Scratch Film

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THE FLESH EATERS seemed like the best film for me to write about for the Film Preservation Blogathon, whose theme this year is science fiction. Obviously METROPOLIS, that ever-lengthening classic, would make a lot of sense too, but somebody’s probably already thought of that. But THE FLESH EATERS is an obscure monster movie in which the monster is played by neg scratches. Put it on a double feature with DECASIA, in which a man engages in a boxing match with an all-consuming blob of nitrate decomposition. But the silvery, wriggling scratch-monsters here are much too tough to punch out with a padded glove — they go boring into people’s legs in gory insert shots that are genuinely disturbing, despite the seemingly primitive nature of the effects work. I mean, OUCH.

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The movie gains huge cult credibility by starring Martin Kosleck, the man who sculpted Rondo Hatton in HOUSE OF HORROR and the screen’s silkiest Dr.. Goebbels. By this time, he seems to have had a little eye tuck which accentuates his feline/feminine qualities and adds even more unsettling ambiguity to his persona.

The movie, unusually well covered for a B-picture (mostly shooting in the open air must have made the filming go quick) is dynamically edited by Radley Metzger, the favourite pornographer of all right-thinking cinephiles (Russ Meyer being more of a cartoonist than an eroticist).

Speaking of cartoons, the script, which trafficks in soapy stereotypes and jut-jawed confrontations, is by Arnold Drake, comic book writer and creator of The Doom Patrol (in their Grant Morrison incarnation, my favourite funnybook thing ever). The Doom Patrol were freakish superheroes who were all multiply-disabled as much as they were hyper-powered, which suggests a slightly wacky and agreeable perspective, and that off-kilter feeling prevails here too. He also created Deadman, the funniest/stupidest name for a superhero ever, and the original Guardians of the Galaxy. Drake also seems to have storyboarded this flick, so that one-shot director Jack Curtis, otherwise best known as a voice actor, consistently delivers exciting and punchy compositions far more dynamic that anything usually seen in Z-list B-pictures from bottom-feeding indie production companies.

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Opening shot is a succulent flesh feast, a lithe bikini girl laid out like a banquet, in combination with the title seemingly inviting the audience to consider cannibalism. She’s soon skeletonized along with her obnoxious boyfriend, washing up later as a fully articulated set of science lab bones clutching a bikini top (the movie is totally silly but somehow preserves its own strange dignity).

Soap opera: a broke pilot takes a job flying a drunken movie star and her nurse/PA, unwisely trying to dodge a tropical storm — they wind up on an island inhabited only by nasty Kosleck and his weird man-eating sea-spawn, the results of a Nazi experiment he uncovered after the war. Rather refreshingly, Kosleck isn’t himself a Nazi — he’s a German-American employed by the US to investigate Nazi science — having found the ultimate weapon, he now hopes to make his fortune selling the blighters to the highest bidder.

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Barbara Wilkins’ balconette bra is the film’s strongest supporting player.

The bickering crew are eventually joined by another character, Omar the beatnik on his raft, a yammering chowderhead whose role is to delight us by dieing horribly, eaten alive from the inside out. Kosleck feeding him flesh eaters seems to anticipates Michael Fassbender’s entirely unmotivated poisoning of a crewmember in PROMETHEUS, while a guy who rides to the rescue on a speedboat only to immediately get his face eaten reminds me of Scatman Crothers abortive mercy mission in THE SHINING.

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The effects work is consistently ambitious and inventive. The most epic shot tries to suggest that the whole sea is glittering with the silvery worms, which it does simply by filming sunlight reflecting on the water’s surface. Not so much a special effect as an attempt at brainwashing, telling us that the commonplace sight we see is something else — Raul Ruiz would be proud of that. Landscape as bricolage. When Kosleck electrocutes the ocean as part of his crazy masterplan, we get one giant monster, the least satisfying thing in the film because obviously it has to be a Cormaneqsque monster costume, waving an action figure in its left tendril. But there’s one further insane flourish: to kill the thingy, stalwart Byron Sanders injects human blood into its eye, and Curtis films this action from INSIDE THE EYE.

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Blob-monster puppets inspire affectionate nostalgia rather than terror. But those scratches… those can really fuck you up, especially if you’re a film lover.

This is my first entry for the Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted initially at Ferdy on Film. Click the button below to read all about it and then donate.

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8 Responses to “Scratch Film”

  1. Was aghast, yet inexorably drawn to the FAMOUS MONSTERS hype for the flesh eaters, and I have never read anything about this movie that didn’t follow FM’s lead, slipping into italics when quoting, in whole or in part, Omar’s exclamation, on his own death: “There’s something inside me! It’s eating its way out!” Now I feel that I must track it (the movie) down somehow or other for another look.

  2. It really is better than it has any right to be. I’m glad I saw the restored version WITH the gore and cleavage but without the fake Nazi experiment sequences (though those are available as an extra on the DVD for the morbidly curious). It’s pretty near a textbook example of how to make a zero-budget monster film that doesn’t suck. (It gnaws, instead.)

  3. […] always entertaining David Cairns of Shadowplay joins us with a post about the cult classic (?) The Flesh Eaters. […]

  4. The dvd of Flesh Eaters was released in 2005 by Dark Sky Films. And indeed includes the very peculiar Nazi experiment sequence, in which affectless young women jump into a vat of something-or-other. The only reason it would have been cut was, surely, to do with its pointlessness – it would’ve slowed up the film considerably. In any case, the BBFC cut some of the gore as well (particularly the entry of a knife into human flesh). And the DarkSky disc doesn’t have , alas, the red-tinted climactic footage of the monster’s POV, just the monochrome. I was 12 when Peter Noble, on his Sunday appointment-radio show Movie-Go-Round, ran an interview piece about the movie and its creators, and the story told by Jack Curtis of driving on the freeway, to location, with the rubber-and-wire beastie strapped, rather like Mitt Romney’s dog kennel (with dog inside) to the roof of his car invoked an image I have never forgotten these past 53 years. Alas in 1962 I was too young to see the movie anyway (X certificate) but I snuck in, when I was 14, when it showed up at the dear old Ritz Cinema in Southend – a cherished venue I have alluded to before (where else would an 8 year old Essex boy have been able to see William Berke’s jaw-dropping The Lost Missile [1958]?)

  5. I don’t think I’d ever heard of The Lost Missile but your recommendation, and the Jerome Bixby connection, means I’m tracking down a copy right away.

    I didn’t know about the red tinted sequence, that would be terrific!

    The deleted scenes had been inserted by some distributor to sex it up with Nazi depravity, so it’s appropriate that those scenes weren’t included. What’s amazing, speaking of film preservation, is that the out-takes from that day’s shooting have also survived, and are in better nick than the selected takes.

    I love the image of the monster on the roofrack, it’d look like a parade float from Mars.

  6. It doesn’t sound nearly as bad as I had imagined. Thank you for setting me straight.

  7. It’s worth a look, Joe.

    “From outer hell”? Was the slogan transcribed phonetically via a Brooklynese publicity man?

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