*½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Byron Sanders, Barbara Wilkin, Rita Morley, Martin Kosleck
screenplay by Arnold Drake
directed by Jack Curtis
by Alex Jackson When I pan Jack Curtis's The Flesh Eaters, I want you to know that this isn't code to go see it anyway. Watching it, I found myself wondering from time to time if I was no longer capable of appreciating movies like The Flesh Eaters. Comparing my happy memories of Night of the Creeps and the collective work of Ed Wood to this, I've decided that they really do have something that The Flesh Eaters does not. This isn't a "good" bad movie, friends, it's just a bad one.
Square-jawed charter pilot Grant Murdoch (Byron Sanders) is so deep in debt that he's forced to chauffer pampered alcoholic movie star Laura Winters (Rita Morley) and her assistant Jan Letterman (Barbara Wilkin) into an impending tropical storm. They don't quite make it through; the storm ices up the carburetor and they have to land on a deserted island inhabited by German marine scientist Professor Peter Bartell (Martin Kosleck). A skeleton then washes ashore. Whatever got at it stripped up away every ounce of flesh and left only the bone. Meanwhile, the plane is untied and set out to sea. Murdoch believes that Winters, in an inebriated state, was the one who let it loose, but we know that it was Bartell. Why does he want them to stay, and what does he know about The Flesh Eaters?
The flesh eaters in the film turn out to be microscopic "parasites," which takes a little pressure off the budget. According to Michael Weldon's tome The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, the flesh eaters were created by scratching the negative with pins. Given that we do get a giant flesh eater for the big finale, I have to wonder why they couldn't simply give us the one monster and shoot around him: the use of microscopic beasties throughout sort of neutralizes any suspense leading up to the climax, while ending with a GIANT microscopic beastie strains the already meagre credibility of the junk science. The film does what it can with the flesh eaters, but it can't do much. Its idea of a major action scene is to have Murdoch try to talk Winters into jumping onto a rock so that she doesn't slip into the flesh eaters. In a scene that compares unfavourably with Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, our heroes try to warn a crazy beatnik away from their island, since the flesh eaters have congregated there. He's too far away to hear them, though, and thinks they're inviting him over. None of this is very effective because we know that the only reason the beatnik is rafting in the ocean is because the movie wants to squeeze a scene out of him.
Pretty much everything that is wrong with The Flesh Eaters can be attributed to a man named Arnold Drake. As the screenwriter, Drake is responsible for this ridiculous premise as well as the ridiculous dialogue. Drake is best known for writing comic books: he was the co-creator of "Doom Patrol" and "Deadman" and contributed to both "X-Men" and "Plastic Man". Can't say I've read his work, though I will observe that his dialogue in The Flesh Eaters conveniently embodies everything that has given comic books a bad rap. It comes off like a candy corn pop parody of Raymond Chandler. Women are "babies" and men are "big lugs." Winters's favourite nickname for Murdoch is "Gunga Din." When she discovers a suitcase she thought she had lost she blurts out, "It's magic! Pure, distilled magic!" Naturally, Drake shows off the most with the beatnik character. The beatnik calls ice cubes "rocks": Bartell sends him out to get ice, and when he returns, he says, "Here's the rocks." In his first scene, where Murdoch tells him to go back or he'll get eaten alive, he barks back, "Don't tell me about that ugly jazz. Where's the love?"
On the other hand, director Curtis is a talented visual artist. Sure, we can mock the special effects, but every other technical aspect is first rate. Curtis provides with a number of impressive shots and sequences; I particularly appreciated the pre-title teaser wherein a topless swimmer is gobbled underwater by the flesh-eaters. Although she tries to grab for the surface, all she can do is sink. The nudity is obviously pretty chaste by our standards but still has a looseness and lack of inhibition or guilt that's attractive and even kind of sexy. Curtis isn't shy about peddling the gore, either. I like that we get a good, gruesome close-up of the flesh eaters munching on Murdoch's leg. I guess that it's exploitive, yet there's also a real sense that several previous generations of filmgoers have been denied the privilege of seeing a man's leg being eaten away.
Alas, Curtis seems to be in cahoots with Drake. With the notable exception of Christopher Drake as the beatnik (was he Arnold's kid brother? He's horrible--it's as though the actor who was supposed to play the part couldn't get there in time and so they picked whatever crew member was nearby), the cast looks to be capable enough performers. It's difficult to separate them from the actions they're forced to do and the words they're forced to pronounce and adequately assess the job they're doing. Almost uniformly, however, Curtis appears to have told them to ham it up. Only Kosleck emerges unscathed, imbuing his evil scientist character with some sense of refinement.
I sense that the idea behind the dialogue and the performances is to subtly mock the film's cheap monster-movie roots--to demonstrate that the filmmakers are better than their movie. Curtis and Drake were fresh off the nudie-movie circuit when they made The Flesh Eaters (their editor was none other than Radley Metzger, generally considered soft-core porn's first genuine artist--although, according to Drake in a DVD insert, Curtis actually cut the picture and was denied credit because of "the complexity of the film business and its trade unions"), and the film suggests an attempt to establish themselves in the mainstream film industry. Curtis and Drake chose microscopic flesh eaters out of budgetary concerns, I'm sure, but one can't shake the idea that they hope eschewing a classical rubber-suit monster will lend their film a certain legitimacy as a sci-fi thriller.
Speaking for myself, at least, I don't watch movies of this type to condescend to or laugh at them. I watch them because by being "bad," they approach the kind of universality I find essential to great film art. You see, by giving us microscopic monsters as opposed to one big one, Curtis and Drake have omitted the psychosexual subtext that's part-and-parcel of the monster-movie genre. There isn't any subtext as far as I can tell, no greater reason for the flesh eaters to feast on their prey. It's all been scrubbed away by Curtis and Drake's holier-than-thou glibness. Without the conviction of a serious artist (like, let's face it, Ed Wood), The Flesh Eaters can never evolve beyond the piece-of-shit B-movie that Curtis and Drake so visibly disdain.
I must admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by Dark Sky Films' DVD presentation of The Flesh Eaters. In fact, I think it's impossible to not have your opinion of the film improved by their treatment of it. The 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is sparkling, sporting fine attention to detail and exhibiting few signs of age. Faithful to the theatrical experience, the Dolby Digital audio is in 2-channel mono and sounds appropriately punchy and crystalline. The extras are short in supply but high in quality. A deleted scene depicting the Nazis experimenting with the flesh eaters might have plugged up the flow of the film but in and of itself challenges the best moments of The Flesh Eaters proper. Simply seeing the swastika and prisoners getting dropped into the flesh eaters gives the film a weight that was sorely lacking before. Behind-the-scenes footage of the Nazi experiment sequence sans sound is a deliciously odd experience: the images of naked models jumping into a smoking pool and then emerging from the fumes is, again, arguably as interesting, if not more so, than anything included in the film. A long and short version of the film's theatrical trailer and the aforementioned liner notes round out the package. Originally published: January 9, 2006.