Of all the (sometimes) wonderful cannibal movies and shows I have reviewed in this blog, my personal favourite is still The Silence of the Lambs with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal the Cannibal. It was the first film I reviewed on this blog (does that mean I liked the others less each time? Not at all), and interestingly, it does not actually feature any cannibalism, although we hear a lot about it.
So I was pretty chuffed to find that The Silence of the Lambs is the favourite horror movie of the State of Utah, according to the Horrornews.net website. They used information from Rotten Tomatoes and Google Trends, and partnered with Mindnet Analytics, to analyse how interest in horror movies varied in each US state and the District of Columbia (DC). The results are presented on their website:
This survey covers all horror, whereas in this blog we concentrate on the cannibal, so please let us know your favourite cannibal film (or TV show, but if it’s a series, your favourite episode) either in the comments at the bottom of the page (after a few suggestions) or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll let you know the results.
I expected this to be either graphically violent or else painfully dull, but it was neither. It is quite different from any cannibal movie I have reviewed on this blog.
Deathmaker (German: Der Totmacher) is a re-enactment of the transcripts of the interrogation of the serial killer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann who killed and ate parts of at least 24 homeless boys between the end of the Great War in 1918 and his eventual capture and execution in 1924-5.
Haarmann became known as the “Vampire of Hanover” for killing his victims with a “love bite” that went right through their windpipes. He made a living selling the victims’ clothes and flesh (marketed as “pork”) on the black market to grateful customers who were barely surviving the collapse of the German economy after the war.
There are no flashbacks or re-enactments of violent incidents, just three men sitting in a room, and only two of them speak. Imagine it as a play that has been recorded to film. Or think Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre mixed with In Treatment. The great German film maker Ulli Lommel had made a re-enactment of Haarmann’s killing spree some twenty years earlier called The Tenderness of Wolves (Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe). The two films are a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a cannibal, although the characterisation is so different as to be almost unrecognisable
Almost the whole film is set in one room in an asylum, with psychology professor Ernst Schultze (Jurgen Hentsch) interviewing mass-murderer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann (Götz George, who won best actor at Venice Film Festival for this role) to determine if he is sane, or at least lucid enough to be tried and executed. Except for entrances and exits and the occasional visiting doctor, no other people are present, and the only other member of the cast is the stenographer (Pierre Franckh) – whose notes of the meetings this film used as its script – he is variously terrified, fascinated and sympathetic to Haarmann, all depicted entirely in his face, as he never says a word.
The Director, Romuald Karmakar, is known for producing thoughtful films that often follow perpetrators who are responsible for their own downfall. The professor asks unexpected questions about maths or geology, while Fritz plays the clown, but as the questions close in on his life and sexuality, he becomes more lucid, trying to justify his actions, and trying to win the sympathy of his interrogator. The professor has full control over the hulking Fritz, who is soon describing exactly how he killed the boys and young men during sex, with graphic details of how he dismembered them and disposed of the body parts.
“Took out the bowels. And threw them in a bucket. Dumped them in the toilet. It’s all rumpled up. I cut them up and threw them away.”
Haarmann’s boyfriend, Hans, would acquire the boys, sometimes just because he wanted their clothing, and knew he would get it after Fritz finished with them.
The professor, unlike modern psychs, pours scorn on Fritz, contemptuously condemning his homosexuality and violence and dismissing his claim that he will be allowed into Heaven to meet his mother. Would Haarmann have acted as he did if his homosexuality had been accepted? We can’t know that, but we do know that German laws against homosexuality were made more draconian after Haarmann’s case in 1924.
The boys won’t be able to testify against him to the heavenly judge, Haarmann says, because he caved their heads in, and he demonstrates how he did it, smashing his fist into his hand repeatedly.
He laughs, he boasts, he complains, and eventually he cries as he realises that his rampages, which he at first maintained were not his fault, will surely have him condemned to the guillotine.
The subject of cannibalism is barely mentioned, even though that is about all that Haarmann is remembered for now.
The professor tells him there is plenty of evidence that Fritz fried shrimps in human fat, made bouillon, sausages and brawn
We are told that he stripped the flesh from his victims and sold their clothes, and finally we get a quick reference to “Haarmann’s sausages”, almost as a double entendre joke. The ethical debate between the professor and Fritz is not about cannibalism but about the families who lost their sons, and his response each time is that they were just “joy-boys”.
The basis of exploitation, killing and eating others is objectification. A cow or pig can be “just an animal” and a homeless boy can be “just a joy-boy”. Just words, but powerful enough to allow the most despicable acts, as they strip all moral value from the intended victim. Haarmann claimed he did not remember killing them, they would just be lying next to him, dead, next morning. And of course, once they were dead, they were no longer “just joy-boys” and were instead now just meat. Our ability to objectify does not necessarily stop at the species line.
The film received several awards and nominations from the Deutscher Filmpreis in 1996 including Best Feature Film, Best Direction and Best Actor. Götz George is simply superb in the role, for which he also won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival. Deathmaker was chosen as Germany’s official submission to the 69th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, but did not manage to receive a nomination.
