Stingathon 09

Sting of Death
Oh Death, where is they sting-a-ling-a-ling,
    Oh grave, thy vic-to-ree?

-- World War I trench song

From a distance, jellyfish are some of the most fascinating life-forms on Earth. Their bodies can be as much as 99% water, making them so much at home in their environment that they're practically indistinguishable from it. The names of their phyla — Ctenophora! Cnidaria! — sound more like Lovecraft than Linnaeus. Everything about them, from their shapes and their movements to the structure of their soft, gelatinous bodies, seems so bizarre that no computer-generated SyFy channel alien monstrosity could possibly compare to them... yet far from being aliens, they've been around on this planet far longer than we have.

From a distance — say, in coffee-table books on the wonders of the deep, or in National Geographic specials on TV — jellyfish are almost awe-inspiring in their simplicity, and strangeness, and even beauty. But for most people, I think, the fascination ends when you actually meet one. Anybody who's ever had to deal with jellyfish in the real world knows that most of them are a literal pain in the ass.

I grew up on the Mid-Atlantic coast, where three types of jellies vex us. None of these three varieties are particularly life-threatening, the way the box jellies, sea wasps and (non-jellyfish but similar) Portuguese Men-o'-War of warmer waters are; but they're still intensely annoying.

Most common are the clear, harmless Moon Jellies: little round gobs of living snot about three to five inches across. Moon Jellies have very mild stings, so mild that humans are unaffected by them. The trouble with Moon Jellies is that you never see only one of them, or even as few as a dozen or so. No; you usually see Moon Jellies in vast shoals of a thousand or more. I can remember some late summers when the high-tide line was littered with the stranded bodies of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of stranded Moon Jellies — an uninterrupted line of jellyfish running down the beach, stretching as far as the eye could see. Naturally, nobody much felt like swimming in a sea so full of sticky blobs.

Interspersed with the Moon Jellies are the sea nettles. I know from those coffee-table books that there are some spectacular, colorful varieties of sea nettle, but the ones we usually get are no more interesting than the Moon Jellies: they're small and clear, but with tinges of blood-red or orange underneath. The dark, reddish bits are the stinging tentacles, which are painful to humans. There's nothing quite as irritating as having a sea nettle, or even a part of a sea nettle, float up the leg of your bathing suit. Sea nettles don't usually show up in the sheer numbers of the Moon Jellies — you get perhaps one of them per hundred of the clear variety — but you certainly know when they're around.

And then there are the lion's manes. These are among the foulest-looking creatures I've ever seen. Imagine throwing up into a dirty punch bowl, and then flipping the bowl upside-down: that's what the average lion's mane looks like. Mature ones grow to about the size of a dinner plate, with some particularly large specimens growing to about 18 inches across. They have cloudy white disks on top, and a mass of thick, gnarled, fleshy-looking tentacles underneath. Their stings are very painful. I have vivid memories of splashing around in the surf as a kid: a wave would rise up in front of me, and just as I was about to launch myself into it, I'd see one of those mini-Shoggoths in the wall of water, heading right for me. Have you ever tried to run hell-for-leather out of waist-deep water, with the tide pulling you back? And one of Those Things right behind you? It's like being in that nightmare where the train is coming, and you can't run away... only it's worse.

I hate jellyfish. I find the touch of them nauseating. A lot of other people feel the same; so I suppose it was only a matter of time before somebody decided to make a monster movie about a killer jellyfish.

Heck: I wanted to make a killer jellyfish movie when I was a kid. One summer when the Moon Jelly invasion was at its very worst — when the beaches were deserted because of the vast, stinking piles of them at the water's edge — I grabbed my Mom's Super8 movie camera, some N-scale model houses I'd built for just such an occasion, and a reel of monofilament; then I ran down to the beach and shot three minutes of footage for a movie I planned to call The Crawling Slime. Appalling as it may sound, I ran the fishing line through the edges of a couple of Moon Jellies and operated them like puppets. They moved and flapped very convincingly that way, as I dragged them over the plastic buildings. Sand had a tendency to stick to them, which made them look a little less convincing as giant monsters; but for the most part, the three minutes of creature attack footage I got that afternoon had the best-looking "special effects" I ever achieved as a backyard director.

