I must admit a bit of a soft spot for road movies, although they have been a little overdone in the cannibalism genre (how many Wrong Turn, Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chain Saw, etc sequels and prequels have there been so far?) But this one seems fresh, mostly due to undeniable talent of the two stars. Caylee Cowan is Penelope, a “doe-eyed femme fatale” who effortlessly channels Marilyn Monroe with a blend of innocence and raw sensuality, and chisel-jawed Billy Budinich, perhaps himself channelling James Dean, is Frank, a man who has lived his life by logic and rules and suddenly breaks out of his self-limitations to live life for himself, but only because he falls for Penelope.
Frank’s world of law and rationality is shattered when he sees his wife having sex with her cross-training instructor, and heads out; he’s not sure where, just heading west. He stops at a strip club where he is taken in by Penelope – pole dancing to Marc Bolan’s song Cosmic Dancer hauntingly performed by Valerie June:
Is it wrong to understand
The fear that dwells inside a man?
What’s it like to be a loon?
I liken it to a balloon
Penelope gets her hands on Frank’s credit card on the pretence that she is willing to abscond with him, but then she has a row with the club owner, played by Sean Patrick Flanery, who also directed and wrote the screenplay (he’s a man of many talents!) When Frank intervenes in Penelope’s fight with the boss, she goes on the run with him, and their fate is sealed. When Frank asks Penelope if she has ever seen the classic 1991 road movie Thelma and Louise, we know this is most likely not going to end well.
There are plots and sub-plots and even a quite unnecessary Greek Chorus in the shape of a nurse (Sonya Eddy from General Hospital) reading Frank’s diary over a brain-dead body, but let’s just get to the cannibalism, because that’s what keeps this blog rolling along each week.
It’s a road movie, so there are lots of cars on roads, and cars stopped on roads, with weirdo’s peering in at the drivers.
The first face is Cleve (Brian Maillard, who’s also done a fair bit of acting, directing and writing) – Cleve is a devout follower of a cannibal cult which collects travellers off the road or in their motel. He appears at first as a whack job, but turns out to have a conscience, of sorts.
The second face at a window is the local Sheriff (Kevin Dillon from Platoon and Entourage) who tries to warn Frank and Penelope against stopping on that track of road. This warning, before the blood starts flowing, is a regular trope for cannibal films, although it’s usually a gas station dude who is dismissed as plumb crazy – e.g. the Wes Craven classic The Hills Have Eyes. In that film, the cannibals were mutants who had been too close to a nuclear bomb-testing site, in Texas Chain Saw Massacre they were unemployed slaughterhouse workers. In The Farm, they are animal liberation activists revenging the depredations humans commit on farmed animals. Every cannibal has a motive. In this film, the Sheriff tells them that:
“You’re about to hit a stretch of about thirty miles with no cell phone towers, and no gas for about forty miles after that. You may want to keep a close eye on that gauge. I mean, you can get gas in Quicksilver, about twelve miles in, but get in and get out of there. Mercury got in the water from that mine, and left them Appalachian transplants bat shit crazy.”
So what do our romantic couple do? Why, head straight for the bat shit crazy Appalachian transplants in Quicksilver, looking for a motel room in which they can practice all the sexual positions Frank has promised to perform. Of course, they could just pay attention to the Sheriff who gave them good advice (while drooling over Penelope), but then it would be a very short movie.
On the way, they run across Chisos (Johnathon Schaech, another writer and actor, you may have seen him in How to Make an American Quilt). He puts his face into the car, pretending he needs a lift, but Penelope turns him down. She can see he is up to no good, even with a name that everyone else pronounces with reverence (as in Jesus) but which she persists in saying as “Cheese Sauce”! This is actually quite a funny film, and Caylee Cowan is a comedy genius.
Chisos is the leader of the cannibal cult, and when they meet up at the motel, explains it all to them, in the standard (I’ll tell you everything Mr Bond/Batman/Spiderman since you won’t be alive to tell anyone else) method of horror movie explication. He explains that his grandfather owned the biggest mercury mine in the world, in which he was leading a prison work-release program for a whole bunch of felons – “murderers, rapists, all kinds of filth”. His grandfather survived a cave-in by “eating those sinners, organs and all.” He and his clan are now “Appalachian sin eaters at our core!”
Travellers are tested for their virtue, and eaten for their sins. He shows them his leg, which has a crucifix shaped scar. Yep, he’s been snacking on his own sins. What sin has a man like Cheese Sauce committed? Well, he’s been at it with Cleve’s wife, plus he really wants kids.
And he has decided he really wants those kids with Penelope, so he tosses Frank into a pit with unclimbable sides. There are corpses in there, people who have died in it previously, and there is plenty of water, so Frank won’t die of thirst; but he has to make a choice: he can starve or “take a bite and become one of us.”
The rest of the movie is a suspense story – will Frank die or become a cannibal? Will Penelope agree to become “a vessel” for Chisos’ progeny? What’s the story with her old boss from the strip club, who is still plenty sore at them?
The answers to all these questions you won’t hear from me, because that would be spoiler territory, and you really should see this movie. Admittedly, the critics who have reviewed it so far gave it a cumulative “rotten” score of 25% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the audience rating was a “fresh” 83%. So you’ll have to judge for yourselves. I thought the plot was good, the actors were great, the cars scintillating (if you’re interested in that sort of thing) and the soundtrack outstanding. The cannibalism is not gore based (well, just a bit) but more along the lines of abjection, watching the cult members tucking in to their sacred meal – the flesh of a woman who had admitted to abandoning her children years before.
The Eucharist, as I understand it, is the eating of the blood and body of Jesus to cleanse the sinner of their sin. Chisos has turned this on its head – cut out the middle man and just eat the sinner. Makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re a cult with a lot of mercury in your water supply.