It is not a film for everyone, both because of the descriptions of the dismemberment of human bodies, as well as the fact that, if you don’t speak German, following the dialog in subtitles can be wearing for some people. But it is quite brilliant, and if you can’t find it on a streaming service, it is available on DVD at Amazon. Well worth the effort.
This is a cannibal film, also a Western and a horror movie, so it has something for (almost) everyone. Although a low budget work by a first-time film-maker, the film has been widely recognised for the excellence of the script and direction, and the characterisation by a team of top actors. And the graphic nature of its climax.
Bone Tomahawkis set in a small town in the last days of the Old West, a frontier society held together by a sheriff, Franklin Hunt, played by Kurt Russell (who managed to fit in a starring role in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight that year as well), with an understated calm and a brooding power. A drifter comes into town and Hunt shoots him when he tries to run from the saloon, necessitating Samantha (Lili Simmons from Banshee), who practices medicine, to treat him in the jail. She, the drifter and a deputy are all abducted during the night – the only evidence is an arrow in the wall, and a dead African-American stable boy. Who could have done that?
We assume Indians, but a Native American they trust, “the Professor” (Zahn McClarnon, from Longmire and Fargo), tells them these are not the “Indians”, or at least the ones with whom the American invaders have been at war. They are a tribe with no name, no language (i.e. less than human). The local Indians call them “troglodytes”, cave dwellers,
The Sheriff, his “back-up deputy” and comic relief, Chicory (Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under and Shape of Water), the mysterious Indian-fighter Brooder (Matthew Fox from Party of Five and Lost) and Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson from Fargo) with a broken leg that is fast turning gangrenous, set out in pursuit. Most of the film, until the climax when they meet the trogs, is more a road movie than a Western or a cannibal horror film. It’s four cowboys against the elements. On the long ride out to the land of the trogs, they come across two Mexicans and Brooder kills them, suspecting that they are scouts for a bandit gang. Chicory explains
“Mr Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of manifest destiny”.
Manifest destiny was a widely held cultural ideology that proposed that the culturally and racially superior American settlers were destined to expand across North America. Inferior, backward, savage peoples were meant to get out of the way, or be exterminated. Even the horses were supposed to be racially intolerant. When the rest of the gang comes in the night and steals their horses, Brooder is incredulous that his horse would allow a Mexican to ride her.
Discrimination, be it racism, speciesism, ageism, ableism or any other, is never all-encompassing. Most racists don’t hate everyone, or at least not equally. The settlers in areas like the old West hated the ‘Indians’ for defending their lands, which the white men wanted. Even in the era when this movie is set, sometime in the late nineteenth century, some Native Americans like the Professor were accepted as, if not equals, at least semi-civilised negotiating partners, while others, who maintained their resistance, were considered bloodthirsty savages, and portrayed as killers, rapists and sometimes cannibals.
In this film, this second group is distilled into a people so inhuman that they do not even have language, which is often the first thing quoted in defining the supposed gulf between humans and other animals. They are accused of raping and killing their mothers and, worse yet, abducting and raping white women, requiring the gallant sacrifice of heroes such as depicted here. One of the party, Brooder, boasts of having killed more Indians than all the rest of the town put together. When pressed, he admits that not all were men, as Indian women and children can also handle an arrow or a spear, and he tells of losing his mother and sisters to an Indian massacre when he was ten. For Brooder, white vs red, civilised vs savage is no different to good vs evil. He is an absolute racist, but for what he considers good reasons.
Yet even these less-than-human troglodytes are racists – they left the black stable-boy behind, because “they don’t eat Negroes”. No explanation is given, and it makes no sense since, under the skin (of whatever colour) we are all red meat. Yet their refusal to eat black people paints the white supremacism of the others as less vile somehow – look, these brutal savages must be exterminated – and they’re racists too, so it’s OK for us to discriminate against them.
Of course, those we wish to destroy must be dehumanised, vilified, and preferably accused of vile crimes, of which cannibalism usually seems to be the leading contender. But there is little evidence of Native Americans indulging in the flesh of their victims, whereas only fifty years before the demise of the Old West, the Donner Party had tucked into the remains of the members of their party who had died in the bitter winter snows of the Sierra Nevada in 1846-47. When they ran out of corpses, they murdered and ate their Native American guides.
The film is written and directed by S. Craig Zahler who also wrote the music with Jeff Herriott. It is a tour de force, a modern film that manages to bring to life the Western, a genre that, like its heroes, does not ever seem to die. American Frontier scholar Matthew Carter points out that this story is
“informed by one of white America’s oldest and most paranoiac of racist-psychosexual myths: the captivity narrative”
In these narratives, civilised society is threatened by an evil outside force, and something precious (usually a woman) is stolen and must be recovered. In Bone Tomahawk, traditional narratives are challenged to some extent – the women are not passive, Brooder’s prejudice is challenged, the savages are motivated by the drifters desecrating their burial ground. But the heroes are white men, the story is told from their perspective, the fear of the outsider or alien (remember this is only a few years after 9/11) offers a stark binary which equates civilised with good and savage with evil. It is the myth that was used to justify manifest destiny and the genocide of the Native American tribes. The trogs are barely human – they are covered in white mud which disguises their humanity and they have whistles implanted in their throats instead of having voices, so they cannot be engaged in rational discussion. We see a prisoner scalped and then cut open while alive, to establish their monstrosity.
