Cannibal baby: “IT’S ALIVE” (Larry Cohen, 1974)

It’s Alive is a 1974 American horror film written, produced, and directed by Larry Cohen. There are lots of movies about kids that grow up bad (e.g. The Omen) or get taken over by something bad (e.g. The Exorcist) but Cohen had the revolutionary idea to make a film about a newborn baby who was bad from birth. Straight from the womb to the killing fields.

Every expectant parent’s greatest nightmare is that something will be wrong with their child. This baby’s parents are Frank (John P. Ryan from Runaway Train) and Lenore (Sharon Farrell). They have an older child, Chris, totally normal, initiated into the symbolic order, happy to get involved in fishing and other blood sports when the parents head off for labour.

Chris is several years older, because Lenore has been on contraceptives for several years. Yes, there is a message there, but it remains a little muddy as she tells her husband, several times, that things “just don’t feel right.”

In the waiting room for fathers (this is the 1970s), they talk about pollution, toxins in the atmosphere that have led to monster cockroaches. Now the message is starting to get through.

The birth does not go quite as planned, in fact all the doctors and nurses get massacred by, yep, the baby, who has the advantage of sharp fangs and claws. Cohen said he got the idea for the movie watching very young babies and noticing how angry and frustrated they seem. Well, we’ve heard of babies being brought into the world kicking and screaming, but this bub is next level. There are interesting scenes shot from the baby’s point of view, intelligently positing that newborns do not have perfect ocular control yet.

The baby heads off to do what babies do – disrupt sleep patterns, but also to slaughter people, including, comically, a milkman, leading to a flood of blood and milk (another subtle birth reference).

The film shows the baby only very briefly and in fleeting glimpses, instead concentrating on the parents, their guilt over birthing a monster, and their conflict over whether to love him or destroy him.

The title of the film, IT’S ALIVE, is of course a sly wink to James Whale’s classic 1931 monster movie Frankenstein. The father, Frank, tells a doctor that, when he was a kid, he always thought “Frankenstein” was the name of the monster, not the man who created it. In fact, the monster (Boris Karloff) had no name, while “Frankenstein” was the name of the doctor who put him together from spare body parts and brought him to life, famously shouting “it’s alive!” when his experiment worked.

Like a newborn, the monster is innocent and compliant until frightened, after which he attacks, not knowing his own strength, and from then on everyone wants to kill him.

There’s lots of messages in this film, but the main two are the same as Frankenstein: science gone mad and irresponsibility of the ‘parent’. The pharmaceutical corporation that made Lenore’s contraceptive pill and her subsequent fertility treatment contacts her doctor – their meds may have caused the deformity, and they want the baby killed, to hide their legal liability.

Is this a swipe at contraception, interfering with nature, or just the usual condemnation of Big Pharma and insufficient testing? Hard to say. Then there is modern science, surrounding a newborn fresh from the womb with terrifying bright lights and sharp instruments. There is Frank, the father, who cannot accept his child’s variation from the standard model of a baby– helpless, innocent, unlikely to kill people.

He sets off with a gun to help the cops hunt and kill the child, while Lenore bitterly assails him, claiming that the poor little fella is just scared. Their conflict, and Frank’s guilt, are brilliantly acted and help turn what could have been a very silly B-movie into something quite special.

As for the baby, he’s scared and misses his parents, and probably hungry too, because he seems to have a lot of human body parts in his mouth most of the time. Or maybe he’s just teething.

Sigmund Freud described the primal drives which we repress in order to enter the symbolic order of civilised, patriarchal society, and these drives come back as the “return of the repressed”. A lot of horror can be boiled down to our vicarious reliving of the return of our repressions, and often are expressed through our sympathy with the monster. Frankenstein’s monster, like the baby in this film, is a frightened ‘newborn’, seeking unconditional love from his creators, but in vain. Freud described an “oral-sadistic” or “cannibalistic” phase of infancy, in which the child seeks to own the mother’s breast by biting and swallowing, and is conversely terrified of being eaten by the far more powerful parents. This is the earliest stage of orality, and Freud might have been delighted to see this cannibalistic phase come to life in the movies (although he treated the new technology with some scorn). Freud suggested in “Three Essays on Sexuality” that “pregenital” forms of sexual organisation in very young children could be “harking back to early animal forms of life.”

This baby takes the oral-sadistic to extremes and, with his strength and speed as well as his fangs and claws, he might just be superhuman, the prototype of the next stage of human evolution, like the mutant X-Men, who are also misunderstood and condemned. That is, if his dad and the cops don’t kill him first. But let’s not forget that we all have a savage, cannibalistic baby buried in our unconscious. This is why we’re scared of small things – mice, grasshoppers, cockroaches. And Cohen’s genius was to take the smallest, most innocent being we know, a tiny baby, and make him the monster from our id.

Make-up artist Rick Baker designed and created the murderous baby. This is saying a lot – Rick Baker won seven (count them – 7!) Academy Awards for his work on films including An American Werewolf in London (the first time the Academy had given an award for makeup), Harry and the Hendersons, The Nutty Professor and Men in Black, and was nominated for another four. Before any of that happened, he was working with Dick Smith on the special effects for The Exorcist when he got a call from Larry Cohen asking him to make a killer baby suit that could be worn by, perhaps, Cohen’s cat or a chicken or two.

