‘The Flesh Eaters’ and Early American Gore Cinema

The Flesh Eaters 1964 Movie - Film Essay

One must never forget that categories, genres, subgenres and movements are an attempt to retroactively place a map atop a series of disparate points which, usually, arose completely independently of each another, through differing means, with varying motivations, in separate geographical locales. That they often overlap with other categories, genres, subgenres and movements doesn’t help matters. However, while they might be utterly arbitrary, tracing the lines between these dots is an indispensable activity for anyone interested in movie history, as they allow us to reckon with the order of the past and establish some kind of chronology within an art film, in turn helping our understanding of its development. Indeed, this is by no means an activity confined solely to cinema, having its roots in our roots (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”). 

As a result of this sideways method of charting a course through disparate visual wastelands, the found footage genre arguably began with The Blair Witch Project, or Cannibal Holocaust, or Skinflicker (my pick) or the Mondo movies of the early 60s. Of course, everyone knows that the slasher movie began with Psycho, or was it Peeping Tom, or maybe it was And Then There Were None? And then there’s the zombie movie, because while it’s easy to point to White Zombie, I’m sure Caligari’s Cesare might have something to say. Naturally, the gore film is not exempt. While Blood Feast looms large like a candy-colored, red-drenched menhir (and H.G Lewis’ very public advertising and “legitimization” of the genre can’t be ignored), there is also the fact that Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, released three years earlier, is not bloodless (and inarguably presaged some of the imagery of the Saw films, themselves the unruly bastions with their own dubious categorization of torture porn).

In the spirit of placing a pin of my own on the unfolding map, Jack Curtis’ 1964 feature The Flesh Eaters deserves consideration as a lost figurehead of the gore genre, and one of its more formative efforts. 

The Flesh Eaters 1964 Movie - Film Essay

A thoroughly independent effort, it seems somewhat miraculous that The Flesh Eaters was ever made, much less that it has managed to survive to the present day. Curtis, predominantly a voice actor for whom this was his only directorial effort, allegedly financed the film through prize money that his wife Tenny won on an American game show. The Flesh Eaters was shot by Curtis himself under the pseudonym Carson Davidson, working from a  storyboard and script penned by comic book artist Arnold Drake (it’s worth noting that the film’s visual dynamism presumably arises directly from Drake’s work within comic books, which is ironic given that the biannual plates of grey sludge churned out under the Marvel brand). During post-production, The Flesh Eaters was edited by none other than a young Radley Metzger, who would later go on to make a series of incredibly successful, psychedelic-styled pornographic movies. The film has only four main cast members, most of whom had either never acted before, or would never lead a film again; production itself began in 1960 and finished the following year due to the set being destroyed by a hurricane (that great moviemaking fabula).

Further, the plot itself in The Flesh Eaters  is ultimately a simple chamber piece; a pilot, Grant (Byron Sanders), and his two passengers, Barbara and Rita (Jan Letterman and Laura Winters, respectively), crash land on a desolate island. They realize that the water is dangerous; anyone who comes into contact with it encounters the titular eaters and has their flesh gnawed off painfully. The only other resident of the island is a Teutonic scientist named Professor Bartell (Martin Kosleck), later revealed to be the man responsible for the danger surrounding the protagonists (and also, in footage which was later reinserted, a Nazi). 

In no way does the ramshackle production history and barebones narrative emerge as weakness in The Flesh Eaters . It is both bold and striking in the great American exploitation tradition, a fine example of the kinds of films Edgar G. Ulmer, Samuel Fuller or Frank Borzage would routinely make (that is to say, cheap and small, but with a palpable sense of craftsmanship running through them). In terms of mid-century American films, which were the sole directorial effort of an artist who worked predominantly in other formats, The Flesh Eaters is the equal of both Night of the Hunter and Carnival of Souls, two films with which it shares more than a little of the same DNA. 

The key to The Flesh Eaters’ success is in its use of the set. There are no shortage of films within the exploitation genre which feel like filmed theatre or an “improvisational” (i.e. unrehearsed) concert. One need only look to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ workaday predilection for the rightwards pan across a room with two people sitting opposite each other, or Doris Wishman’s fetishistic and disparate close-ups of feet, to know that, in a lot of cases, where the camera was placed was at best mere formality, and at worst simply put there to facilitate filler footage that would give the editor a fighting chance in post-production. 

The Flesh Eaters 1964 Movie - Film Essay

Conversely, Curtis seems to find a unique setup and method of establishing every scene of The Flesh Eaters — it’s no mean feat, given the close-to-Brechtian minimalism with which the film is composed. Be it dynamic close-ups (of faces, feet or even abrasive whisps of sand obscuring the actors), rapid editing or a clever use of reaction shots, Curtis guides the viewer gorgeously through The Flesh Eaters in a way that, frankly, a lot of modern filmmakers could do with learning from. One incredibly effective sequence sees the action transition seamlessly from a tense set-piece on wet rocks to the characters taking stock on a beach, entirely within a static shot of a character turning away with her hand over her mouth. The tense music falls away but, as a result of Curtis’ careful sustenance of the dramatic forward motion, you don’t notice the interruption, and the relative tension in The Flesh Eaters sustains itself. 

