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Swamp

Let’s kick this off with a confession: I’m not generally big on documentaries.

Sure, many directors over the years have cut their eyeteeth on them, and there are folks who live and breathe this stuff – I’ve even known people who claim to watch nothing but for weeks at a time.  But they tend to be fairly dry affairs, sort of live action iterations of Wikipedia with a bunch of talking heads.  It’s nice to see some of the actual parties in question speak their piece, but it’s always been more in the line of 15m extra packaged with a feature film than an end in and of itself.

Even so, I simply couldn’t resist tapping into They Came From the Swamp, a breezy documentary on the career of old favorite William “Wild Bill” Grefe directed by Daniel Griffith…particularly given a very special bonus feature included in the package.

Griffith pulls in several surviving cast and crew members from throughout Grefe’s career, tagging in a few fellow Florida exploitation peers (and a few who really have nothing whatsoever to do with him – Fred Olen Ray? Fred Henlenlotter? uh…OK…) to offer some corroboration and praise of the man and his work along the way.

In rapid succession, Bill speaks of growing up during the Depression, how the inclusion of comedy sequences in 1939’s Gunga Din influenced his own approach to filmmaking, his sorta roughneck teens and introduction to theatre and acting, how he met his wife and his introduction to the fire department (where he worked for a few years).

But it’s his screenwriting that finally draws him in to the world of guerilla filmmaking, from a part in his own Flight of a Rebel to being hired to star in a few Cuban-lensed films (which he credits with teaching him that you could make a professional looking film with just a 35mm camera and a few dedicated actors) and finally his scripting of racetrack drama The Checkered Flag, where he found himself drafted by the DP into his first directorial effort.

So inspired by his experience as to quit his full time job with the fire department, Grefe made his way through the newly rising Florida film industry (see also Herschell Gordon Lewis, David Friedman, Doris Wishman and Barry Mahon), specializing more in swamp-based horror and action than the sex films the others made their forte.

Working as second unit director on Del Tenney’s I Eat Your Skin, Grefe further developed his cinematographic skills, from here on out forging his own course in the exploitation film industry of the 60’s and 70’s. Working an entire script around some footage of an actual boat racing fatality, Grefe cut deals with SAG for cast and utilized Cuban emigres as crew for his first true auteurist effort, Racing Fever (which he managed to distribute through Allied Artists thereafter).

After cutting a successful deal with Allied, he may have gone into mainstream film, were it not for the collapse of an intended Elvis movie project he was involved in which soured him on working outside of the realm of the independents.

From here on out, it’s a succession of entertaining stories from each of his films and surviving members of their casts, including my personal favorite Sting of Death, Death Curse of Tartu, The Devil’s Sisters (which we reviewed here), Stanley, Impulse (reviewed here) and Mako, Jaws of Death (reviewed here), including his work with Crown International Pictures and drawing ever bigger names (Rita Hayworth, Mickey Rooney, William Shatner, Richard Jaeckel, Christopher George) towards the end of his career.

It’s the same territory (and several of the same stories, abbreviated) as we covered in our comprehensive career length interview on Third Eye a few years back, enlivened by film clips and the input of several Grefe collaborators (including recurring favorite Steve Alaimo and via a brief audio clip, no less than The Shat himself, William Shatner).

I love the man and his films (and in fact, Grefe is one of several folks I’ve remained in contact with in the years since), so this was a pleasant revisitation of the man’s career in brief, and Griffith keeps things moving along at a snappy pace throughout.

As a (very) welcome bonus, you get the same long form Bacardi ad featuring Shatner that appeared on the Impulse release (but in far worse condition here!) and a newly released second one involving the rodeo and selling rum and coke displays to liquor store vendors, but as fun as those are (and they are, see our prior review of Impulse), the real keeper here is the other “lost film” in the Grefe catalogue (after the resurrection of the Devil’s Sisters), 1977’s Whisky Mountain.

At last, I can call my “Wild” Bill Grefe film collection complete, and for that alone, I’m proud to have this one in my collection – everything else is just icing on the cake.

So let’s address the film proper, shall we?

Race With the Devil meets Deliverance in Whisky Mountain, a rare hicksploitation effort from “Wild” Bill Grefe.

Marking the end of his feature film exploitation career, Whisky Mountain features husband and wife team Christopher (Pieces, Grizzly, City of the Living Dead, The Exterminator) and Lynda Day (Ants, Day of the Animals, Beyond Evil) George as half of two couples of Motocross competitors who head off in search of a “family secret” confederate treasure, running into some Trump supporter type inbred hillbillies along the way.

Elements of films like Rituals, Just Before Dawn, Final Terror, Scalps and even junk like The Forest, Savage Water or Don’t Go Into the Woods Alone come into play as the foursome make their way through mountain crag, dense forest and stream, shadowed and sabotaged by the menacing backwoods crackers all the way.

If only Ms. George had an ounce of street smarts…blurting out their entire plan at the antique shop wasn’t exactly a genius move, lady…

Things turn rather ugly when the hicks capture our heroes, goad the men into a fight and rape the women over a several day period.  A crazy old man sets the men free and they make their way back to town, but find one of those good ol’ boy sherrifs who turns into as much of an enemy as the sleazy morons on the mountain.  Friends turn against them, one dies and another winds up in shock, only to be “rescued” by our shotgun totin’ lawman in one of those patented depressing 70’s finales…

The print is in a bit questionable of a condition, to say the least: running lines, speckling, reel change and print damage are par for the course here. It’s somewhere between an old Brentwood multi-pack release and a Something Weird color film in quality. Even so, it’s a fairly entertaining and rather obscure film that’s remained unheralded and unseen for many a decade, and I’m certainly glad to have it in my collection at last.

Damage or no, it’s the primary reason for Grefe aficionados to grab this 2 disc release – a few Grefe Bacardi ad cum mini-movies and the feature length documentary are certainly welcome extras.

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