Director: Jack Curtis
Starring: Martin Kosleck, Byron Sanders, Barbara Wilkin
Release Date: 18th March 1964 (US)
Ask a cook what sort of fare they most enjoy, and chances are they’ll say a simple meal prepared well. It’s not often that meal involves human flesh, though one of the most common ingredients horror directors throw into their pot is the primal fear of man as prey, subject to the same unforgiving laws of nature as a mouse or an insect. Done well enough, such a film can be as enjoyable as more the psychologically complex examples of the genre.
During the early 1960s, the appetite for horror developed beyond the gothic supernatural of Universal’s ‘monster cycle.’ Instead, realism seeped into cinema, in the form of blood. Only six years had passed since The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) had shocked critics by daring to demonstrate the effect of a bullet to the eye, when Herschell Gordon Lewis made Blood Feast (1963), a film which spilled blood (or at least raspberry syrup) by the bucket. This, at a time when characters in mainstream films killed by gunfire died clean deaths, a small red hole on their crisp white shirts, as suited America’s puritanical gun culture; Hollywood shot down the bad guys, with none of the unhygienic mess that came with it in real life.
There was an awful lot to clear up after World War Two. We’ve already looked at films dealing with US veterans wrecking havoc on their return home after fighting the Nazi menace, though it was horror rather than thrillers or film noir that faced the idea of a lingering Axis threat. Curiously, the enemies now were always German, rather than Japanese; perhaps the atom bomb had so utterly, in America’s view, destroyed Japan as a threat it was deemed unworthy as a foe. The thought of Nazi Germany surviving the fall of Berlin provided a fertile ground for horror, with the unseen death of its figurehead encouraging fears that, like the cockroaches you’d hoped to eliminate from your basement, pockets of survivors thrived in the dark corners, gaining power and making plans where no-one had thought to look.
All this led producers to cook up an awful lot of indigestible nonsense, with fast food films like They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963), Flesh Feast (1970, Veronica Lake’s last film) and The Yesterday Machine (1963), good for a laugh if not for the soul. The Flesh Eaters however, is a rare animal, an early gore film combining body horror and Nazi ideology with some success by keeping it simple, yet also by testing the limits of what audiences expected of a horror film.
To start with though we’re all at sea, or at least Freddy (Ira Lewis) and Ann (Barbara Wilson) are, in a boat one fears was purchased by Freddy’s father for his son finally passing a spelling test. Ann is sunbathing in a bikini, as the radio plays “a hot biscuit” of a song, ‘Pete’s Beat’ by The Teen Killers. Freddy drips an ice-cold drink over Ann’s back and after a Benny Hill-style chase around the yacht, Freddie grabs at Ann only to rip off the upper section of said bikini (as well as gore, horror films around this time started to show more flesh of the more pleasing sort).
Anne, down to just the one article of clothing, demands Freddy returns her modesty and when he doesn’t, dives into the water. Freddy dives in too, only he doesn’t come up again. The water darkens around Ann, just as it did that one time you couldn’t be bothered to get out of the swimming pool. Ann screams, her hands covered in blood, as she’s pulled beneath the surface…
Occasional actor and full-time alcoholic Laura Winters (Rita Morley) and her assistant Jan Letterman (Barbara Welkin) arrive at a skyport in Manhattan, a phrase making the actual dockside locale sound far more glamorous than it really is, rather like Laura Winters herself. Laura and Jan need a flight to Provincetown, Massachusetts, for a dress rehearsal and either ‘P-town’ has a much richer theater scene than I’m aware of, or Laura can only gets stage jobs halfway into the Atlantic. Pilot Grant Murdoch (now there’s a name worth a cup of joe with your bacon and eggs) assumes Jan is “a process service gag” as he’s $1100 in debt to the American dream. Jan offers triple his usual fee; “that’s about the asking price for one slightly used life,” figures Murdoch (Byron Sanders) and agrees to take the flight, even though there’s a nasty tropical storm forecast for the area. Yoinking a bottle of grog from Laura’s mouth causes to the actor to accuse Murdoch of being “a spy from the studio,” making two cases of ‘hidden identity’ in as many minutes, par for the course for early 1960s US cinema.
