When I posted on Facebook that I was watching Death Curse of Tartu (1966), I received comments like, “I irrationally love this movie” and “an interesting flick that’s more entertaining than it should be.” I don’t know that I can be as enthusiastic about it; however, there is something oddly fascinating about this bargain basement movie that was written in one night and produced in only seven days.
The “written in one night” part is apparent; the plot couldn’t be simpler. Four archeology students and their two adult chaperones, Ed and Julie Ed Tilson (Fred Pinero, Babette Sherrill) desecrate the burial ground of an ancient Indian witch doctor (Tartu) and he rises from his tomb to punish them. Nothing more, nothing less. The fun, if there is any to be had, lies in the delivery of Tartu’s wrath…
Drums beat and voices chant, but we never see from where. Within a nearby cave, Tartu’s stone tomb opens. Arms crossed, he rocks back and forth inside. Then, because Tartu can transform into any number of “wild beasts,” a huge python might slowly slither out of the vault, a hungry shark might impossibly swim in the Everglades, or a lethargic alligator might waddle across the ground.
Perhaps one more night could have been spent refining some silly details. For example, in the (overlong) prologue, Sam Gunther (Frank Weed) stops to make camp and pulls out of his bag a coffee pot as tall as probably one-third of his body. Where was the space for his tent and other supplies? Then, when he’s killed, his body later appears conveniently in another location simply to provide a scare.
One way to add some probably unintentional depth into the dialogue is to read between the lines. For example, when young Johnny (Sherman Hayes) offers to go out on his own to find help, he says “I’m in good shape.” Julie immediately says, “He’s right.” A slightly different line reading and this could have instantly added a layer of inappropriate desire to the relationships.
For all the ways I can try to like Death Curse of Tartu, I just can’t forgive it for being so darned slow. The aforementioned prologue lasts 25 minutes! During that time, there must not be any edits. We see every step Gunther takes and every wavy motion the snake makes. Yet, in the print broadcast on TCM, there are distinct cuts (in odd places) as if to make an opening for television commercials.
Despite the fact of its pace, there are moments that are great fun. The action speeds a little in the finale when Tartu (Doug Hobart) rises as himself and participates in an extended three-way battle with Ed and Julie. Except for the skin-colored tights he’s obviously wearing, Tartu looks pretty good. I’ve seen fight scenes staged worse. And, to make it all better, there’s quicksand!
While I struggled with the physical act of sitting still while watching Death Curse of Tartu, I’m now experiencing fond memories of it. I couldn’t watch it again very soon, but it’s got strong potential for a revisit at some point. I want to say it’s ripe for a comedic remake or parody, but that might be what it already is, in and of itself. As a compromise, maybe I’ll watch William Grefe’s other 1966 movie, Sting of Death.
Written by William Grefe
Directed by William Grefe
Starring Fred Pinero, Babette Sherrill, Bill Marcus, Mayra Gomez Kemp, Sherman Hayes, Gary Holtz, Maurice Stewart, Doug Hobart, Frank Weed RT 87 min.
Home Video Image Entertainment/Something Weird Video (DVD)
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