Baker constructed a model of the baby based on Cohen’s drawings – the model had articulated limbs and moveable eyeballs. But he also made a full size mask, gloves and a partial body suit, which he somehow managed to persuade his girlfriend Elaine Parkyn, later his wife, to wear in the action scenes. However, the idea of a homicidal baby wandering the streets could prove a little risible, so Cohen makes sure in this film to keep us guessing, with just the occasional quick peek, often in dim lights. It is quite effective.

Besides the amazing Rick Baker monster model, the film boasts the music of the brilliant Bernard Hermann, also an Oscar winner, who wrote the score for Citizen Kane as well as several Hitchcock films, including the iconic theme from Psycho.

The film scored a very respectable 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. Slant Magazine called it “one of the finest American horror films of the last 30 years”, while Lessons of Darkness said it’s

A deeply terrifying portrait of child-parent relationships and intolerant fears of “otherness” defined as much by its sociological sharpness as its gore.

 The film ends with a cop getting a message on his radio that:

“Another one was born in Seattle.”

Yes, there are sequels: It’s Alive 2: It Lives Again in 1978 and It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive in 1987. We’ll get to them, eventually. There was a remake in 2009 which was widely panned, and described by Larry Cohen as “beyond awful”. He advised anybody who liked his film to cross the street and avoid seeing the new one.

This original version, though, is from back in 1974, as America lost its innocence and its President, and kids were growing their hair, smoking pot and protesting, and telling their parents “don’t criticise what you don’t understand.” Larry Cohen commented that parents at that time felt like they had a stranger in their house, and one father actually shot his son because he thought he was a monster. The movie captures this generation war – the fears of the old and anger and fears of the kids.

It’s a corker, and it became a cult classic.

Issei Sagawa, in your face: CANIBA (2017)

In 1987, Japanese student Issei Sagawa murdered a young Dutch woman, Renée Hartevelt, a fellow student at the Paris Sorbonne, then mutilated, cannibalised, and performed necrophilia on her corpse over a period of two days.

Sagawa was declared insane in France and returned to Japan, where he could not be tried for murder as no evidence had been sent by the French. A free man, he became something of a celebrity, making torture porn movies, selling paintings (many of them nudes), writing books and manga showing his crime, and even becoming a food critic. The fascination so many people feel with the life and crimes of Issei Sagawa is shown by the number of documentaries made about him:

  • Cannibal Superstar (Viasat Explore, Sweden, 1986, 47 minutes)
  • Excuse Me for Living (Channel 4, UK, 1993, 60 minutes)
  • The Cannibal That Walked Free (Channel 5, UK, 2007, 46 minutes)
  • Interview with a Cannibal (Vice, US, 2011, 34 minutes)

And, most recently, this one: Canniba, made by two artists/anthropologists, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Unlike the more standard documentaries which deal in psychoanalytic speculations and dramatic narration, this one is an extreme close-up of the cannibal himself, in his declining years. The only characters shown are Sagawa himself, his brother Jun and a young woman carer, who is inappropriately dressed in a maid’s uniform and happily tells him zombie stories as she prepares him for bed. Sagawa was hospitalized in 2013 from a cerebral infarction, which permanently damaged his nervous system, and due to this and severe diabetes is largely unresponsive through most of the filming, becoming animated only when discussing his murder of Renée. Jun sums his brother up:

“Cannibalism is really very much nourished by fetishistic desire. The desire to lick the lips of your lover, and things like that, are based on primal urges. Cannibalism is just an extension of that. Both extremes exist within him. Cannibalism is a totally different world for him.”

The film seems to ask us to consider our own fetishes (you don’t have any? That would make you unique) and asks whether we are repulsed by Sagawa’s acts, or by the abjection in ourselves which he forces us to confront.

The first thirty minutes are a gruelling close-up of the two men – Issei and Jun and their desultory interactions, with the camera so close you can see every pore, except when it (blessedly) goes out of focus. Issei is largely catatonic, staring sightlessly as we, in turn, stare in extreme close-up at his face, which looks almost like a death mask. The only signs of animation are when he is offered chocolate, of which he seems inordinately fond, perhaps as a substitute for the human flesh he so craved. Probably not great for his diabetes, but we’re not really hoping for a happy ending to this story.

Unable to see a future, Issei dwells on the past. He remembers his mother telling him in graphic detail about falling down some stairs in a department store and miscarrying.

From this glimpse of the behavioural background to his subsequent actions, we are suddenly catapulted to a clip of a much younger Issei in a porn film, biting a woman’s buttocks, as he did to the dead victim, then being urinated on and finally masturbated by her.

The horror of his ruined visage is contrasted to the prudish pixilation of the debauchery.

If we haven’t walked out by now, as many of the audience did at the early screenings in the Toronto and Venice film festivals, we are then treated to his commentary, now quite animated, on his manga – a comic-book format showing his murder, rape and cannibalisation of the young woman. His brother tut-tuts throughout, saying he doesn’t want to see such things, while Issei explains what he did, and what it meant to him.

“For a hideous person like me, she was out of reach.”

A bullet in the back of her neck was the only way he could think of to bring her into his reach.

“Finally the thing I was craving to eat was right in front of me! The stench doesn’t matter. I started with the richest part of her right buttock.”

The murder and cannibalism turned a shy, diminutive man-child into a fierce Samurai, in his own mind.

He describes the eating the flesh (the harvesting of which is shown in detail in the manga) as “an historical moment!” For that brief time, the woman was entirely his, and what Derrida called carnivorous virility gave him an absurd sense of masculine power as he “dominated” the woman’s corpse for his sexual and gastronomic pleasure.