Their own women, we see at the end, are heavily pregnant, blinded and their limbs removed, so they are simply breeding machines for more warriors, a reference, intentional or not, to the way anti-Islamic propaganda depicts Moslem women as blinded by fundamentalist controls and their burqa.
But perhaps the Professor is the most interesting character. In Westerns, there were good Indians who were assimilated into the dominant culture, often assisted in spreading ‘civilisation’ (think Tonto in The Lone Ranger).
Then there were the evil Indians – the outsiders, vicious and merciless, uninterested in accommodating the invaders on their land, and often (although not always) portrayed as cannibals.
This is one of those horror flicks that’s a bit hard to categorise. It’s an Italian “cannibal boom” film in the tradition of Ruggero Deodato’s classic Cannibal Holocaust which came out the same year, as well as earlier efforts such as Deodato’s Last Cannibal World, Joe D’Amato’s Black Emanuelle films, and the one that started the Italian cannibal boom, Umberto Lenzi’s The Man from Deep River. But Antonio Margheriti, using his alias Anthony M. Dawson, turned the genre on its head. The cannibal boom movies were usually set in the jungle, where tribes of primitive savages killed and ate Western interlopers, who richly deserved their fate. In other words, the archetypal colonialist cannibal story with a post-colonial twist (revenge!)
This one starts in the jungle too, but it’s a jungle in Vietnam, and the Western interlopers are American soldiers prosecuting the disastrous and eventually futile Vietnam War. A squad led by super-macho Norman Hopper (John Saxon from Nightmare on Elm Street) lands in a village and torches the place, after getting blown up by a dog (yeah, it gets worse). They find some POWs captured from their squad, Tommy Thompson (Tony King, who is now head of security for the hip-hop group Public Enemy) and Charlie Bukowski – a intertextual reference to the poet Charles Bukowski I guess, although the link seems tenuous. Bukowski (the soldier, not the poet) is played by John Morghen from Cannibal Ferox, an actor who pretty much always dies horribly in every movie he’s been in, and this is no exception.
They have somehow caught a virus (?) which makes them crave human flesh. That makes it sound more like a zombie movie than a cannibal one (think 28 Days Later), but let’s give it a cannibal pass by referencing the Wendigo films like Ravenous or Eater. Or you could claim, as the doctor says to Norman, it’s a “form of rabies.”
No, it isn’t. He really should have gone with Wendigo, a mythical figure – giant, fierce and cannibalistic, who gathers strength from feeding on human flesh, but the flesh makes him grow larger, and so his appetite can never be satisfied. He is sometimes protective (like Norman), and sometimes a figure of revenge (like Charlie and Tommy). The Wendigo gets inside people who are weak, hungry, or filled with rage.
Anyway, the squad is using flamethrowers to fight the Vietcong (and their women and small children) and one burning woman falls into the pit where the POWs are confined, making for a cooked meal. No home delivery jokes please.
Back in the States, Norman is having nightmares of being bitten by the POWs as he rescued them from their meaty pit. He realises something is wrong with him (the virus from getting bitten maybe?) and stares in horror and fascination at a bleeding lump of flesh in the fridge. Why is there flesh left to bleed in the fridge – isn’t that a health hazard?
One of the rescued POWs, Bukowski, suddenly phones him – he’s on day release from the “Hospital for Nervous Disorders”, or what the cops call a “loony bin”. Norman can’t meet him because the teenage neighbour is lasciviously pointing a hairdryer at him, and he is drawn to her lower regions, but for someone infected with the cannibal virus, ‘eating her out’ means something different to what she expects. She drops by later to tell him that she enjoyed being bitten. What do you know.
Meanwhile, Charlie has gone to see a war movie, as you do when you’re been treated for months for severe PTSD. It’s Umberto Lenzi’s From Hell to Victory, a lovely in-joke among amici, with lots of explosions and deaths. But no one is watching the war.
In front of him, a couple are doing oral things – exchanging saliva and sucking on boobs, erotic cannibalism, but Charlie joins in by taking a healthy bite of the girl’s neck as she leans back in her seat. He runs, there’s a shootout, he kills and eats a bikie and a security guard – it’s all downhill from here. The Atlanta police chief wants to know about him, not his name (despite it’s fascinating intertextuality):
Is he a subversive, a queer, a black, a commie, or a Moslim fanatic?
No, he’s a clean cut all-American (Italian) Vietnam vet, who wants to eat people.
Lots of people get bitten or scratched – a cop, a nurse, who then bites off the doctor’s tongue, and of course there’s that wanton teenager from next door (what horror film would be complete without promiscuous teenagers?), who was infected by Norman’s bite, even though he thought he could overcome the craving for meat.
Point is, they all have the cannibal virus, and the cannibals end up in the sewers (apparently hoping to hoof it to the airport and hop on a flight back to Vietnam), where they are chased by men with guns and flamethrowers; it’s really just like Nam, but now they have become the enemy.
