Written by Arnold Drake
Directed by Jack Curtis
Martin Kosleck: Professor Peter Bartell
Byron Sanders: Grant Murdoch
Barbara Wilkin: Jan Letterman
Rita Morley: Laura Winters
Ray Tudor: Omar
1964 seems pretty early for a gore movie, doesn't it? But I've been fooled more than once by my own memories and misconceptions--the exploitation movies from the Fifties and Sixties that I tend to be familiar with are the ones that showed up in syndication packages on UHF stations when I was still Kid Telstar (rather than growing up to assume the mantle of Captain Telstar like I am now--and damn, there goes that secret identity). Regardless, I was used to seeing things like The Giant Gila Monster on television, or the old Universal monster movies--either the first wave of them from the Thirties or the newer ones from the Fifties (I don't remember ever catching any of the Hammer movies on TV or on video when I was in my "will raid entire horror / science fiction section of video store for entertainment phase in middle or high school, which would be roughly 1986-1993).
It's my guess that this one slipped through the cracks both for being a bit too extreme for the Saturday afternoon safe-horror shows like Son of Svengoolie (who, like me, went on to simply become Svengoolie when he grew up) and for never being in one of the syndication packages--Vulcan Productions, the company behind this movie, has just two titles listed on the IMDB. There's this one, and something called Bickford Shmeckler's Cool Ideas made four decades later. That's too bad, because this is well made enough that it shouldn't be obscure and it's got some incredibly nasty moments that the discerning horror fan should quite enjoy. It's not the greatest thing in the history of things, but if you have a chance it's well worth your time.
The movie starts with the Tahitian Treat-enhanced mating ritual of the Hairy-Chested Boat Owner and the Bikini Lass; they're listening to one of those "we can't get the royalties to actual rock and roll" semi-frenetic jazz songs on the radio while catching some rays on an ocean voyage on the Hairy-Chested Boat Owner's boat. They both wind up in the water (the Lass loses her top but we only see her back; this was made in 1961, by some accounts, and released in 1964 at any rate--a bit too early to have gratuitous frontal nudity in the opening seconds of a film).
The Boat Owner dives underwater and doesn't resurface; the Lass sees a cloud of blood well up in the ocean underneath her, sees her hands streaked with blood without getting wounded, and sinks to the bottom herself. The monster attack is represented by that most budget-conscious measure, dry ice bubbles. Two minutes in and we have a pair of Threat-Establishing Casualties. They'll go to B Movie Valhalla and hang out with the poodle walking woman from C.H.U.D. and Bruce Campbell's character from Congo. Roll the opening credits!
After we've all been informed that the film we're watching is The Flesh Eaters, the movie gives us establishing shots of New York City, complete with big-city music on the soundtrack. A barely-standing rich drunken woman makes her way to a charter seaplane dock. Her assistant, Jan Letterman, winds up having to do all the talking. The pilot, Grant Murdoch, goes on a tear about process servers and a debt that someone's trying to collect from him. The assistant eventually gets a word in edgewise and says she really just went there to charter a plane, and that she (and her tanked employer) want to get to Provincetown.
Murdoch says that he can fly to Provincetown, but they'll have to leave as soon as humanly possible. There's a tropical storm brewing that the pilot dolorously says he expects to fly straight into (judging from his surroundings on the dock, his luck's been bad for quite some time). Jan offers to double the usual rate for a quick trip and Murdoch still isn't willing to take the risk on the flight. But triple his usual fare? Well, time to make peace with whatever gods are necessary, top up the luck reservoir on the St. Christopher dashboard medal and start flying.
The lush says that she's got to get over to Provincetown for an audition, and accuses Murdoch of being "a spy from the studio"; whatever else the booze has obliterated, the drunk woman still has her career in mind. Everyone gets bundled into the plane and Murdoch leaves on his flight, and the air traffic control dispatcher orders him to turn back thanks to that tropical storm that's coming in. Murdoch throws some bullshit about a rare blood type and a medical emergency at her (with one hand covering the actress' mouth and another on the radio mike, it looks like nobody is actually flying the plane right here). The dispatcher buys his story and Murdoch flies on, but before he can get pummeled by that tropical storm (which would be really, really expensive to film) the plane experiences some kind of mechanical trouble. The pilot looks for an island so that there's somewhere to go after he lands the plane.
