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?
Last year (it seems so long ago), I reviewed the excellent Jason Krawczyk movie HE NEVER DIED with Henry Rollins playing Jack, an immortal cannibal. There were high hopes for a sequel, but they kept getting cancelled. In the meantime, a “retelling” was made by Canadian director Audrey Cummings (Darken), and this has come to be called a “sister sequel”, which is a novel term meaning a sequel, or a reboot, but with a female lead and feminist themes. Sounds contrived, but with Krawczyk writing the screenplay, Cummings in command and an outstanding performance by Olunike Adeliyi (Saw 3D, Chaos Walking) as the immortal cannibal, well, it’s a corker!
Lacey (Adeliyi) is an immortal cannibal like Jack. But Jack identifies as a human, Cain (from the Book of Genesis), cursed to walk the earth for killing his brother (a plot line used in the TV show Lucifer as well) and having a messy divorce and, to his surprise, a daughter. But Lacey’s provenance is not so clear, even at the end, when she tells us – no, actually, no spoilers. Watch it – it’s worth it.
Lacey kills people and eats them, particularly their fingers (which are very portable) and their long bones. She needs the bone marrow, she tells the cop, Godfrey (Peter MacNeill, whom you might have seen as Barry Goldwater in Mrs America). He replies that he eats marrow on toast,
She cannot tell a lie; she tells Godfrey that she killed one of the bad guys, because he was throwing a plastic bag over a woman’s head, and
But when the waiter comes, she says she doesn’t eat meat. Non-human meat, that is.
So she’s a vegetarian who eats bad humans, not an ovo-lacto vegetarian, but an anthropo-vegetarian?
The first person she kills is that guy who sends a chill down all our spines – the stalker who follows women down deserted streets and into dark alleys. He jumps on a young woman and Lacey, we are glad to see, jumps on him. And tears him to pieces.
The next victim is being streamed, playing Russian Roulette with a dog – if the bullet isn’t in the chamber when he aims at his own head, then he gets another shot at the dog, who has a roll of cash around his neck.
Being mean to dogs is not going to win friends in any movie I that I can recall. You may remember Mason Verger cutting lumps off his own face and feeding them to Will’s dogs in Hannibal 02:12, as Hannibal’s revenge for making a dog into a cannibal?
There’s a lot of cannibal studies issues to chew on (sorry) in this film. There’s the question of whether Lacey is human; of course it’s not a cannibalism movie if she is some alien entity, because the definition of cannibalism (usually) is eating someone of the same species. But this movie gives us the chance to interrogate that definition, particularly in that Lacey is open about her cannibalism from the start, but the bad guys are not. They are not interested in eating the flesh of their victims, but they are consumers.
A lot of the movie takes place in a giant, labyrinthine building with corridors and stairways leading to doors behind which screams are heard – this stuff is straight out of nightmares. The chief villains are Terrance (Noah Danby) and Meredith (Michelle Nolden). Terrence sells torture and snuff movies on the dark web, while Meredith runs a kidnapping and sex trafficking operation. They are also brother and sister, and seemingly more than that.
Foucault has a lot to say about the difference between monstrosity based on incest and that based on cannibalism. He believes that the aristocracy or ruling class are mostly incestuous monsters, while the people, the cannibals who rise up to eat the rich, are the popular monsters. This movie tends to support that paradigm; the very personable, incestuous siblings consume women (and a few men) as commodities for their businesses, while the angry superhero, Lacey, eats their henchmen. Who, we ask, are really the cannibals? Immortal cannibals do not exist (probably), but stalkers, rapists and traffickers do. Women, our mothers, sisters and daughters, do not feel safe walking the streets of the city. Who are the monsters?
Lacey’s third (and fourth) victims have a woman chained to a bed, ready to be shipped off into sexual slavery. The woman, Suzzie (Kiana Madeira), is freed and starts following Lacie around, crashes on her couch, and very nearly gets eaten – it’s a problematic friendship.
Suzzie is a victim, a self-harmer, but also a survivor. She is impressed by Lacey:
“I get taken advantage of most days. So to see a person, a woman, a woman like you twist those guys in half, is, uh…”
Lacey walks the earth hearing the screams and groans of the abused and tortured. She gets to tear a few of the abusers apart and eat them. They are always men, coke addicted men.
“Without a question, I can taste the difference. I’m also foggy in the morning.”