The movie was one of 39 films to be prosecuted in Britain during the 80s as a ‘video nasty’. The acting sometimes leaves a little to be desired, but the main characters, Saxon and Morghen, are great. The special effects are by the legendary Giannetto De Rossi and are, like most of his work, spectacularly abject. The music is a mix of elevator and disco, creating what TV Tropes calls “soundtrack dissonance” – it’s either disturbing or just annoying, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
In his commentary on the film, the director Antonio Margheriti proudly states that this film was Quentin Tarantino’s favourite of his movies. Tarantino referenced the film a couple of times: in Inglourious Basterds, Donnie Donowitz uses an alias “Antonio Margheriti”, while in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio character goes to Italy in 1969 to star in Spaghetti Westerns and also one Bond-type spy thriller supposedly directed by Margheriti titled Operazione Dyn-o-mite.
But video nasty or not, Cannibal Apocalypse has some interesting things to say about the fallacies and phalluses of war and cannibalism. The cannibal virus comes back to the USA with Vietnam veterans, a group who were sent to fight a vicious and often brutal war, often against civilians, and returned to abuse or neglect, with far more veterans dying from suicide than died in that war. They also brought back with them, on top of their trauma, exotic diseases, drug habits, and acute psychological damage. Many went as conscripts, and came back as severely damaged killing machines, metaphorically lusting for human flesh and spreading the anger and violence to all those near to them. It’s happened over and over in every war – a culture of killing leads to a spiral of violence. Even when you think the nightmare is over and all the cannibals dead, there’s still the teenager and her little brother to consider (hey, it’s been over forty years – where is the sequel this seems to promise?)
The drive to kill and to eat flesh are closely linked in human history. Consider the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer in the forward to the book Vegetarianism, a Way of Life, by Dudley Giehl:
As long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace…
If you think Cannibal Apocalypse sounds interesting but you’re short of time, most of the good (gory) bits are covered fully in the review by Mike Bracken, AKA The Horror Geek (@horrorgeek). Mike’s vodcasts are always very entertaining, but this review had me guffawing out loud, which is a bit weird when you’re watching with headphones, in apparent silence, and pretending to be writing an academic thesis. In fact, Mike’s review is much better than the film, IMHO.
French police fatally shot a 32-year-old man suspected of cannibalism on Monday morning (July 19) following the discovery of the decapitated corpse and partially consumed head of a 13-year-old boy.
Police found the remains on Sunday in an apartment in the southern France town of Tarascon, a town between Avignon and Arles.
Public prosecutor Laurent Gumbau told Agence France-Presse that strips of flesh had been ripped from a shoulder, sparking suspicions of cannibalism.
“The body found may be that of the minor… However, it was impossible at the current time to confirm the hypothesis of anthropophagy (cannibalism).”
The boy disappeared on his way from his foster home in Marseille, about 60 miles away, to see his mother in Tarascon.
Late Sunday night, a neighbour called police and reported seeing a body in a garbage bag. A man, who had previous convictions for acts of violence, fled from his apartment when police arrived by jumping over rooftops, neighbours told the news outlet. Three hours later police found the man and shot him dead, the prosecutor said, adding that the suspect did not appear to have been armed at the time of his death, and had not been formally identified as the killer.
In his apartment, the Bouches-du-Rhône police discovered a dead body in the kitchen, but its right arm and head were missing. The head was later found in a bucket in the bathroom and, according to Le Figaro, had been partially eaten. Satanic cult objects were also found in the home.
Homicide has been with us since the first apeman lifted a bone to beat a rival to death (or actually well before that, using teeth and claws). It is likely that the victor in those early spats would have been loath to waste the resulting meaty corpse.
Accounts of cannibalism still seem to focus on the primitive, the ‘savage’ cannibals eating the unwary missionary who stumbles upon their village, even though there is little evidence that such events ever happened. But in recent years, cannibalism has increasingly been found within our ‘civilised’ cities and towns. 2020 was a big year for cannibalism. So far in 2021, we have had THE OKLAHOMA CANNIBAL in the US and the MEXICAN CANNIBAL who allegedly killed and ate some thirty women. In South Africa at the moment, deadly rioting has led to food shortages that, according to one community leader, has led people to consider cannibalism. Then we have the whole Armie Hammer uproar. These cases, like the one in France, are usually put down to psychotic deviance, the psychological equivalent of a mystified shrug. But economics and politics play their parts too, as does a loss of respect – treating humans as animals (which of course we are) emanates from treating animals as morally valueless, as mere commodities.
Could it be that a toxic mixture of urban loneliness and rampant consumerism, particularly of animal bodies, together with the stripping of humans of their formerly assumed metaphysical superiority to other animals, is leading the murderer to the same conclusion chosen by our pre-sapien ancestors: why waste the meat?
Jindu told the court, in gruesome detail, how he had eaten the men’s livers raw, and cooked and eaten their brains.
The court had heard that Jindu was mentally incapacitated, but a medical examination presented in court declared him fit to stand trial. During the trial, Jindu stated that he was sent by the devil to kill the two men, and threatened to unleash Lucifer onto prosecutors.
Jindu requested assisted suicide after the decision was handed down, but has now changed his mind, and is seeking acquittal on the grounds of mental incapacity. His appeal states in part:
“There was cogent evidence that appellant was mentally incapacitated to appreciate the implications of his actions at the material time of committing the offence. Wherefore, appellants prays that the appeal be and is hereby allowed”
There’s a thorough analysis of the cases on the Amanda and Banele vodcast, at the top of this blog.