Up in the air, and Murdoch radios East River Radio Control, whose Operator (Rita Floyd) instructs our pilot to turn round due to the storm. Murdoch improvs a story about Laura needing “a rare blood transfusion,” not far from the truth, as Laura’s blood is mostly Plymouth Gin. The Operator gives up and throws her receiver to the desk, muttering “good luck, you big lug.” Aw, someone’s got a crush, though it’s not surprising, given Byron Sanders is your typical US horror hero of the time, serving as handsome love interest, the well-chiseled muscle, and emotive plan-maker. In fact, Sanders’ role here is almost identical to that James Best played in the similar, though much less gory, The Killer Shrews (1958). Rugged, worn, down on his luck, yet ready to fight for the side of good with a girl on his arm, that’s our Grant Murdoch.
One hour from Provincetown, the engine’s spluttering, and it’s not Murdoch faking an empty tank to get his arms around Jan. With the storm almost upon them, they need to land fast. Finding an uninhabited island, the trio make touchdown in the sea, with only the rattle of Laura’s luggage to disturb the smooth landing. Murdoch carries Laura onto the beach, plants her high-heels first in the sand and then moors the airplane as well. Laura throws a diva’s hissy fit but has no choice but to help Murdoch and Jan in looking for shelter before the storm breaks.
The island isn’t quite so uninhabited as supposed; a strange figure emerges from the mist-shrouded sea. Laura screams – and Prof. Peter Bartell, clad in diving gear, apologizes: “I must look like a creature from a horror film.” Playing the professor is Martin Kosleck, born in Germany in 1904 (though a part located in modern day Poland), who fled his homeland in the early 1930s, a commendable idea as Kosleck was both bisexual and an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime. Kosleck, like many other German actors who escaped to the US at the time, such as Werner Klemperer and Anton Diffring, found a profitable career in playing evil Nazis (Kosleck portrayed Joseph Goebbels on at least five occasions, including 1962’s Hitler) and nefarious foreign types in both film and TV. Kosleck’s performance as Bartell is one of the highlights of The Flesh Eaters, as the Professor toys with the other characters with cold, calculating charm.
Bartell, an American with a strong German accent, is a professor in marine biology, studying the gestation periods of shellfish. With the storm about to hit, Bartell suggest they make for his camp further inland. Laura’s day goes from bad to worse when her floppy sunhat decides it’s had enough of B-movie horror and takes off for Broadway. Distracted by this millinery defection, Laura spots something washed up on the shore – a skeleton! Examining the corpse, if you can call it that, Bartell blames sharks for the woman’s death, although as the skeleton clutches a bikini top, we’re led to assume it’s Freddy, clinging to his favorite item of clothing to the bitter end (another case of mistaken identity?).
Arriving at Bartell’s tent, Laura shrieks again, this time at Bartell’s pet parrot, Lewis (name of parrot actor unknown). While it’s always pleasing to see a parrot in a film, even one without a speaking role, Lewis is kept inside a rounded metal cage, and recent research suggests parrots much prefer squarer cages, as the corners help the bird to orientate itself and is thus better for its mental well-being. This was a LaLaFilm public service announcement.
Anyway, stop distracting me with parrots. The tent takes a while to secure and during this hiatus, Laura sobers up and thanks Murdoch and Bartell for their efforts. Asking when they can leave, Murdoch replies this depends on the storm. “And if we’re still alive,” adds Bartell, not afraid to call a spade eine Schaufel, “I’m afraid we’re in for quite a pounding.” And if you snickered at that line, then shame on you.
The storm passes without fatalities but tailwinds prevent a takeoff, so it looks like Bartell has guinea-pigs, I mean guests, for the night. Jan will retrieve various necessaries from the airplane; Laura asks her to remember the case with her “night things” ahem ahem. TFE‘s lead characters can be said to represent different American character traits, and Laura stands in for debauched Hollywood stardom, with liberal morals if not values, a woman who has gained fame (Murdoch describes her as moving “from Broadway to Hollywood in 14,000 headlines”) through pretending to be other people – our old American enemy, the inauthentic, strikes again. The US however, needs its glitter and sparkle, just as Laura Winters need booze (to either be herself or escape herself), to make its dreams sweeter, to mesmerize its allies and dazzle its enemies. The facts that actors are inauthentic, and must promote American authenticity – well, no wonder Laura needs a few drinks to help her through the night.