This is to say nothing of the physical components of The Flesh Eaters, which have an analogue tactility belying the low budget and troubled means by which the film was made. The flesh eaters themselves, glistening and hissing patches of scratchy static, are either depicted through suggestion (the soundtrack, smoke, reflections of light) or through etching onto the film itself. Haptically, this forces the viewer into a peculiar hyper-awareness of the frame. It splitsThe Flesh Eaters into an “underneath’,” or inside (the diegetic film), and a “top layer,” or outside (the depiction of the flesh eaters), with the viewer placed disconcertingly in the middle. Perhaps the most striking example of this occurs at the start of the third act, when free-floating hippy Omar (Ray Tudor) is cast out to sea after having had his insides dissolved; an image of Omar has been overlaid on the screen with his midriff removed and the sea visible behind it, creating am almost William Castle-esque 3D visual out of an impact shot designed to emphasize and close the scene. While it may simply be nothing more than an inventive solution to the problem of depicting actual flesh eating fuzz, the effect is that the viewer may feel as though it is not just the characters who are in danger, but the film itself. 

The Flesh Eaters 1964 Movie - Film Essay

The obvious, but nevertheless visually stimulating, technique of overlaying damaged film on top of undamaged celluloid adds an unexpected layer; Ranciere once wrote in The Intervals of Cinema that “the eye can only connect things if it does not linger on what it sees, if it does not try to look.” The Flesh Eaters forces the viewer to look at the film and the effect of the flesh eaters, and fails to resolve the gap between the two things. Further, if one takes the assertion that “eye movements are concerned with gathering sufficient cues so as to guide interpretation, supplementing information as necessary,” then the film overloads viewers with cues. This could potentially ruin the impact of another type of film, but in the case of The Flesh Eaters (a low budget exploitation horror, and early gore picture), it only serves to heighten and underscore the impact. 

The gore in question is, as mentioned, notable; while not bound by the scriptures of the “genre’ (yet to be popularized), The Flesh Eaters is more striking than films of its kind from the era. Knives hack at scabby bleeding legs, wet skeletons fall to the deck; Omar’s insides are eaten from the inside out and he clutches his foaming innards, blood slipping through his fingers, all while screaming in unfathomable pain. The real coup-de-grue comes in the final act, however, as Grant faces off against Bartell and pushes him into the water in a climactic sequence. Bartell emerges seconds later, and his skin falls off, his left eyeball bulges and his bloody fleshless hand reaches for a gun which he uses to shoot himself, viscera all about his visage (all this happens, naturally, before an unspecified electricity creature — imagine if H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu was a crab made of sinew — emerges from the water to wreak havoc on the protagonists). 

The Flesh Eaters is also bolstered by uniformly excellent performances. Kosleck, the only professional actor in the cast (having worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Jules Dassin and Humprey Bogart), plays Bartell with a restrained but wild-eyed intensity, reminiscent of Udo Kier or even perhaps Michael Shannon (or, to play the vulgar modernist, Dieter Laser). While the acting could have lapsed into overwrought cliché, Kosleck supplements his performance with a certain slimy charm; a scene midway through where Bartell shows the castaways how to create a battery to power their plane only works because Kosleck plays him as if he’s a disturbed schoolboy having too much fun with matches and a magnifying glass.  

The Flesh Eaters 1964 Movie - Film Essay

Sanders is broad but effective as Grant’s good-ol-boy pilot; his one-time performance brings no subversion or unexpected angle (outside of some flickers of the John Wayne manichaean), but he is the post on which The Flesh Eaters expects viewers to hang their hats, and he does what he needs to. Likewise, Wilkin, for whom this was her only film outside of small roles and bit parts, brings the necessarily kittenish innocence and naiveté as Jan; the mainstay qualities of the usually thankless role she is playing. To her and Drake’s credit, she’s portrayed as sympathetic enough to avoid being a mere victim, occasionally exercising her own agency (mostly in her eventual rejection of Laura). 

Morley as Laura is, perhaps, the real stand-out of The Flesh Eaters, portraying a stuck-up, alcoholic, bitter, catty, bitchy, unpleasant actress — the direct cause for the party of three crashing on the island (insisting that they fly through a monsoon). Her endless barbs, casual cruelty towards Jan and varying feelings of contempt for her company on the island (as well as a complete lack of awareness or guilt for their predicament) are played as broadly as possible, but with a consistently amusing and occasionally hilarious conviction. It is the kind of turn that would not be out of place in a David Lynch film (recalling, say, Grace Zabriskie), and it is remarkable to me that Morley did not act in film again, though she also appeared on TV, acted on Broadway, worked within radio and was the spokeswoman for Coty in the 1950s.

It is for all the above reasons, and various fleeting synaptic ones that occur only when watching The Flesh Eaters, that allow me to confidently position the film as the unusual mini-masterpiece that it is. Despite the vocal efforts of a small minority (myself, now, included), Curtis’ 1964 production remains a hidden secret, a piece of genre history hiding in plain sight. I hope this piece in some way moves the needle towards awareness. The Flesh Eaters deserves a Criterion release, though it would be equally well served with VinSyn or Arrow. It stands as an astute example of what happens when a series of talented artists work hard with a goal in mind; the material facts of the film (disjointed production, low-budget, unprofessional actors) all fall away in the face of Curtis’ clear, shining vision, and his adeptness at bringing that vision alive. The Flesh Eaters also proves that however close you are to the origin of something, there is always something else that came before and presaged it; now that Curtis’ film has been unearthed as the true fait accompli to Blood Feast, it is perhaps time to move forwards by looking backwards. The past is a bottomless, Borgesian well of riches, and films like The Flesh Eaters prove that; what comes next will prove it again in turn, and I anticipate whatever it is with both arms wide open, and my flesh, thankfully, still intact. 

Declan Cochran (@theedeklan) is a 25-year-old writer living in Worthing. He has written for Horrified, Film International, WhatCulture, Sony and his own website The Appreciation Index. When not working, he can be found scouring the backwoods of the internet for forgotten artefacts that shine a light on human existence (or are mildly entertaining).