No longer a monster or ‘savage’, the contemporary cannibal is hard to tell from anyone else in a suit and tie.
Joe D’Amato was a prolific director of around 200 films in a wide range of genres, but is best known for his horror and erotic ones. Antropophagus is not one of his ‘best’ (if that word even means anything in these genres) but has developed a cult following in the forty years since its release. D’Amato did not make many cannibal films for some reason – we have previously reviewed his Black Emanuelle film Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, and we still need to look at (eventually) a few more including Emanuelle’s Revenge, Papaya Love Goddess of the Cannibals, Beyond the Darkness, Orgasmo Nero and the sequel to this one, directed under the pseudonym Peter Newton, Antropophagus II. Looks like we’re going to be here for a while, folks!
The lost travellers encountering savage or insane cannibals is one of the favourite tropes of cannibal stories. Odysseus and his men getting gobbled up by the Cyclops would be an early version (assuming a guy with only one eye in the middle of his head and a god-father is “human” which is pretty important for the definition of cannibalism). But ancient tales loved to dwell on the semi-human monsters outside civilisation eating unwary travellers, as did the lurid tales told by explorers and missionaries in colonial times. Robinson Crusoe is part of the tradition, although he was on his own until he met Friday (whom he saved from, yep, cannibals).
In films, the defining moment for sexed up teens in faulty cars getting slaughtered and eaten by crazed cannibals was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974, where the cannibals were rust-belt hillbillies killing tourists to replace the closure of the slaughterhouses and loss of their usual victims, and The Hills Have Eyes where the cannibals were mutants created by atomic testing in the desert. The killers got progressively weirder with such offerings as Wrong Turn which was sort of Deliverance with a meat department, but the prize for weirdest demented cannibal probably goes to this one: Antropophagus.
Instead of driving around or breaking down in dodgy areas of derelict states to run into cannibal tribes, this lot are touring the Greek Islands on a yacht. Well, if you’re going to get killed and eaten, do it in style. We start off with a couple of German tourists relaxing on probably the most uncomfortable beach you’ve ever seen, the girl going for a swim because apparently Jaws hadn’t been released in Germany five years before this movie was made?
Her boyfriend, relaxing on some sharp lava, has a rude awakening involving a meat cleaver through his head.
We immediately switch to our jetsetting tourists on a cable car in Athens. One of the tourists is heavily pregnant, so sailing around the islands is an even weirder choice when you think about it, and leads to the most famous cannibal scene involving a fetus in any movie (not many directors other than D’Amato have dreamed of getting away with anything like that).
Antropophagus was written by D’Amato and George Eastman (born Luigi Montefiori), the incredibly tall villain of heaps of Italian B-movies and Spaghetti Westerns as well as several of D’Amato’s other movies. In this one, Eastman plays the slasher, who (it turns out from a journal he left lying around on the island) was driven mad when he and his family were shipwrecked and he ended up eating the wife and child to survive. So now he kills and eats people who come to his island. Everyone needs a hobby. And the role of the cannibal has always been to explore the limits of humanity, and the extremes of inhumanity.
Look, it’s a slasher, and they are not to everyone’s taste, in fact a version of the film without most of the gore was released in the US and UK under the title The Grim Reaper. The acting is pretty awful, ranging from wooden to way over the top. But D’Amato was a talented director (as well as prolific) and the scenes of Athens including the changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Greek Islands, are glorious, and accompanied by suitably cheerful bouzouki music.
The team head for an island which turns out to be ‘almost’ deserted (because everyone’s dead of course). They can’t understand it and ask, forty years too early:
Well, they’ll laugh about that one when they tell the story to their grandkids in 2020 or so. The “final girl” (there’s usually a final girl who survives the slasher) is played by Tisa Farrow, little sister of Mia Farrow, and daughter of Maureen O’Sullivan. Quite a lineage. She’s supposed to be there to look after a blind girl, who doesn’t know where her parents are, but can still tell when the antropophagus is lurking.
The middle section of the film follows the mystified tourists as they explore an apparently deserted town on a remote island, but it’s not really dull, more atmospheric, establishing the existence of evil, a malevolent presence that smells of blood.
Besides the blind girl with the supernose who can smell blood (but can’t apparently smell a room full of corpses), there is Carol (Zora Kerova from Cannibal Ferox) who can read Tarot cards and sense evil vibes.
There’s an electrical storm worthy of King Lear. A scene in a cemetery (of course). A mysterious woman who leaves threatening messages. A blind girl who attacks them with a knife. A whole lot of rooms full of bodies, which surprisingly are discovered by pulling off their shrouds rather than by smelling their decomposition. A seemingly inexhaustible packet of Marlboro (product placement maybe?) A lot of pointless relationship arguments. But, if you’ve bought a ticket to see the gore, then as one critic wrote on IMDB,
“The movie starts with a brutal meat cleaver scene then becomes very slow n downright tedious. The last twenty mins contains the two nasty scenes coz of which this film earned the video nasty label.”
