American cannibal: THE DONNER PARTY (T.J. Martin, 2009)

The Donner Party was the name given to a group of pioneers heading from Missouri to California in 1846. They became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada over winter, and famously turned to cannibalism to survive. Only 48 of the original 87 members of the party survived.

There have been quite a few films and books about the events of that winter, including documentaries such as “Trail of Tragedy: The Excavation of the Donner Party Site by US Forest Service” and an episode of the PBS series American Experience (Season 5 Episode 3) called “The Donner Party” (you’ll need a VPN if you are outside the US). There are also a few supernatural potboilers like Donner Pass, about evil forces that turned poor George Donner and his mates into ravenous cannibals, and will do the same to any nice-looking millennials who stumble into the region. I am not intending to write about them until I run out of movies about “real” cannibals, which looks like it will be in several years, at the present rate.

Look, this movie doesn’t mess about with any set up. The opening is some written explanation of how they got into that mess

vlcsnap-00001.jpg

Then there’s a dude, who turns out to be William Eddy (Clayne Crawford) pointing a gun, with his voiceover

“In situations like this, some men may abandon their obligations. This being said, I am resolved to provide for my family.”

vlcsnap-00002.jpg

He goes back to camp with some meat (a bear? In winter?) which he shares with William Foster (Crispin Glover from lots of things including Back to the Future and American Gods). Eddy is the group’s guide, and feels that he was pressured to lead them the wrong way, onto the Hastings Cutoff; Foster argues that they all agreed to take the “short cut”. The audience by this point is yawning. From there, as Homer says, “it just gets worse and worse”. The Foster camp is running out of food when the “rescue party” reappears – with no rescue and no food. One of them dies on arrival and they bury him in the snow. Clearly, they had never seen Alive! Once you die, you’re assigned to the frozen food department.

vlcsnap-00003.jpg

But as they set out for a last ditch expedition, later called “The Forlorn Hope”, Foster boasts that they have maintained a “clear line of civility”. We know from history that this won’t last.

vlcsnap-00004.jpg

There is talk of going back to the camp, but Franklin Graves (Mark Boone Jnr from Sons of Anarchy and Memento) disagrees.

vlcsnap-00006.jpg

As they get colder, hungrier and weaker, Foster suggests what we’ve been waiting 51 minutes to hear:

“In the misfortune that one of us should pass, in death we may save the living.”

vlcsnap-00007.jpg

In a scene worthy of Monty Python, they all start volunteering. Eddy suggests he and Foster

“fight to the death, the loser dies like a man, feeds the group”.

Instead, they draw straws – Dolan (Crispian Belfrage – who is a bit wasted in this flick) gets the shortest stick and Foster shoots him (not what really happened, BTW). Eddy refuses to join in the lottery or the meal, but then it turns out he has a lump of bear that his wife smuggled into his backpack, so he’s doing OK.

vlcsnap-00008.jpg

Graves stabs himself and becomes the next course. Before each meal, they say grace and thank God for what they have received. When they run out of those guys, Foster decides, against Eddy’s opposition, that the “Indian” guide will be the next course. This is the hierarchy of eating – the plant, the animal, the human, with the sub-human squeezed in there, defined by layers of contemptuous racism that was standard procedure in 19th century America (and in some places still is). Rather than wasting bullets, he uses the gun as a club.

vlcsnap-00017.jpg

There are long scenes of the group trudging through the snow, interspersed with the survivors sitting around the campfire chewing on some guy and looking vaguely disgusted, but not looking all that gaunt. I guess it would require some pretty good makeup or CGI to make someone look to be genuinely starving, so I can accept that.

What I found disappointing was the total lack of moral debate – one person complains “we’ll go to hell” and Eddy points out that the “Indian” is a man, but still hands the rifle to Foster so he can do the deed. Foster, the gentleman, points out that he is their only hope because he is the only one willing to do whatever it takes. The fascination of the movie Alive! was the deliberation in the plane of the ethical situation, the immortal soul having fled, etc. This lot are devout enough that they could make it a lively discussion, the nature of humanity, why they think it’s wrong to eat white people but not “Indians”, but it never gets past the look of distaste as they chew on bits of other humans. The best scene is the long shot of Foster, the man of God, the keeper of civility, turning into a cannibal king as he watches his flock, waiting to see who will die next.

vlcsnap-00015.jpg

It’s a fictionalisation of a true event, which is always fraught, because the historians will object to the inaccuracies, and everyone else to the squalid reality. But as an imagining of one incident from the Donner story (Donner himself never gets a look in) it’s not a bad taste of nineteenth century morality and its fragility. The disappointment is that the cannibalism is direct and honest, but never considered as anything other than abject but necessary. This is one of the defining stories of modern America, and much more could have been made of it. However.

