Hooptober 2022 #31: Death Curse of Tartu (1966)

The scariest thing in William Grefé’s Death Curse of Tartu is anytime a person gets in the water. Shot on location in Florida swamp land, there’s a palpable sense of danger when cast members get in the water. Who knows what they’ll encounter in there?

Unfortunately this is about the only danger in the film. Death Curse of Tartu falls into the disreputable category of horror where white people go to their doom because they didn’t listen to a person of color. An indigenous person, most likely not played by an indigenous person, repeatedly tells multiple archaeologists and their grad students not to go near a Seminole burial mound. The land is cursed by a witch doctor named Tartu. What do these people do? They venture into the Florida swamps to find it. Surprise, surprise most of them die.

Death Curse of Tartu looks like a cheap adventure film. It tries to transplant the exotic to middle of nowhere Florida. It doesn’t work. Grefé and cinematographer Julio C. Chavez don’t do much to hide their limited budget. Imagine if Raiders of the Lost Ark was just the opening sequence and only used the same 50 square feet of land. That’s Death Curse of Tartu. There’s exactly one skull warning folks not to venture into the burial ground. Most of the budget was probably spent renting airboats for a day. They do however have money to shoot a dance number in the Florida swamps.

As for the monster in the title, the witch doctor Tartu mostly spends his time sleeping in a tomb. He does however send out animal servants to kill these dumb scientists. In Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster, Bela Lugosi famously fights what is clearly a rubber octopus. William Grefé puts many of that type of scene into this film. This film may have the world’s least threatening gator attack sequence. When Tartu does show up, he mostly just chases folks before being killed by quicksand. There’s a very faint thread of anti colonialism in this film but it’s probably not intentional. White folks ultimately win the day. Again, Tartu, invincible witch doctor, dies in quicksand.

Death Curse of Tartu tries to transplant both horror and adventure to middle of nowhere Florida. Instead it becomes a film encouraging tourists not to visit middle of nowhere Florida. There’s value in seeing a Florida only a few years away from being overtaken by Disney. However, that’s the only value in this film.

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