I liked the way the violence is mostly presented from the point of view of the cannibal, rather than the victim. At the beginning we see forward movement, drops of blood, a meat cleaver. Later there is a view of the boat through metal palings and some guttural breathing. When one of the men has his throat torn out, we see the throat, before we finally see the antropophagus with his bloody mouth, bad haircut and poor dental hygiene, but that’s already fifty minutes into the film.
So the scenes of the “normal” people are intentionally dull – there’s pretty scenery, with the occasional interruption for carnage and slaughter. Something for everyone. Makes a nice contrast with the depraved cannibal, who we eventually find out (by flashback!) was a shipwreck survivor and accidentally killed his wife when she wouldn’t let him eat their dead son. Domestic cannibal in domestic dispute.
So – the famous last twenty minutes. Pregnant lady is found by her pretty useless husband in a crypt where rats with red eyes (hungover? Late flight?) are eating corpses.
The antropophagus stabs the guy, who dies slowly enough to watch him pull the fetus from her body and, yep, eat it (turns out it was a skinned rabbit, as if that makes us feel better).
Then in the climax, he gets disembowelled with a pickaxe, and in the last moments of the film, starts to chew on his own intestines.
Yep, both of those scenes were left out of The Grim Reaper. The full film is still banned in England according to The Horror Geek, because they thought it was a real fetus. Read Wikipedia before making censorship decisions, guys!
If you can’t / don’t want to watch the whole movie, you can get a comprehensive and extremely funny summary together with some priceless Gilligan’s Island references on the YouTube site of the Horror Geek. Highly recommended.
Cronos is the first feature film of Guillermo del Toro, better known for his later mind-bending fantasies Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Del Toro was originally chosen by Peter Jackson to direct The Hobbit trilogy, but couldn’t do it, due to extended delays. So he’s a top tier director, an auteur, as the French say. He was only 29 when he made Cronos, yet it has been hailed as one of the greatest horror films and one of the best Spanish language films, and has a rating of 91% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. Empire Magazine called it a “unique, terrifying mini-masterpiece.”
At this point I need to admit that it is less a cannibal film than a vampire one. Now I have nothing against vampires, some of my best friends are vampires (probably), but a cannibal should really be alive rather than undead, IMHO. This one is so good, though, that I’m giving it a run on the cannibal blog. Apologies to the cannibal purists.
There is also a link to #cannibalism, because the undertaker (yes, even immortals sometimes need undertakers) is Tito (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in a prequel role for the great cannibal movieWe Are What We Are, in which he was the coroner who found a finger in the dad’s stomach. You’d have to watch it – it’s worth it.
Anyway. Gothic movies usually start off a few centuries in the past, because old magic is just – better. This one has a 14th century alchemist inventing a device which looks like a Faberge egg with claws. The device sticks its claws into whomever happens to pick it up and an insect inside (species yet to be determined) injects something (IDK – vitamin C? Testosterone?) which makes the person immortal. Centuries later – in the present – an earthquake reveals the dead alchemist. Well, he was immortal, but the earthquake caused a stake to pierce his heart, which is not ideal if you’re a vampire (or anyone else really). The egg is in a statue of an archangel, which is the first of a string of religious symbols (hey, it’s Spanish, OK?)
The statue ends up with antique dealer, Jesús Gris (played by the wonderful Federico Luppi who was one of Guillermo del Toro ‘s favourite actors and was also in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth). Gris and his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) extract the egg, wind it up and it plunges its stingers into him.
There’s some blood and pain, sure, but he finds he is getting younger, and heals much faster. You laugh a little, you cry a little, but then there’s another problem – he develops a longing for human blood.
There’s also a dying businessman (Claudio Brook, The Exterminating Angel and several other films of Luis Bunuel) who really wants the Cronos Device. His American nephew (Ron Perlman, Hellboy and Sons of Anarchy) is brought in to seek out the device by any means necessary (some of which are quite nasty). He puts up with his uncle, because he is named in the will, but wait, if uncle is immortal…
What would you do to defeat death, to live forever?
As Roger Ebert observed, there are some real religious issues explored here – the battle of good and evil, love (for Gris’ wife and granddaughter) being more powerful than greed, and particularly the unshakeable belief in divine afterlife. What happens to that hope if you never die? And what if that extended life requires eating flesh and drinking blood? Would you risk hell to avoid going to heaven? When little Aurora cuts her hand, Jesus has to decide if his thirst is really worth drinking his granddaughter’s blood.
Of course, that assumes that drinking blood is somehow essentially evil. Tell that to a mosquito.
Jesus Gris is, like any good vampire, likely to start smoking ominously if he finds himself in the sunshine. But can his goodness overcome the vamp issues? Well he dies and comes back to life, reborn in a glowing white skin, he takes many savage beatings, saying that he can handle the pain, then he smashes the egg, declaring
Jesus Gris – translates to English as “the Grey Jesus”. He is the suffering servant, who died and came back to life. There is a lot of that in Spanish films, but this one has an added twist:
Yes, he wants blood. Could that be a backhander to the Church? Religion can motivate good deeds, or suck the blood of the devotees. The Eucharist is all about transubstantiation – the wine and wafer are believed (by some) to be literally the blood and body of Christ. Hannibal is full of it, particularly the resurrection of Mason Verger and his attempt to eat Hannibal. It’s the eternal paradox.