Now, I’ve seen some great cannibal films and some pretty awful ones, and I don’t always agree with the verdicts of the reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes, but I think this is the first one I have seen where none of the reviewers even bothered to see it.

HorrorNews.Net gave the film a positive review, writing

“Overall The Donner Party was a nice change from the hard core horror films that I usually watch. … I also recommend that you have something to eat on hand while watching it as I was starving by the time I was done watching it. Then again, maybe I have issues.”

donnerparty2.jpg

The log line “They survived by doing the unthinkable” is clearly borrowed from Alive! (“They overcame the impossible by doing the unthinkable”).

Copycat Killers 1.08 HANNIBAL: “A real life Hannibal Lecter comes to light”

The TV series Copycat Killers which debuted in 2016, attempts to match real-life crime with murder cases in film. The premise is really a bit of a long-shot. For example, episode 4 is called “Silence of the Lambs” and shows long lingering shots of the naked butt of serial killer Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill). It covers the case of a 14-year-old boy, Michael Hernandez, who cut the throat of a friend, and years later joked on the phone, from jail, about “skin suits” (Gumb’s main preoccupation) and Mason Verger cutting off his own face. The boy also, the judge revealed, listened to death-metal band Cannibal Corpse, a group that thrives on notoriety and violent lyrics, but does not, as far as anyone is aware, actually eat people or recommend that others do so. So this boy did not skin people, like Gumb, nor did he eat them, like Lecter.

vlcsnap-00003.jpg

The episode reviewed in this blog, episode 8, is also Hannibal Lecter-based. This particular killer, a German named Armin Meiwes, was nothing like the Hannibal in the books, the movies or the television show. Nonetheless, when the police searched his house, the solemn narrator tells us:

“even the most jaded detective on that case was sickened by what they found in that freezer…. Police had discovered a real life Hannibal Lecter.”

Pictures of Meiwes and Lecter are flashed on screen consecutively, to draw a visual conclusion that is hardly supported by the text.

vlcsnap-00001.jpg

vlcsnap-00002.jpg

An actor re-enacting the Meiwes story cuts meat and drinks wine, which an on-screen expert (crime writer Lisa Coryell) compares to Hannibal’s line from the movie Silence of the LambsI ate his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti”.

A Professor of Film Studies at the American University explains that Lecter’s elegance, charm and humour makes him “irresistible”. Hannibal, he says, is the top movie villain of the century, and there isn’t even a close second.

Meiwes, a German computer technician, advertised on a fetish website called The Cannibal Café for “a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”. He actually received a heap of replies, but the only one that seemed sincere was Jürgen Brandes. The two met in 2001, had sex, then Brandes took a lot of sleeping pills and half a bottle of schnapps, and they collaboratively sliced off Brandes’ penis and tried, unsuccessfully, to cook and eat it with salt, pepper, wine, and garlic (it ended up in the dog’s bowl). Brandes went off to die in the bath while Meiwes read a Star Trek novel and, when he found Brandes still alive and suffering hours later, killed him and proceeded to eat quite a lot of him over the coming weeks and months.

vlcsnap-00005.jpg

When Meiwes started running low on flesh, he advertised again, and this time one respondent reported him to police, who found some of Brandes still in the fridge. Meiwes was charged with manslaughter as he had killed Brandes (at worst it was assisted suicide), and was sentenced to eight years. Due to the ensuing publicity, a retrial was ordered and he was convicted of murder, on the grounds that he had talked Brandes into giving permission to kill him, for his own sexual pleasure.

Silence of the Lambs and its sequel Hannibal caused, we are told in this doco, a surge of interest in cannibalism, leading Meiwes to pursue his obsession with cannibalism. Still didn’t make him into Hannibal though, IMHO.

A forensic psychologist who glories in the name Dr J. Buzz von Ornsteiner: tells us “I’ve worked with a lot of criminals within my criminal history. But this is by far the worst case I’ve ever encountered.”

The recreation goes into Meiwes unfortunate history with his controlling mother, one more thing that he and Hannibal do not have in common (you may remember from Hannibal Rising that Lecter’s mother was a delightful woman, who was killed in a duel between a tank and divebomber while he was still a small boy).

At the same age, Meiwes father left the family. From this trauma, we are led to believe by Dr Buzz, Meiwes decided the best way to keep people in his life was to eat them. The crime writer explains to us that

“If you’ve experienced loss as a child, as Armin clearly did, cannibalism is one way, it’s a sick way, to make sure that no one ever walks out on you.”

