The most interesting aspect of Disney’s “Alice” silent cartoon series was that it predated Mickey Mouse by several years. The “Alice Comedies” were a hybrid of live action (a young girl named Virginia Davis) with animated characters, particularly a cat named Julius.
Cats were winning the media wars over mice in those days, almost a century ago, when the most recognisable cartoon character was Felix the Cat from Australian cartoonist Pat Sullivan. Winkler Pictures had dropped Felix after a row with his creator, and Disney was able to get them to distribute Alice and even pay to bring young Virginia from Missouri to Los Angeles to star in the work. Julius was so similar to Felix he could have been a littermate.
In the Alice series, Julius does most of the heavy lifting, but Alice gets the naming rights, since the universe they inhabit originates in her dreams after she visits a cartoon studio in the very first episode, Alice’s Wonderland (based on Lewis Carroll of course, but also perhaps a nod to Surrealism and Dada that were revolutionising art after the Great War). There were 57 cartoons in total, all directed, produced and animated by Walt, but of course we are only interested in number 12, Alice Cans the Cannibals, released in 1925.
Alice and Julius drive their car into the sea and lasso a fish to drag them to land (the car floats! The fish cooperates! They have a lasso in their possession! It’s a dream, OK?) They land on an island that is inhabited by cannibals (luckily, there is a signpost in the ocean saying “this way to the Cannibal Islands”). Cannibals, of course, were then widely considered the ubiquitous inhabitants of any land not yet settled by white people – the eternal others. The cannibal king wears a crown, so he must be every inch a king, and the cannibals spend the rest of the cartoon chasing Alice and Julius, hoping, no doubt, to eat them.
The image of a six-year-old girl being chased as prey, hit with a rock and speared in her behind might seem a little unusual these days, but it was 1925, it was a dream, and it was a cartoon, so what the hell, huh Walt? Anyway, Alice can hold her own against a bunch of primitive natives, and she instructs Julius to use a rubber tree to shoot rocks to knock them all down.
The cannibals are very accurate spear throwers, hitting both Alice and Julius in their bums, the only places that spears ever penetrated in cartoons. Alice throws the spears back with surprising accuracy.
The barrage of spears proves useful – they form a ladder up the cliff, from which our heroes can brain the cannibals below with rocks and old ostrich eggs (once again, it’s a dream).
Alice saves the day when she realises that cannibals always have rings through their noses and throws a spear which manages to go through those rings and into the bum of a hippo, who pulls them to a watery grave.
One more spear, this time into the rather easier target of the king’s bum, and white supremacy over the dark cannibals is restored.
Let’s not take it too seriously – it’s a light-hearted cartoon about a little girl’s dream of overcoming cannibals – I wonder if Freud saw it? The main interest is its depiction of the outsider – those who had not yet been colonised and enlightened (or massacred) were unarguably cannibals, and a spear up the wazoo was the least they could expect. It was the white man’s burden.
New cannibal movies keep arriving, thick and fast. This one is from a young Norwegian director, Jarand Herdal, and was released on Netflix in October 2020. It is a traditional dystopian story, a genre in which people are driven to cannibalism by desperate circumstances – think Soylent Green, Delicatessen, or 28 Days Later. Dystopian films sometimes don’t bother telling you what happened to destroy our civilisation, for example We Are The Flesh or The Road. Others spell it out, and nuclear war is always a popular explanation, as is the case in Cadaver.
The film starts with children running into a vast room, playing among huge piles of clothes and bags. They try things on, and one girl discards a shirt, when she finds a stain on it. A bloodstain of course. We see a family making its way through a street where bodies lie in the road and survivors fight for food.
Discarded newspapers tell of a nuclear disaster. A family, Leonora and Jacob (Gitte Witt and Thomas Gullestad) and their daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) are desperate and terrified, down to their last tin of food, when they are offered tickets to dinner and a show at a grand hotel. Who hasn’t fallen for that line?
The showman is the suave, beautifully dressed Mathias (Thorbjørn Harr) who seats the crowd at dinner tables where waiters bring steaming plates of meat. Mathias welcomes them to the show, and tells them that
“everything that takes place tonight is staged. Everything is a show. Everything.”
The show is the theatre itself. The “audience” are told to wander the corridors, explore the rooms, but they have to wear bronze masks in order to distinguish themselves from the “actors”, who look like normal (maskless) people, and act out dramatic scenes of conflict and sex and suicide.
Alice disappears and, as Leonora and Jacob search, they ditch their masks, making them indistinguishable – they become actors instead of audience. Just as well, as the audience keep disappearing. And given the plates of meat served up in the middle of mass starvation, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out where they are disappearing to. Our protagonists, however, are clueless.
