Field Guide to Invertebrates in Film: Sting of Death

Sting of Death (1965)

Critter: Mutant Physalia physalis, Portuguese Man-of-War + Mad Scientist = “Jellyfish” Man

Size: Man-sized, of course

Modus Operandi: Sneaks up on unsuspecting, but deserving human victims and stings them with his stinging gloves & tentacles

How the Menace Emerges: A disgruntled Igor-like research assistant breeds his own extra-large man-of-war on electricity, seawater and human blood creating a lethal headdress wielded for revenge

End Goal: Being alone with the pretty lady and vengeance

Sting of Death is the sort of film that just isn’t made any more. Many folks might see that as a good thing, but they’re also the same folks you try not to invite to your parties. It is a fun movie, but that’s just the obvious part. Although buttressed upon tried and true formulas, the premise is unique and the critter is entirely absurd. The budget was nil, yet with a low-budget craftsman at the helm, everything that counts is in place. It is well-paced and looks gorgeous. It is the combination of these conflicting things that makes Sting of Death such a rarity and such a resounding success.

William Grefé is the craftsman behind Sting of Death, the man responsible for skillfully turning a disfigured research assistant into a vengeful “jellyfish” man while still managing to toss in an equally absurd (but catchy) poolside dance number (The Jellyfish, sung by Neil Sedaka). If you listen to the commentary, a priceless chat between Grefé and the immeasurable Frank Hennenlotter, you can get a sense of what sort of process is required to pull this off. This is real grindhouse. Sting of Death is packaged on DVD with Death Curse of Tartu, the even lower budget film Grefe made as a drive-in companion piece at the distributor’s last minute request. Even though the baddies in this one are all vertebrates, it too comes with a gratuitous dance sequence and fabulous commentary from Grefe and Hennenlotter. For only 10 bucks, it’s a steal.

For those of you who laughed at the absurdity of using an inflated plastic bag and leftover Mardi Gras beads to represent the mutant Man-of-War here, I suggest that you check out these photos of the real deal here, here and here.

Nit-picking Science: To be fair, the Portuguese Man-of-War is not a jellyfish at all, but a related, rather more complex, colonial supercritter. As siphonophores, each “individual” Man-of-War is actually made up of a colony of specially differentiated individuals collectively and obligately living as a single organism. Although they are all the same species, this species differentiates itself into four distinct types of organism (zooid), each with its own purpose in creating a fully functional Man-of-War, and each unable to survive on its own. The first zooids are the pneumatophores, which look like floating plastic bags and keep the collective critter afloat. The next zooids are dactylozooids which are the nasty, stinging, venomous tentacles that capture and kill prey organisms, but in order for the man-of-war to eat, it needs the next set of zooids, the gastrozooids. These guys do the digesting for the group. Lastly, no Man-of-War is complete without a means of reproduction, and that’s where the gonozooids come in. Sting of Death merely added another mutualist to this party: the human host who expanded the Man-of-War’s hunting range to include large terrestrial mammals. Oh, and while I couldn’t find out for sure, I suspect that Dr. Richardson is mistaken when he says that Man-of-War venom is exactly like cobra venom.

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