Alas, the Moon Jellies' sacrifice was in vain, because the completed film never got made. For one thing, I couldn't figure out how to get rid of the monster menace at the end. I needed something spectacular... but what could I do? Blow them up? I knew from experience (having made a no-budget Godzilla movie when I was eleven) that you couldn't just stick a firecracker in something and film it exploding. The frame rate of Super8 cameras wasn't fast enough: you saw the before (the plastic tank with a suspicious-looking plume of smoke coming out of it), and you saw the after (the charred, empty spot on the ground), but you saw nothing in between. So even if I'd felt like blowing up a living thing (which I undoubtedly would have done at that age, to a jellyfish at least), I knew it wasn't going to show up on film. Now, the typical monster movie ending would be to have the creatures perish in a fiery cataclysm... but again, I knew from experience that setting fire to model buildings just didn't look right. You couldn't see the flames very clearly on Super8 film unless you burned stuff on a scale I was absolutely not allowed to try. Any more. Plus, the damned jellyfish were made out of water, so I figured they'd kind-of melt and put the fire out. So my footage for The Crawling Slime sat in the closet at my parents' house until two decades later, when it was time for them to move and we did a thorough cleanout. Whatever remained of that reel of film after all those years is now in a landfill somewhere.

But where were we? Let's see... bad movies... juvenile special effects... sat on a shelf for years... oh, yeah! We were about to bring up Sting of Death, the backyard jellyfish horror movie that did get made.

Fans of awful movies will probably recognize the name William Grefé from Death Curse of Tartu, Mako: The Jaws of Death or the ultimate Shatner vehicle, Impulse. Sting of Death, from 1965, was Grefé's first attempt at a horror film. Evidently he put as little stock in it as anyone else did, because after its initial showing it was never re-released or sold to television. By the time Something Weird Video took an interest in Grefé's oeuvre, the original print had deteriorated to the point where it seemed only a miracle would restore it. Yet restore it SWV did, and their print — the only available print, obviously — looks better than most of Grefé's generally-available stuff. The resulting silk-purse-from-a-sow's-pneumatophore is so clean it's merciless — it doesn't allow anything to get in the way of the idiocy on display.

Grefé is a native Floridian, so it's hardly surprising that his Killer Jellyfish should be a Portuguese Man-o'-War (OK, I know; the Portuguese Man-o'-War isn't technically a jellyfish, in the same way that Senator Joe Lieberman [I - Connecticut] isn't technically a Republican. But sometimes it just seems impossible to worry about such technical details: regardless of what its official classification may be, if it's a free-floating, venomous bag of slime, it seems only natural to call it a Republican Senator). The Man-o'-War, a dangerous creature, is much more common to Florida waters than it is to the Mid-Atlantic. Along with alligators, water moccasins, tarantulas and palmetto bugs, it's one of the many natural wonders that draw people to the Sunshine State from other, less nature-infested parts of the country like my own.

What is surprising about Grefé's monster is that he's not just a giant Man-o'-War run amok. He's a were-jellyfish, capable of turning back into human form. It seems to me that were-monsters become less credible the further they get from humans on the evolutionary scale. When Raymond Burr turns into a gorilla, or Lon Chaney, Jr. turns into a wolf, or Nastassja Kinski becomes a panther, it's not that much of a stretch of the imagination. Peru's Qarqacha features were-llamas, and perhaps they're a little more difficult to accept; but llamas are still mammals, after all. People who turn into lizards may make us scratch our heads a bit, since you have to go much further back in history to find a common ancestor. Still, movies like Track of the Moon Beast or The Hideous Sun Demon have so many other problems that we probably don't stop to think too carefully about the biology of the transformation. Plus, there are plenty of man-to-lizard transformations in the folklore of cultures that share their habitat with reptiles. But jellyfish? Jellyfish? What in the world would it take to transform a human being into a brainless invertebrate — other than electing him to Congress with a "D" after his name? (See? I make fun of Democrats, too!)

The differences between a human being and a jellyfish are too extreme to be dismissed casually. If a were-jellyfish has, say, limbs... or a skeleton... or a bloodstream... or a central nervous system... then it's really not much of a jellyfish, is it? On the other hand, if a human suddenly takes on the characteristics of a jellyfish, it's hard to imagine how the human part could ever reassert itself. Jellies and humans have evolved along separate paths since the early days of life on earth, so to expect one to turn into the other, and back again, is asking a bit much. Even the stupidity of the rest of the movie isn't enough to distract us from the central problem here: a were-jellyfish makes absolutely no sense.

