The shot where the plucky, inquisitive nurse character slowly enters the ominous factory that makes Lotus Cat Food (the cat food that is causing cats to develop a taste for human flesh) has to be the best scene, from a technical point of view, to ever appear in a film directed by Ted V. Mikels. (Shouldn't you examine some of his other films before making such a bold statement like that?) You know, I thought about doing that. But, at the end of the day, I chose not to. (Why?) Well, for starters, who has the time to sift through twenty-something low-budget horror movies? And secondly, I'm pretty sure nothing can come close to touching the artistry of the scene in The Corpse Grinders (a.k.a. The Flesh Grinders) where J. Byron Foster sneaks up on Monika Kelly. Lurking in the corner behind the door Monika just entered, J. Bryon can be seen standing with his head looking downward. Bathed in green light whilst in this position, J. Bryon's head is suddenly bathed in pink light as he begins to look up. Oh, and check out the way his neck remains bathed in green light. How did they achieve this effect? (You should listen to director's commentary on the DVD.) That's a good idea. (Well, what you waiting for?) I'm not going to listen to it right this minute, but I'll get back to you as soon as I do. (I'm on the edge of my seat.)
If wonderfully composed shots weren't enough, The Corpse Grinders features what has to be one of my favourite duos in exploitation cinema history. (I thought Sean Kenney, the guy from The Toy Box, and Monika Kelly were all right together, but let's not go crazy.) Not them, you numbskull. I'm talking about Sanford Mitchell as Landau, the world's most ruthless cat food entrepreneur, and Drucilla Hoy as Tessie, the one-legged deaf mute who is basically the office gofer at Lotus Cat Food.
(Hold up, if this Landau fella is so ruthless, why is he so nice to Tessie? And if Tessie only has one leg, why does the Lotus Cat Food company have her running the kind of errands that involve an exorbitant amount of walking?) Don't you see? That's what makes their relationship so compelling. I mean, Landau seems to genuinely enjoy feeding human cadavers into his cat food company's meat grinder, yet he constantly shows compassion towards Tessie.
Part of me thinks the only reason he treats her with respect is to spite his business partner, Maltby (J. Byron Foster); he doesn't like her.
I know, how could someone not like Tessie? She's freakin' adorable.
Anyway, the part of me that believes that Landau is friendly with Tessie purely to spite Maltby is a cynical asshole. Besides, would Landau go to the trouble to learn sign language just to annoy his business partner? I don't think so. No, the love that Landau and Tessie share for one another is completely genuine. Okay, maybe love is too strong a word, but there's definitely a spark between them.
Watch Landau's demeanour change when Tessie hobbles (she walks with the aide of a crutch) into the office during their first scene together, it goes from being evil and sinister to, well... he's still evil and sinister, but just not as much when Tessie's around. It's almost as if Tessie's soothing temperament decreases Landau's desire to commit heinous atrocities. Oh, and believe me, he loves to commit heinous atrocities. You could say, "commit heinous atrocities," is Landau's middle name. Seriously, you could totally say that, as we never find out if Landau is his first, his last, his or middle name.
Opening on a rainy night, the film shows a cat clawing at the door of the house where two beatniks live. (Just because one of them is wearing a black top, doesn't make them beatniks.) Whatever you say, daddy-o. The chick in the black top (Sherri Vernon), gets up off the couch and goes to see what's scratching at the door. The second she opens the door, the cat lunges at her neck. Managing to remove the cat before it can do any real damage, the female beatnik screams, the screen freezes, and the title "The Corpse Grinders" appears on the screen. Now that's how you start a movie, baby. Cats lunging at the necks belonging to female beatniks, it doesn't get any better than this.
I'm not joking around, it doesn't, as the next scene features a gravedigger named Caleb (Warren Ball) asking his wife to bring him some beef jerky. No, that can't be right, she's too old to be his wife. His mother, maybe? Uh, I don't know, man. She could be his sister. You know what? Cleo (Ann Noble) is Caleb's wife. I mean, she does bring Caleb beef jerky several times over the course of the movie. And in the early 1970s, the most popular method for wives to show affection for their husbands was to fetch them dried beef products after they had just completed a grueling task.