They witness Mathias addressing his actors, like a pope or king, as they kneel before him.
“You know where you came from. You know what we have here. If we don’t stick together like family, it will devour us.”
The rest of the movie is Leonora wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric corridors, trying to work out what is going on, and where the hell Alice has got to. There’s a plot reveal: Mathias is running a factory farm, with the only mammal still available in large numbers. The actors’ job is to put on a show so audience members will split up and follow them into rooms where they will fall through trapdoors, to an unknown fate. At the bottom of the trapdoor are the brawny butchers. It’s Sweeney Todd, in Norwegian.
When the actors and audience follow Leonora into the kitchens, they are shocked and horrified. I mean come on, where did they think all this meat was coming from?
We also find out why the audience must wear masks – because the actors might know some of them, and:
“as long as they are masked, you won’t be able to tell. It makes it easier.”
The identical masks give them an air of indifference and facelessness – they look like victims. It’s the same reason farmers will tell you they never give names to the animals they plan to kill. Anonymity is essential for objectification. You don’t want to meet your meat.
When Leonora confronts Mathias, he offers her the opportunity to join the cast, asking her
“What would you do to keep your family alive?”
The title “CADAVER” (“Kadaver” in Norwegian) is an interesting choice. According to Dictionary.com, it means “a dead body, especially a human body to be dissected”. It is therefore a scientific term, implying research or study. Mathias and his merry men are chopping up the guests for dinner, but there is a way out for a talented person like Leonora – like Theseus and the Minotaur, she can navigate the maze of corridors and trapdoors and confront the beast, or even choose to join him. Survival depends on her choices and decisions. Almost certain starvation outside or murder and cannibalism inside. You can watch on Netflix to see which way she goes.
The Digital Spy review (which, I warn you, is full of spoilers) has a poll at the end, which asks:
“Would you have joined Mathias’ cannibal cast?”
The possible answers are:
1. Look… it’s the apocalypse, OK? 2. No way, I’m a vegetarian.
“It isn’t that the evil thing wins—it never will—but that it doesn’t die… two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”
Horror depends on our inability to accept the inevitability of our own deaths, and cannibalism adds to the recipe the terror of that death involving our total disappearance, not just our spirit but our bodies, incorporated into the stomach, then the cells and finally the shit of another. We cheer the death of the ‘bad guy’ because we feel at a primal level that his death is required for the continuance of our life. But what if, as Steinbeck says, the evil never dies, and keeps coming back for us?
This I think is the attraction of the zombie, who has become a critical character in our culture since the release of this movie in 1968. An earlier movie, The White Zombie (1932) saw Bela Lugosi turned Madge Bellamy into a mindless love object – returned to life, but as a slave with no will of her own. Those zombies did what they were told, but they did not go out of their way to eat people. That type of compliant, submissive zombie is pretty much what Jeffrey Dahmer was hoping to achieve when he drilled holes in his lovers’ skulls and poured in what he hoped were non-lethal doses of acid.
George Romero’s genius was to combine the undead with the cannibal to create what in this story is called a “ghoul”. The zombie was still, in 1968, the undead servant of Haitian mythology. In this film, the ghoul, a figure that traditionally hangs out in graveyards and sometimes digs up corpses, becomes those corpses, and so gives birth to what we will ever after call zombies. These zombies are cheaper by the dozen – they have no will, no intelligence, just the force of numbers, and overwhelm the living with their ragged, shuffling weight of numbers.
What raises these dead? We are told by a TV newsreader that a strange phenomenon, perhaps radiation from a space probe that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, is causing the dead to rise from their graves. They are voraciously hungry, but very fussy eaters – their preferred cuisine is living human flesh, although cooked (when a truck explodes) will do. But the horror in this movie is from the “banality of evil” – the things that really haunt our nightmares are not ogres and aliens, but cemeteries at dusk,
Ordinary (ish) looking people trying to get into our car, when we can’t find the keys
Technology that won’t work at times of crisis
And of course the dead. Particularly when they look angry. And hungry!
Romero did not just bring to life the zombie hordes, but also very many cannibal movies owe a debt to him, as do “splatter” movies generally. The simple opening scene of a couple of siblings driving across the desert to visit their father’s grave was later replicated to some extent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. And of course many, many zombie movies and TV shows have followed in the shuffling footsteps of this one. Without Night of the Living Dead, there is no Walking Dead.
The story revolves around a group of people sheltering in a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, which is under assault by a growing crowd of cannibalistic, undead corpses. The phone doesn’t work, which is annoying, but the radio and even the TV are fine, which is useful as a dramatic device to fill us in on what’s going on.
The radio reports that they are:
“things that look like people but act like animals.”