Cronos won the grand prize in the Critics’ Week at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and nine Mexican Academy Awards, including best picture and director. It has an enviable 91% “fresh” on the Rotten Tomatoes website. The Criterion Blu-ray edition is available at Amazon. The soundtrack is superb, by the acclaimed Mexican composer Javier Álvarez. Highly recommended.
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NEXT WEEK: One of the most controversial cannibal films of all time: Joe D’Amato’s Antropophagus.
On Friday, 18 June 2021, a Swiss court sentenced 46-year-old Alieu Kosiah, a West African rebel leader, to 20 years in prison for rape, murder and cannibalism, committed during Liberia’s civil war. The case before a three-judge panel at the federal criminal court in Bellinzona was Switzerland’s first war crimes trial held in a civilian court.
Kosiah, AKA “bluff boy”, was a commander in the rebel faction United Liberation Movement of Liberiafor Democracy (ULIMO) that fought former President Charles Taylor’s army in the 1990s. He faced 25 charges, including one in which he was accused of eating slices of a school-teacher’s heart. He was found guilty of all but four of the charges. The court listed the charges as
“recruitment and use of a child soldier, forced transportation, looting, cruel treatment of civilians, attempted murder, murder (directly or by order), desecration of a corpse and rape.”
Criminal complaints were filed by Liberian victims, represented by civil rights group Civitas Maxima. The indictment says Kosiah killed or participated in the killing of 18 civilians, forced a displaced woman to be his “wife”, raping her repeatedly, and recruited a 12-year-old boy as his personal bodyguard. In one incident described in the indictment, Kosiah joined fighters in eating slices of a dead man’s heart off a metal plate. Acts of cannibalism were not uncommon in the conflict.
Kosiah was arrested in 2014 under a Swiss law that allows prosecution for serious crimes committed anywhere, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. He had denied all the charges and told the court he was a minor when first recruited into the conflict.
Dubbed “the Monster” by survivors of the war, Kosiah is infamously remembered for the Black Monday attack on June 28, 1993 when rebels rounded up and massacred villagers in Foya, Lofa County.
Other Liberian war criminals
Liberia has ignored pressure to prosecute crimes from its continuous wars between 1989-2003, in which about 250,000 people died and thousands of child soldiers were conscripted and taught to kill and commit atrocities. Charles Taylor is himself currently serving a 50-year prison sentence for aiding and abetting rebels who committed atrocities in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but not for his actions in Liberia. His son, Chuckie, was sentenced for torture in Liberia by a U.S. court in 2009.
Ex-warlord Mohammed “Jungle Jabbah” Jabateh has been jailed for 30 years in the US for lying about his past as a leader of a force that carried out multiple murders and acts of cannibalism.
In July 2018, France detained naturalised Dutch citizen Kunti K, a suspected former militant ULIMO commander and placed him under formal investigation for crimes against humanity including torture and cannibalism. Another Liberian commander, Gibril Massaquoi, known as “Angel Gabriel” is on trial in Finland accused of eating his victims, burning kids alive and raping women. A verdict is expected around September this year.
An ULIMO commander named Joshua Milton Blahyi known as “General Butt Naked” gave evidence to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008:
“Any time we captured a town, I had to make a human sacrifice. They bring to me a living child that I slaughter and take the heart off to eat it… A lady offered me her child for my sacrifice. After cutting up the child I divided the heart among my boys and myself. The blood of the child was still on my hand when Jesus appeared to me and asked me to stop being a slave.”
Blahyi’s crimes included child sacrifice, cannibalism, the exploitation of child soldiers and trading blood diamonds for guns and cocaine, which he provided to boy soldiers as young as nine. He was never charged, and is now an evangelical pastor. He published an autobiography about his conversion.
The cannibal as animal
During his trial, Alieu Kosiah broke down and shouted:
“I’ve been locked up for six years, I have emotions, I’m not an animal.”
Well actually, he is an animal. We all are: humans are a species of Great Ape, as are our closest relatives the chimpanzees, who also wage war and indulge in occasional cannibalism. The point here, though, is that Kosiah saw himself stereotyped as a black man, an African, in a court full of white Europeans passing judgement on him. To the European, only a century or so ago, all Africans were considered savages and cannibals, little more than beasts, a libel which is hard to expunge, and a demonisation that was just as useful to European imperialist expansion as the use of gunboats. As recently as 1959, New York Times reporter Homer Bigart (an almost perfect name) wrote to his foreign news editor about his contempt for the new class of African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah,
“I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about.”
The savagery and cannibalism of the multitudes of wars that have swept Africa in the last decades have led to appalling atrocities. But let us not forget the role of the colonialist rulers who divided the continent up, regardless of the local tribal areas, and sucked the riches out of the land, leaving the newly independent countries destitute and riven with implacable hatreds.
As Malcolm X wrote in 1965 about the colonisers of Africa:
They projected Africa always in a negative light: jungles, savages, cannibals, nothing civilized.
This film should have been a corker. It has a good pedigree – it is based on the novel Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, ER, Westworld, Coma, etc, etc – the man was a prolific author of books and films and TV series). The story is based on Beowulf, one of the great classics of Old English literature. It was directed by one of the doyens of thriller films John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard, Hunt for Red October, Last Action Hero) and final edits and extra shots were done by Crichton himself. It starred such luminaries as Antonio Banderas and (briefly) the late, great Omar Sharif.
