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Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Flesh Eaters

Jack Curtis and Arnold Drake were two guys at the edges of the film industry mainstream, who got together to make their own movie. The Flesh Eaters (TFE) is one of those horror/sci-fi hybrids (mostly horror, very little sci). Working outside of mainstream Hollywood, Curtis and Drake pushed the envelope for on-screen gore and exploitation gimmicks. The cast are mostly third-tier actors who played bit parts ("man" or "woman" or "saloon girl") in TV episodes. Shot in black and white in 1962, (but not released until '64), the overall mood of TFE is very 50s. Even the monsters have a decidedly 50s B look.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A young couple, swimming off their yacht near Long Island, disappear amid ominous music. A NYC taxi pulls up at a wharf. Jan, the assistant for Laura, a post-prime alcoholic stage star, charters Grants seaplane to take them Provincetown for some rehearsals. His plane develops engine trouble en route. They set down beside a "deserted island". There, they bump into Professor Peter Bartell, there to study marine life. They discover a human skeleton on the beach (from the opening couple) and lots of fish skeletons. Peter tries to assert himself on Laura, but she bites his wrist and runs away. After the storm, the plane is gone. Grant figures out that the shimmery bits in the water are microbes that eat flesh. A non-sequetur beatnik named Omar drifts up to the island on a stereotypic raft. Peter shows the others how high voltage "kills" them. Says if they put a big shock in the surf, it will kill be critters and they can get away on Omar's raft. He has a huge solar battery to do this. In private, Peter gives Omar a drink with critters in it. They eat the middle out of Omar. Peter lies that Omar left on his raft. The others hear the recorded screams and figure Omar died trying to escape. Laura sees that the shocked bits aren't dead. Instead, one of them is growing into a monster. Figuring that Peter will get rich selling monsters, she dolls up and tries to come on to him. Peter stabs her (revenge for the bite) in the belly and buries her in the sand. At gunpoint, he forces Grant to finish the surf-shock work while monologuing the backstory of Nazi scientists developing the shimmery bits as a super weapon. Peter plans to sell it to the highest bidder. They deliver the mega shock to the ocean. Meanwhile, the bits in the tent have grown into a cycloptic warty blob with two pointy crab arms. It comes after the three suvivors. Grant, Peter and Jan run up a dune to escape it. Laura (not quite dead after all) appears with the knife and attacks Peter. He shoots her. She tumbles down the dune, the bloody knife still in her hand, stabbing into the monster's white eye. Her blood drips into the eye. The monster throbs and explodes. Blood, hemoglobin, kills the monster. They collect some of their own blood into a McGyveresque mega-hypodermic. On the beach, Peter pulls his gun again. He and Grant fight. Peter is tossed into waves and gets shimmery bits on him. In agony, he kills shoots himself. A really big crab-wart monster rises from the sea. Grant grabs one pincher to ride up onto monster's back. He stabs the eye with McGyver-hypo. Screen goes red and magenta. He jumps off. The monster blows up. Grant takes his wet suit top off, embraces Jan and the two walk off all happy. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
TFE is too odd of a movie not to love, especially for fans of 50s monster-sci-fi. The pacing is brisk. The camera work and directing add visual appeal. Martin Kosleck plays the evil villain with entertaining zeal.

Cold War Angle?
Other than suggestions of selling the shimmery bits to the Russians as a super-weapon, there is no connection. At its heart, TFE is more of the usual cautionary tale about man messing with nature. Oh, and that the Nazis are evil.

Montauk Monster 1.0 -- Long before there were the infamous Montauk Monsters, there was TFE. Much of it was filmed on the beach of Montauk, New York, (out at the tip of the south fork of Long Island. Direction and editing help the illusion that a single stretch of beach and dunes was a small desert island. The notion that there was some 'uncharted' desert islands off the New England coast is charmingly absurd.

Gates of Gore -- While tame by today's baseline, TFE was a very gory movie for its day. When Omar's belly is being eaten by the critters, there is much gooshing blood through his hands. Much blood spurts from Laura's abdominal stab wound. The sailor on the supply boat becomes a grisly skeleton. Perhaps the goriest, is when Peter, being consumed on the beach by the critters reaches his hand (little but bloody bones) for the pistol, then shoots himself in the head (off camera). Blood pours from a moulded head. Of course, this is all muted by being shot in black and white, and the scenes are on the screen for only a second.

