Cannibalism in the Ukraine: GHOUL (Petr Jákl, 2015)

Ghoul is a “found footage” movie, a postmodern affectation that pretends it is a documentary that has been ‘found’ after some gruesome disaster. The genre was popularised (although not originated) by the Blair Witch Project in 1999 which, like Ghoul, had young film-makers heading off to investigate the paranormal, and wishing they hadn’t. One of its most famous antecedents was Cannibal Holocaust in 1980, which was purportedly a documentary about missing documentary makers, and was (purportedly) believable enough to lead to a court case in which the actors had to be produced to prove they had not in fact been killed in some sort of snuff movie. This was of course great publicity for the film, as was the fact that it had been banned in several jurisdictions. The very first film in the genre was probably Punishment Park in 1971, in which anti-Vietnam War demonstrators are supposedly dropped in the desert and hunted by Nixon’s cops.

The main point of interest in this film (the found footage itself being unoriginal and totally preposterous) is the fact that it is set in The Ukraine which, at the time of writing, is again suffering from decisions taken in Moscow. The “Holodomor” (literally “murder by starvation”) was an event that took place in the Ukraine in 1932-3, during which the population was deliberately decimated by the collectivisation of the farms and seizure of food stores. As starvation set in, corpses began to disappear, and the government response was simply to put up signs saying, “Eating dead children is barbarism”. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, the history of Nazi and Soviet mass murders between the wars, examines the incidents of cannibalism in the Ukraine and Poland, and concludes “With starvation will come cannibalism”. When there is no bread or other meat, human flesh becomes the currency. Snyder describes several reports, including an orphanage in Kharkiv where the older children began eating the youngest, who himself joined in, “tearing strips from himself and eating them, he ate as much as he could.”

Pretty difficult to invent a story worse than such a reality. So to add some spice, we have in Ghoul an amateur film crew from America who are fascinated by cannibalism (as, apparently, are very many people: this blog is currently receiving over 10,000 views per month – THANK YOU for reading!) They are researching evidence of cannibalism during the Holodomor, as part of a planned television series on cannibals of the twentieth century. They are conducting interviews in Kyiv of elderly survivors of that time, but they are also hoping to interview a man named Boris who was arrested rather more recently for eating a colleague, confessed to the crime under hypnosis, but then was released, as the body was never found. He said that he was made to do it. By whom, they wonder.

The crew are taken to a local psychic/witch, who tells them that paranormal entities were behind that murder. The crew dismisses this as superstition, getting drunk and getting her to perform a séance involving a pentagram, in which they mockingly summon the ghost of Andrei Chikatilo, a notorious serial killer and cannibal who killed and partially consumed dozens of women and children in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The next morning is full of strange and uncanny events, but the crew are unable to leave for help. The Ukrainian psychic tries but fails to evict Chikatilo’s presence, with no luck: he’s back now, and killing again. The idea is that Chikatilo forced Boris, their reluctant interviewee, to kill and eat his victim. He possesses (as in takes over the body of) a cat, then Boris, who proceeds to chase the young filmmakers, screaming, through various dark, gothic passages.

WTF? (Or що за біса as they say in The Ukraine). The film’s poster (below) says “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS”. But where is the connection between Stalin’s attempted genocide in the 1930s and the ghost of a cannibal who had been active in Russia in the 1970s and 80s and was executed by a bullet behind his ear in 1994? Well, turns out Chikatilo had a brother that disappeared during the famine, and his ever-loving mummy told him the brother had been kidnapped and eaten. This may have just been to make him behave better (spoiler: didn’t work very well). So anyway, he decided to become a cannibal, specialising in small children. A real piece of work, and not one you’d want to reawaken from the dead.

I find hand-held filming annoying even in the hands of an expert, and this lot are supposed to be a bit sloppy, so the picture is jumping all over the place, to the point of seasickness. Reminds me of my dad’s Super-8 home movies (although he didn’t have a cannibal ghost to film, just bored kids). If you are patient enough to put up with the soundtrack (annoying bangs meant to scare you) and the shaky camera, the concept of a massacre being presented through the dispassionate eye of a video camera is interesting, in that it could be interpreted as the way the universe indifferently watches the suffering of its animals as they eat each other or, more immediately, the way the world watches as Russia tries to cannibalise Ukraine.

But besides the irritating camera work and the noisy things that go bump in the night, the plot is absurd – you have a historical tragedy, an imaginary murderer and the supposed ghost of a real murderer, who is somehow able to take over cats, people (including during sex) and of course kill people. The whole thing is frankly a bit of a yawn. It somehow managed to get to 22% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the LA Times critic summing it up well:

“Ghoul” can’t decide whether it should be about cannibals, serial killers, ghosts or demons. The found footage trivializes rather than reflects the horrific events that serve as the film’s basis.

According to IMDB, Ghoul was the highest grossing horror in Czech history. It also won the Vicious Cat Award at the Grossmann film and wine festival. Not sure if that will impress you or not.

The full movie was available on YouTube last time I checked, but all the dialog is in Czech and Ukrainian. Even if you speak both fluently, I wouldn’t bother.

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