On the beach, Jan makes excuses to Murdoch about Laura: “she’s scared of work, because she’s scared of failure.” Murdoch has no time for this: “Laura Winters didn’t discover trouble like Columbus discovered America.” Jan suggests Laura reminds Murdoch of his own trouble. “Skip the psychoanalysis,” growls Murdoch, showing the good old-fashioned American attitude to brain doctors, even when half the country is seeing a shrink.
Murdoch is more concerned as to why Bartell passed off the skeleton as a shark attack victim, when Jaws and friends don’t usually leave nice clean bones behind after snacking on people. And why, when the professor said the supplies where near the camp, is he wandering o’er yonder dunes?
Back at base, Laura is furious with Jan, when it was Murdoch who forbade Jan to bring back the “bottle party.” Laura, who’s slipped into something “more practical” (well, I guess you could store a few cans down her exposed cleavage), accuses Jan of returning to “the reform kick.” Jan, the everywoman of our happy little group, represents the practical pleasant, sensible, capable, yet always deferring to the boss (Laura), or to men. Laura comes clean: “I admit it, I drink. Not just polite cocktails, but I mean I drink.” If Jan’s the girl you’d want to spend your life with, Laura’s the girl you’d take out to a weekend in Las Vegas (and then deny you ever knew the woman).
Bartell excuses himself, saying he has to check his nets. “Wait a minute professor,” says Jan, “I’d enjoy talking to some shellfish,” a line I believe unique in film history.
Night, and Laura, annoyed at playing second fiddle to some krill, poses languidly before the sea. Bartell joins her, but not in the way he’d hoped. “I’m surprised that you’re attracted to a man like that,” he tells her, on behalf of science nerds everywhere, “Mr Average All-American, with wings.” And who should I be attracted to, Laura asks, “an egg-head with a microscope?” “Knowledge is strength,” according to Bartlett. Laura, unconvinced, calls Bartlett “a little tin god.” “Stupid drunk,” retorts Bartlett, who moves in for what contemporary newspapers would’ve have described as “an assault.” Laura bites the sour kraut and legs it.
Laura homes in on her booze supply in the plane. Muttering about her “medicine,” the Three Blind Mice (the other three people on the island?) and night fevers, Laura leads her bottle buddies on a charge to the beach: “OK boys, follow me!” Splosh.
Bartell finds more suitable company further along the beach: some strange glowing matter he refers to as his “little lovelies.” Finding Laura passed out on the shore, Bartell loosens the plane’s mooring and pushes it out to sea, just as a sad song plays on the radio to accompany its drift out to some Charles Berlitz ‘account’ of the Bermuda Triangle. Bartell places the mooring rope in Laura’s hand, and wanders off chuckling ‘bwa ha ha’ to himself.
The next morning, Murdoch shows Bartell a pile of fish skeletons washed up on the shore, each picked clean of flesh. The professor blames microscopic parasites, and there’s some fine acting from Kosleck here, running his eyes over Murdoch, both checking his lie has worked and delighting in the pilot’s ‘foolishness’ for believing the lie. Bartell disputes the dead fish are connected to the human skeleton, or that the neck bone is connected to the head bone, and Murdoch loses his cool: “face it professor, we’ve stumbled into a living horror!” Bartell maintains his Germanic calm: “emotionalism is a poor ally, Mr Murdoch.” Again, the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is seen as a matter of temperament: America, the hard-loving, go-to-hell hot-heads; the enemy cold, clinical, logical and inhumane.
Laura the lovable louche awakes with a sore head and a rope in her hand, which once had an airplane at the other end. “General, I’ve got rotten news,” she announces aloud, “one of our aeroplanes is missing.” Murdoch and Bartell find the wreck of the Laura Winters, who doesn’t recall setting the airplane free to return to the wild. Some excellent direction from Jack Curtis conveys the subtext of the scene well; the back of Bartell’s head fills the left side of the screen in close-up, with Murdoch and Laura to the right, in mid-shot, allowing the slight movement’s of Martin Kosleck’s head to put across his thoughts as another lie is tested. One can almost see thought bubbles emerge from the character’s mind, leading us to one of TFE‘s most celebrated aspects, its similarity to a pulp comic book.