But sense is not one of Sting of Death's major concerns. Even as early as the opening sequence, we begin to realize that we're going to have to stop thinking if we're to get any enjoyment at all out of this movie.

The very first thing we see is a gloppy five-fingered hand picking up a screwdriver — hands, fingers, tool-using; what about this suggests we're dealing with a jellyfish? Anyway, the hand and the POV camera move menacingly toward a big bank of radio equipment — when suddenly, we cut to a perfectly normal human hand, reaching out to a small transistor radio. The camera pans up the arm — way up the arm, all the way to her waist — to reveal a pretty blonde in a black bikini, sunbathing on a dock. Then, without warning, we're back to the dripping black monster hand, as it shoves the screwdriver into some exposed wiring. ZAP! A cartoon explosion fills the screen! The monster has presumably electrocuted itself, so the camera goes back to the blonde, leering over what seems to be Grefé's favorite part of a woman's anatomy: the derrière.

But the monster is still alive. What's more, it seems to be sneaking up on the oblivious blonde. Though his large, webbed feet rustle through the foliage, and though he lowers himself into the water from the same small dock she is sunbathing on (and then goes sloshing through the waist-deep water to reach her), the girl manages not to notice the creature until it is too late. It reaches up out of the water and drags her in. She gets away for a moment; he drags her back. She escapes again; he drags her back. Finally, he holds her under the water until she drowns.

Have you noticed anything missing from this opening? I'm sure you've noticed the things that shouldn't be there. Feet, for instance. Large, webbed feet that look an awful lot like swim fins. Or hands: unless there's a five-fingered appendage called a stranglocyte that I've managed to overlook, I don't remember any jellyfish having hands. And, while we're on the subject of hands and feet, here's something else we rarely associate with jellyfish: independent movement. But in spite of all this, what makes this attack sequence most remarkable is something that isn't there...

The sting.

For crying out loud, the movie is called Sting of Death. The monster is supposed to be part Man-o'-War, and it's got tentacles the size of garden hoses — actually, I think they are garden hoses — dangling from its bulbous head. But the blonde girl is not stung, as far as I can tell. What's the point of being a half-man half-jelly hybrid if you can't paralyze your victims with your venom? If you still have to grab them, strangle them or hold them down, wouldn't it be easier if you didn't turn into a jellyfish in the first place?

(To be fair to the movie, the Jellyfish Man does use the sting of the title in later attack scenes. Why he doesn't use it in the opening scene, the scene that sets the stage for the rest of the film, I don't know.)

Jellyfish Heaven
    in the big blue sea,
Where it's too cold to surf
    and it's too warm to ski.
Jellyfish Heaven
        Is full of dead

-- The Dead Milkmen, Jellyfish Heaven

We've already been introduced to our monster. Now let's meet our jelly bait.

Sting of Death takes place at the Everglades home-slash-research station of a scientist named Dr. Richardson, who is studying the Man-o'-War in its natural habitat (actually, I think the Man-o'-War is more common in the open waters of the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico; but with everything else that's wrong with this picture, it hardly seems to be worth an argument). Dr. Richardson's daughter Karen is just coming home from college, and she's brought with her four of her undergrad friends. Look up their cast entries in the IMDb: you'll see they're qualified by their hair color... "Louise, dark redhead"; "Donna, light redhead"; "Jessica, honey blond" and "Susan, frosted blond". This is helpful, since it's only by their hair color that you can possibly hope to tell them apart. Not that you need to tell them apart, but... oh, you get the idea.

We learn through the clunkiest of expositions that Dr. Richardson has recently hired a strapping young assistant, Dr. Michael Rennie Lionel Atwill John Hoyt. John is our nominal hero. And why not? He's young and handsome enough to be a match for teen-age Karen. And if he delivers pickup lines like this:

KAREN: You know, that really was unfair. You could have given us more warning [about having a party].
JOHN: You don't need any improving. You're, uhh... <smarm>perfect as you are.</smarm>
What difference does it make? Karen is naïve enough to be flattered by it. Hey — at least the trail of slime John leaves is metaphorical.

