Six dead(ish) serial killers: THE BUTCHERS (Steven Judd, 2014)

If you could somehow bring a dead serial killer back to life, let me ask you this:

  1. What question would you ask him?
  2. Why the hell would you bring him back to life??

This movie was called The Butchers in some markets and Death Factory in others, but didn’t exactly set the world alight in either case. The “plot” (sic and sick) concerns a bunch of misfits reciting a spell that returns to life some of the more notorious recent serial killers, who are featured in a bizarre museum called The Death Factory: Albert Fish, John Wayne Gacy, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, and the Zodiac Killer. Wait – that doesn’t make sense? Well, enjoy the ride.

 Before the ride, though, a flashback – Simon (Damien Puckler – Grimm) is having a nightmare about when he was a little boy and killed his father with a golf club. First we get to sit through the father killing a neighbour and Simon’s mother, in grisly detail. Yeah, Simon has serious issues. So did I after watching a woman have her teeth knocked out.

He’s on a bus with his brother (who reads Dante’s Inferno, as you do) and a bunch of misfits representing various stereotypes of America, heading for the Grand Canyon, but the bus breaks down and so they hoof it the Death Factory.

Meanwhile, a lawyer from Africa comes to visit the Factory, gets a guided tour of the killers (for the sake of the audience rather than him I rather think) and sees the vials of blood collected from them (how the hell did they get blood from Jack the Ripper?) and then kills the owner.

He has a big antique book, which we just know is going to be full of magic spells. The Goth couple from the bus find it and recite the spell of resurrection (you know, just for fun), and all hell breaks loose. No, really, it’s all a Satanic plot. Say the words, and the drops of blood form columns of fire and the dead butchers are resurrected.

But keep your disbelief suspended – it gets worse. When they get killed, they return to dust and smoke and enter the one who killed them. Confused? So were the writers I fear.

Of course, no slasher film is complete without the impending victims arriving from a broken-down vehicle at a sinister and run-down gas station / diner.

But the interest in this script is not so much in the bus passengers but the six born again killers who stalk them. From the point of view of a cannibalism blog, we only really care about four of them (the cannibals) and there are some real plot problems here. For a start, Albert Fish was ostensibly a harmless old man, unless you were a young child (he used to kidnap children, flog them, murder them and eat them), but he was clearly not up to a fist fight, unless you were under eight years old. Here is the movie Fish, and the real one. Not a bad likeness, but a scary monster?

Jack the Ripper was never identified (nor was Zodiac come to that) so this one wears an old person mask and talks with an English accent. But we have a revelation when Jack takes off the mask! Yes, Jack the Ripper turns out to be a lesbian, who finds out what little girls are made of (with the help of a cut-throat razor). Well, glad they sorted out that mystery anyway. Any clues on who killed JFK while you’re there?

Ed Gein was technically not even a serial killer since he only killed a couple of people, preferring to source his body parts from gravesites, and he was also pretty decrepit, an unlikely partner for hand-to-hand combat. Not even trying for a likeness here – just a scary Fred Flinstone.

That leaves Jeffrey Dahmer who was certainly a serial killer, but his M.O. was to drug his victims then drill holes in their heads when they were unconscious, hoping thereby to keep them around as zombie boyfriends. So, Dahmer was a lover, not a fighter.

Dahmer does, however, have the best line in the movie; after biting one dude:

“33% of Caucasians are A positive… I prefer A negative.”

Another great line is when Simon and the bible thumping lady find a series of pentagrams and vials of serial killer blood (curiouser and curiouser). She has some expertise here, which turns out to be as useless as it sounds:

“I wrote a paper on the psychological dysfunction of fanatical religious behaviour. At Emory.”

But most of the dialog consists of people saying to other people “stay here, I’ll go check it out.” You just know that’s not going to end well. Several times (yawn).

This is a pretty awful movie, garnering a handsome 12% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you like gore, that is well done and you might enjoy it, if you can get past all the metaphysical nonsense of pentagrams and life force transfers. If, however, you are a student of cannibalism, you will be mystified by their portrayals of these murderers. Have these people never heard of Wikipedia?

More importantly, how did they decide on these six as the world’s worst serial killers, and why were four of them (67%) best known for their cannibalistic behaviour? Our fear of death is notorious – watch a group of people flee from a loud noise like a flock of pigeons. The primal part of our brain, like that of the pigeon, takes over when survival seems to be at issue. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that our terror of death is the basic motivation of human behaviour.