There’s heaps more, but you’ll have to watch the film or get the manga – my blog has its limits.

The film then disconcertingly lurches into home movies of the two men when they were cute little boys.

We are not given a commentary, but we know from other accounts that their uncle would dress up as a cannibal and capture them for his cooking pot. The psychoanalysts would eat that up, but we should consider that many of us are chased by various demented relatives in our childhood games without going on to become monsters in their likeness.

Issei’s brother Jun, now his carer, appears as the sane one in the family, but we are quickly disabused of that as we see his own self-abuse – he likes to wrap his arms in barbed wire, and cut his arms with knives. Everyone needs a hobby I guess. Issei is not impressed – compared to shooting a woman from behind and then having sex with the body and eating parts of it, a bit of cutting would seem fairly tame to him.

Finally we meet the carer, a young, attractive women dressed as a maid. This is actually Satomi Yôko, an actress playing a maid playing a carer, a further jolt to our fragile sense of reality. She giggles over Issei, telling him, as he stares into her breasts (a particular fetish of his):

She asks him if he wants to cosplay a zombie, and tells him a convoluted story about a zombie woman who eats the old man who keeps her in chains, a reversal of his history, and another fetish of Issei’s, who early in the film says “I want to be eaten by Renée.” She tells him:

“For the zombie to survive, I have to keep eating live humans… I’m alive, but I can’t be with normal humans.”

It’s a perfect summation for the fate of Issei Sagawa.

The only soundtrack is at the very end, The Stranglers’ 1981 song “La Folie” (“madness”) which concerned Sagawa’s crime.

It’s in French, but the partial translation is:

He was once a student
Who strongly wanted, like in literature,
His girlfriend, she was so sweet
That he could almost eat her
Rejecting all vices
Warding off all evils
Destroying all beauty

The film managed 53% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, while the New York Times called the movie “an exercise in intellectualized scab-picking.” IndieWire summed up:

“Caniba” ranks among the most unpleasant movies ever made, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it.

There is another review of an earlier Sagawa documentary, The Cannibal That Walked Free on my blog. The film Caniba is available, if you are so inclined, from https://grasshopperfilm.com/film/caniba/

The first splatter film: BLOOD FEAST (Lewis 1963)

Blood Feast is a very early American horror film, made way back in 1963. It was composed, shot and directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, and is considered the first “splatter” film, a sub-genre of horror noted for its graphic depictions of on-screen gore. The plot focuses on a food caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who kills women so that he can include their body parts in his meals, which are ritual sacrifices to resurrect the Egyptian goddess Ishtar (fun fact, Ishtar was actually a Babylonian goddess).

The preview (at the top) advises that the picture

“contains scenes which under no circumstances should be viewed by anyone with a heart condition or anyone who is easily upset. We urgently recommend that if you are such a person, or the parent of a young or impressionable child now in attendance, that you and the child leave the auditorium for the next ninety seconds.”

Well, “leave the auditorium for the next sixty-seven minutes” might have been better advice, but hey, Blood Feast was highly successful, grossing four million dollars against its tiny $24,500 budget, despite receiving terrible reviews calling it amateurish and vulgar. Blood Feast was part of a trilogy, comprising Two Thousand Maniacs! In 1964 and Color Me Blood Red in 1965, although these were not strictly cannibal films.

Lewis had seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and felt that it cheated (in the shower scene) by showing blood going down the drain but not the actual murder, and he set out to make up that shortcoming, with buckets of gore and actual body parts (e.g. a sheep’s tongue was imported from Tampa Bay for the scene where Ramses cuts out a woman’s tongue).

He also, like Hitchcock, had some gimmicks to promote the film, giving the audience “vomit bags” and taking out an injunction against the film in Sarasota, Florida, purely for the publicity. The film was banned in the UK as a “video nasty” and not released in full for over forty years, which just added to its notoriety.

Blood Feast was followed by a “tribute” movie, Blood Diner, in 1987, although this was written as a comedy and ended up not directly related to the story of Blood Feast. A belated sequel, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, was released in 2002.

The plot is paper thin – Ramses is a wild-eyed killer who chops up several young women, described in the poster as “nubile”, supported by cleavage close-ups wedged into the scenery wherever vaguely possible.

He takes body parts from these “nubile young girl victims”, such as legs, tongues, hearts and brains. These he boils in a cauldron (except for a leg which, for some reason, gets baked in an oven), from which he will prepare the offering that will allow the rebirth of the goddess.

The cop on his trail is played by William Kerwin who had a long and illustrious career in film, TV and on stage, despite being in this movie. The cops are clueless for most of the film because apparently weird guys shuffling around with machetes don’t attract much notice in Miami Beach. The murderer conveniently is asked to cater a dinner for a wealthy socialite’s daughter, who will be his final victim, and who is conveniently in love with the cop in charge, with whom she conveniently goes to lectures on ancient Egyptian religious rituals. Oh dear.

The cop sums up the evidence:

“Lust, murder, food for an ancient goddess who received life through the perverted death of others.”

I suppose there are some ethical issues raised, like how come humans can cut out the tongue of a sheep for an appallingly awful movie, but a goddess can’t have a few nubile girls for her resurrection? But such issues, if raised, are raised purely accidentally.