The horror of this film seems so much greater by their ordinariness (although the low budget may have had something to do with it). Cannibals are often described as acting “like animals”, but of course, we are all animals, great apes, and cannibals are just as likely to be accused of treating their prey “like animals.” Ordinary people, animals, fall down when shot, but the horror of these undead is their invincibility. It’s hard to kill someone who is dead, and has just risen from the grave. Shoot them in the chest and they fall over and then get up again and keep coming. They can however be shot in the brain or walloped on the head or burnt, so we are not left without hope.
But there are other dynamic binaries – heroism and cowardice, fire and fuel, shelter and intrusion, eater and eaten, and a scene where an infected girl within the boarded up house eats her own parents, and an undead brother returns to eat his sister. In two short scenes, Romero takes Freud’s insistence that cannibalism and incest are the two original prohibitions of mankind, and merges them into incestuous cannibalism. The film comprehensively problematises the narrative of humans vs monsters. We are all hiding in our houses, terrified of the latest headline, and we are also all members of the monster horde.
The protagonist is Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American hero, which in itself was rare in the sixties. Romero says Jones was chosen just because he gave the best audition, but the dynamic he brings, particularly in the inter-relationship battles inside the house, where he insists on being boss, and of course in the climax, took the film into the heart of darkness that was 1968 America. As the ghouls lurched toward the house, the Vietnam war was raging, students and police were battling on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic Party convention, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down, and in Paris revolution was in the air.
But it’s not “all right”. The racism issues raised by the film further complicate the dichotomy between human and ghoul; human and, well, inhuman. Because when the authorities arrive, they are basically a vigilante mob killing ghouls with a random collection of guns, and building bonfires to dispose of the corpses. When they see a black man – will they recognise him as a real, live human? Well, no, Ben has made it through the night, surviving the attack of hundreds of the ghouls, only to be shot through the head by a police sharp-shooter as he emerges. The film ends with grainy images of him being pulled from the house with meat-hooks and burnt with the corpses of the again-dead, and the pictures are unmistakably reminiscent of photos taken at lynchings.
The review from the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, sums up the response to the movie at the time. This was written after he had watched the movie in a cinema filled with kids, who had been dropped at the cinema, unaccompanied, for an afternoon of fun scary time.
The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying. I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire…
Over its short, furious course, the picture violates so many strong taboos — cannibalism, incest, necrophilia — that it leaves audiences giddy and hysterical.
Interestingly, the movie was removed from Netflix in Germany, following a written demand from the German Commission for Youth Protection.
“Banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi organiser of the death camps in which millions died. What shocked Arendt was that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann, one of the most pivotal figures in the Holocaust, was a monster, in fact she found him “terribly and terrifyingly normal”.
This is the crucial difference between the early cannibals of Herodotus or Columbus and the ones inside our cities after 1888 (the year of Jack the Ripper). They don’t look that different from us. They are men and women, young and old, dressed and naked. We can no longer tell them for sure from our next-door neighbours.
The ghouls of Night of the Living Dead are human but dehumanised. They are dead, but still walking and eating, and the dead and the undead all burn in the same fire. In fact, the ghouls are us, filled with rage at the fact of our mortality, but they don’t look that dissimilar from people you might be standing next to at a political rally.
Mention cannibalism in conversation (sorry, yes, I often do), and you will usually (in my experience) be met with either humour or revulsion and very often both at once. Ivan Reitman has wrestled with that paradox in this early movie – he went on to direct Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters I and II, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Dave and Junior. Great comedy classics, but none of them involved cannibalism, unfortunately.
This Canadian film employs the classic horror trope of the young couple lost or having car problems or, in this case, both at once. The couple are Clifford and Gloria, played with gusto by the very young and almost unrecognisable Eugene Levy (American Pie, Schitt’s Creek, most Christopher Guest movies) and Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).
There’s the creepy gas station person, the corrupt cop, and a particularly unctuous reverend. When shown in the cinemas, there was apparently a bell that rang immediately preceding the gore to warn the squeamish to close their eyes. This was omitted in the version I watched, and with good reason – if you don’t know what to expect when a guy starts pulling on his clothes and a woman reaches for a sharp implement, then you are probably watching the wrong channel.
Then there’s the hotel of horrors, where the motel proprietor tells them the “legend of the three beautiful girls”, who lure men to their farmhouse, take them to bed, and then kill and eat them.
“Food can be a marvellous appetiser” one of them tells her chosen victim. The girls have a ritual – a dab of blood between the breasts and the incantation:
“Within me and without me, I honour this blood, which gives me life.”
There’s the wink to the audience as the butcher holds up a piece of meat and tells a customer: “Mrs Wilson, if it was any fresher, it would get up and tell you itself”.