Now the idea that Meiwes and Lecter are cannibals because they lost one or more parents is pretty terrifying, since there are a lot of people to whom that applies. On that logic, you might as well suspect Princes William and Harry. However.

Once mum died, Meiwes was free to get on the internet and find others interested in his hobby.

vlcsnap-00015.jpg

vlcsnap-00017.jpg

vlcsnap-00018.jpg

Lisa Coryell (the crime writer):

“You couldn’t look at the facts of this case and not think of Hannibal Lecter.”

Well, actually, I think I could. Meiwes joined a chat room, something Hannibal did not do and would not do, even in the TV version (set in the Internet era). Brandes, his co-conspirator, wanted to be killed and eaten. Meiwes and Brandes were both convinced that this act of cannibalism would make their bond permanent. It is possible that Hannibal believes eating Will Graham would help Hannibal forgive him for his betrayal. Will, however, was not a willing collaborator in such a scheme.

Is there anything Meiwes has in common with Lecter? Buzz points out that “Somehow between these two men there doesn’t seem to be any value for human life”. I guess Hannibal would agree that human life is not sacred in any way, and that rude people are good to eat. Meiwes, on the other hand, seemed to have liked Brandes, and wanted to keep him around, or more accurately inside.

Brandes wanted to die, but he wanted to taste human flesh before he did so. The show finds a Hannibal parallel here: Hannibal feeding Ray Liotta’s character, Paul Krendler, a portion of his own brain in the movie Hannibal. But of course Krendler was not a willing participant, and once his frontal lobe was on the hotplate, he couldn’t be said to have had any opinions at all.

The rest of the documentary is full of some painful reminders of the speciesism with which philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes to Kant, and even Derrida, have considered the abyss between human and “animal”.

Lisa Coryell:

“Armin begins drawing on Berndt’s body to map out the places he wants to eat most. Armin was treating Brandes like a piece of meat, like an animal for slaughter and it defies humanity.”

It wasn’t of course “like a piece of meat”; it was exactly as a piece of meat. The commentators assume that we, humans, are not animals and are not made of meat, which is ludicrous.

Buzz sums up:

“he doesn’t think there anything wrong with killing someone provided they want to be killed.”

I spat out my tea at this point. It just reminded me of the scene from Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

Arthur: I don’t want to eat an animal that’s lying there inviting me to. I think it’s heartless!

Zaphod: It’s better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten.

The grave tone of the narrator and commentators of the show, and the ominous music, are intended to convey the extreme gravity of Meiwes’ crime. Meiwes meanwhile has reportedly been a model prisoner, and has also become a vegetarian. In 2018, his appeal to be eligible for release one day (he was given a life sentence) was denied, and he will probably die in jail.

Yet, when compared to other crimes, what has Meiwes actually done? He sought willing victims, men who wanted to die and fantasised about being eaten after their death. He helped Berndt commit suicide, delivering the coup de grâce only when he found Berndt still suffering hours later. He then followed Berndt’s fervent wishes by eating large parts of the man’s corpse. The police originally could not charge him with murder, because there was no evidence that he had intended to kill, until the suicide went wrong and he saw it as an act of mercy. It was the cannibalism that inflamed public opinion around the world, and forced the police to cobble together an appeal, which claimed that he had influenced Berndt to agree to the scheme, which was a bit absurd (he actually offered to take him to the train station if he got cold feet). The problem was that there was no law against cannibalism, and still isn’t in most of the world.

vlcsnap-00004.jpg

So the parallels with Hannibal Lecter are bizarre. Hannibal killed and ate people he considered rude and discourteous. He felt that they deserved it, that he was improving the gene pool maybe. He considered himself superior to the people he ate, just as the average carnivore considers himself superior to a cow or a pig. But what Hannibal does is considered murder, because of his intentions and the fact that the victims presumably did not want to be killed or eaten.

But after considering the case of Armin Miewes, we have to consider the question: if a being wants to die, and you help him along, and then eat him, is that really worse than confining a being who doesn’t want to die (from any species), deliberately killing him or her (or paying someone else to do so) and then eating their flesh? Which is what we humans do well over eight million times every hour of every day.

This issue is discussed in a simpler form in the Australian television series Rake. In a re-imagined version of the Meiwes case, the cannibal is a respected economist and the victim’s suicide is successful. There is no murder; all the economist does is eat the body, yet is told “you ate someone. You’re never going home”. Is that scenario also worse than the intentional killing of a cow or pig for human consumption?

If you think it is, please tell me why in the comments, or email cannibalstudies@gmail.com.

I’d really like to know.

 

NEXT WEEK: HANNIBAL Season 3 Episode 2.