The film managed to achieve 38% on Rotten Tomatoes which, considering the perhaps deliberate awfulness, is not too bad a score. It does not try to be Hitchcock – there is little to no suspense, or even plot, and the music and acting are far closer to pantomime than horror. Each murder is clearly signalled to the audience, with women getting into baths, smooching boyfriends, moving into motel rooms, each accompanied by ominous strings and a snare drum.

The violence is gratuitous, particularly a scene where he whips a girl to death to collect her blood, and the gore is gloriously overdone, as if satirising its tribute to the restrained murder scene in Psycho (which of course had a far more powerful audience affect). The dialogue wanders in a thin band between wooden and absurd, such as these exchanges:

“Well, the killer must have thought she was dead.”
It’s a miracle she wasn’t.”
Well, she is now.”

The Los Angeles Times called it “grisly, boring movie trash” and “a blot on the American film industry.” Stephen King tweeted last year:

Variety called the film:

“an insult even to the most puerile and salacious of audiences.”

Yes it was, and they ate it up.

Serving your crew: DREAD HUNGER (eight-player cannibalism game)

Imagine you are trapped on a ship surrounded by ice in the Arctic, and some of your friends might actually not be whom they seem. Dread Hunger, a New Zealand computer game in which players can cannibalise their friends, has become a huge success, mainly in China.

I usually blog about cannibal movies here, or news stories about cannibalism when they break. This is the first game I have covered, although I am waiting to see the game “Borneo: A Jungle Nightmare” which is due for release this year – it is scripted and directed by Ruggero Deodato, who brought us one of the seminal cannibal movies in 1980: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. This game was originally going to have the same title, but is not a remake (in game form) of the original, but more like fourth in Deodato’s cannibal saga. Due out sometime in 2022.

Anyway, back to DREAD HUNGER! When the Christchurch company, Digital Confectioners, released the game earlier this year, they were hoping they might reach 10,000 players in the US. To their surprise, they found that more than 260,000 people in China play the game every day. Due to time zones, says Director Sam Evans, the demand is mostly between the hours of 12.30am and 5am New Zealand time (which for computer nerds is a fairly normal operating time).

Dread Hunger is a survival game set during an Arctic exploration in 1847-48. Players can build fires, fight off wolves, and hunt for food, including, sometimes, human flesh from their shipmates.

There are various weapons, and the players can also “pick up severed heads and limbs and use them to kill.”

One of the strategies is:

Betray Your Friends
Feed them tainted food, lure animals to attack them, hex them with blood magic, or if all else fails… just shoot them in the back.”

The game has become a target of hackers, including DDOS attacks and “cheats” where hackers find a loophole in the game code they can exploit to give players an unfair advantage.

Dread Hunger has just passed 1 million copies sold, a figure Evans called “insane”. The graphics are splendid and, well, graphic.

This has led to some new, if profitable, challenges.

“The American market largely treats games like a product. They buy the game, they play the game on average 10-15 hours over a few weeks, then they move on. But in China when they find a game they like, they play it for hundreds of hours, for years and years. This forced us to treat the game like a service. We now have to focus on continual development and regularly updating the game to add more cool features over time.”

The game is mainly based on the 1845 expedition of 129 men led by explorer Sir John Franklin, which left Britain for the Canadian Arctic in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Their ships, the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror never returned.

Rumours that the crew resorted to cannibalism have swirled around the doomed expedition since the nineteenth century. Evidence suggests that Franklin’s crew may have not only consumed the flesh of deceased compatriots, but also cracked their bones, to eat the marrow inside. In 1854, interviews with local Inuits described piles of human bones, cracked in half.

In 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer‘s painting Man Proposes, God Disposes caused a stir at the Royal Academy exhibition for its depiction of two polar bears, one chewing on a tattered ship’s ensign, the other gnawing on a human ribcage. Cannibalism did not get a mention – yet. 

More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers recovered remains of the crew on King William Island. Knife marks on the bones backed up early accounts of human cannibalism. A newer analysis of 35 bones by anthropologists Simon Mays and Owen Beattie suggests that the men did indeed eat each other. The bones showed signs of breakage and heating—indicating that the crew members probably cooked them to extract the marrow. Mays and Beattie published their results in 2015 in the International Journal of Osteology.

Horror writer Dan Simmons‘s 2007 book The Terror was developed as a 2018 AMC television series also called The Terror. The expedition has, over the years, taken on the mythic value to the British that the Donner Party holds in the USA.

One of the lines from the launch trailer (above):

“I have heard it said that this land can change a man. Turn him into a beast. Well, to that I would say—men were always beasts. Some you see, well, they’re just better at hiding it than others.”

Dread Hunger is what is called in games parlance a “social deduction game”. This is a category of game in which players attempt to uncover each other’s hidden role or team allegiance. It’s an ideal formula for a population who never know quite who the agents of their government might be. And also an ideal cannibalism game for the recent history of man-eating, in which the cannibals like Albert Fish, Jeffrey Dahmer, Issei Sagawa and Armin Meiwes all appeared as very ordinary, normal neighbours.

We all need to do some social deductions, it seems.

“I like to watch them”: EYE WITHOUT A FACE (Ramin Niami, 2021)

Has there ever been an era when people were more connected and yet more alone? A person I know (no names – you know who you are) subscribes to social media posts but never, ever posts or comments. The ultimate loner, though, is the geek sitting in a darkened room and relating to people on his screen, people who don’t even know he exists.