The island that he finds has plenty of sheer rock cliffs but Murdoch puts the plane down safely in the ocean. Now it's just time to weather the storm and keep the plane from getting blown out to sea. Right before disembarking from the plane, Murdoch also reveals that he recognized Laura Winters, the star of screen and Broadway on sight (which is a neat way for the film to convince us that the character is a star--instead of her having to pull the "Don't you know who I am?" card, the character we've spent the most time with certainly does know who she is). Murdoch carries Miss Winters to the shore, and goes to anchor the plane. He's diagnosed the problem as ice in the carburetor, which could be a thing? Maybe? The Expository Casualties at the beginning of the film were wearing swimsuits, so my guess is that it got really really cold a few thousand feet up. Either that or the plane ran out of gas and Murdoch doesn't want to admit it to anyone.
Miss Winters takes the news quite badly that they're not in Provincetown, but what's she going to do about it? Murdoch says they need to find some place to shelter from the storm (and is nice enough to carry Winters' luggage while they look). Then a dude in a wetsuit shows up out of nowhere, startling a really good but brief Fifties Scream out of Jan. A German-accented middle-aged man introduces himself politely, apologizing for how it must look when a dark shape looms out of the mist and wind on a desolate shore. He introduces himself as Professor Peter Bartell, and says he was out in the ocean doing some science. He also says it's not really his island when the trio apologize for intruding. But apologetically or not, Murdoch says they need to hide from the storm before it strikes and Bartell leads them off to wherever they're going to hunker down when Tropical Storm Corman hits.
A moment here to praise Martin Kosleck, the villain of the film (oh, relax, spoiler-phobes; he's got a German accent and he's a scientist in a movie called The Flesh Eaters). Kosleck was an anti-Nazi German actor who fled his home country when his actual death warrant was signed. He got cast as German villains--usually Nazi ones, at that--in plenty of productions, and used his craft to make the Nazi characters as monstrous and hateable for the audience as they were for him. His performance in this movie is a real treat, and knowing the circumstances in his life that led to it only increase my admiration for Kosleck.
Having said that, one of the things you never, ever, ever want to hear with a German accent is "I assure you, we are in for a good pounding". Sure, Bartell's talking about the storm, but the principle remains.
Everyone leaves for Professor Bartell's shelter, leaving Miss Winters behind as her inebriation makes her less and less able to keep up with the other three people. She loses her shoes on the beach and goes back for them, then busts out her own Fifties Scream when she finds a picked-clean skeleton washing up on the island's shoreline. The skeleton still has a bikini top in its hand, so it looks like one of the Threat-Establishing Casualties from the start of the movie gets to make their curtain call here. Bartell blames a shark for the obvious fatality, but unless that shark ate every single scrap of flesh off the bones and then licked them clean, I remain unconvinced that Bartell is Bartelling the truth here. On the other hand, he is a marine biologist, so he would know. There's no time to do anything but throw a coat over the skeleton out of a sense of decency before fleeing the oncoming storm.
Bartell's storm shelter turns out to be a largish war surplus tent (equipped with a parrot named Louis). Everyone files inside just in time for the superimposed lightning to strike. Bartell and Murdoch head outside to batten the tent down so it'll survive the storm; this gets them both soaking wet and puts them in a great mood. Bartell knows Laura Winters by reputation, though he points out that he doesn't have a lot of time to go to the movies while doing science on a desolate island. While waiting the storm out, Professor Bartell also lets the cheery news drop that the island is massively vulnerable to storms; random chance (and the screenplay) will determine whether or not the four of them are still alive the next day after the storm blows itself out.
There's a lot of stock footage of waves and plants blowing in the wind, and everyone's all right. Bartell says that with the storm gone, the three aeronauts can leave but Murdoch says the wind is much too choppy to risk a flight quite yet. Since it looks like everyone's spending the night, Murdoch goes to get a life raft from his plane, which will get used as a bed for whichever of the two women don't sleep on Bartell's tent cot. The two men, chivalrously enough, decide to make a lean-to out of blankets and sticks so they won't bother the ladies with their professional sports anecdotes and loud snoring. Winters asks her assistant to bring her "night things" suitcase in.