Suzzie wants to know what Lacie is
“Robot? Zombie? Vampire? You drink blood right?“
Lacey says no to each option, and asks, the question we should all ask, “why do I have to be a thing?”
We get a hint of Lacey’s background when we glimpse the scars that don’t heal. Were those once wings?
When Lacey is captured by Terrance, Suzzie heads into the labyrinth, witnessing the horrors of live-streamed torture, sex trafficking, and a very fancy cocktail party.
Lacey is a pessimist, she sees no way out of humanity’s endless cycle of torture and killing and eating.
Suzzie tries to console her – the world is coming to an end after all, look at global warming etc, but Lacie won’t have it.
But, without giving away the ending, we see the arrival of the Four Bikies of the Apocalypse, and what looks to me very much like a sequel coming. Perhaps Lacey will meet Jack? Let us hope.
You may remember Armin Meiwes (pronounced like the Sinatra song “I did it Meiwes”). Meiwes was a German computer technician who was into “vorephilia” (sexual attraction to eating, or being eaten by, another human). He advertised in 2001 on a fetish website called The Cannibal Café for “a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”. The only reply that seemed sincere was from a man named Jürgen Brandes, who was not really well-built or 18-30, but hey, eaters can’t be choosers.
The Meiwes case was covered in somewhat sensational terms (they kept comparing him to Hannibal Lecter, which was patently absurd) in this “copycat killers” documentary. It was also retold in a more light-hearted way in the first episode of the Australian television show Rake.
This film is not a documentary but a fictional retelling of Meiwes’ story, with the names changed, to protect whom – the non-existent?
The movie seems to need a narrator, so it makes up a fictional PhD student, Katie Armstrong (Keri Russell, who was also a student in Felicity, but a Russian spy in The Americans).
Katie is an American studying criminal psychology, who finds herself inexplicably drawn to an uncanny murder case for her thesis. Why would someone study cannibalism for a PhD thesis (I ask myself that every time I apply for an extension to my submission date). Well, Katie feels that she is “searching for something to fill that dark hole inside of her”. Same – but I use chips (“fries” for my American readers). She wants (and dreams of) “someone who can see inside of you”. Yes, cannibals can surely do that.
Anyway, Katie chooses to research the notorious German cannibal Oliver Hartwin (based on Meiwes) and his dead lover Simon Grombeck (based on Brandes), who had volunteered to let Oliver murder and eat him, an obsession that haunted him his whole life.
“Oliver Hartwin wanted to eat someone. Simon Grombeck wanted to be eaten. They were a perfect match.”
Katie becomes obsessed with the case. Sitting in the lecture theatre, the professor announces that “many cannibals have been diagnosed with schizophrenia” – but the sanity defence is too glib for her. “Why them and not us?” she wonders to her friends.
“It’s natural to wonder what separates us from them. What matters is what makes us the same.”
She studies the men’s childhoods: Simon was smitten by guilt about his mother’s suicide after she was told he was “playing doctor” with another boy. Oliver was left with an overbearing mother when the father moved out, then bullied at school and finding solace in an imaginary friend ‘Franky’. Katie goes to find Oliver’s house in Rotenburg, which is not far from where the Brothers Grimm wrote those tales that filled our childhood nightmares with monsters and cannibals. She finds and breaks in to Oliver’s house, taking endless photos, but each click is interspersed with flashbacks of Oliver with his mother and with Franky; Simon with his boyfriend and computer full of images of death, and requests to male prostitutes to “bite my thing! Bite it off!” (spoiler: it can’t be done). Are these actual flashbacks or Katie’s fantasies and rationalisations? It doesn’t really matter, because the sequence of email exchanges and the steps leading up to the slaughter are all well documented in the case of Meiwes and reproduced here.
Katie wants to understand Oliver.
“Was he so afraid to be alone? Was it his need to feel whole that drove him? Or was it just his desire for flesh, to devour something dear.”
Oliver makes a figure of a man out of something – maybe pork? He cuts off the penis and eats it voraciously, and feeds the rest to his work colleagues.
When one asks for the recipe, he smiles and says “It’s a family secret”. I was immediately reminded of Hannibal Lecter replying to the same request: “If I tell you, I’m afraid you won’t even try it”.
We see Oliver and Simon meet on the website “Cannibal Cantina”. Simon is searching for someone to butcher him. Oliver is looking for instructions on how to butcher a human, such as:
“a cage to prevent the human animal from too much movement, which only serves to lessen the quality of the meat… For best results prior to slaughter, the animal should be stunned senseless.”