Arnold Drake, co-producer and writer of TFE was primarily a comic book writer, responsible for the likes of The Doom Patrol and Guardians of the Galaxy. Drake storyboarded TFE within the script itself, giving director Curtis immediate visual cues as to how particular scenes should look. As a result, some shots in TFE look as if they’d sprung from the pages of an EC horror comic, an effect heightened by the occasional ripe line of dialogue (as with Murdoch’s “living horror” line). Along with TFE‘s gleaming cinematography, also conducted by Curtis (the film credits Carson Davidson, who left the film after some preliminary work, his name remaining for contractual reasons), this gives TFE an interesting visual texture, and it’s hard to mistake this film for any other.
The technique doesn’t always work however. As Murdoch mulls the loss of the airplane, he’s presented in a glaring facial close-up, filling one half of the screen, while Jan and Bartell appear in the other half, way back in the shot. A striking composition yet a faintly ludicrous one, leaving us with the impression of two Lilliputians about to clamber upon the nose of an Easter Island statue. We also observe Byron Saunders is one of those unsettling people who don’t possess earlobes.
Other worries for Murdoch are the minuscule glowing creatures dotted upon the sand, “never recorded before,” according to Bartel, and Laura who strands herself on a rocky outcrop while attempting to rescue her ‘medicine cabinet’ from a sea broiling with the creatures (a simple special effect using dry ice). The orchestral music score belts out the tension as Murdoch rescues the terrified actor, with Curtis creating pleasing visuals from meager resources.
Murdoch slips on the way back along the rocks and glowing microbes attach themselves to his shin. Bartell cuts them out with a penknife, in another graphic moment of nastiness. Popular myth has it the microbe effects were created by Curtis punching or scratching the film, when animation was used for the microscopic monsters and used convincingly, none more so then when they latch onto unfortunate humans.
Bartell needs bandages for Murdoch’s wound and Jan sportingly donates her blouse, allowing us to dwell on the thought that people really built lingerie to last in those days. In fact, I think that’s the same brasserie Janet Leigh wore in the opening scenes of Psycho (1960). Stop distracting me with parrots and bras.
The men share the bad news of the sea being full of people-eating pests, yet all is not lost, for a supply ship is due to land on the island tomorrow. Grabbing a stick, Bartell intends to draw a line around the entire island, marking the limit of high tide, beyond which no-one must step for fear of the mother of all crash diets. As we’re not permitted to grasp the scale of the island, we’ve no idea how long this peculiar task will take, so it could be several minutes or several days later when Bartell draws the line at drawing the line as they hear a strange noise, “a Martian hymn,” as Laura puts it. The group see a man on a raft approaching the island. Look out everyone, here comes the comic relief.
“Hey hey, you are really with it! Keep that love coming!” cries the newcomer, mistaking the group’s warnings as a welcome. Wearing ragged trousers, his only companion a gramophone player, and sailing the seas powered only by a flag marked ‘Rosebud’, Omar (Ray Tudor) is a beatnik, more from the A Bucket of Blood (1959) brigade than the more serious soloists of Shadows (1959). Heaven alone knows what this guy’s doing in the Long Island Sound on what Murdoch later describes as “a pile of toothpicks held together with string,” and I don’t suppose Omar knows either, but he’s here now and we all have to deal with the fact. “Give me the word,” cries Omar, “I’m a big man for the word!” I’ve got several words for Omar, none of them big, or especially clever, although one can argue that if the characters symbolize various aspects of America, Omar represents tomorrow (with Jan the present, Bartell and Murdoch the recent past, and Laura…drunk), and if so, heaven help us when Vietnam happens.
The Flesh Eaters do their best to off this fifth-rate Ginsberg, and nibble at Omar’s footwear, causing the beatnik to yell “the geek is here, and he wants to take me first!” an irony, as it’s only geeks like myself who know TFE exists. Omar makes it to shore where his sandals are put out of their misery.
There’s quite the meeting of minds when Omar asks Bartell about the Flesh Eaters’ motivations for eating humans: “you think they want the world to hate ’em? They wanna be punished because of some guilt complex? Hey, you think maybe they’re just kooky?” The professor isn’t familiar with ‘kooky’, and wouldn’t “impute the neurotic drive to such a low life-form.” Omar’s impressed – “Crazy! You speak the word!” – but I think basic multiplication would impress Omar.