That is the plot of this quirky movie, which brings Hitchcock’s Rear Window into the twenty-first century. In that film, Jimmy Stewart played a photographer who is confined to his apartment in Manhattan with a broken leg. He watches his neighbours, without their knowledge, even giving them nick-names. A harmless hobby, until it isn’t – one of his neighbours seems to have murdered his wife.

In EYE WITHOUT A FACE, it’s not just a guy with binoculars and a zoom lens. That little hole on the top of your laptop screen? Yeah, it’s a webcam, and it comes on when you Zoom or Skype. What does it do the rest of the time?

Well, the nightmare scenario is that it can be hacked and used to see what is going on in your home, WITHOUT YOUR KNOWLEDGE. Is it true? I’m a blogger, not a hacker, so I can’t say for sure, but I know a couple of programmers who have band-aids over their laptop cameras. So there’s that. Also this article.

Anyway, for the sake of enjoying this movie, assume that it’s not only possible but common. You’re going to get the band-aids now? It’s OK – I’ll wait.

The protagonist (he’s no hero) is Henry (Dakota Shapiro – who, IMDB tells me, comes from Byron Bay!), a hacker, a stalker or perhaps more accurately a voyeur as he likes to watch. Henry wouldn’t have even noticed COVID lockdowns as he almost never leaves his home except to walk the dark, melancholy streets of LA, thinking about his angry, spiteful father, a man he sees in a devil mask.

Henry sees himself as the “guardian angel” of the women whose cameras he has hacked. And yes, not coincidentally, all those over whom he watches are good looking young women, and he chats with them. For the first few minutes of the film, it looks like a dialogue, a Zoom call in which he wishes them a polite good morning and comments on whatever they are doing, but we quickly realise that they don’t answer – they don’t know Henry is watching. They don’t even know he exists. They are so close, yet totally unattainable to a shy introvert like him.

Henry’s flatmate is, Eric (Luke Cook, another Aussie, who played Lucifer in Sabrina) and he is almost Henry’s opposite – more interested in putting his own selfies and vodcasts on the web than seeing what anyone else is up to. He meets women on line, but doesn’t remember their names after one-night stands. Henry reaches for his monitor to stroke their hair, Eric wants to seduce them.

Eric warns Henry that he is staring into the abyss, and if you do that too long, as Nietzsche said:

What does Eric, the struggling Australian actor in LA, mean by quoting Nietzsche? Well, he does do a lot of drugs, but there’s still a point to his warning. Nietzsche is perhaps best known for stating that

“God is dead… and we have killed him… Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Nietzsche was warning that a world without supernatural judgement could easily descend into nihilism, a feeling of alienation and hopelessness, an abyss that has no meaning or purpose. Darwin had disproved the superstitions about humans being somehow higher than animals, leaving us as just smart apes, and Nietzsche urged a further evolutionary leap: to become the Übermensch, the super-man who will rise above the mob. We need to become gods, or at least angels. Hannibal Lecter has a bit to say on the subject.

But Henry is no god, nor is he, as he thinks, a guardian angel. He stares into the abyss of the empty, depressing lives of the women who unknowingly show him their own forms of despair – one is a singer whose partner sees her purely as sexual relief, another sells tawdry on-line sexual fantasies, another seems to be killing people to make head-soup. He has the eye of a god, his computer and their webcam, but none of the powers. The abyss of their lives and deaths is what Eric is trying to warn him about. It’s a world of alienation and superficial relationships involving intimacy, often remotely, but without love. He laughs and cries at their antics and their awful boyfriends, as if he is watching a series of soap operas. Perhaps he is. The abyss is gazing into him, and seeing only death and darkness.

Eric is intrigued by Henry’s hack and wants to meet these women. Henry swears him to secrecy, so of course we know this is not going to end well.

One of the women Henry watches, Tessa (Ashley Elyse Rogers) does webcam porn – men pay her to fantasise oral sex – with a strawberry or a peach standing in for their cocks. Eric finds her on Instagram and brings her home to meet Henry, who freaks out.

Eric hasn’t mentioned the webcam; he’s told her that Henry is an Instagram follower. But later, Henry calls her on her paid sex-line, hoping just to chat, and this time she freaks out when she realises he knows where she lives. Hanging up the sex line, he watches her on her hacked webcam as, terrified, she loads a gun and puts it under her pillow.

Henry only leaves the house at night when he goes for his creepy walks, clad in hoodie and avoiding eye contact. But on his return that night, he catches Eric watching “his” women. Upset, he turns the screen to Laura (Vlada Verevko, who, fun fact, was in the movie Hacker). Laura seems to have a lot of different boyfriends – she gives them a drink and then takes them up to her room, but Henry never sees them coming down again. This night she puts what looks like a human heart in a bowl in her fridge, then he sees her dragging what looks like a body bag out of the apartment.

Next day, Laura is cooking dinner for friends – kale pache, literally “head and hooves”. It’s usually from a sheep, but whose head is it this time? Is Laura a cannibal serial killer?

The following morning, Henry and Eric watch her prepare a drink for a young man, and are convinced he is going to be drugged and become her next victim.

Henry texts 9-1-1 (apparently you can) and the cops bust in and find – ginseng. But now she knows she’s being watched and she puts tape over her webcam, but not before promising to find Henry and turn him into dog-food. The rest of the film is the chase, with a twist – you’re going to have to watch it to see the denouement.