We see them at a table, Simon refusing food, but drinking water to flush his system, and swallowing pills to achieve the stun.
He drinks cough medicine (BREToN, which according to Google is Tulobuterol Hydrochloride and is for “asthma exacerbation”, although the website does rather hilariously say:
“Breton Syrup may also be used for purposes not listed here”
Two bottles of that, a fistful of sleeping tablets washed down with a bottle of schnapps, and Simon is good to go. But can Oliver do it?
Well, of course he can, as Katie finds out when she contacts a cannibal website and requests a copy of Oliver’s video, which she thought was only in the hands of the police. We see the slaughter, we see Katie weeping and whimpering as she watches.
She’s been studying this case for her PhD, which takes three years (plus extensions). What did she expect?
The assumption behind movies like this is that cannibalism is disgusting, monstrous behaviour, and so we need to find explanations. But when Oliver as a child watches a woman slicing up a pig, do we ask about her pathologies?
No, we assume she is doing something normal, and Oliver has been warped into doing the same to a human. Look up slaughterhouses on Youtube and you’ll see the same thing happening, and it happens some 70 billion times a year. Just – to other animals.
But what is so sacred about humans that the deliberate killing of a pig, who wanted to live, is just ‘butchering’, while assisting Simon to fulfil his fondest wishes – to commit suicide and be eaten – is monstrous? Is it just a throwback to the old belief about being “made in the image of God”? Feel free to let me know.
When Meiwes (Oliver) started to run out of meat, he couldn’t bring himself to shop at the supermarket, so he advertised for another willing victim. But this one called the cops.
The film was supposed to be released in Germany under the name Rohtenburg, a pun on Rotenburg, where Meiwes lived, and roh, meaning “raw”. However, it was banned by a German court in March 2006 for infringing the personal rights of Armin Meiwes. It was released throughout the rest of the world, but not in Germany until three years later.
The film achieved only 37% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is very slow moving, the sombre music gets a bit annoying (the Craig Armstrong piece from Romeo and Juliet is beautiful, but Romeo and Juliet is not really a cannibal story – Titus Andronicus might have worked better), and the fact that everyone in Germany speaks to everyone else in perfect English but with German accents (including train announcements) gets irritating. Why can’t audiences read subtitles?
Trigger warning, the real Meiwes: This website claims it has actual leaked stills from Meiwes’ video. If you don’t like pictures of chopped up humans, maybe skip the link. They look fake to me, but this Reddit reader swears they are real.
Meiwes is still in jail in Germany, not for cannibalism, which is still not a crime, but for murder, which is pretty absurd since Brandes wanted to die, and was in fact obsessed with being slaughtered and eaten. If anything, Meiwes is guilty of assisting a suicide. We know so much about the case because Meiwes was very open in describing what happened. He believed, and still believes, that he did nothing wrong. It seems that the only thing Meiwes can see as a moral failing is not the fact that he ate human meat, but that he ate meat. He is now a Greenie and a vegetarian:
Bavaria Radio reported that another inmate said Meiwes has sworn off meat in his new role as an environmentalist. “He finds the idea of factory farming as distasteful as his crime was,” said the convict. “He now sticks to vegetarian dishes.”
You can watch the Director’s commentary here, and a documentary about the real case here.
Let’s get this out of the way – there is nudity. Lots of it and throughout the movie. Well, it’s set in pre-colonial Brazil, and the Indigenous peoples did not bother with a lot of clothes, so it’s historically accurate. To ensure authenticity, the actors and the crew were all naked, so that nudity would become natural. If that bothers you, please read the blog but skip the movie.
While it was refreshingly authentic, the nudity was also a problem. First, because the authenticity is somewhat diminished, as The New York Times critic pointed out, by the fact that the natives are “middle-class white Brazilians… stripped down and reddened up for the occasion”. Secondly, the film was refused entry to the Cannes Film Festival because of all the swinging dicks. In Brazil, the censors were eventually persuaded that the natives indeed did walk around naked, but remained vehemently opposed to the nude Frenchman, a telling comment on the racist distinction that the film was intending to expose.
So, the plot in a nutshell: the French and the Portuguese are fighting to control the rich lands of South America. Each has allied with local tribes who are at constant war with each other, often involving (so the European narrative goes) capturing and eating each other’s warriors. The Tupinambás are allied with the French, while the Tupiniquins are allied with the Portuguese. The Frenchman of the title escapes his own command, is captured by the Portuguese, and is then captured by the Tupinambás, who are allies of the French, but believe him to be Portuguese, so intend to eat him. Got all that? – there will be a test.