And then, there are the cannibal girls of the title. Turns out they are, I dunno, maybe succubi? Anyway, they eat human flesh, drink blood, and live forever. And, we are told, they never get sick. They feed the reverend, who seems to be in charge of all this hocus pocus, on their blood, as they chant:
“We shall drink the blood of life, of life eternal, and we shall live forever.”
The problem here is that the film is trying to be a horror story and a comedy at the same time, and does OK at both, but brilliantly at neither. It was made on a low budget, not uncommon in cannibal movies, but, to make a long story short, the less the money, the greater the tendency to make a short story long. It drags a bit, and although there’s lots of blood and meat, there’s not much terror or humour.
But it does get to the point of cannibal stories – humans are edible, under the skin we are just another large mammal, and probably taste, as several cannibals report, somewhere between veal and pork. The movie reminds us of that sad truth with subtle hints like cows grazing beside the road, and a meat truck carrying some sort of mammal flesh to the local butcher.
Hard to build a whole horror show on that, so of course there has to be a supernatural element, based on traditional beliefs about capturing the strength, wisdom, skill or even soul of the one being eaten. You can trace this belief, or hope, in contested stories of cannibalism, such as the Fore tribe of PNG who ate their ancestors and acquired not strength or skill but a nasty shaking disease called Kuru. A popular version is the myth of the Wendigo, a spirit that inhabits humans and gives them an insatiable desire for human flesh, which makes them immortal and invulnerable – a topic covered rather nicely in the movie Ravenous.
These cannibal girls are not Wendigos – they are not particularly strong, just well armed, and are under the thrall of the reverend, who lives off their life forces and can hypnotise anyone with just a glance. Maybe he is some sort of evil spirit.
But real life cannibals do not gain strength from their meals, and they do not live forever. Jeffrey Dahmer hoped only to keep his boyfriends with him as zombie sex slaves, and eventually was beaten to death in prison. Ottis Toole died of cirrhosis of the liver, also in prison. In the final analysis, what cannibals eat is just meat, it has no magical powers, and usually results in legal trouble rather than invulnerability.
But it’s an entertaining enough movie, and after all the movies we have reviewed, it is a refreshing change to see some women tucking in to a bit of man-flesh.
This blog was written in the week of the 2020 US election; the film is not a classic of the cannibal canon, but then, the title sounded somehow appropriate.
In fact, it’s quite a nice change to watch a gentle English comedy after so many gruesome and gory stories from the usually humourless world of modern cannibalism. This one is about primitive, savage cannibals on foreign shores, and racist Eurocentric accounts have always found them hilarious!
Ben Cutlet is played by Will Hay, an actor who usually portrayed some sort of windbag (most often a teacher) whose comic effects involved the deflating of his pretensions. Hay was an influence on many later comedians including Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper and Ronnie Barker. Cutlet spends his days in his sister’s pub entertaining the locals with tall tales of his exploits at sea as a bold ship’s captain, even though he has never been to sea, and has only ever captained a coal barge.
He is tricked into captaining the unseaworthy Rob Roy by a gang of criminals who want to scuttle the ship for the insurance money. With Hay’s regular troupe, Jerry (Moore Marriott) and Albert (Graham Moffatt), he manages to escape the clutches of the crew and drift off on a raft. Another popular cannibal story is the starving shipwrecked crew eating the cabin boy, as happened for example in 1884, when a small ship called the Mignonette hit a big storm and sank. The four crew members survived in a lifeboat for a couple of weeks on two tins of turnips and a turtle they managed to catch. When the cabin boy fell into a coma, probably from drinking too much salt water, they slit his throat, drank his blood and ate him. In a scene that I suppose was considered most humorous, Cutlet soon starts to see Albert as a pig.
They finally drift to a West Indian island full of stereotypical natives. These primitive savages are amazed at the ship’s radio and bow down to it as the god Voiceinbox, worshipfully carrying the sailors to their chief.
He speaks cannibalised English, and Cutlet asks where he learnt it?
“My father, him meet good missionary. Missionary, him good meat”.
Further dialogue is carried out in what the English imagine is native English:
“him belong me. Him taboo.”
Then the mutineers arrive and become the butt of cannibal puns.
Cutlet: “Well gentlemen, we meet again.” Chief: “Ah, good meat. Plenty meat!” Cutlet: “Voiceinbox seems very angry.” Chief” “Me hungry too!”
Although Cutlet has promised to have the mutineers hanged, he won’t let the chief eat them, and instead stows them in the hold for the trip back to England, where he is hailed as a hero.
In 1936, when this film was made, Windbags were ruling the world (has much changed?) White supremacists saw themselves at the apex of civilisation, contemptuously exploiting, invading and exterminating the ‘lesser’ peoples of the world, demonstrated in the way Cutlet tricks his cannibal chief.
