Jack Curtis’ 1964 sci-fi horror film, The Flesh Eaters, is one of those singular films that makes one wish there had been more. Directed, edited, and shot by Curtis, it was the only film he would make. Much like Herk Harvey with Carnival of Souls or Harold P. Warren and Manos: The Hands of Fate, Curtis made just one film, but it’s so definitively his, that it’s almost like the writer-director expended everything he had on the project.
Curtis worked primarily as a voice actor — from radio shows in the ’40s to his best-known work on Speed Racer (as Pops) in the late ’60s — before dying of pneumonia in 1970, at the age of 44. I couldn’t really find much out about Curtis and the making of the movie online, but thankfully the 2012 book from McFarland, Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990, has a pretty great behind-the-scenes on The Flesh Eaters. Evidently, Curtis’ wife, Terry, won $70,000 on the quiz show, High Low, and about half of that money was used to finish the movie after a hurricane destroyed the sets and equipment in 1960. Also from McFarland is the 2003 book, Eye on Science Fiction, which features an interview with the film’s writer, Arnold Drake. In it, there’s a lot of explanation as to the particulars of the film, such as the fact that all of the dialogue in the film — much like Manos — is dubbed.
The Flesh Eaters is a pretty basic plot: a sea pilot is supposed to fly an actress and her assistant, the plane runs into trouble, and they land on a desterted island where they find a scientist conducting experiments. People start dying. Basic, but fun, becuase the film is a pretty early example of gory b-movie stuff. Due to the fact that it’s shot in black and white, rather than color, it’s not quite a lurid as its contemporary Blood Feast (released the year before), but the scenes in which you can see people dissolve before your very eyes are still remarkable for how visceral they are to this day.
A beatnik gets dissolved from the inside out, and not only do you get to see his guts come spilling out, but afterward, you see his spine and ribcage as he floats on the ocean. Despite it being a pretty simple case of blue-screening, wherein Drake simply painted the beatnik’s stomach blue and then added on ribs and spinal column, it looks positively grotesque. The flesh eaters themselves, when finally shown at the end of the picture, look appropriately creepy, as well.
The budget ended up being right around $100,000, meaning that every possible dime was squeezed as tightly as it could be. Case in point: he song you hear at the beginning of The Flesh Eaters, right before the couple on the boat gets devoured in the pre-credits sequence, was put together by Drake. Credited to the Teen Killers, “Pete’s Beat” features jazz pianist Jimmy Osmun on piano, and Drake singing his own vocals. The DJ who introduces it on the radio is director Curtis.
And, hell, despite the fact that this is a cheap little b picture, the score’s not just someone playing public domain pieces on an organ: composer Julian Stein and arranger Noel Regney (who would go on to be the music director on The Fantastiks and write “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, respectively) went to Germany and recorded the score with a full symphony orchestra.
The story’s kind of ridiculous, and features the sort of sci-fi mumbo-jumbo for which pictures of the era were known. It doesn’t make much sense if you pay a lot of attention, but really, the entire point of this movie is to entertain you for its brief running time, and it does. The actress, Laura Winters, as played by Rita Morely, is a wonderfully snarky drunk, and well-complimented by the later brief appearance of beatnik Omar, played by Ray Tudor. They’re essentially the comic relief, since Martin Kosleck’s Professor Peter Bartell is kind of a mad Nazi doctor, and the main couple, Jan Letterman (played by Barbara Wilkin) and Byron Sanders’ pilot Grant Murdoch are basically just there to look good while scantily clad and have a stoic jawline, respectively.
There was a really nice DVD that Dark Sky put out in 2005, and it includes two trailers, as well as a deleted scene that shows the original Nazi experiments with the titular monsters. It looks and sounds fantastic, and since you can frequently find it for cheap at most Half Price Books, you can pick snag it new for around $5. It’s definitely a fun one, worth having in your collection.
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