What is this parable really about? Henry thinks he is a “guardian angel”, yet he does nothing to assist any of the women with their issues – abusive men, drink, failure or sex. He just watches. The theme here is theodicy – a term invented by Gottfried Leibniz in 1710 when attempting to explain why an all-powerful, loving god would allow evil and suffering. It’s one of the favourite questions of believers, particularly when something terrible happens to them. A common view, particularly in Christianity, is that humans are sinners and evil arises from our failure to repent. It points to a time when evil will be abolished by the coming (or second coming) of a messiah, who bears and cleans away our sins. Henry as Isaiah’s suffering servant?

A variant of this discourse says that God gave humans free will, and although he hates to see us suffer, he can only watch, because intervening would revoke that free will and leave us just puppets. This view sees God weeping in the death camps together with his people.

Then there is the devil, whom Henry identifies as his violent father who brought him up with threats and fists. Henry wishes he could save his “friends” from this avenging, fallen angel who seems to stalk them. Then as he watches, someone starts slitting the throats of the women he has been watching.

Henry think he is the silent, suffering, guardian angel. He sees the women invite toxic masculinity into their lives and begs them (from behind his screen where he can’t be heard) to cease their wicked ways, but he “grants” them free will and does not intervene. Plato said that evil exists because of human “intimate indolence” – we can’t be bothered to combat it. Henry doesn’t try to intervene.

Until he does. Once Laura, the eater of heads, knows he is watching, it’s time for the final judgement, the battle between good and evil.

Is Laura killing and eating people? Is Henry’s dad really dead and gone? Why does Henry keep lathering up and wielding his father’s razor, yet still has a week-old stubble in the next scene?

Don’t miss it. It’s one of those films where nothing much happens for most of it, yet I found it impossible to turn away. The direction, the photography, the acting and the music are superb. It’s not a gorefest, nor is there (much) cannibalism involved, but the unravelling of the story is fascinating, and the idea that we are being watched, by a god, a devil or a hacker, makes for a fascinating story that stays in the mind afterwards, raising all sorts of metaphysical issues, including: why is it OK to eat sheep, but not their heads and hooves? Why is it OK to eat sheep, but not humans? And who is watching and judging us, anyway?

Update: Idaho murder/cannibalism suspect deemed fit to face trial

In December, we covered the arrest of Oldtown man James David Russell, 39, for cannibalism and murder in relation to the September 10 death of David Flaget. Police had seized evidence including a bloodied microwave oven, a glass bowl and a bloodied knife and duffel bag. There was evidence that heat had been applied to the body of the victim and body parts were missing, speculation being that the body parts had been cooked in the microwave.

Court proceedings were paused in late October when the Magistrate found Russell unfit to stand trial for first-degree murder and ordered him to the Idaho Security Medical Program for a mental health evaluation. This has finally cleared him to stand trial.

The full report from December is at this page:

Idaho is the only state of the United States which has laws against cannibalism.

The full case file is available here.

Cremation cannibalism: April 2022 News, India

Guwahati, 15 April 2022: A man has confessed to eating human meat in a crematorium in Bidyapur, in Assam’s Bongaigaon district. The man, identified as Satish Chandra Rai, is a resident of Bongaigaon.

Villagers reported that they had seen the man taking portions of a dead body at a local Hindu cremation ground and later saw him eating them. The villagers caught the man and have handed him over to police.

Satish allegedly admitted to being inebriated, and consuming half of the body’s meat. The dead body had been consigned to the flames, but not completely burnt, as the man was able to find edible flesh still attached.

Police have arrested the man, and are interrogating him at the police station.  Locals are now demanding that he be ousted from the village by the village council.

Like other places, cannibalism happens in India, even though it is a largely vegetarian country.

In 2020, a blind couple in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur district allegedly had a seven-year-old girl killed so they could eat her organs.

In 2017, Sunil Rama Kuchkoravi of Kolhapur murdered his mother after she refused to give him money to buy liquor. He later chopped up parts of her body and ate them, after frying them in a pan.

A (supposedly) forthcoming movie called A CANNIBAL MIND follows the life of Raja Ram Mohan, who allegedly murdered, mutilated and ate the brains of over 40 victims.

Back in Assam, in 2012 tea workers killed the owner of the plantation where they worked and allegedly ate his flesh.

It can happen anywhere and, as our alleged drunk has shown us, human meat is pretty much the same as any other animal’s flesh. Particularly when cooked.

“Do you want to eat me?” TEAR ME APART (Alex Lightman, 2015)

This is an English film, unlike most of the reviews in this blog, which overwhelmingly come from the USA or, if we are thinking real video nasties, Italy. It falls into the delightful genre of dystopian cannibalism films, in which some disaster, often unnamed, has stripped the thin veneer of civilisation from the survivors and left them with one option to survive – human flesh. There are lots of films in the survivor genre – The Time Machine is a classic, set thousands of years in the future, but most are set in the very near future or even an alternative present – think Soylent Green (set in 2022), 28 Days Later or Delicatessen.

The closest to Tear Me Apart, though, is the chilling 2009 film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which an unnamed man and boy travel through a world stripped of all animals and plants except for a few humans, most of whom have become cannibals to survive. Will they maintain their anthropocentric belief in the sacredness of human life and flesh?

In this film, it’s two brothers, also unnamed, the younger as naïve and clueless as the little boy in The Road. But it’s also a coming-of-age story, because one of the proposed victims who they intend to feast on is a young woman (like us, the older brother says, only different), perhaps the last surviving woman on earth, and do they really want to eat her?