While they're out gathering supplies, Jan tries to defend her employer to Grant Murdoch, who is not really having any of it. She says that Laura Winters is terrified of running out of work but is also crippled by stage fright; the booze is self-medication to keep her more or less functional. Murdoch is much more worried about getting supplies set up for everyone and fixing his plane than he is about what's going on with the alcoholic movie star in his group. And he adds another priority worry to the list when he sees Bartell on a supply run of his own, but quite a ways away from where his cache of Spam and toilet paper were supposed to be.
While they're off hashing out Murdoch's feelings about Miss Winters, the pilot reveals that he's got concerns he didn't want to raise within earshot of the German scientist--among other things, that he isn't buying cover story about a shark attack. He has no idea what Bartell is up to, but he knows it has to be something. And since nobody knows where he or the two women actually are, it's going to be very important to watch out for trouble--Bartell could just as easily bury three more bodies on the island (or dump them in the ocean weighted down with rocks) as he could cover up that skeleton that washed up. The last thing Murdoch says in this scene is that he's not bringing the liquor-bottle-filled valise in for Miss Winters. He's got enough to worry about without trying to play den mother to a celebrity who keeps hitting the sauce.
Back at the tent, Murdoch starts inflating the life raft and Jan says she forgot the traveling drunkard's kit. Winters handles it about as well as you'd expect, and Bartell wanders off to check some sample-catching nets rather than listen to the entire tirade. Later, while the actress is lounging on the beach, the academic tries to mack on her while mentioning that discipline and knowledge are real power, rather than the square-jawed masculinity of the pilot. Winters shuts Bartell down unequivocally, which leads the scientist to drop a 50-megaton snap in self defense: "My mistake. I should have realized self-discipline is not your strong point". Ouch!
Discipline and control aren't Bartell's strong point either; when he gets shut down by Winters he grabs her by the shoulders, and he looks angry enough to really hurt her--or worse. But it turns out that getting bitten by the actress means that he lets her go; she runs off to the plane for some power drinking and self-pity. Bartell, watching her leave, throws quite the hateface at her. I'm just not sure I trust that transparently lying German scientist...
Speaking of the scientist, he's out walking the shoreline and finds a fish skeleton on the beach, which might not be the unlikeliest thing in the world. But this one is glowing, and when Bartell picks it up--wrapping his hand in a handkerchief so he doesn't come into actual contact with the fish bones--he whispers to them about being early, and calls them "my lovelies" when he does it. That's got to be a good sign. When he's done talking to the fish-destroying whatever they were, Bartell takes time out of his busy day to kick the passed-out inebriated Laura Winters as she sleeps on the beach and detaches Murdoch's plane from its mooring rope so it drifts out into the ocean.
Soon after that, Murdoch finds a bunch of skeletonized fish on the beach and rushes off to find Bartell and inform him; the scientist says he has no idea what could have caused it (and even gets to play the "scientists certainly don't know everything" card while sassing the pilot). Bartell warns Murdoch away from touching the dead fish, blaming "some kind of microscopic parasite" for the dead sea life; Murdoch immediately asks if the skeleton they saw earlier was a casualty of the same hypothetical deadly microbes. When he sees what's left of the fish bodies, Murdoch makes a command decision and says they're leaving the island in ten minutes. He yells at the tent to wake Jan and Laura up; unfortunately Miss Winters is still on the beach and Bartell has staged a scene so that it looks as if the actress untangled the rope from Murdoch's plane. Winters, for her part, is so hung over that she retains no memories of any kind about what went on.
Murdoch is understandably furious when he sees that his livelihood is gone and Winters is holding one end of the anchor rope. He tells Jan and her boss that there's something in the water that eats flesh, and without the plane they're all stuck on the island surrounded by potential death in every direction. Moments later he finds puddles of water on the beach that are flickering and glowing with light; obviously it's a big old sample of the killer microbes. Bartell puts on an act saying he doesn't know what they are, but hypothesizes that they're the mystery flesh-eating organisms. It's bad enough that there's a little pool of them on the island, but the ocean surrounding the four protagonists is glowing with thousands of little speckles itself.