John's opposite number is Dr. Richardson's other assistant, Egon. Poor Egon is not handsome. He's burly, and crusty, and he has a squinty eye — imagine the love-child of Popeye and Bluto, and you've got Egon to a T. Egon has been working with Richardson for many years, ever since Karen was a little girl. Karen has always been fond of Egon, in a condescending sort of way, though she's completely oblivious to the fact the big lug has fallen in love with her. Now that Karen's grown into a beautiful young woman, Egon has no idea how to talk to her; he's painfully aware of his own ugliness, and even more painfully aware of the way she's been gravitating toward John.

But it's more than simple jealousy that makes Egon resent John. Both John and Dr. Richardson treat Egon with casual contempt. When he tries to tell them about his theory that Men-o'-War might grow to unexpectedly large sizes, both scientists ridicule the idea and its proponent as though Egon weren't within earshot. In spite of Egon's long association with the Doctor and his family, everybody treats him as though he were a particularly stupid pet. Now, if they would only take him seriously for a moment — just one moment — and take a look at the evidence Egon's prepared, he could show them his theory was correct. But since they continue to dismiss him as a worthless clod, he decides to show them in quite a different manner...

To keep Karen and her friends entertained, Dr. Richardson has arranged for a boatload of kids from the local university to come and join them for a party. "Party" seems to be what these kids are majoring in, and their leader looks old enough to be a tenured professor on the subject. I think I should refer to them as "kids" rather than kids, as several of them seem to be in their mid-to-late 30's, if not older. But age has not brought with it maturity. When the boat pulls into the dock, we see the whole crowd of them dancing on the deck, as though their "youthful" high spirits won't let them stop the party for even a moment. Naturally, one of the "boys" gets knocked into the water, but even that's not enough to stop him from dancing... and even when the boat's successfully moored, the "kids" keep right on twitching and spasming on the dock — anyone would think they're already pumped full of potent jellyfish toxins.

The party may have been intended as a diversion for Karen; but what it really means is more torture for Egon, who stands shyly on the sidelines, swaying nervously to the beat, hoping that someone will notice him and invite him to join the fun. The "kids" notice him, all right. But as soon as they do, they recognize him as the Outcast, the Not-One-Of-Us. Still with their stupid smiles pasted to their faces, still pretending everything's just an enormous joke, the crowd reverts to an elementary-school playground mob. Pointing and jeering, they surround Egon and frighten him so badly he's forced to flee to Dr. Richardson's airboat and ride out into the swamp. Karen puts up a token display of disapproval at their callous behavior — while our "hero" John tsks even less forcefully, and eventually apologizes... to Karen, while Egon is still missing. But I suppose grinding a man's soul under your heels isn't that serious a matter after all; so everybody forms a conga line and boogies into the house for some booze.

I have no desire to go into too much more depth about the plot of Sting of Death, though a little more will certainly be necessary. If you're reading through the whole of Stingathon 09, you'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about this lousy movie. For now, let me bring up some of the few things the movie does well.

The first thing that Sting of Death handles better than many — even most — of the horror films of its time is its portrayal of death and injury. For instance, in the credits sequence, when the Jellyfish Man drags the girl in the black bikini off under the water, the girl does a staggeringly good job of playing dead. Her head lolls; her limbs float around independently, as though she had no control over them (which, being dead, she wouldn't). The editing is smooth enough that we really begin to feel that the actress hasn't been up for air during the entire sequence. I had to watch the credits several times to assure myself they weren't using a particularly convincing mannequin.

Or there's the corpse in the boat — one of Egon's earlier victims. The local Sheriff, a peculiarly tactless fellow, brings the body to Dr. Richardson just before the college kids arrive. Once again, the extra does a very good job of playing dead; and the makeup job, while simple, is undeniably effective. The body's sunken eyes, its oddly-colored skin, and even the greyish gums exposed under its swollen lips, all make it look really dead.

And then there are the jellyfish stings... the ones we pointedly don't see during the movie's opening. Again, the weals are very simply done. But they look like raw wounds; and in their simplicity, they suit the situation better than more sophisticated effects would have done. Also, I'm sorry to say the actors are generally better at miming toxic agony than they are at bringing their characters to life. In a way, I suppose, this is a good thing, since I have rarely seen a cast of characters I have been so happy to see suffer.

Stings of Not-Quite-Death

The next reasonably good thing about Sting of Death is... Egon, believe it or not. You'll have realized, I suppose, that Egon is the monster. I'm not sure if the movie ever thought the monster's human identity was much of a secret, but we know from the conventions of the genre that Egon must be the Jellyfish Man. But even in his half-jelly form, he's still the most sympathetic character in the bunch (not that this is saying much).