Making the story line more intriguing is the constant presence of the ocean, the source of all life, the original mother, where the young men wait for a father who has long since vanished. The ocean supplies them limited amounts of fish to eat, but in the opening scene, the younger brother smothers a man, cuts and eats pieces of his flesh, only to be admonished by his brother –

“What would father say? I won’t warn you again – NEVER PEOPLE!”

Father may have left them on the beach to “wait it out” but now he is a mythical figure, whose rules override the primal instincts of the unschooled younger boy, who constantly gets in trouble for snacking on his victim. Because, you know, “he’s a man!” But his instinct is to fight, to kill, to eat. He is the carnivorous male, unpolished and uninhibited by social morality; as his brother says “he doesn’t know the difference between eating a fish and eating a human”. This is precisely the point – the young man has no social conditioning – he is not the vicious cannibal of so many horror films; he eats humans because he is hungry, just as a hungry dog or any other animal might.

He is a savage, simian Adam in Eden, following the rules without understanding them, rules passed down by a “father” he scarcely remembers, who may offer a second coming in some indefinable future, and who has bequeathed dietary restrictions that must be followed even though they make little sense.

But then he comes across the young woman, no physical threat but much smarter than both of the brothers. In a piece of blindingly obvious symbolism, she hands the young man an apple, with a smile. She’s also looking for her dad. Aren’t we all?

The boy goes back to his brother, who takes the apple and tells him “don’t eat this stuff, OK? It’ll make you ill”. We’re still referencing Genesis, a fierce version, in which they may eat of anything in the garden (even people) but not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Her fruit actually does make him ill, because he hasn’t eaten fruit for many years. This is the carnivorous virility that Derrida said was the basis of subjectivity, but without community it turns back onto his own gut.

The brothers don’t have names because names don’t mean anything, at least until the “old world” comes back. But she has a name, Molly, and she declares the younger man will be called Joe. Like Adam, she gives names to all the animals. She makes them bury the stiff they have been eating, because, she says, the world can’t survive like this.

She even rigs up a cross for his grave, just as Joe chews the last of the dead man’s flesh.

But she has introduced them to temptation. Also to vegetarianism:

“You can’t eat meat forever. The people you eat – they have people who loved them.”

A beautifully simple argument against eating meat.

She takes his hand and puts it on her breast. Bright eyed and vulnerable, she asks “do you want to eat me?” The double entendre here is far from Biblical.

There may perhaps not be any other women left – Molly says that there was a collective in “the town” – the symbolic civilisation for which both fathers have disappeared while searching for it – but now that is just a myth as well. Well, there is one other woman but she has become “an animal” – growling and threatening. A Lilith reference perhaps? But there are certainly other men, not just the lone men who Joe ambushes and eats, but a more vicious group, with guns. Like The Road, but with a touch of On the Beach.

The trio learn fear, hunger, desire. Molly tells Joe “You don’t have to follow the rules any more.” There’s a menage-a-trois which of course leads to jealousy and we get a serve of Cain and Abel as the brothers brawl. Molly’s father makes a brief appearance, as (spoiler alert) a good meal for their return to the beach, their wild Eden. So now we’re dipping into the New Testament, eating the blood and body of their saviour. Yes, the last humans, like the first humans, have truly eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The film is only 82 minutes, but a lot of reviewers thought that it drags. I didn’t see it that way – the story is low key but the acting is great and the characterisation is quirky and interesting in its peeling back of the sociality we take for granted. I think a lot of critics watched the film expecting a cannibal gore-fest, and that it is not. It’s a low budget film, yet the cinematography is splendid with the scenery of the sea (it’s filmed in Cornwall) quite beautiful. It may be hard to find, but at the time of writing the full film is available on YouTube, with Arabic subtitles. Since the Scottish accents are often impenetrable, that will prove quite useful – if you speak Arabic.

Our own flesh: HONEYDEW (Devereux Milburn, 2021)

This cannibal movie starts with the standard building blocks of so many cannibal/horror films: car breaks down, isolated farmhouse, friendly but weird person answering the door, munching of human flesh. Think Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Farm, or even The Rocky Horror Show. Going to strange places, meeting weird people, eating unknown things – these are what our mothers warned us against, and so does the horror genre.

This one starts with a biblical quote, from Corinthians 6:19-20:

“do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?”

While we listen to this from a cassette tape (younger readers may need to google what that is), a young woman eats meat and eggs, while an older woman grinds peanuts. We finally meet the protagonists – Sam (Sawyer Spielberg – yep, you know his dad) is an aspiring actor, Rylie (Malin Barr) is a botanist, investigating an outbreak of a fungus called sordico (an invented name for ergot), which poisons farm animals who must then be “put down”. It’s a metaphor for what we call “sin”.

We hear another recorded piece, this time about the fungus and its resulting diseases, including images of “ignorant peasants” baking the fungus into their bread and suffering gangrenous wounds requiring amputation, and eventually madness. The disease was considered a punishment for sin. Yes, this is the formula for the movie.

Sam and Rylie’s car GPS loses its signal and Sam asks directions from a weirdo on a bike, who just stares at them. Think the hitchhiker in Texas Chain Saw.

They camp in a field while Rylie photographs plants and Sam practices an elusive script. They have sex in their tent, a sure sign in most slashers that divine punishment is coming. But divine punishment can come from eating the wrong things (fungus) or from other people, who have their own interpretations of sin. Rylie and Sam are judged by Karen (a masterful performance by Barbara Kingsley from Jessica Jones) and Eulis (Stephen D’Ambrose), who have become sort of Gretel and Hansel cannibals due to their crops going bad, and of course eating crops poisoned with sordico.