This discovery gets made just in time for Laura Winters to make her way to an outcrop after having spotted her booze suitcase; she sees the leather case dissolving and sinking into the ocean and Murdoch goes out to the rocky outcropping to haul her back to shore by ordering her to ignore her fear (and also not come into contact with the water). There's some nice framing and blocking in this scene, making a couple of actors standing on rocks look like they're inches away from death (and the ocean lapping at the shore is a sonic reminder of the lethal presence out in the ocean as well). It's a little too early for the Cast Thinner to be applied, so Murdoch carries Winters to safety without losing his balance on the rocks (and again, the blocking and framing does a great job of evoking menace even when it's pretty obvious that the actors are just standing on the beach; the insert shots of shoes and feet cut in to the sequence help establish the cinematic reality quite effectively).
Murdoch gets some of the lethal water splashed on his leg, and Bartell slices the affected skin and muscle away with a knife to save the pilot's life. The microbe-attack effects are done by punching pin holes in the film, by the way, a really distinctive look for the creatures that also meant that no prop microbes had to be created or used during filming). Since we got a gore effect courtesy of Murdoch's leg, it's natural that Jan has to take her shirt off to convert it into bandages (she's got a bra on, and Murdoch hands over his own shirt to protect Jan from the elements). Professor Bartell uses Murdoch's cigarette case to collect a sample of the microbes, saying that he can do some scientific tests on them to try and determine what the heck they've stumbled across. Because, of course, Bartell has no idea at all what these things are. It's just a total coincidence that they've shown up where he is.
The microbes burn through the cigarette case trying to get to Bartell's perfectly appetizing Teutonic hand; he realizes that they'll eat through a barrier to get to something they can feed on. Also, it's not Murdoch's day. He's out a plane, a shirt and a cigarette case so far. Bartell mentions a supply boat that shows up twice a week; it's due the next day so all everyone has to do is avoid the water (he drags a branch across the sand to indicate the high tide mark as a way to help the other three people avoid death) and in Bartell's case, practice the speech he wants to give to the National Geographic Society about the unprecedented life form he "discovered".
Then, out of nowhere, Laura spots a man named Omar paddling a rickety old raft towards the island. She tries to get the guy's attention, but Murdoch points out that the microbes are likely to destroy his raft to get to him if he paddles through the lethal zone, and that means certain and painful death for the poor sucker. Jan and Murdoch try to warn Omar, who reveals himself to be a Movie Beatnik(tm) who can't understand the warnings that are being shouted at him. Worse yet, he's the movie's Odious Comic Relief and he makes it to shore without being devoured. He inflicts lots of what the screenwriters assume the beat generation was talking about to the other four cast members (although, to be fair, it's great to watch Martin Kosleck deadpan that he doesn't know what Omar means by "kooky").
Jan and Murdoch go off for a walk after a dinner of the finest tinned beans and Bartell tries to get another sample of the killer microbes. He succeeds in getting some of them into a glass test tube while Murdoch tells his back story (he got suckered by a woman who married him when she found out he was going overseas during World War II; she was a serial wife of tailgunners, because they tended to die frequently and that meant a big insurance payout for her). Murdoch was a pilot, and returned from the war to find out what his wife's deal was. This soured him on romance at least up until now, but Jan and he are probably going to wind up together at the end of this, the two crazy kids.
There's an interlude from a pair of sailors (one jerk, one nice) who talk about the recent hurricane and the nice one leaps into his boat to check on "that college fella" on the island; the jerk said he might go out to look in on the Professor, but decided not to.
Back on the island, Jan and Murdoch find a gigantic solar battery off in the middle distance. Obviously it's something Bartell was using. The professor catches Murdoch talking about his fifteen-foot-wide cube of solar cells and "invites" Jan and the pilot to go back to camp with him--though he does say he'll explain why he's got a solar battery that could power a small city on a desolate island on the way. The scene fades out with the German scientist nattering away about how a colleague of his wanted him to test the gigantic solar battery thing, and then we're back at the tent.
Back at the tent, Bartell is doing SCIENCE! on the bacteria. There's a quick reaction shot of everyone in the group looking at his glass pot of shimmering Death Zone water (including his parrot, which got a laugh out of me--the filmmakers might not have had a lot of time or money, but they did have a very welcome sense of wit). Bartell thinks that electricity might be able to stun or even kill the microbes; when he says there might be a weapon, the resident beatnik chimes in and we get to hear Martin Kosleck deadpan "I'm not referring to love, Omar," in response.