Tupi custom involved bringing the captive into the community, feeding and homing him, and even finding him a wife, then eventually killing him in a ceremony that will allow them to capture his essence, bravery, speed, and so on.
This wide-spread belief about the Tupi comes from a European who was captured but then escaped in 1554, came back to Europe and wrote a book. His name was Hans Staden, and he was actually a German who was trying to get to India. But since it was the French who were invading South America at the time, the director changed his nationality.
De Bry’s engravings of Tupi cannibalism were “eaten up” by the Europeans.
Tupi cannibalism has a whole literature explaining it or denying it – William Arens claimed the ‘evidence’ was mostly based on Staden’s account, which contained several contradictions, and had been continually retold as if it had happened to new re-tellers. Other anthropologists such as Rene Girard explained Tupi cannibalism as a seamless explanation for the way culture and religion have evolved. The universal violence of the human species is redirected toward the outsider, who is taken into the tribe, but remains foreign enough to be killed as a scapegoat, to release the social pressure that would lead to endless internal revenge feuds. For many, Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat under this theory, even to the extent of insisting that his followers eat and drink wine and bread transubstantiated into his “blood and body” in the Eucharist ritual.
For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro proposed a ‘post-structural anthropology’ in his book Cannibal Metaphysics. De Castro sought to ‘decolonise’ anthropology by challenging the increasingly familiar view that it was ‘exoticist and primitivist from birth’, denying that cannibalism even existed, and so transferred the conquered peoples from the cannibalistic villains of the West into mere fictions of colonialism. Arguing that the ‘Other’ is just like us is to deny any separate identity and to return the focus of anthropology to that which interests us: ourselves. Rather than deny the existence of cannibalism, which allows a reclassification of the Amerindian peoples as like the colonialists, de Castro examines the details of Tupinamba cannibalism, which was ‘a very elaborate system for the capture, execution, and ceremonial consumption of their enemies’. This alternative view of Amerindian culture rejects the automatic assumption of the repugnance of cannibalism, which serves to either confront it or deny its existence.
Well, that’s pretty much where this film planned to go. Pereira dos Santos challenges the Eurocentric perspective which insists on a superior civilisation overcoming a primitive one. It is true that Tupi civilisation was destroyed by the slavery, smallpox and slaughter of the Portuguese who, the film tells us at the end, also wiped out their allies the Tupiniquins. The Tupi peoples are now a remnant, confined to small areas and currently being decimated by COVID-19.
But the chief, in the killing ceremony which promises the Frenchman’s body parts to his relatives (his wife will get his neck), tells the story as a mirror image:
“I am here to kill you. Because your people have killed many of ours, and eaten them.”
So the film asks: who were/are the cannibals? It does not fully succeed in telling this story, because the audience gets involved with the Frenchman’s story, instead of his captors. Pereira dos Santos lamented that the public:
“…identified with the French, with the coloniser. All spectators lamented the death of the hero. They did not understand that the hero was the indigenous, not the white, so much were they influenced by the adventures of John Wayne.”
Nonetheless, the binary of the colonised and the powerless occupied victims is so deeply embedded in our cultural stories that it is refreshing to see this mirror image version, where the indigenous win the battle, if not the war.
I’m publishing this blog on Sunday 6 September, which is fathers’ day in Australia and New Zealand, but hardly anywhere else (e.g. it’s June in the US, UK, Canada, China, etc). Well, turns out there are several fathers’ days, which is fair, because there are several different kinds of father.
The father in this movie is a keen family man, and also a cannibal. The patriarchal symbolic order of this family is: the father catches them, the mother (or daughter) slaughters and cooks them.
If the prey weren’t human, some might consider that “normal”.
This time last year (on father’s day down under) I blogged about a Mexican film translated to the same as this one: We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay). Now, we all know that American remakes of “foreign” (i.e. non-American) films can be disastrous (remember Godzilla?) and, to be fair, Jim Mickle, the director, did not like the idea of remaking the excellent Mexican version just so American audiences did not have to read subtitles. But he and co-screenwriter Nick Damici came up with a new angle. In the Mexican film, the father dies, causing family conflict over the role of cannibal patriarch; in this one, it’s the mother that dies, and the children must decide whether to follow the tradition and authority of their father, or follow their own paths.
