It lurks behind a poster whose taglines are deliciously over the top, arguably meaningless, grammatically dubious, and utterly misleading: “BEHIND THIS MEMBRANE… you will be driven to a point… midway between LIFE and DEATH!” (?!?!) Further: “The only people who will not be STERILIZED with FEAR are those among you who are already DEAD!” Now, there have been many films to promise/threaten heart attacks/strokes/what-have-you in their ad campaigns, but The Flesh Eaters (1962) is, to my knowledge, the on…y one to boast putting a stop to one’s reproductive facilities. This publicity oddity is rather fitting, actually, providing yet another piece of charm to one of the most hugely satisfying B-movies of its era.
Written by Arnold Drake (co-creator of the superhero team The Doom Patrol), directed by Jack Curtis, and edited by future soft-core auteur Radley Metzger, The Flesh Eaters has WWII vet and charter pilot Byron Sanders flying alcoholic star Rita Morley and her supremely competent assistant Barbara Wilkin to Provincetown. Plane trouble forces them to land on an apparently deserted island. There they run into Martin Kosleck, a marine biologist who, despite his friendly manners, is clearly not to be trusted (we know this because of his accent). The next morning, the plane has vanished, and the castaways must contend with tiny, silvery blobs infesting the water. These are the flesh eaters of the title.
A review in Tim Lucas’ Video Watchdog made the claim that if H.G. Lewis’ Blood Feast(1963) was the first gore film, The Flesh Eaters was the first good one. There is something to this. Though The Flesh Eaters was begun prior to Lewis’ film, production problems held it up and it wasn’t released until afterwards. It is far from being as gory as Blood Feast (no tongue-rippings hear, thank you very much), but it is still pretty nasty for what is otherwise an SF-horror monster movie that could almost have been made in the previous decade. There is certainly no doubt as to which is the better film. Whereas Lewis’ opus is, by his own admission, incompetent rubbish (but still an important landmark, and blessed by a winking sense of humour), Curtis’ movie consistently surprises by being so much better than it has any right to be. Oh sure, it delivers everything an early-60’s drive-in monster movie should (the plot clips along, there are plenty of “wow” moments and operatic deaths). But it also goes the extra mile. The characters are types, but the witty script recognizes this (as does Morley’s character, to her despair). The suspense is genuine. The cinematography is remarkably ambitious, boasting some extraordinary deep-focus compositions that would not be out of place in Citizen Kane, whose influence is acknowledged in raft named “Rosebud.” Then there’s the climax, but I shall say no more of this, leaving it for you, Loyal Reader, to discover.
Until last year, such discovery would not have been as satisfying as it can be now, thanks to Dark Sky Films’ superb DVD release. Fans of the film may be divided over the removal of the distributor-added footage (which is still provided separately as an extra), and the loss of the brief colour-tinting at the climax. On the other hand, there are scenes that have never been seen on home video before, and the print quality is first-rate. At long last, the aspect ratio is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, so those compositions look better than ever. The disc may be a little light on the extras, but it still offers as close to a definitive experience of viewing the film as has been possible to date. If this is your first viewing of this film, I can only envy you. Prepare to fall in love.