Speak To Me -- Perhaps for budget reasons, all of the audio track was added post-production. The voice dubs are pretty good. You can only spot a few times that lips don't quite match the words. The sounds (water splash, wind, footsteps, etc.) are all obviously studio sounds.

Comic Book Style -- Blake was a writer for DC comics. His experience is evident in the direction. Note the deep depth-of-field shots with one person's profile close to the camera on one side, and others as tiny distant figures on the other side. Note too, the fairly frequent use of extreme close-up (more the lenses could handle), and classic visuals -- such as Laura's not-dead hand clawing up out of her sandy grave. These visuals give TFE a distinctive visual style.

Simple, if Illogical, Solutions -- Sci-fi likes irony. Monsters cannot be killed by things we think are powerful. Instead, a simple (even ubiquitous) items becomes mankind's savior. Nukes couldn't stop the martians in War of the Worlds. It was the humble germ that did. Simple salt water stopped the triffids and monolith monsters. This trope would still be alive many decades later, when plain water hurts the aliens in Signs. In TFE, the trope is paradoxical. The critters eat flesh, yet blood kills them? Consuming flesh yields torrents of blood. Plot hole? Perhaps not. Blood kills the giant crab-blobs. Nothing was said that blood killed the shimmery bits. In fact, at the film's end, the shimmery bits were still out there.

Good Girl / Bad Girl -- TFE reuses the old trope of two women: one good, one bad. Laura, the aging actress, is an alcoholic, arrogant and domineering. While not without some physical charms (movie bad-girls usually have some), she is a schemer. She rejects Peter's "advances" until she thinks he's got power or future wealth, then she schmoozes. Jan, her long-suffering secretary, is the stereotypic good-girl. Pretty, blonde, and well-built, she's the helpful one, the compassionate one. As per the usual of the trope, the bad girl gets her just deserts, while the good girl gets the square-jawed hero.

Not Without Humor -- The writers did manage some amusing lines. One joke, delivered around the campfire, has Omar telling Laura that she's cranky because she has a sour liver. "You've had too much coffee, sugar, white bread, alcohol, onions and sex." Laura responds, "Well now, I could get by without all those things, doctor, but you canot expect me to give up...onions." :-)

Plane Crazy -- The little float plane which Grant flies (and gets them marooned), is a Republic RC-3 SeaBee. Republic, like many WWII aircraft makers, figured to transition to peace-time production with planes for private aviation. The expected boom in civil aviation never quite materialized. Republic launched the RC-3 in 1946. By 1947, they halted production after making only 1060 units. the military market rebounded (Cold War), and Republic was making their F-84 fighter jet. As a trivia note: Grant's plane, N6047K, production number 222, was still around in 2002. Records show it being sold in 2002 to an individual in Islip Terrace, NY.

Bottom line? As a sci-fi movie, TFE has little to offer. It is mostly a gore / monster flick. Yet it has an indie charm with evil scientists, ruthless nazis, lab skeletons and giant crab monsters -- everything for a quaint 50s drive-in second feature. The acting isn't that bad for this grade of movie. If you want to see passion, watch Laura's knife attack on Peter in slow motion.


Randall Landers said...

If you've never seen this film, you MUST. AMC runs it at 4:30am a lot, and set up the DVR or VCR and record it, zip through the overload of commercials to catch this superb little gem. Martin Kosleck made a career of playing evil Nazis (be sure and check out WHY), and his performance in this film is sublime. Even Byron Sanders does a great job as the pilot. Seriously WATCH this film, and thanks for a great blog on it!

C. Elam said...

Just found your blog, and am really enjoying reading it. One correction: it's Arnold Drake rather than Blake. He co-created the Doom Patrol and Deadman for DC Comics, and wrote X-Men for Marvel Comics.

Nightowl said...

Hey, C. Glad you like the blog. Good catch on the typo. I'll fix that right away.