That year in Europe, Hitler was invading the Rhineland, while Stalin was purging his generals and his comrades alike in a paranoid bloodbath. Mussolini was dreaming of a new Roman Empire and invading Ethiopia. Spain was about to sink into a vicious civil war, and in England, Edward VIII, who admired Hitler, was succeeding to the throne, only to abdicate months later. The world was about to enter a new round of the Hemoclysm of the twentieth century, an orgy of bloodletting that would kill an estimated 85 million people.
Last century, killing was routine, but cannibalism? Him taboo.
Making a movie of a hugely successful book is always fraught – if it is faithful to the book, it is criticised as too derivative and unoriginal, if it diverges, it is damned for breaking the spell by adding new and extraneous material.
The 2006 film of Perfume sticks pretty closely to Patrick Süskind’s novel of the same name, (originally written in German) which has sold over twenty million copies in 49 languages. There is also a German Netflix TV series of Perfume released in 2018. I haven’t checked that out yet, but it sounds very postmodern (the protagonists have read Süskind’s book!)
This 2006 film features a stellar cast, who do a pretty great job with it. Hard to go wrong with Dustin Hoffman and the sadly missed Alan Rickman, and you will also recognise Ben Wishaw as the main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. It is directed by Tom Twyker, and who can forget his Run Lola Run? Since Grenouille doesn’t say much, we have a narrator, and who can fault the pipes of the late, great John Hurt – you may remember him giving birth through his chest in Alien.
The lead character, Grenouille (Ben Wishaw), is a kind of supervillain, whose superpower is, wait for it, his nose. Grenouille is born in eighteenth century France in the worst circumstances – his mother drops him in the muck under her fish stall, assuming he will be stillborn like all her previous births. But he survives, and turns out to have the most sensitive nose ever – he can identify any smell, good or bad. He is raised in an orphanage and sold to a tanner, who eventually takes him to town, where he discovers the ‘scent of a woman’ (not to be confused with Al Pacino’s rather better behaved but still slightly creepy obsession). Young women are all too often the victims in modern movies, but usually they are desired for sex or (in cannibal movies) for nutrition. These young women just smell good. Grenouille is obsessed with capturing that scent, and thus their beauty.
One of the great teachers of Cannibal Studies is a certain Doctor Hannibal Lecter, seen sniffing Will Graham in the episode Coquilles. He taught us, among other things, that
Well, a whole lot of cannibal movies concern the taste of humans (short summary: we taste somewhere between wild boar and veal). But smell, that primal sense that so many animals rely on, is usually neglected. Not so in this movie. If cannibalism is the consumption of another member of one’s own kind, then it can involve the devouring of any part, and that includes their odour.
Grenouille sniffs people, a bit like Hannibal, but with a different appetite. He terrifies a young woman by sniffing her, then unintentionally smothers her as he tries to silence her screams. He is horrified to find that her scent disappears as her body cools, and he becomes obsessed with the craving to recreate that smell. He decides that his life mission is to learn how to preserve scent,
He persuades a creator of perfumes, Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), to teach him the trade, in return for creating perfumes that make Baldini rich and famous.
But Grenouille cannot distil the essence of a person (or a cat in a particularly objectionable scene). For that, he needs to go to the perfume capital, Grasse, and learn their art of enfleurage. Baldini has told him that a great perfume has twelve different components, and a thirteenth scent that must be exquisite. On the way to Grasse he sees a young woman, Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood) who he realises must become his thirteenth scent.
Her father Antoine (Alan Rickman) disagrees. He guesses the murderer’s motive.
Of course, killing the other twelve girls for the first twelve scents throws the town into panic, and in a startling recreation of 2020’s COVID-19 headlines, the town is closed down and the economy devastated as the murderer (he is variously described as a plague, a madman, an angel and a demon) is sought.
There’s a chase, Antoine leaves a false trail, but hey, you can’t hide from Supernose. He’s out to create Love Potion No. 9.
“This is a dark, dark, dark film, focused on an obsession so complete and lonely it shuts out all other human experience. You may not savor it, but you will not stop watching it, in horror and fascination.”
But his long-term co-host on Ebert & Roeper, Richard Roeper, said “Hated this movie. Hated it.”