It turns out a 10,000 volt shock kills the bugs in the glass pot, so Bartell quickly sketches out a plan--literally; he has a sketch pad and everything--to use the solar battery, two frying pans repurposed as electrodes and lots of cable to zap the ocean surrounding the island and destroy the flesh eaters. He's got his sample microbes in a test tube, so I'm guessing this is his way to wipe out all the free-range ones. Either he wants to make sure he's got the only ones in existence or he's afraid the microbes could eventually wipe out all life in the ocean. Or both, I guess. When everyone else is out of the tent, Bartell times how long it takes for the microbes to shake off their stun blast and comes up with just shy of an hour. So he knows that the flesh eaters aren't dead, just resting, but nobody else will.
Before they can dunk frying pans in the ocean and zap the hell out of the microbes, the nice sailor from the earlier interlude swings by the island to check on everyone, gets a face full of microbe-saturated ocean water splashed on him and gets skeletonized in seconds. Which is cool, because nobody else has been killed by those things for most of the damn movie.
After Bartell shows up just too late to see anything happening with the supply boat and its doomed captain, he tells everyone it's time to zap water into the ocean and "kill" the microbes. Omar goes with him down one part of the shore and he sends the two women away with Grant in the other direction. He mixes Omar a flesh-eating cocktail that the beatnik eagerly chugs down, and then watches carefully as the flesh eaters chew through the doomed sap's GI tract (and the resulting scene has quite a bit too much black and white blood pouring over Omar's hands to show on afternoon TV, I think). He even tapes Omar's death screams as part of an elaborate plan to strand everyone on the island--Omar's corpse is tied to the mast of his raft and sent out to sea; the taped screams are there to make Murdoch and the two women think he's still alive. The scheme fools everyone it's supposed to from a distance, but the closeup shot of Omar shows a hole eaten all the way through his midsection (!), which must have been mind-blowingly terrifying to a young audience in 1964. (Here in 2015, it's obvious how the effect was done, but it's still quite awesome to behold, and impressively nasty for a movie made before the Beatles had their first chart hit.)
Back on the beach, the survivors split into two camps. Team Hopeless (Winters and Bartell) think that they're all going to die. Team Squarejaw (Murdoch and Jan) figure a raft isn't THAT hard to build (did they forget the inflatable life raft in the tent?) and still think there's a chance to escape. Winters goes back to the tent to take a nap while the other three string cable around for the zappy experiment. The bubbling microbe water wakes Winters up (it's covered by a tarp that starts moving from whatever's in the glass container). She puts on lipstick and adjusts her clothes to go mack on Professor Bartell, saying that she figures he's got a better chance at getting out of the situation alive than her assistant or the pilot who had to make an emergency landing at the island. She apparently wraps Bartell around her finger with minimal effort. Bartell takes her off to "discuss the matter further", which involves kissing. And stabbing--looks like the scientist wasn't nearly as persuaded as he implied. Oh, and back in the tent, whatever's in the Microbe Pot has just about grown big enough to lift the tarp off and reveal itself. Bartell's parrot is justifiably nervous about this.
Over on Team Squarejaw's section of beach, Bartell shows up and gets all defensive about why Murdoch doesn't trust him and doesn't want to answer any of the questions from either Jan or the pilot. When pressed about his whereabouts when the plane went missing, the professor pulls a Luger pistol--the gun of B movie Nazis--and suddenly has the upper hand. We get a monologue from Bartell where he claims he was sent by the American government to pick through German death-camp medical research looking for useful ways to kill people that his government wanted dead. He's also got a point that the atomic bomb kills people just as nastily as anything he would have come across in his library trips. German biochemists and marine biologists wound up creating the flesh eaters without quite knowing what they had--but it turns out that they eat only living matter (which explains why Omar's corpse wasn't a skeleton when it was on the raft).
It also turns out that Bartell thought the flesh eaters were too valuable to hand over to the United States government--he memorized everything he found about them and personally destroyed all the files concerning them, including the reports on a submarine mission to release the bacteria off the coast of Florida during the tail end of the war. Then he just paid attention to weird reports of fish die-offs; one in Florida at the start of the Fifties, another one farther up the eastern coast of the United States a couple years later, and so on until he figured out which island off New York would be right in the path of the microbes, and when. Murdoch assumes that the the flesh eaters will wind up getting dumped in a reservoir that serves Chicago, but Bartell assures him that once he's got a viable sample and a line to a Defense Department think tank, the American government is going to get the first bid on his weapon--though if Moscow outbids Washington, they're going to get them...