But it bombed at the Box Office, big time, reputedly losing $100,000,000. Omar Sharif was so disgusted by the final output that he quit acting for a few years, calling it “a film so bad that it is not even worth exploring”. Nonetheless, explore it we shall, because, you know, it has cannibals. If you’re interested in what went wrong, Collider has a thorough and forensic dissection.
The story centres around Ahmad ibn Fadlan (Banderas), an actual historical figure – he was a Moslem travel writer from the tenth century. He gets exiled from Baghdad for fancying the wrong woman (the king’s wife) and ends up among the Vikings, who find him pretty funny, because he keeps telling them he’s not a warrior, which is rather important to Vikings. Anyway, a Viking boy appears from another kingdom telling of an ancient evil that even the bravest warriors dare not face, so of course they really, really want to go and face it, but their resident soothsayer says sooth, they need a 13th warrior, and, to make it interesting, he can’t be a Viking. So Ahmad becomes the thirteenth, thus the title. He learns their language by listening to them, proving, in his grasp of vocabulary, the superiority of the civilised man.
After this, their language somehow morphs into accented English, since audiences do not want to spend an action movie reading subtitles.
Anyway, (spoiler alert) they eventually find that the Wendols (sounds like Grendel from Beowulf, doesn’t it) are cannibals clothed to look like bears; they live like bears, and consider themselves bears. With teeth like a lion, but that’s OK, because good monsters are usually some sort of hybrid. But these are also human, -ish, bit like orcs. Dark skin, by coincidence, useful to tell the difference from the very Aryan Norsemen.
These dudes gnaw on their victims, and take the heads home to mother, whose calling card is an ancient fertility statue. Some humans prefer to eat legs, some breasts; these guys’ mum likes heads.
In the book, they turn out to be Neanderthals, but the movie does not go into detail of their species (just as well, because if they aren’t sapiens, they can’t so easily be accused of cannibalism). Of course, like Beowulf, the mother is the chief monster, and the Vikings are told they have to kill her. Their crazy old Völva (a much more appropriate name for a seer) tells them to find her under the earth – in a cave, like a bear.
So, the big plot point is that the mother of the Wendols eats people. So do the kids, but she is cannibal number one. She is what Barbara Creed calls
“the archaic mother… the parthenogenetic mother, the mother as primordial abyss.”
Our mother, who carries us, can seem, in what Freud called our infantile oral-sadistic or cannibalistic phase, just as easily able to reincorporate us. The archaic mother also has, or may appear to have, a phallus – in this movie, it’s a bear claw dipped in poison. Not a lot of use against a Viking broadsword, but she gives it a shot.
Roger Ebert said in his review “With a budget said to be more than $100 million, it displays a lot of cash on the screen, but little thought” and suggested it was designed just to showcase the special effects, with the story “shoehorned” in whenever there was a pause in the action.
Rotten Tomatoesgave it a measly 33% rating, and Time Out said “At its best, this achieves the beauty and grandeur of a Kurosawa epic – at its worst, however, it feels like a Python remake of The Vikings.”
There are some real political problems, not least that Banderas is a Spanish actor playing an Arab, which sounds a bit like Hollywood saying “they’re both not quite white, so that’s all right.” The bad guys are pretty black, and the good guys very white (you know, Viking). The big climax, the battle with the mother, is over in seconds, as is a second climax that got added probably as a filler, with her son in his QAnon horns (still trying to figure out why a bear with lion teeth has horns). Other plot points also fizzle out without much resolution.
When we get that hat and bear mask off, the chief dude is clearly painted like a savage. Lucky the white dudes were there to kill him.
Beowulf of course killed Grendel, and then had to worry about a very angry Grendel’s mother, so this retelling is totally upside down – they kill the mum, then the chief turns up. That’s about all there is for plot twists.
But the scenery is superb, the action scenes are spectacular, the actors playing Vikings are great; their accents – one seems to be Irish – are a bit distracting, but who is going to watch a film entirely in Norse? If you’re looking for a cannibal film with lots of swordplay and arms and legs (and sometimes heads) flying through the air, you might even enjoy this, as the Vikings hack away at the unending stream of orcs or bears or whatever.
It’s kind of like Zulu, or The Magnificent Seven – Vikings beating off hordes of Wendol bear-men instead of British soldiers shooting Africans or cowboys shooting Mexican bandits. These films always end with the white saviours, or the few who survive, riding (or sailing) off into the sunset.
The film has had a bit of a reassessment since its disappointing start, as Vikings have become more fashionable. I admit to quite enjoying it despite its obvious problems, but I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it if it didn’t have cannibals, and I just wish those cannibals could have had a bit more character depth. I was hoping that the dark skin of the cannibals was because the filming was done in some exotic location where the extras were cheap, but turns out it was filmed in British Columbia in Canada. So I guess we’re back to the earliest colonial myths of the black savage cannibal being enlightened, dispossessed or exterminated by the civilised white man. I would also appreciate an explanation of why the morally questionable Vikings, who think nothing of hacking off someone’s head, are so gobsmacked when someone else chooses to eat that same body part.