I'm no expert when it comes to anything, but what's more grueling than digging up graves so that you can sell the bodies to shady cat food companies for twenty-seven cents a pound?
Quiet, Landau and Tessie's first scene together is about to commence. We're immediately shown the difference between how Landau treats Tessie and how he treats his other employees; which for some strange reason, are all elderly. Telling an old fart named Willie (Charles Fox) to, "Get back to work and stop whimpering," Landau's demeanour changes radically when asks Tessie how she's feeling. Sure, he tells his business partner the reason he's nice to her is because she won't testify against them, but I didn't buy that for a second.
It would seem that Landau and Maltby need "more raw material." So, you know what that means, right? Yep, it's time to head over to Caleb's cemetery to collect some more bodies. Though, they might have hit a road block, as Caleb is not pleased. You see, Landau and Maltby owe him close to five hundred dollars for the previous bodies they "bought" from him for the purpose of grinding into cat food. And now they want more?
Utilizing his straight-forward brand of charm, Landau manages to convince Caleb to give him some "more raw material" without paying. But Caleb tells him: "Next time. No money, no meat." Speaking of meat, Cleo brings Caleb a chunk of beef jerky just as Landau and Maltby are about to drive off with a van full of free dead bodies. Aw, how sweet. Love is nothing like a glass of warm piss.
Meanwhile, over at the local hospital, Nurse Robertson (Monika Kelly) is feeding her cat. Which shouldn't be headline news, but look at the label on the cat food, it says, "Lotus Cat Food." This does not bode well for Nurse Robertson's neck. (How do you know that particular brand of cat food is to blame for the recent spate of cat attacks?) Um, duh, it's made from people. And wouldn't you know it, the second Nurse Robertson leaves the room, her cat lunges at the neck belonging to Dr. Glass (Sean Kenney), Nurse Robertson's boyfriend.
Now, most people would agree, being attacked by a cat isn't that unusual. But when Nurse Robertson and Dr. Glass discover a shut-in named Annie (Mary Ellen Burke) had her throat recently ripped out by her cat, they do a little digging. Anyone care to guess what brand of cat food Annie fed her cat? That's right, Lotus Cat Food. This discovery leads the nurse and doctor duo to go into sleuth mode. Determined to prevent more people from having their throats ripped out by their kitties, the pair use science and good old fashion detective work to get to the bottom of this fur raising mystery. Get it, instead of "hair raising," I wrote "fur raising," because cats are covered with fur. (Ugh.)
Since the film was made in the early 1970s, that means we should get to see a lot of mini-dresses. While Monika Kelly wears a few, it's Donna (Andy Collings), the secretary of a local F.D.A. bureaucrat, who does the garment the proudest. Leaving work, we follow her home. While this might seem gratuitous at first, especially when she strips down to her bra and panties, grabs a can of beer from the fridge, and sits down on the couch to watch some television, it's actually integral to the plot, as wouldn't you know it, Donna feeds her cat Lotus Cat Food. Meaning, her throat is in serious danger.
What I really would have liked to have seen was a scene that showed what life was like for Tessie when she wasn't at the cat food factory. I mean, where does she live? Does she like her job? Does she have a boyfriend? And if not, does she have feelings for Landau?
The grinder itself is pretty crude as far as props go. But nonetheless, the sight of ground up meat pouring out of that little hole after the corpses have been put through the machine still managed to be disgusting; I know I sure I didn't want to eat anything after I watched this movie.
Oh, and the scene I alluded to earlier where Nurse Robertson snoops around the cat food factory while bathed in pink and green light was probably created simply by employing flood lights. It just goes to show that you don't need a huge budget to make a cat food factory after dark seem creepy and weird.