Look, I try to avoid spoilers, but I will mention that absorbing the scent of beautiful women is not the only kind of cannibalism in this movie. The ending has some of the more traditional kind but, to me, this would still have been a cannibal movie if he had only incorporated scents. Cannibalism is about voracious appetite, but not necessarily for food. We never see Grenouille eat or drink – scent seems to be all he needs, like the Astomi peoples who, according to Pliny, had no mouths and lived on odours. Furthermore, Grenouille has no scent of his own, this makes him an outsider, an alien, and explains why he seems invisible to others and can sneak past guard-dogs (who would understand, with Grenouille, the importance of smell). The modern cannibal, from Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, is typically invisible, unidentifiable, blending in with the crowd. Grenouille, though, is appalled to find that he has no identity to others in the only way that matters to him – through smell. He seeks to steal that identity from his victims, and incorporate the essence of their beauty into himself. The scent he creates is distilled beauty, with a menacing power – it can command love, leading to a mass orgy at what was supposed to be an execution.
Absence is one thing, surfeit another, but both can be lethal.
Incorporating the other, be it through eating, smelling, farming, enslaving or invading, is cannibalism.
It is often difficult to impossible to determine the truth of cannibal stories. Was there a Sweeney Todd? Did Ottis Toole eat up to 600 people in the US? How important to Jeffrey Dahmer was the cannibalism component of his murders? So it is for the older myths, such as that of Sawney Bean.
According to the mythology, Sawney was a Scotsman who, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, moved into a cave in Bennane Head on the west coast of Scotland with his wife “Black Agnes” Douglas. They had eight sons, six daughters, 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters, the grandchildren all being products of incest, since no outsider was found in the cave. Alive. Freud said that humanity’s “original” taboos were cannibalism and incest. Sawney won the daily double.
The Bean clan would ambush unwary travellers on the sparsely populated coast, but killing the victims and stealing their riches wasn’t enough to feed hungry, inbred mouths, because there were not a lot of pawn shops in the area, and eBay hadn’t been invented yet. Sawney’s revolutionary idea, a forerunner of modern serial cannibals, was take the bodies back to the cave and eat them, or preserve the flesh by pickling. The story goes that up to one thousand victims were so handled, making him, if real, the first and most prolific serial killer ever caught.
The reign of terror ended when a prospective victim escaped the Beans (although his wife did not) and alerted authorities. The king (possibly James VI) led a heavily armed party to capture the clan. Sawney and the men were condemned without trial and had their genitalia cut off and thrown into the fires, their hands and feet severed, and were left to bleed to death. After watching the men die, the women and children were tied to stakes and burned alive. By such methods is civilisation restored. Wes Craven based his film The Hills Have Eyes on the legend of Sawney Bean, it also makes a point about the vengeance of the civilised being as bad as the savage.
But, so the story goes, Sawney’s dying words were:
“It isn’t over, it will never be over.”
That’s where this film starts.
A descendant of the original Mr Bean now lives in Sawney’s cave, presented as the very image of a voracious mouth. The landscape here is a devourer, much like the peaks of the Andes, which looked like teeth in the movie Alive. Nature seeks to eat us up, from the bacteria and mosquito to the great white shark. We tend to see ourselves as outsiders to nature, at war with the natural world, but the cannibal reminds us that we are animals too, so he is, like nature, red in tooth and claw. Nature, like Sawney Bean, is indifferent to our pretensions of civilisation, merciless in killing and eating us (and this new Sawney likes a bit of rape too).
Lots of ultraviolence and growls and screams from Sawney’s hoodie-wearing kids.
Look, it’s a video nasty, which seeks to challenge the viewer with plenty of gore, shocks and carnage, and it succeeds to some extent. The plot has some annoying loose ends and is a bit thin, with sombre music announcing (as if we couldn’t guess) the forthcoming demise of anyone silly enough to wander around Scotland solo (which almost everyone in the film does at some stage). The acting is pretty great, particularly David Hayman, who has a ripsnorting and hilarious time as Sawney, spicing his cruelty with evil laughter. Like Sawney’s clan, the production seems to be a family affair, with direction by Ricky Wood, screenplay by his father Rick Wood and cinematography by his brother Ranald Wood. The cinematography is splendid, taking full advantage of the stunning scenery around Aberdeen and western Scotland.
The most scary image is Sawney’s mode of transport – a big, black British taxi. Those things terrified me when I was in London, and I can now see why. You get into one of those, and you might come out ready for Uber Eats.
Sawney also has a creature chained up at the back of the cave, and prepares tender morsels of brains, limbs, fingers and intestines, covered with “gravy” (fresh blood).
He hands the delicacy to his son, saying “give this to mother”. We eventually get to meet mother, and it doesn’t go well. How they made babies is hard to imagine. Maybe he slipped a roofie in her evening gore.
Sawney also tends to quote scripture and, like most who do that, picks the bits that suit him.