Karen offers them dinner, red meat, but Sam is off it because of his cholesterol, and Rylie is a vegan. More judgement – Sam can’t resist Karen’s red meat and cakes. His appetite is his undoing. Like the cattle, he’s eaten the wrong stuff.

Karen and Eulis capture random travellers, lobotomise them to keep them compliant, and then eat their body parts. The man Karen claims to be her son, disabled by being kicked in the head by a bull, is actually a hunter gradually being eaten. A brief cameo by Lena Dunham (or at least Lena without arms and legs) as Karen’s daughter Delilah, indicates the fate of Sam and Rylie – they are to be lobotomised, stripped of limbs and Sam is to be bred with Delilah: “we’re aiming for grandbabies. Bring some sunshine into this black world”. The meat is kept Fresh by keeping it alive as long as possible.

Karen explains her thinking:

“We are living in a time of tribulation. We have perverted God’s divine love to abuse his gifts. We were overindulgent in God’s food, and so he took it away, forcing us to seek more sources, so that he may not forsake us… we have been given an opportunity for absolution, a second chance, to sustain life by consumption of what we can access, of our own flesh, so we may be judged in His image.”

The term “rump steak” may never seem the same when you see what they do to Sam.

The film achieved a respectable 67% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with some critics loving it and some repulsed. The Guardian critic gave it 3/5, a fresh score (only just), saying it “plays interesting variations on an all-too-familiar plot premise.” The RogerEbert critic on the other hand said “This listless genre exercise mostly plays like a film-school-spun tribute to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with some Hansel and Gretel clumsily mixed in, but without a political or philosophical foundation to stand on.”

I found the score annoyingly obvious, indulgently raising our tension level (which is its job) but a bit too perceptibly. The plot would have made a good episode of American Horror Stories, but at 107 minutes, I found it dragged. I’m not sure if it is fair to say it has no philosophical foundation – the nature of our food choices and nature’s revenge on human greed through spores, bacteria or viruses is right up to date. Moreover, Karen and Eulis are simply doing to their “guests” what farmers have always done – domesticated them and performed surgeries to make them docile – castrating bulls or destroying the frontal lobe of humans (or removing their tongues as in Motel Hell). It’s what Jeffrey Dahmer wanted to do when he drilled holes in his lovers’ skulls and poured in muriatic acid in an attempt to create living sex zombies. These guys just use a screwdriver through the eye-socket.

Anything for a steak, apparently.

Man-eaters – POSSIBLY IN MICHIGAN (Cecilia Condit, 1983)

I don’t usually review short films in this blog, only because there are so many feature-length films demanding my attention, as well as news stories filling my feeds. But this one caught my eye. It’s the story of two young women who are followed home by a cannibal, and that dynamic of the apparently vulnerable females turning against the aggressive male reminded me inexorably of a movie I reviewed recently – Fresh, in which a young woman meets and dates a charming guy who turns out to be an entrepreneurial cannibal.

This film, Possibly in Michigan, is a 1983 musical horror film by artist Cecilia Condit about two young women, Sharon and Janice, who are stalked through a shopping mall by a cannibal named Arthur. The three protagonists (there is no one else in the mall, adding to the dreamlike mood) have two things in common – violence and perfume. Perfume of course is the distillation of desire, as shown in the film Perfume. Arthur follows them home, and the victims become the attackers. Is violence the only possible response to violence? Perhaps, the film seems to suggest. But the key song line is:

“Love shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg”

All the men in the film are masked as animals – pigs, dogs – and all have an aura of violence. But the actual violence, the offer to eat the women one limb at a time, comes from an unmasked man named as “Prince Charming.” The modern monster is always indistinguishable from the “normal”.

This is not the kind of short film created in the hope of discovery and a career in blockbusters. The artist is a retired professor in her seventies, a video artist who creates feminist fairy tales, and the film itself is in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. The New York Times called it a

“brutal, surreal and darkly funny 1983 art musical”

I loved the comments on YouTube, many of which said that it was “unsettling” rather than scary. Exactly what horror should be – like dreams, horror is really a release of repressed feelings. Some of the scariest dreams don’t involve slashers or monsters, they just touch a nerve; something we have kept buried inside is, for a few unconscious seconds, brought to the surface and examined in the light.

Another comment stated:

“As someone who’s been repeatedly abused by narcissists where it felt like they were eating my very energy and being, this was extremely ‘healing’ in a weird way. Thank you.”

Cannibalism is about power, and power can be transferred, as happens in this film. But the original monster is Arthur, a faceless man wearing an expressionless mask, the very image of impersonal, brutal menace. Cannibalism bothers us because it reminds us we are made of meat like the animals we eat, but meat is, in Western cultures at least, a symbol of male power over nature, which includes and is represented by the female. Carol Adams sums this up by saying meat is “the final stage of male desire” – men eat red meat, which comes from animals, the females of whom have already had their babies, their milk and their eggs taken from them for human consumption, until they are “spent”, at which time they are minced up for ‘pet’ food. What Adams calls “feminised protein” represents the suffering of female animals for the appetite of male humans like Arthur.

The film was rediscovered by Gen Z when a 15-second clip from one of the songs was loaded onto TikTok. I recommend the film to you – the link to the clip is at the top of this blog, where I usually load trailers – this is the whole work.