Frank Parker (Bill Sage) is left widowed when his wife starts shaking and bleeding from the mouth, then collapses, falls into a ditch and drowns. She has just finished shopping at the general store where, through the pouring rain, a butcher carries a dead pig from a truck marked “Fleischman’s” (German for meat man) – the pig’s corpse is cut up and the flesh is minced.
What they’re doing to the pig would usually be considered unremarkable, except that, knowing this is a cannibal movie, we expect the same thing will happen to humans somewhere around the end of Act I.
This is an ultra-religious, white family in the rainy Catskills, and everything they do is avowed to be God’s idea. The daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner from Ozark) explain to their little brother that he can’t have his cereal, because the family is fasting.
Fasting is usually followed by a ceremonial feast, which this family calls “Lamb Day”.
It is a family tradition passed down from 1781 – we get a flashback via a family journal which is handed to Iris – it was started by their ancestor Alyce Parker (Odeya Rush from Goosebumps) when her father fed them their uncle in one of those pioneering cannibalism events with which American history is so replete (think the Jamestown “starving time” several decades earlier, or the Donner Party several decades later). The Parker descendants have been cannibals ever since.
Their religious tradition requires eating human flesh on special occasions; while the wider community’s ritual anthropocentric carnivorous sacrifice requires the (far more regular) consumption of other mammals, such as the pig being carried through the store.
Eating meat requires the “deanimalisation” of the chosen victim, often by dividing the carcass up into named components like “spare ribs” or “rump”. The Parkers work the same way. Like a cooking show, we witness them “process” the carcass, then cook and consume the flesh; only worth filming because we know (or willingly suspend our disbelief) that this is human meat.
Rene Girard says we maintain social amity by the sacrifice of a surrogate victim, a symbolic consumption of our violent impulses – we eat an outsider instead of warring with each other. For most people, it’s a non-human animal; for the Parkers, it’s whoever is unlucky enough to get a flat tyre near their property. In stark contrast, the Parker’s neighbour Marge (Kelly McGillis from Witness) is vegetarian, and her offers of help to the family are variously accepted or brutally rebuffed, depending on whether it’s Lamb Day. Marge gets a hint that cannibalism, extreme carnivorism, runs in the family when she steps in to nurse the sick little brother. Has he inherited the family hunger?
Cannibalism movies often cling to the Wendigo hypothesis – that there is a metaphysical force that drives the eaters, once having tried human flesh, to crave ever increasing amounts of it – to need it for their very survival. A classic of this genre is Antonia Bird’s film Ravenous. In the original Mexican version of this film, the family believe they need their cannibal ceremony to survive. It’s the same in this version, with the father convinced that when he gets shaky and his mouth bleeds, this means God is telling him it’s time for Lamb Day.
But there’s a modern twist. The town’s (apparently only) doctor (Michael Parks) performs an autopsy on the mother, which reveals that her ailments were more closely related to the disease kuru, which killed hundreds of Fore people in Papua New Guinea and was believed to have been caused by eating the brains and spinal columns of dead relatives in funerary rites.
Then the doc’s dog finds a human bone washed downstream by the floods, and he begins to suspect what happened to his own missing daughter.
Kuru is a prion disease, similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow disease”), and is often quoted as a reason why we shouldn’t eat people, in case they have abnormal prion proteins, although that argument is no more convincing than the one against eating cows in case they have BSE (safest option for avoiding spongiform encephalopathy is: go vegan). At any rate, this family have been engaging in cannibalism for some 240 years, believing they are doing God’s will, and hey, who invented kuru anyway?
The father’s day feast at the end of the movie is spectacular, and the girls drive off with the diary from 1781, unaware of the kuru diagnosis, and presumably still believing in the necessity to obey God’s will and eat people occasionally. Honestly, it wouldn’t be the stupidest thing that’s ever been blamed on the deity.
You know you’re on a good film when the trailer promises “ultimate terror so fearful that no additional scenes can be shown in this preview”. I mean, you have to watch it after hearing that, right?
Actually, DEATH LINE is a really great picture, with the fabulous Donald Pleasance as the London police inspector making a complete hash of his investigation. Terence Pettigrew in his book British Film Character Actors says Pleasence has “the kind of piercing stare which lifts enamel off saucepans.”
The polite British title Death Line was a little too tame for American grindhouse cinema, and it was retitled Raw Meat and disguised as a zombie movie in the USA. The plot involves the last descendants of a dozen railway construction workers who were trapped in a cave-in in 1892 between Russell Square and Museum stations, and have survived in the abandoned tunnels, cut off from civilisation – the last survivors now live by catching and eating commuters on the Underground platforms.