After a jolly supper around the campfire, Bartell wanders off to tend to the shellfish, Omar chats to Exidor and his imaginary friends, while Murdoch and Jan take a stroll. Murdoch tells Jan about his marriage towards the end of the war, which lasted only a few days longer than Britney Spears’ marriage with Jason Alexander. Turns out Murdoch’s blushing bride had already married twice, both to tail-gunners who perished during bombing missions, allowing the grief-stricken woman to cash in on GI widow insurance. “She said she was a little in love with me, or she wouldn’t have married a pilot,” admits Murdoch. Ah, the old-fashioned romances of yore; why not ask your sweet old grandma if she married doomed tail-gunners for the insurance money?
We leave our island paradise for a brief scene back at port, where Matt (Christopher Drake, Kosleck’s then boyfriend) asks his boss Jim (Darby Nelson, TFE‘s assistant cameraman) whether he’s checked on the professor after the storm. Nope says Jim, who looks like the Ancient Mariner played by John Carradine, and he’s not much bothered, darn professors with their book learnin’ and all. Matt leaps into the boat, determined to find out if Professor Bartell is still alive.
Jan and Murdoch make an unusual discovery, a giant solar battery resembling the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) disguised as a domino. The battery can produce “enough juice to barbecue Brooklyn,” according to Murdoch, and there speaks the voice of experience. Bartell, who has a nasty habit of popping up when we most expect him, explains the battery as he walks the pair back to camp, a doubtless fascinating dialogue Curtis mercifully spares the audience.
Back in the tent, Lewis casts a wary eye on the humans as Bartell conducts an experiment: using the solar battery, Bartell will attempt to kill his sample of Flesh Eaters (I wonder what their Latin name is?) by running 10,000 volts through the tank. Success! The murderous microbes splutter and sink, and Bartell sets his companions to work on constructing electrodes to turn the sea into an electrified circuit, killing the Flesh Eaters and clearing a path for rescue. “I’m not keen on this hard work jazz,” grumbles Omar. “It destroys initiative.” Get a job, ya bum!
Bartell sticks with his experiment and is delighted when, nearly an hour later, the specimen Flesh Eaters return to life…
Matt is fast approaching the island in his speedboat. Murdoch and Jan watch in horror as a wave splashes over Matt, covering the gallant seaman in Flesh Eaters. Within a trice, Matt is reduced to a pile of mottled bones, which look like a plate of ribs after your mother’s been at them. Ever the pragmatist, Bartell suggests they find a less contaminated part of the shore for their work.
With the others elsewhere, Bartell lures Omar back to the tent on the promise of a cheeky drink, a cocktail of whisky, ice, and Flesh Eater microbes. “Man, that hit the ever-livin’ spot!” declares Omar as he downs the drink, unaware he’s about to take center stage in TFE‘s most infamous sequence.
While the microbes travel inside Omar to find his ever-livin’ spot, the beatnik tells Bartell he once hoped to become a nuclear physicist, with his sole qualification a desire to bash atoms together. What seems a touch of indigestion leads Omar to swear off the beans, limiting his New Age diet yet further, though that’s the least of his worries, given Omar is now on the diet of the Flesh Eaters. Omar screams in agony: “something’s inside me, eating its way out!” Blood and gristle ooze from Omar’s stomach as Bartell records the beatnik’s tortured howls. Crazy, man. The endest!
Outside, Murdoch and Jan hear screaming, and the pilot runs through the dunes to the shore; such is the comic book style, you can almost see the speed lines trailing behind him. Bartell claims Omar put out to sea on his raft, only for the Flesh Eaters to attack. The screams are from Bartell’s tape recording, and we see Omar is the exact opposite of alive; in a shot as horrible as it’s hilarious, Omar’s ribs and spine are exposed as we can see clean through his body.