In Egon we see a hint of characters that were to come in Grefé's filmography: Tim, the hero of Stanley, for example, or Richard Jaeckel's Sonny from Mako: Jaws of Death, men who take revenge on the cruel world with help from the animals they consider their true friends (snakes and sharks respectively). Of these characters, Egon has the least screen time and the least to do. He's also the one with the most human blood literally on his hands: he doesn't rely on the animals as his proxy... he becomes the animal and does the killing himself. Yet unlike Tim or Sonny, he has no social cause to champion through his violence — it was the oppression of the White Man in Stanley, and the exploitation of sharks in Mako..., though Grefé's cack-handed execution ended up undercutting the movies' messages. It would appear that the less attention Grefé paid to his tormented anti-heroes, the better off they emerged.

Egon is drawn for us with a few, exceedingly simple strokes, and actor John Vella somehow manages to keep his character from crossing over from pathos into sad-sackdom too many times. When the script tries to go a little too far, by insisting the Egon has the peculiar ability to sneak up on people without their realizing it, it doesn't feel right: we realize that the script is trying to explain why nobody can see the monster when it's lurking just out-of-frame. The explanation is forced; it stinks of the lamp. But when Vella is left to his own devices, his Egon starts to emerge as a recognizable human being. When he reaches out impulsively to touch Karen's shoulder, but then pulls back at the last moment; when he stands at the sidelines of the "party", shuffling wistfully; when the casual contempt of the "normal" people around him causes his speech to become even more halting and brusque... these gestures are the closest things to genuine human behavior that we see in Sting of Death.

When Egon begins to put his real plan into action, we realize with a shock that he's much smarter than we may have thought. Well, obviously, he's worked out a method of transforming himself into a jellyfish and back, so in a sense he's a mad genius; but we don't expect him to be subtle. Yet when he prepares to carry off Karen, we actually see him using his Dumb Lug persona to send John and Dr. Richardson off in the wrong direction. He lies with such fluency that we suddenly see his twitching and stammering for the defense mechanisms they are: there's a sharp mind working underneath. Still, there's one enormous flaw in his plan — and this, too, is believable for someone as inexperienced and emotionally stunted as poor Egon: he can't imagine that Karen won't want to come away with him. He can't see beyond his own need. He doesn't see how, oh, I don't know... killing all her friends... would somehow prejudice Karen against him once she finds out he's responsible. Sure, the details of the plot are pure nonsense. But I think anybody who ever suffered through a hopeless attachment as a teenager will agree: there's a good deal of emotional truth in the situation.

And — to combine both of the movie's limited strengths — when Egon meets his fate at the end of the movie, he really does resemble a deflated lion's mane. I know that's the wrong animal to compare him to; if anything, he should be blue. But if you've ever seen a dead red jelly at the seaside, you'll be struck by the resemblance.

OK, I know: I may be stretching the point looking for something, anything good to say about this movie. Those of you who've seen it will realize why: if I go on revealing the story, the next thing we're going to run into is... the Guest Song by Special Singing Star Neil Sedaka. It's called "Do the Jellyfish"; and if you think I'm going to quote it here, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. I'll leave it to one of my fellow B-Masters with a stronger constitution than mine to reveal the lyrics. Rather, I'll attempt to purge the memory from my brain with this quote from Frank Zappa:

Some men say he could fly;
some men say he could swim —
Others say he could sing like Neil Sedaka,
and all the girls in Flushing would be
     amazed of him...
          (two, three!)
                    of him!

-- Frank Zappa, Billy the Mountain

... which turns out to be appropriate, since "flushing" is exactly the word that comes to mind after I hear Sedaka singing "Do the Jellyfish".

What the "kids" don't realize is that Egon has transformed himself, returned, and hidden in Dr. Richardson's swimming pool. I was unaware that chlorinated fresh water was a good environment for a Portuguese Man-o'-War; but in any case, that is what Egon does.

Unfortunately, this brings me to something the film manages less-than-adequately: time scale. Egon has a lair in an underwater cave a good distance from Dr. Richardson's island home. It's there in his cave that Egon keeps the equipment he's stolen from his boss... the equipment he needs to transform to and from his jellyfish state (I'm not sure where he's getting the electric power; I would think most underwater caves in the Florida Everglades are off the grid). When Egon flees the party, and much later during the grand finale chase scene, we see that it takes several minutes to get to the cave by airboat. The trouble is, it seems to take Egon less time to get back to the house in his jellyfish form than it did for him to get to the cave in the first place.

