set.  Longtime fans however will be elated at what’s included here, some of which hasn’t been seen in over forty years.  Not for all tastes but for the film historian keen on scouring the depths of drive-in cinema’s septic tanks, recommended!

--Andrew Kotwicki