“Jesus said: unless you eat the flesh of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
The avenging hero is Hamish (Samuel Feeney), an investigative journalist with the requisite three-day stubble, an English accent and a Scottish capacity for alcohol. He goes to visit the Druid sacrificial site where the latest body was found, his girlfriend’s sister, or rather her head and someone else’s arms, all showing human tooth marks. He tells his recording device:
“Predatory killers often do far more than commit murder. Some have sexual desires, humiliation. They create gruesome rituals, as much for pleasure as for any other reason. This killer is not merely deranged, but evil.”
Well, maybe so, although the Bible-wielding Sawney would disagree. He feels that those he captures are fair game, prey for his hunters, and if he adds rape to cannibalism and murder, well, isn’t that pretty much what factory farms do, with their artificial insemination and culling?
No thriller would be complete without the bad guy spilling the beans to the hero, secure in the belief that he will soon be killing (and eating) the listener. Sawney tells the captive Hamish:
“You have to go back over 500 years and follow my bloodline. To the time when food was scarce, life was cheap, and only the ferocious survived.”
Then he’s back in the Bible, this time John 6:51.
“Any man who eats of this bread will have everlasting life on the bread that I give. This will be my flesh for the life of the world.”
And then verse 65:
“My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”
Yes, a favourite verse among Cannibal Studies scholars, and one that Sawney takes literally. He tells Hamish, as a slaughterhouse worker or a supermarket shopper might tell a pig,
“You’re just food, you’re a gift from God, which is who we are… You see, anyone can eat human flesh, you just have to make sure you wash it and garnish it well to avoid disease. Now, I particularly like the thighs and the calves… I prefer the taste of women to men, and I never eat hands or feet or testicles.”
Sawney would have been a hit as a judge on a cooking reality show.
What does it mean to be “treated like an animal”? We humans are, after all, animals, one species of the family Hominid, or great apes. So why should we not be treated like animals, or, if we are averse to abuse, why then do we treat non-human animals “like animals”? The ultimate act of treating humans “like animals” is the killing and eating or the human body, which of course is made of meat, and various other edible parts.
One of the classics of cannibal studies is the film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, made on a tight budget by Tobe Hooper in 1974, and remade and turned into multiple sequels since then. In these films, cannibals capture and slaughter tourists for their flesh. The Farm attempts to push the slaughter metaphor a whole lot further.
The cannibal who dwells among us has been a popular trope since Sweeney Todd the Barber starting cutting the throats of his customers over 200 years ago, carting their bodies to the pie shop of Mrs Lovett, who turned them into very popular pies. There have been multiple versions of this story, the latest being a musical with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Variations on this theme included Motel Hell and the Danish comedy Green Butcher, starring Mads Mikkelsen (21st century Hannibal Lecter) as you have never seen him before.
Early cannibal stories concentrated on ‘savages’ who ate us just because that’s what the imperialists told us that was what primitive peoples did. Sweeney and his ilk looked a lot like us, but happened to be less discriminating when it came to sourcing their meat. Slasher cannibals were a hybrid – a fusion of the foreign savage and the domestic entrepreneur – they were modern, civilised people who had sunk back into voracious savagery. Texas Chain Saw was a progenitor of the slasher films in which a bunch of urban trendies come up against a whole family of degenerate cannibals – people who have dropped (or been thrown) out of civil society and reverted to savagery and cannibalism. Stories about semi-human, savage cannibals waylaying travellers date back to at least Sawney Bean and his incestuous cannibal family in 16th century Scotland, or even further back to Homer’s Cyclops or the various monsters reported by Herodotus.
What slasher and savage cannibal movies had in common was that the cannibals were more of the hunter-gatherer type, setting traps or chasing potential prey, as our ancestors did for a couple of hundred thousand years before the agricultural revolution started, some ten thousand years ago. At that time, we started selectively breeding animals, confining them, controlling their lifecycles, harvesting their bodily secretions, and slaughtering them for meat at our convenience. This movie, The Farm, takes that social evolution into the world of cannibals. What if our backroad cannibals didn’t just chase down tourists, but farmed humans for their meat and their milk?
It’s an intriguing premise, which starts with the traditional horror preamble, a young couple, Nora (Nora Yessayan, who also did the casting) and Alec (Alec Gaylord) stopping for the night somewhere they should know better than to stop, much like Brad and Janet in Rocky Horror Show.
These films have a formula – the sassy, city folk, some of them in an unmarried relationship (and being judged and often punished for it).
The diner with food of an indeterminable origin, the gas station with the weird attendant.
The house or motel with some nasty surprises (e.g. bloodstained sheets), and (yes) the monster under the bed.
But The Farm goes off in another direction after that. The young couple are captured and put in cages.
They are gagged, and so they are voiceless, the way we consider farm animals to be, and treated ruthlessly by the farmers, who are mostly wearing animal masks.