But the enormous interest in cannibalism indicates that there is something even more terrifying than dying: being eaten. Dramatic headlines announce the victim of the latest shark or crocodile attack, while meanwhile hundreds die unremarked, in more mundane incidents taking place all around them. We build mausoleums or place immense marble slabs over our graves to keep out marauders, we pour chemicals into the veins of our corpses to preserve them from worms and bacteria. The worst terror, though, is incorporation into the body of another human. Theologians write learned pieces on God’s options for restoring the body on the day of judgement; if we have been absorbed into another body, to whom would the restored flesh belong? Ed Gein is included in the canon of cannibals not for the numbers he killed but because he used the body parts to make furniture and lampshades.

Cannibalism feeds our darkest fears – that we are not made in the image of God (however that is interpreted) but that we are edible animals, no different to the millions of other animals we slaughter every day: for their flesh like Dahmer and Fish, for their skins and bones like Gein, or just to see what’s inside, like Jack.

“I did it… Meiwes!” CANNIBAL (Marian Dora, 2006)

Cannibal was the directorial debut of the German director Marian Dora in 2006, and is basically a re-enactment of the famous case of Armin Meiwes (pronounced like the Sinatra song “I did it my way”), the so-called ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’. Meiwes was a German computer technician who was into “vorarephilia” (sexual attraction to eating, or being eaten by, another). He advertised on the Internet for a man who was willing to be killed and eaten, and ended up doing both of those things to an engineer named Bernd Jürgen Brandes whose greatest desire was to be eaten. Unlike most crime re-enactments, this one was easy to research, because Meiwes videotaped most of the killing, butchering and eating of Brandes. We’ve met Meiwes in a couple of earlier blogs: in Grimm Love an American researcher (Keri Russell) searches for the videotape and then freaks out when she gets hold of it. The documentary Copycat Killer covered the famous case with lots of dramatic music and comparisons to Hannibal Lecter, which was absurd. The Australian comedy Rake also did a great simplified version of it with the wonderful Hugo Weaving as both an economics professor and a cannibal (which is more terrifying?).

Marian Dora is a pseudonym used by a film-maker whose real name is shrouded in mystery. Probably for good reason – his first two releases were included in anthologies of short films named Blue Snuff 1 and Blue Snuff 2, the latter of which was withdrawn due to its extremely graphic content. He then went on to work with Ulli Lommel on a number of crime/slasher films.

This film was assigned to Dora by Lommel, but proved too rich for Lommel’s taste, and Dora ended up releasing it himself, direct to video. Really? Too rich for Ulli Lommel, whose grisly bio of Fritz Haarmann we reviewed earlier this year? Well, that’s promising. Lommel went on to make his own version of the Meiwes story, with the protagonist changed to female for some reason. This was also called Cannibal at first, then changed to Diary of a Cannibal, and has graced the “Bottom 100” lists of Yahoo and IMDB ever since. We… might get to it one day. Maybe.

Meiwes and Brandes are not named in this film – the eater is just called “The Man” and the eaten “The Flesh”. There is very little dialogue, except for the Man’s mother reading him Hansel and Gretel at the beginning (when he was presumably called the Boy), presumably turning him into a cannibal (didn’t that happen to everyone who read the Brothers Grimm?)

We then Get To See A Selection Of The Man’s preferred reading matter: cannibal art by Hieronymus Bosch and Hans Staden, books on Jeffrey Dahmer, and some interesting texts on anatomy and butchering, which he will find handy later.

We see the Man having a series of meetings with a bunch of guys (and one woman) he has contacted on internet chats, all of whom turn out to be not that serious about going through with the whole, you know, kill me and eat me thing. The woman might have been ready, but he writes, “Women are too important for the survival of mankind.” Pretty much how the dairy and egg industries operate, when they sex the calves and chicks and immediately kill the males.

He even meets up with a couple of kids, not presumably through the web, but seems to prefer his meat aged and consensual.

The Man finally meets the Flesh, who introduces himself,

“I’m your flesh”

But then adds:

“I don’t want to suffer”

Yeah, no probs, mate; the Man stops on the way home from picking up the Flesh at the railway station to buy some schnapps and some cough medicine.

Then after a game of petanque and some sweaty sex, the Flesh won’t feel a thing. Hmmm.

“You’ll become a part of me”

Seems to me to be a bit of a misunderstanding of how the alimentary system works. However.

