Miami Movie Mayhem!

The works of B-movie moguls like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Doris Wishman are so bad they're good. And they've become a permanent part of Florida film lore.

Armed with a $10,000 loan from her sister, experience in film distribution, and the conviction that producing a decent nudie couldn't be that difficult, Wishman jumped into filmmaking with an auteur's self-confidence -- she produced, wrote, and directed all her films. Her first results were not promising: "I shot a few days and I saw what I had and I said, 'Oh my God.' Everyone said [to my sister], 'Are you crazy, giving her $10,000?' And my sister said, 'If it's therapy for Doris....' And it was therapy. Not that I was sick or anything, but I was very upset because I had a guilt complex -- stuff I shouldn't have had but I did have. Now I knew what I had to do."

With the financial support of her sister, some friends, and her own money, Wishman persisted, despite her initial discomfort with nudity. There were, for example, certain lines she just would not cross. "The woman who ran the camp [Zelda Briggs] said that everybody in the crew had to be nude, and I said, 'Under no circumstances,'" Wishman recalls. Clothed, Wishman and her crew filmed Hideout in the Sun (about a couple of bank robbers who take refuge in a nudist colony, only to come to a bad end at the old Serpentarium) and Nude on the Moon (astronauts landing on the moon -- actually the Coral Castle in Homestead -- discover the place is populated by humanoid nudists).

Taken as a whole, Wishman's work reveals a poignancy lacking in most exploitation film. "There's a certain character that her women display," Tom Smith says as his television screen fills with a lecherous ne'er-do-well who uses a voodoo doll to feel up Indecent Desire's heroine from a distance. "Almost to a woman they're hungry for love, they're searching for someone to make them feel whole. That keeps sucking them into these dreadful situations where men take advantage of them." And it seems there's more than a little of Wishman in her women. She blames herself for the failure of her second marriage; her work was more important to her than her husband. "Which is wrong and I know it," she says. "I wanted to work. I loved it, it was a challenge, and he was intensely jealous." Perhaps it's this personal element A so different from the cynical detachment of Lewis and Friedman A that gives Wishman's films their odd resonance.

Wishman now shares a Coral Gables apartment with her sister, and remains an economic refugee from the disaster of her last film. Her job at the Pink Pussycat helps pay the bills, but she'll never make enough selling Tie-Ups brand handcuffs to pay for another picture. Still, she reads scripts -- she's seen some "fantastic" ones, she says -- and keeps a lookout for possible backers for her next project. All she needs is $50,000 to shoot a film on video. She has a title but won't let it be printed for fear somebody might steal it. "You hear of any investors?" she asks. "Let me tell you something, there's a lot of money in this video business."

Of all the filmmakers active in Florida during the exploitation boom of the Sixties and early Seventies, only one -- Bill Grefe -- survives in the movie business today. A few years ago Tom Smith had Grefe come and speak about low-budget filmmaking to his "Cinema Depreciation" class at Miami-Dade Community College. "We had a really great class," Smith says sarcastically, "because about nine or ten of the different humanities classes came down and proceeded to assail him with the most stupid fucking questions -- you know, 'What about Fellini?'" Fellini is not what you ask Bill Grefe about; better you should ask him about the alligator that nearly ended his career.

It happened in 1967, on the hurry-up shoot for Death Curse of Tartu. Grefe had contracted to provide the film -- about an Indian medicine man's vengeance from beyond the grave -- for a distributor who needed the second half of a double feature quickly, in time to make the summer horror market. Grefe wrote the script in 24 hours, then set off for a week of shooting in the Everglades. Things were going pretty smoothly until he got ready to film a scene in which an alligator grabs a girl by the arm. The arm in the gator's wired-shut mouth was to be made of rubber, but the scene would still require the actress to lie next to the reptile with her arm in a hole in the ground, to simulate imminent amputation.

"So I told this Frank Weed, who was my crazy guy who lived out in the Glades and handled the animals, I said, you know, bring me a docile alligator," Grefe says in his soft, slow voice while relaxing in the two-story living room of his West Broward A-frame. "He comes in the morning and he had the biggest damn alligator I've ever seen. I mean this thing wouldn't even fit in his pickup truck. He gets this alligator out and this actress says, 'No way Jose, I mean I'm not laying next to this alligator.' This alligator, we had his mouth wired shut, and so I told the actress, I said, 'Look, there's nothing to it, he's calm, let me show you.'

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