Nora is tied with her legs apart and artificially inseminated, as happens to millions of cows every year.
Alec is confined, knocked on the head and taken off to where human meat is harvested. Somehow, he survives that and comes looking for Nora.
The farm is a catering company, cooking and selling the meat for festive events.
The captured human men are killed whenever fresh meat is needed, the women are fitted to suction machines and their milk is collected.
When they can no longer become pregnant, they are added to the butchery.
I guess we are (most of us) aware that cows, like all mammals, have to give birth before they produce milk. On this farm, as on dairy farms world-wide, the babies are waste products of milk production and are killed soon after they are born. That indifferent killing of the innocent is the most disturbing scene of the film.
Look, it’s BUSINESS. Just as billions of male chicks are minced alive at hatcheries because they can’t lay eggs, so dairy calves are killed if they can’t produce milk, and human babies dashed against the concrete floor in the milking sheds of The Farm. Of course, businesses of all sorts have production and quality problems, and have to deal with unhappy customers.
Nora and Alec escape and seek refuge in a church. How much sympathy would an escaped cow or sheep or pig get in a church? It does give us an understanding of the ideology of the Farm though, with it’s mural based on Matthew 19:14:
Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
Farmed animals are often compared to children in that they are vulnerable, selectively bred to be dependent and of course are mostly slaughtered when still infant or barely adult. The Dean of St Paul’s, William Ralph Inge, wrote in “The Idea of Progress”,
“We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.”
Nora and Alec, at the start of the film, stopped at a café near the Farm, where they were watched as they uncaringly ate beef and bacon burgers. They were, without their knowledge, judged guilty of eating flesh, of cannibalism of their fellow mammals, and the “animals” are now harvesting their bodies in return.
“this is a tough watch for most audiences and is even a little rough for hardened horror fans”
The reviewers either loved or hated The Farm. Very few thought it was just OK; it was either slammed as stupid and badly made or lauded as a brilliant expose of modern animal agriculture, told in a looking-glass world where we are the animals. I tend to the second view, but I hope you will get the chance to decide for yourself. The film seems to be on Amazon Prime.
I won’t tell you the ending, but the poster kinda gives it away…
Not a movie this week, but a cartoon! Even today, many cartoons depict racist and sexist stereotypes, but JUNGLE JITTERS was so gratuitous that it was placed on a list known as the Censored Eleven, a list of Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons taken off television in the United States in 1968 because of their offensive stereotyping of black people. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia links to this cartoon, as well as to several other real stinkers.
This cartoon, which is well under a hundred years old, followed the favoured interpretation of colonialism – the native people were uncivilised savages, probably cannibals, waiting for the white man to bring them into the modern age. This process was always violent and exploitative and often involved the expropriation of their lands and even extermination. But the public image of colonialism was the semi-human cannibals, as amusing as apes, and the civilised Europeans, who might be running the place, or could be poaching in a cauldron. This cartoon managed to fit all of that ideological baggage into less than eight minutes.
The idea that those who are not part of the Western liberal tradition must be primitive cannibals seems strange to us now, but let’s not forget that Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel and many other European philosophers considered indigenous people, whose strange customs were reported by the explorers, to be primitive savages, urgently in need of enlightenment. H.G. Wells in his 1920 book Outline of History wrote, “At first, the only people encountered by the Spaniards in America were savages of a Mongoloid type. Many of these savages were cannibals”. Even in this century, the weary trope continues to raise its head – a British Secondary School exam board recently apologised for approving a psychology text that contained a question on teamwork, involving a group of cannibals cooking a missionary.
In the “plot” of this cartoon, a travelling salesman brings a case of useless consumer goods to a fenced village. At first, the natives don’t want to let him in, but then change their perception of him.
Of course, he is soon in a cauldron, with jokes about “hold the onions” etc.
Then there is the love interest. This was a problem – depicting primitive natives indulging in cannibalism was unproblematic, but the “Hays Code”, which set the moral guidelines for American cinema from 1934-1968, definitely frowned on miscegenation – any hint of sex between the races.
The solution in this was to make the Queen into a white woman, without explanation, and have her see the salesman not as the cooked chicken envisaged by her tribe, but as Clark Gable and Robert Taylor.
While he appears to be some sort of dog, she seems to be based on a chicken (but not edible for some reason) and of course she is the kind of spinster that Hollywood loved to show as desperate and dateless.
She arranges an instant wedding, but he is repelled by her and, hilariously, chooses to leap back into the cauldron, expressing the hope that
“…they all get indigestion!”
I guess people still make racist and sexist videos today, in ever greater numbers, probably, but at least they are no longer distributed by major entertainment companies and aimed at children. Perhaps we are making progress. Or is racism and sexism simply becoming more sophisticated?