Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
n the face of a forecast storm, down-at-heel New England pilot Grant Murdoch (Byron Sanders)
reluctantly agrees to fly boozy, floozy film actress Laura (Rita Morley) and her sexy
assistant Jan (Barbara Wilkin) to Providencetown, Massachusetts for an urgent audition.
Engine problems soon force them to land, and they find themselves on an island inhabited
by Professor Bartell (Martin Kosleck), a scientist with a German accent, engaged in mysterious
experiments. Soon, a beatnik named Omar (Ray Tudor), who drifts into shore on his raft, joins
the bickering castaways, but not before they discover that there's something else in the water,
something ghastly, that can strip all living animal life to the bone...
Firmly in the guilty pleasures department, The Flesh Eaters has a reputation as being one of the first gore films, although the two or three shock moments, though reasonably well done, seem tame enough today and are filmed in black and white. This is the only work of Jack Curtis, its producer-director, although the rumour is that one 'Carson Davidson', credited as the cinematographer here, was actually his pseudonym. If that was the case, then Curtis was also responsible for another, much more obscure feature, The Wrong Damn Film (1975), and well as a couple of well received comedy shorts. In real life Curtis was apparently a witty man, but with a disfigured hand caused by a birth defect. It's apt then that The Flesh Eaters should be his main calling card, as it's a film with much bodily disfigurement on show, and one that relishes the B-movie conventions with which it finds itself.
Standout in the cast (and the only actor present who ever had much of a career outside of daytime television away from this) is Kosleck, a menacing figure who also appeared in another cult favourite, Strange Holiday (1945). "I must look like one of those creatures from a horror film," is one of the first things he says as he confronts the newly stranded on his beach, his icy demeanour and suspicious vowel sounds making an indelible impression, an archetypal Nazi. In fact so suggestive is his character of past misdeeds that, after the completion of The Flesh Eaters, director Curtis later shot additional footage featuring Nazi experimentation using the flesh eating microbes - scenes which ultimately prove a titillating distraction and so are wisely only included as a separate supplement in the DVD edition.
Compared to the presence of seasoned character actor Kosleck, the others in the cast seem less rounded and interesting. Square jawed Byron Sanders, playing the hero, is suitably stalwart and tough under pressure - though he does admit to a troubled past in one of the very few quiet scenes with Jan. This persona makes one scene of the film even more enjoyable when, in a ludicrously prolonged tense moment, he has to rescue the wondering Laura from off two-foot rocks. The killer microbes have surrounded them and her, lapping about her drifting luggage in the sea. And such is the power of Murdoch's unspoken attraction that, when at one point he asks for a strip bandage, his curvaceous companion Jan has no hesitation in ripping her shirt off to make do. Frequently bare to the waist during his stay on the island, no-nonsense Murdoch is as much a stereotype as is his German opponent, but far less intense. Orbiting these two strong masculine gravitational pulls are the two women, who between them struggle to make much of an impression, although Rita Morley has her moments (one particularly relishes her brief double take when the German emerges from the sea).
Add to this mix Omar, the spaced out beatnik, who drifts into the film on his raft just when it seems in danger of sagging a little with too much talk. Omar's scatterbrained dialogue, as well as his gruesome despatch some scenes later, are among the better things in the film. He's a doped loose cannon, who temporarily fills the gap nicely between opposing males while offering a first easy target for experimentation.
What ties all this up into such an entertaining package is the camera work by the aforementioned Davidson and some quietly good direction (assuming for a moment that were separate creative forces) by Curtis. The Dark Skies DVD of this previously much sought after film, being struck from vault materials, brings with it exemplary picture quality, something of a revelation after years of poor video images, second or third generation down the line. Despite the low-cost production Davidson-Curtis manage some interesting set ups - one relishes for instance a moment when Murdoch's profile takes up half the screen, while on the distance sand hills some small figures appear, right on cue, right in focus; or the way that he manages to make scene after scene, often shot on the same stretch of beach with the same characters, never boring to the eye. Some of the special effects are achieved by the relatively rare technique of scratching directly onto the negative, while the final monster, still recognisably of the 1950s in inspiration, is reasonably effective too and better, say, than the comparable alien in the much better remembered It Came From Outer Space (1955) or various Corman monsters. What makes the film even more remarkable is that Curtis apparently shot it silent, looping the voices back in post-production, and this is something that is not noticeable at all. (If indeed it is true?)
The Flesh Eaters has an opening scene in which a romantic couple are menaced on a boat by something unseen, but still horrible, under the water. Such lurking, waterborne tension, simple and effective, is a familiar device, and has appeared more recently in such films as Deep Blue Sea. In contrast Curtis' film's weakest moments occur with the inevitable plot rap up at the end, especially with the preposterous idea that his flesh eaters are poisoned by a simple ingestion of human blood. For monsters with such particular eating habits, it's a suggestion hard to swallow, either for them or the audience.
If Curtis finally never escapes the B-horror ghetto he does provide one of the more pleasurable adventures into it. Down the years The Flesh Eaters has sustained a quiet following and in its new, splendid visual incarnation on disc it makes for a great rediscovery by fans of the genre. The letterboxed DVD includes the Nazi experimentation scenes, as originally narrated by the director, as well as some (very short) nude outtakes from these, a trailer and little else, but can still be recommended.