Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Flesh Eaters (1964)

Necrotizing fasciitis is some truly scary shit. Essentially it's an infection that rots away your flesh (hence the nickname "flesh-eating bacteria"). What it actually does is annihilates skin and meat through the release of toxins into a particular area and then spreads if not treated. While most people who contract this heinous (you can read that "high-anus" if you wish, I know I do) have some pre-existing condition (i.e. diabetes, immunosuppression, and so on), sometimes it affects people who are, by all accounts, in good health. This is, I think, what terrifies most people about the illness, that they are not necessarily out of harm's way just by being healthy. Now, I'm not sure if Arnold Drake, the writer of Jack Curtis's
The Flesh Eaters, had ever heard of necrotizing fasciitis or not, but the premise makes for a cracking good pulp horror film.

Aboard a luxury boat, Fred (Ira Lewis) and Ann (the beautiful Barbara Wilson) engage in some light grabassery. But when Fred steals Ann's top and jumps overboard with it, Ann is forced to follow for the sake of her, um, modesty. Within seconds the water seethes and smokes, and Ann comes up with handfuls of blood (read: Bosco). The bathing beauty is overcome and goes back under for good. Meanwhile, grounded seaplane pilot, Grant (Byron Sanders), is hired by souse actress, Laura Winters (Rita Morley), via her assistant, Jan (Barbara Wilkin), to fly them to Provincetown. Needless to say, the flight has some hiccups, and Grant is forced to land in the ocean just off a small, seemingly-deserted island. Also needless to say, the island is indeed inhabited by the shifty-eyed, Teutonic-toned scientist and amateur Udo Kier impersonator, Professor Bartell (Martin Kosleck). When Ann's fully-intact skeleton washes up on the shore stripped of all flesh, our hapless travelers quickly savvy to the fact that there's something in the water which would love to make a meal of them.

This is first and foremost an exploitation movie, and that fact becomes readily apparent within the first couple of minutes. Both Fred and the camera ogle Ann as she sunbathes, and once her top is stolen, we're treated to lingering moments focusing on her bikini-bottomed-only back. When Ann is attacked, there's not just a trace of blood for effect. No, her hands are loaded with dark, viscous life's blood. The name of the game here is flesh and blood, and, while there's no explicit nudity, the filmmakers come up with all sorts of reasons to display their actresses' pulchritude. Jan has to strip off her shirt to bind Grant's leg. Later, she struts around in her bikini, because her clothes are wet or dirty or something (frankly, the reasoning is moot). Laura flounces about in the sort of tops that gave horny men the inspiration for both torpedoes and the 1959 Dodge Royal Lancer (the name itself a double entendre). She also sports some semi-opaque black tights that would make Ann Margaret blush.

On the sanguinary end of the equation, the film is fairly graphic in its depiction of violence. When Grant accidentally dips his calf into the infested water while saving Laura from her own stupidity, the chunky after effects are dwelt on at length. And when Bartell digs into the meat with a knife to extract the feasting flesh eaters from Grant's leg, the camera does not turn away. Later, a character is eaten from the inside out, and that chocolate syrup-y blood gushes out past their entwined fingers. As the film reaches its bonkers ending, blood itself plays an integral part. 

Herschell Gordon Lewis's seminal Blood Feast had come out one year prior to Curtis's film, and was heralded as the first gore movie. The Flesh Eaters was (if I'm not mistaken) written about three years prior to Lewis's opus and isn't quite up to the Grand Guignol levels of splatter struck by Feast, but it certainly has its mind on the same things. And while both films have an unmistakable veneer of sleaze about them, in my opinion Curtis's is a little more shudder-inducing. The reason is because it was shot in black and white. While Lewis's opus was touted as "more grisly than ever in BLOOD COLOR," it's the verisimilitude afforded Curtis's film by the monochromatic film stock that has a greater impact. It feels like an old newsreel, and the (mostly) flat lighting helps emphasize this aspect.

Writer Drake is best known amongst geeks for his comic book work. He co-created some of the more offbeat characters of the 1960s (and that's saying something, when Jimmy Olsen was engaging in shenanigans with and/or getting engaged to gorillas almost constantly). Most famous are the Doom Patrol and Deadman, but my favorite was always Stanley and His Monster (the reasoning should be apparent if you read my War In Space review). I don't know if Mr. Drake was ever involved with the sort of low brow/high adventure magazines that littered newsstands of the time ("Man's Conquest," "Man's Adventure," ad infinitum), but this film is suffused with those same pulp trappings. Our hero is lantern-jawed, always willing to stick his neck out for a dame, and leery of shady, foreign-accented strangers and hippies. There are sadistic overtones prevalent throughout, and there are even direct references made to Nazi experiments. The beauty is that the filmmakers don't try to disguise any of this as anything other than what it is. It's like a "sweat mag" at twenty-four frames per second.

The film's effects are hit-or-miss quality-wise, but they always achieve the desired result. The miniature flesh eaters were rendered apparently by scratching directly on the film's emulsion. When we later see them a bit bigger, they're obviously rubber-flappingly fake, but their bulbous, alien appearance is truly creepy. Bartell's "solar battery" is clearly constructed of large sheets of construction paper over plywood, but it seems to belong here. The roiling water inhabited by the creatures is a simple dry-ice effect, but it works. 

The thing that holds the film together, though, is the writing. The story is built on very basic, clear-cut conflicts. Even though, the characters themselves could never be accused of being well-rounded, they all inhabit their archetypal roles to the letter. Meek Jan must stand up to her browbeating boss. Laura drinks out of depression and her need to be the constant center of attention. Grant has to protect his female companions from threats human and inhuman. Bartell messes in God's dominion out of greed. This is not high art, nor is it needlessly complex. Like The Ramones' modus operandi of two or three chords stripped down to the bone and executed like a musical blitzkrieg, The Flesh Eaters is a straight-ahead gore/horror movie that is all the better for its total lack of frills and pretense.

MVT: Arnold Drake takes the MVT on this one. His imaginative, traditional storytelling skills set and maintain a fun, satisfying tone throughout the film.

Make or Break: The prologue scene with Fred and Ann is the "Make." It contains everything great about this movie in just a few minutes. From T&A to gore, horror to mystery, this is a tight set-up to a truly gratifying monster movie.

Score: 7.75/10

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