Once they enter the house, the movie becomes very dark. Literally – one of those movies where it’s hard to see what the hell is going on. They’re going to have sex, one of them is going to eat the other, but first, a nice cuppa tea.

There’s a lot of plinky-plonky music and sex scenes which drag on interminably, and end with the Flesh anally penetrating the Man. No one was expecting that. Isn’t cannibalism supposed to be about dominance? It’s an interesting conflict. They curl up on the floor together and, when they awake, the Flesh demands the Man bite off his penis. My thoughts immediately went to Monty Python (“ergh! With a gammy leg?”) at the thought of biting his penis after anal sex; but hey, call me old fashioned. Anyway, the Flesh is not called the Teeth or even Jaws, and can’t do more than draw blood, a kind of ineffective circumcision, and the Flesh growls:

“You are too weak!”

Freud would have had an orgasm of his own at this point – we have power, guilt and of course male fears which, he said, were based around the act of castration, usually due to the fear of the father’s anger at the boy’s Oedipal desires. But this man is too weak to eat him! Perhaps because he needs to eat. They need to merge before they can merge. It’s another challenge. But as Freud said, the cannibal “only devours people of whom he is fond”, which is why, according to Brigid Brophy, Christians eat God to affirm the love of the Father. The Man is seeking the transubstantiation of the Flesh.

So anyway, the Man does what any man does when his lover is disappointed – runs for the cough medicine; let’s knock him out! But then they both fall asleep, seeming to decide that this wasn’t such a hot idea. When they wake, it seems like it’s all over, but they are a stubborn pair – a splash of water on his face and the Flesh is ready and raring to get ate. This time they pick up prescription sleeping tablets at the pharmacy – Stilnox, very popular among Australian athletes apparently, and the Flesh washes it down with a bottle of brandy.

“Castrate me, then kill me. Do it now.”

The Man sets up the video (and this is all pretty much as it happened – Meiwes did videotape the whole procedure, which helped the police considerably during the court case). He puts on a record of church music, and fetches a knife. We get to see a lengthy scene of Bobbitting (hint – don’t try amateur anaesthesia at home: the cough medicine and booze don’t work very well).

He fries the severed cock up with some garlic (yep, all true to the actual case) but they find it tough and inedible. They spit it out (in the real case they fed it to Meiwes’ dog, but the sensible dogs of Germany refused to sign up for this movie).

Then the rest of the film is the killing of the Flesh and the preparation of his flesh. The Man puts the Flesh in the bathtub to bleed out, and reads a Jerry Cotton book while he waits. This is an outrageous fictionalisation – Meiwes in fact read a Star Trek novel. Ah well, poetic licence.

When the Flesh refuses to die by the time the Man finishes his book, the Man drags him out of the bath, vomiting, urinating and defecating, and lays him out in the Schlachthof he has set up, arms outstretched like the Broken Christ, then cuts his throat.

The final twenty minutes or so of this film (if anyone is still watching) is clinical – a masterclass in butchery. The Flesh is strung up by his feet and the Man disembowels him in great detail, vomiting as he does so. The Flesh, already dehumanised, is now deanimalised too; he is simply a carcass being prepared for the meat chiller.

I loved this review from Letterboxd which complains that the movie describes:

“how a cannibal prepares his food, everything is in detail and the scene came exactly when I was going to have my breakfast fuck me it’s like the movie knew when I’m going to eat my food, this has happened quite a few times with me now and its getting creepy 😂”

Scott Weinberg of DVD Talk wrote,

“One of the sickest and freakiest movies ever to come from a nation well-known for its freaky and sick movies (Germany)”

To me, the butchery was not the most abject part of the film; it was the sort of thing you might see in an instructional video for abattoir workers, except not with the usual species of victim. The defecation and vomiting were harder to take, but I guess that is subjective. All in all, most people will find something to disgust them in this film, and perhaps that was the point. It’s disgusting, but it’s not that different to what we get minimum-pay workers in slaughterhouses to do eight hours a day to some seventy billion animals every year. Unless the special effects budget was huge (not obvious from the rest of the film), a real animal was gutted and chopped up to make this film, which is actually the sickest part of it.

The butchery is shown in loving detail and for extended time. It lets us experience what it would be like to do that (I’m guessing most of us have not butchered an animal, human or otherwise). Being his first time, the Man keeps stopping to either snack on some flesh or to remorsefully throw up; pretty sure neither would be encouraged in the industrial meat corporation.