Anyway: Egon lies in wait under the surface of the pool. I'm sure the Sedaka song does nothing to improve his mood (in fact, I think the sad spectacle of all these rhythmically-challenged white people trying to dance has caused a nearby Seminole shaman to stir in his tomb: "Hey, you damn kids! Git offa my Everglades!" he death-curses).

As the music stops, one of the girls gets overheated and falls back into John's arms. Now... note, please, that there is a literary technique called "foreshadowing", in which certain words or actions are used to point ahead to a plot twist — usually tragic — of which the characters are as yet unaware. You might be reminded of this technique as the girl says, "Whooh! That killed me!"

The girl decides to go into the pool to cool off. Note, please, that there is a literary technique called "dramatic irony", in which an outcome known to the audience — usually tragic — may be hinted at by the characters, who are unaware of the real significance of what they say or do. You might be reminded of this as she goes on to explain she's going into the pool right now, without changing into a swimsuit. "I'm on vacation," she continues; "Let's live!"

She dives in. "You nut!" cries Karen. "You'll kill yourself!" Note, please, that there is a literary technique called "beating people over the head with a lead pipe"; you will certainly be reminded of this as Dr. Richardson adds, "Let her be, Karen. I guess she'll survive."

Naturally, that's when Egon decides to attack. He starts with the girl, and then, when John dives in to rescue her, the Jellyfish Man takes the opportunity to emerge from the pool and go after the others. Oddly enough, he only manages to injure one more of the "young" people before retreating back to the swamp. Richardson realizes the two injured "kids" need immediate medical care, and orders John to radio the sheriff at once. That's when John discovers what the Jellyfish Man was up to in the pre-credits sequence: the radio is smashed, so they have no way of making direct contact with the mainland.

The "kids" all pile onto their boat and pull away from the dock, not realizing that the Jellyfish Man (in yet another display of typical jellyfish behavior) has taken an axe to the bottom of their boat and knocked a serious hole in it. When the boat does begin to sink (in shallow water mere feet from dry land), the "kids" are prevented from escaping by a horde of Portuguese Men-o'-War (or at any rate, some plastic bags pretending to be Portuguese Men-o'-War) that suddenly surround them. "They're attacking!" cries one panic-stricken "young" man.


I think we're supposed to assume that the Jellyfish Man has used his special Jellyfish Powers to summon the Men-o'-War. Even assuming that Egon speaks Portuguese, this "attack" still strains credulity — maybe farther than anything else in this remarkably silly movie. Unlike true jellyfish, the Man-o'-War isn't a single organism. It's actually a colony of four different kinds of cnidarians that are mutually dependent — call it a cnibbutz. So first of all, there's no central brain-like structure to receive the Jellyfish Man's psychic commands. Next, it's hard to see how a Jellyfish Man could convince these four separate parts to do his bidding: the gastrozooids won't go unless you promise them beer; the gonozooids keep asking if there's going to be any hot chicks there... so good luck, Egon, getting them all to agree. But by far the biggest obstacle to Jellyfish Man's plan of attack is this: Portuguese Men-o'-War can't navigate on their own. They go where the current and the wind take them... and that explains why so many of them end up stranded on the beach, where they dehydrate and die.

So once again, I have to admit I don't see the advantage to becoming a were-jellyfish. Even if you have some sort of weird affinity with your fellow siphonophores, they turn out to be lousy minions. Sure, the boat attack ends up working, and all the elderly teenagers end up dead; but that seems more a result of pure dumb luck (emphasis on "dumb") than tactical skill on the part of the Men-o'-War.

Lots of people say
    they won't eat no jellyfish,
'Cause they ain't got no bones
    and you can't make a wish.

-- The Dead Milkmen, Jellyfish Heaven

This review is part of Stingathon '09, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the B-Masters' Cabal, of which I've been a member since 2003. By a curious coincidence, today (as I post this) is also the tenth anniversary of my own site. One thing I've noticed about my reviews over the last ten years is that I tend to get bogged down in retelling the plots. Well, I'm pretty tired of this one, so I'm stopping here. I've already made most of the points I intended to make about the overall gist of this film. Though I'm only halfway through the plot, you'll probably be able to piece together the rest of the film from the collected reviews of the Roundtable. So rather than go on describing the story of Sting of Death, I've decided to do something completely different.

