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 TCFTS-posGrefe’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 coTCFTS-01mmu­ni­ty 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.