Laura retires to the tent, digs out her make-up case, slaps on the warpaint, and so mission: seduce-a-nerd gets underway. At first, Bartell appears more interested in his electrodes, but he’s assessing how to turn the situation to his advantage, indicated by Kosleck’s subtle acting. Soon the professor, love-crazed after weeks with only lobsters for company, tells Laura “you excite me, even the smell of you is exciting.” They kiss, they embrace, they sink to the sand, Bartell knifes Laura in the stomach. Bartell gives the actor a burial swifter than the reviews for Laura’s one-woman production of Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Not so fast though; in another comic book moment, a hand emerges from the ground as Bartell walks from the makeshift grave…
Jan and Murdoch question Bartell on the beach about his strange behavior. The professor offers the skeptical pair his university credentials – and pulls out a pistol, a darn sight more impressive than the rejected job applications I’ve received from my own alma mater. Ordering the pair to work on the electrodes, Bartell passes the time by talking of his background. Many sources quote Professor Bartell as a Nazi or a spy, when in fact he’s neither: Bartell is American, sent by the US Government to Germany in 1947 to examine scientific papers abandoned by the Nazis. During his research, Bartell discovered Nazi biochemists had created a virus neither alive nor dead (prions?), with a bizarre metabolism requiring the consumption of living tissue to survive.
There follows a sequence deleted from many prints of TFE, originally inserted by distributor Mike Repps without Curtis or Drake’s knowledge. Even a casual viewer can guess something is awry, as the quality of the direction and camerawork drops visibly, becoming on a par with the work of Ed Wood or Coleman Francis. The sequence shows the Nazi’s secret Flesh Eater project, where scientists “used the cheapest laboratory animals available – human beings.” And not just any old humans, but naked, young female humans. With a strategically placed barrier to prevent us conducting experiments of our own, the obliging women line up and walk off the edge of what’s clearly an ordinary swimming pool, wherein the Flesh Eaters work their makeover magic. Each girl bobs to the surface in what Angela Carter describes in The Magic Toyshop (1967) as “clothed in nothing, nude in the ultimate nudity of the skeleton.” Aside from the last subject, whose immortal remains rise up through the water still sporting a bouffant hairdo.
Back to the ‘real’ film, and Bartell explains a Nazi submarine unleashed a sample of Flesh Eaters off the Florida coast in the latter stages of the war, only for the release mechanism to fail. Sometime around 1950 however, the Flesh Eaters escaped to chomp their way northwards along the Atlantic coast.
“How are you going to make money from them?” asks Jan, the darling little captialist. Bartell intends to sell the Flesh Eaters to the American war office and if they don’t bite (sorry), to whichever foreign power bids the highest amount. When it’s pointed out Bartell killed the specimens in the tent, Bartell counters they were merely stunned, and we’ve seen this for ourselves, with the Flesh Eaters bulging outwards of their covered tank and, I’m sad to report, making a light snack of Lewis the parrot.
Bartell breaks the bad news about Laura (“the great lady has taken her final bow”), causing Murdoch to come at Bartell with a makeshift electrode made from a frying pan. In a moment where it’s hard to work out whether it’s played for comedy or just not well thought out, Bartell puts a bullet through the frying pan and Murdoch looks around as if wondering if the villain has won a coconut. Jan, sent to fetch lead containers from the tent, finds the specimen tank shattered and blood dripping all over the place (who would’ve thought the old parrot had so much blood in him?). And then she spots the monster.
Running back to the beach to raise the alarm, Jan is too late to prevent the second electrode entering the sea. “Preposterous!” is the professor’s verdict on this becoming a monster movie, only for the beast to make its first full appearance. And a curious creature it is, a knobbly blob with tentacles, tendrils, and teeth, like an acne-addled crab, overlaid with a ‘rippling effect’ as if carrying around its own personal heatwave. “A nucleus!” cries the professor. “The jolt of electricity bonded the amino acids together.” Yeah, tell us something we don’t know, prof.