Murdoch tosses the frying-pan electrodes into the ocean so that the microbes get stunned into torpor; Bartell informs him that he's also going to lie down in a flesh-eater Death Zone in the ocean to make sure it's safe to try and escape. While they're setting that up, Jan is sent to the tent to find the special containers that Bartell was planning to use to store the microbes. Inside there's wrecked equipment and dripping blood as well as a massively oversized version of one of the flesh eaters. When Jan warns Murdoch not to throw the other electrode into the water (seconds too late, of course) she tells the two men what she saw. Bartell mocks her for thinking he'd but such a ridiculous story right before the four foot tall microbe busts out of the tent and makes a beeline for the three human characters on the beach. Bartell figures anything with mass and tissue can be shot to death, and has to come up with some new plan when that turns out to be wrong.
A not-nearly-dead-as-we-thought Laura Winters takes a run at Bartell with the wooden stake the professor shanked her with; he shoots her three times and kicks her body down to the gigantic microbe. When her blood drips on the monstrous creature it explodes--apparently the electrically supercharged flesh-eater monsters are fatally allergic to human blood. That's an odd weakness, but a good thing to know because the four foot tall monster got created from a one gallon sample of microbe-infused water and there's a hell of a lot more of 'em out in the ocean. Through a ridiculous contrivance, it turns out that the creature's "nucleus", which looks just like an eyeball, is the thing that needs to be injected with blood in order to fatally disrupt the aggregate creature (Winters' body happened to land on the monster stake-first directly into the nucleus).
Given that they need to work together or all die horribly, the three survivors work together to kit-bash a giant hypodermic needle and Bartell starts drawing blood from everyone--they plan to pull a few pints out of everyone, one syringe-full at a time, and load up the monster-slaying needle. Murdoch puts on Bartell's wet suit, because he's on monster-killing duty. After all, he is the protagonist of this picture. It also turns out that the scientist had more bullets for his Luger than he let on. Murdoch somehow gets the drop on him (and the leap he makes down a sandy hill to commence the beatdown on Bartell looks amazingly dumb). During the fight, Murdoch winds up getting pistol-whipped and flips the professor into the surf once he sees the bubbling that announces the arrival of the microbes. Bartell staggers out smoking and glowing as he gets eaten alive, reaching for his pistol with a skeletonized hand before shooting himself to end the pain. And then, of course, the super-sized kaiju microbe shows up.
Murdoch wades into the surf armed with the gigantic needle and charges towards the end boss monster as the wet suit starts to smoke and dissolve. When the creature picks him up he gets conveniently close to the eyeball--sorry, nucleus--and gives the monster all three pints of human blood. I've heard that some prints of the movie switched to color for that sequence, but the one on the DVD that I've got didn't do that. ALAS! Anyway, Murdoch and Jan embrace, and the credits roll without so much as another word from either of them. I'm guessing they'll eventually use the life raft from the tent to get off the island and back to some place where they can tell authority figures what just happened, but the movie stopped caring about the story the second that the monster died.
This one was quite a curiosity--the performances ranged from irritatingly broad (Rita Morley as Laura Winters essays the kind of "wacky drunk" character you just don't see any more and Ray Tudor's Omar made me happy to see his character die a horrifying and painful death) to the workmanlike (there really isn't a lot to say about the performances behind Jan and Murdoch; they both hit their marks and say their lines and that's perfectly sufficient) to far in excess of what the material needed (Martin Kosleck is the business). But it was too gory and nasty to have anything but a brief life in grindhouses and drive-ins in the Sixties and without the advent of DVD it's easy to say that it wouldn't have gone on to be fondly remembered by anyone. The gigantic microbe monster at the end was certainly unexpected, though, and the film did have a willingness to utterly destroy its minor characters. I think one of the sailors who shows up for about fifteen seconds and the dispatch radio operator are the only characters that aren't either in mortal peril for the running time of the film or dead by the end credits. It's got definite curiosity value, and it did make very good use of its shooting locations both in New York City and on the desolate island. If you like your black and white monster flicks on the gruesome side, you'll very likely enjoy this.