William Grefe might not have the cult cachet of other directors from the drive-in era but that doesn’t change his importance in the history of regional filmmaking. He played a vital role in making South Florida a real center for cinema production, cranking out a variety of polished exploitation flicks that often did brisk business on the drive-in circuit. They Came From The Swamp is a new documentary from Daniel Griffith that explores Grefe’s overlooked yet influential oeuvre -and also paints a vivid portrait of the last era where maverick indie filmmakers could make a career with national impact while staying on their own turf.
They Came From The Swamp places Grefe front and center, allowing the director to narrate his career his history in his own soft-spoken, gently humorous way. After a brief biographical setup, it explores Grefe’s career on a film-by-film basis, often weaving in cast and crew members to offer their memories (screenwriter Gary Crutcher and makeup man Doug Hobart are notable scene-stealers). A few noteworthy b-movie historians chime in with supplemental thoughts, including some typically well-researched anecdotes from Chris Poggiali and some witty capsule reviews from Frank Henenlotter.
The history that unfolds onscreen reveals Grefe was a savvy, cost-conscious operator who used his flexibility as a self-made filmmaker to jump on blossoming trends and create homestyle hits. For example, when Roger Corman racked up a hit with The Wild Angels, Grefe responded with Wild Rebels and when vermin revenge flicks became a hit with Willard, Grefe replaced rats with snakes to make the herpetological horror favorite Stanley. Along the way, he becomes a key player in transforming the Florida filmmaking community from its primitive early state to a thriving production mecca.
Griffith uses a fairly epic canvas to tell the tale – the film runs just over two hours – but he keeps the pacing taut and the imagery as colorful as the tales told by Grefe and company. It really build up a head of a steam when it moves into the ’70s era of Grefe’s career, including some scary tales of dealing with real sharks on Mako: The Jaws Of Death and some wild material about the overlooked William Shatner psycho-flick vehicle Impulse (look out for the anecdote about a near-death experience, backed up by some scary behind-the-scenes footage). You’ll also learn about the unique sideline that Grefe took out of feature directing (hint: it involves Shatner and a famous liquor brand) and how a film Grefe produced led to Don Johnson being cast in Miami Vice.
In short, They Came From The Swamp is a quick-moving and informative piece about an overlooked but deserving career that more b-movie buffs should know about. Any student of drive-in filmmaking will find this a fun way to flesh out their regional exploitation education.