The three humans clamber up to higher ground while the monster hisses and sizzles and wobbles down below. Escape is impossible, states the professor, as the electrodes in the sea will create a creature a hundred times bigger than the monster rubbing its tummy and pointing at its mouth on the beach. Bartell, whose skill at raring Flesh Eaters must come into question by now, hits upon the whizzo idea of shooting Murdoch and Jan and feeding them to the monster. As the pair back away, Bartell takes aim –
“You’ll die first, Bartell!” cries Laura, looking well for a dead woman. Laura charges at Bartell with the knife, but as Sean Connery told us in The Untouchables (1988), “he pulls out a knife, you pull out a gun,” and Bartell fills Laura with enough lead to rewrite the lines for that episode of Peyton Place she had her eyes on. Bartell pushes the body downhill towards the Flesh Eater, and the knife, still in Laura’s hand, bludgeons the beast through its eye. On inspection, the professor realizes it isn’t the wound that caused the monster’s death, but Laura’s blood; hemoglobin, inedible to the microscopic Flesh Eaters, is lethal to the full-grown variety. Hmm.
The sea gloops ominously as Jan, Murdoch and Bartell donate blood, enjoy a cup of tea and a biscuit afterwards, and transfer their blood to an improvised hypodermic needle. Murdoch gets to play dress-up in the diving suit and sets forth to battle the big bad end-of-level boss. However, Jan spots Bartell is still packing heat; the professor intends to murder the pair, therefore eliminating any need to bother the authorities with nonsense about who did or didn’t create Nazi flesh-eating monsters: “what is it the Arabs say? Where there are no witnesses, there is no crime.”
Murdoch, the true-blue American, objects to Bartell dragging the Arabs into all this and cracks him over the head with the hypo. The pair grapple near a contaminated area of sea, and Bartell gains the upper hand, only for Murdoch to flip him ass over teakettles into a whole bubblin’ puddle of Flesh Eaters. Bartell screams in narrative satisfaction as the Flesh Eaters chow down, reducing their creator to a shambling wreck. Shrieking in agony, Bartell reaches his skeletal hand towards his gun and shots himself in the eye. TFE is one of those films a generation of kids saw on 1970s TV at around 10 years of age, living with them ever after, and with graphic scenes like this, it’s little wonder.
Right on cue, the mega-monster rises from the sea, the size of a house and coated in protective bubbles (also serving to cover the model’s shortcomings). Nothing phases Murdoch however, who bravely wades out, hitches a ride on a tentacle and drops down on the monster’s carapace. With this film and sanity long since parting company, the final battle alternates between the ingenious (such as POV shots from the monster of its human opponent) and the terrible (some poor model work, with an obvious toy figure standing in for Byron Sanders). Murdoch plunges the hypo into the giant monster’s eye and jumps to safety in time to see the Flesh Eater explode into tasty bite-sized pieces. The beast slain, Murdoch and Jan walk off together with quite the tale for the grandkids.
Whew! Whatever customers paid at the drive-in back in the day, they sure got their money’s worth with TFE. Like I said, it’s a film that keeps it simple and gives its target audience everything it asks for, even some bare flesh, and not just of the female variety, as Byron Sanders spends a large part of the film shirtless. The story is basic, but as is often the case, the story behind the film is as entertaining, and almost as crazy, as the plot that unfolds before our eyes.
A large chunk of the film’s limited budget came courtesy of Jack Curtis’ wife Frances, who in 1957 won $70,000 on the TV quiz show High Low. Only many years later did co-producer Drake learn the show was rigged, similar to Twenty One, as seen in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). Another potential investor, based in Chicago, stunned Drake by claiming he could get Frank Sinatra onboard as a star, as “Frankie owes me one.” Whatever Old Blue Eyes owed this gentleman wasn’t quite enough to convince him to star in a low-budget monster film and so we were denied Frankie facing off with the Flesh Eaters.
Filming began in 1961, in Montauk, Long Island, only for a hurricane to destroy the set and equipment, forcing a twelve month delay in production until cast and crew reconvened the following year. Montauk was chosen as it was near enough to Drake and Curtis’ New York base for convenience, and far enough away from the big city’s union officials for the producers to use a minimum amount of unionized crew, thereby keeping down the budget.
Up there with Spider Baby (1967) as one of the neglected gems of 1960s horror, The Flesh Eaters is filmed in a black and white of such magnetic and shimmering quality, you’ll find yourself wishing all horror films were made this way. Yet TFE is a flawed gem; there’s a few too silly moments, and actors can cower in fear before a calm and innocuous ocean only so many times before credibility becomes strained. Energetic though, audacious, and great fun, if you allow TFE a nibble, it’ll take you down with it in one big gulp.