Fortunately, the British are famously reticent on public transport and, once seated, would not even look up from their papers if someone was being eaten next to them. However, a couple of students find a man collapsed on the station steps and report him to the police, but he’s gone when they investigate. Of course, horror movies are morality tales, and the man is a VIP, an important civil servant, who has just come from a strip club and then propositioned a woman on the Russell Street tube station platform. Cannibals, in movies, tend to eat rude people.
Demented cannibals, cut off from civilisation and preying on unsuspecting travellers, hark back to the story of Sawney Bean and his incestuous family, who allegedly murdered and cannibalised more than a thousand men, women and children in 16th century Scotland. Of course, the idea goes back much further than that into antiquity, when anyone outside the centres of civilisation was assumed to be a monster, and probably a cannibal. Maps in the age of exploration would simply have the word “cannibals” written on any parts not yet charted. It’s an evergreen trope, seen over and over in films like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and the interminable number of Wrong Turn movies (we’ll get to those one day).
Being a British movie, it’s replete with class struggle. Donald Pleasance (no stranger to horror, having been in five Halloween movies and Prince of Darkness) is Inspector Calhoun, who feels he is lord of the manor in his neighbourhood, bullies his Detective Sergeant (Norman Rossington, the Beatles’ manager ‘Norm’ in Hard Day’s Night), drinks interminable cups of tea, and hates the students on sight.
Calhoun is told to stick to his greengrocers and dentists and leave the investigation of the rich and powerful to MI5, by the elegant figure of Christopher Lee (Dracula and, yes, Saruman from Lord of the Rings!) who reportedly took the part because he admired Pleasance and wanted to be in a film with him, but then they never appeared together, due to their height difference. The scene in which they clash, though, is a highlight of the film.
The cannibal/monster, credited as “The Man”, (a masterful performance by Hugh Armstrong) is dirty, diseased and aphasic (unable to speak – his only vocabulary is “Mind the door” which is what you hear interminably on the London Underground trains), but he is able to express a world of different emotions with these three words, including anger, enquiry, soothing and sorrow. He also has septicaemic plague, which for some reason does not feature much in the plot. Marlon Brando was going to take the role originally, but pulled out for family reasons.
The Man’s first appearance is when he has freshly killed the important guy and is trying unsuccessfully to revive the second-last cannibal – the last female of his clan. He finds a fob watch on his victim and places it tenderly on her chest, as he has done for all the other dead cannibals who are strewn around the abandoned station. His weeping and moaning, his gentle stroking and rough shaking, the blanket he wraps her in as he weeps, his despair and sudden, futile hope that she is still alive – well, it reminded me of King Lear, and also Boris Karloff in Frankenstein.
Foucault in Abnormal : Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975 spoke of the “popular monster” – the cannibal who eats the rich, as happened quite a lot during the French Revolution. Foucault specifies two kinds of monster: “the cannibal (the popular monster) and the incestuous (the princely monster)“. The princely monster, the sexually deviant civil servant, is eaten by the popular monster, “The Man”. Yet this film challenges the paradigm, because The Man, the popular monster, is also the prince of his domain (the abandoned tunnels) and presumably the product of the incestuous unions of his predecessors among the descendants of the construction workers. He is both kinds of monster, and still totally relatable and sympathetic – perhaps the most human of all the characters.
Of course, it is the rich who eat the poor most of the time, and so this story fits into the reality of class warfare. The film critic Robin Wood divided horror films into progressive or reactionary, depending on whether the monster is a sympathetic character or not – on that basis, this film about downtrodden and abandoned workers taking revenge on the hierarchies of snobbery above them is, well, revolutionary. The Man may eat the rich guy in the bowler hat (and a few maintenance workers), but he cannot win that war, mainly because the rich don’t take trains.
Indeed, the real monster in this film is the Underground train system with its interminable corridors and flights of steps, its dark, satanic tunnels and its squalid carriages, imbued with despair. Train stations, the dark tunnels and the impersonal screeching of the train itself are all terrifying.
The cinematography by Alex Thompson, who later shot Alien 3, is outstanding, and the film scored a very creditable 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one reviewer stating:
“Yes, it’s a cannibal film, but it’s also a startlingly tender film about a literal underclass abandoned by the world above, a story that roils in class division.”