In my introduction, I've said some things about jellyfish that I realize are a little unfair to them. I would hate to give the impression that my dislike of jellyfish is somehow their fault. So, to show I really have no hard feelings toward them, I've decided to give them a sort-of left-handed tribute: I'm going to swallow my disgust (to coin an expression) and... well, and eat one.

The table is set.

I've eaten jellyfish before: the tentacles, dried in soup. My Taiwanese ex-girlfriend prepared the soup for me decades ago, and my only memory of it was that it was very pleasant. The jellyfish itself was unrecognizable as a jellyfish, having been dried and reconstituted, then boiled until it disintegrated. But I think the mild spiciness came in part from the stinging nematocysts (though I may be kidding myself).

This time, however, I'm eating Chinese Instant Jellyfish, which — being made out of the cap instead of the tentacles — seems much, much closer to the genuine animal. The Chinese eat just about anything that has any kind of nutritional value, as long as it isn't terribly toxic (the toxins are apparently added during processing). In this case, I found I had five or six varieties of jelly to choose from. I didn't want to deal with the raw kind, as the idea of actually cooking these strips of jellyflesh was more than I could stomach. So I went with Instant. I also chose a brand that didn't feature a smiling, anthropomorphic jellyfish on the package: after watching Sting of Death, I figured that was a little too much.

A package of Instant Jellyfish.

The package tells me that Kangkoufu Instant Jellyfish is a product of the Maoming Longhai Jellyfish Group Co., Ltd. The list of ingredients tells me, reassuringly, that the product is "Without any Antiseptic". Then I wonder to myself why they'd need to say this, and suddenly I am not so reassured. A few years ago, I would have wondered why my cat food said it had no ground-up Ikea furniture in it, but now... well... you get the idea. The package also suggests I serve the jelly with cilantro (xiang cai) or spring onions, but I don't plan on getting that involved with my snack.

Try our living Ramen noodles!

The jellyfish comes with a packet of spice and a packet of sesame oil. The jellyfish itself looks awful; a number of unfortunate comparisons occur to me, which I intend to keep to myself. Mysteriously enough, the ingredients of the spice packet are not listed on the package. It seems to be mostly salt, dried chives, chili powder and MSG.

Looks appetizing, doesn't it?

I open the packets. Arranging some jellyfish on the plate, I add the spices and sesame oil. By now it smells like Chinese food... but it still looks vaguely nauseating. The jellyfish strips seem to have a gristly texture that doesn't help with their appeal. Oh, well: there's really nothing left to do but try some.

Mmmm... tentacly.

Pardon the near-pornographic photo, but I did need to prove I actually went through with this. All I can taste is sesame oil, salt, dried chives, chili powder and MSG. The jellyfish itself is pure texture; it has no discernable flavor of its own. I suppose that's a mercy. It's not slimy, as I might have expected; nor is it fishy. It's tough, like a particularly resilient and undercooked vegetable. Chopped into small pieces and served as part of a stir-fry, it might add a bit of crunch... and nobody would even know what it was.

I know what it is, though, and I think I've had enough. That's two jellyfish-related ordeals I've had to suffer through to mark this anniversary. The things I do to keep my edge as a B-Master! Really, I would have preferred a cake.

So now, to bring this review to a suitable conclusion... even though I promised not to quote them, here are the lyrics to "Do the Jellyfish". At least, as I remember them. I may have got something wrong somewhere. All I can say for sure is that these are the lyrics I hear when I listen to the song; my brain may have rewritten them so I could hear them and stay sane:

    say, Johnny Vella:
        Say, what's that awful smell-a?
It smells like hell-a.
    It's gotta be a jella,
I say, a movie 'bout a killa giallo jelly-fish.

Hey Jack-a —
    now watch your back-a!
        The jellyfish attackah
gives you a smack-a
    that's worse than Neil Sedaka
When he sings about the killa giallo jelly-fish.

I know this song I sing
Is worse than any sting...
How much worse will it be
When you sing along with me?

Come on and follow
    The bouncing ball-o —
        It isn't hard at all-o;
This song is hollow;
    and kind-o' hard to swallow,
Just like a killa giallo jilla-jolly jelly-fish!

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