For a real slaughterhouse worker, wielding the cleaver would be sickening the first time, then boring for the hours thereafter. We see the Flesh reduced to just meat cuts. As King Lear said, when stripped of civilisation:

“unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork’d animal”

If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, there is an excellent and hilarious summary by Mike Bracken “The Horror Geek” which had me laughing out loud several times, despite the content.

At the end of the film, the Man has a nice Flesh dinner (the Flesh is present at the table, short of one body), then jerks off to his home movie, and next morning is all scrubbed up, in a nice suit, and trotting off to meet his potential next sacrifice. In fact, Meiwes was eventually caught because he advertised for another victim a few months later, when he started running out of Brandes. Meiwes is still in jail in Germany, and is now apparently a vegetarian.

As I said, we know very little about the director, except that Dora is not his real name, and that he is vegetarian and works as a physician. After watching this movie, you’ll understand why he wants to remain anonymous. Perhaps also why he’s a vegetarian.

Young Leatherface: THE SAWYER MASSACRE (Steve Merlo, 2022)

Whether you loved or hated (or anything in-between) Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it is widely acknowledged to be a seminal work in the history of slasher movies generally, and specifically of cannibal films. Total Film made it number one of the fifty greatest horror movies of all time (Psycho was number 6!) and Richard Zoglin of Time said that it set “a new standard for slasher films”. Ben Woodard called it “unambiguously the greatest horror film ever made.” That makes creating a sequel (or actually a prequel) all the more fraught!

Chainsaw was based partly on the real-life (real-death?) exploits of Ed Gein, the “Butcher of Plainfield”, who decorated his house with all sorts of furniture made of human bones and skin, but Gein had dug most of them up from graveyards. The man-monster from TCSM was Leatherface who wore a mask (well before the rest of us) and even made it himself (far more sustainable than the rest of us). It was, however, made of human skin, which you can’t get readily even on Etsy, and he sourced his raw materials from those travelling through his little corner of Texas, cutting them up with a large and noisy chainsaw, often bashing them on the head with a mallet first, as the more primitive slaughterhouses used to do to the cattle in their yards.

But why did he do that? We get some hints in the movie from his brother, the Hitchhiker, who makes it clear that the family had been “in meat” and worked in the local slaughterhouses, which had closed as industry fled the “fly-over” states. But a lot of people lost their jobs in the seventies, and most of them did not go out and buy chainsaws with murderous intent. So how did Leatherface get started? And whose idea was it to eat the victims?

Such questions have clearly been on the mind of TCSM fan Steve Merlo, who recently sat down for an interview with Bloody Disgusting about his intended feature film THE SAWYER MASSACRE, intended as a prequel to the 1974 classic.

The film has been crowdfunded through Indegogo (now closed unfortunately) but should have raised enough to see it released in about August 2022.

Here’s the plot from the Director:

While recovering from the loss of someone close, Jimmy’s friends bring him to the Texas countryside to escape city life. In need of supplies for their cabin, they head to a gas station where they are directed to an isolated farmhouse. The property is not as it seems. They find themselves hunted by the cannibalistic psychopath known as Leatherface.

Clearly, it follows the formula that was also seen in The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, The Farm and loads of other slasher movies where humans are on the table instead of sitting around it. But, as Merlo says,

“It is our intent not to copy what the original did, but use it as influence in a stylistic way. Our film will have more blood and kills, but will still be very subtle in its delivery.”

The film is due for release in 2022, the date that appears in IMDB. The film also has a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram page if you wish to follow its progress.

Family feeding frenzy: FRIGHTMARE (Pete Walker, 1974)

The British Daily Telegraph called this movie a “moral obscenity”, or perhaps that was their mission statement. The trailer (above) is a hoot, offering the warning

Of course, these ‘small segments’ which are the only ones they dare show are the most gruesome parts of the movie. If you’re coming for the gore, just watch the trailer. But Frightmare has a lot more to offer than just slasher-fare. It is a British film, which is pretty refreshing in itself, as the British tend not to make a lot of cannibal films, sadly. Among the best are Revenge of Frankenstein, and Death Line. The Brits like to analyse their cannibals, find behaviourist explanations of their eating preferences. This film is in that tradition, but with some nice variations.

The film was variously titled Frightmare, Cover Up and Once Upon a Frightmare. Released in 1974, it was directed by Pete Walker, who spent the 1970s battling the censors with a string of gory movies, which didn’t set the box offices alight, but eventually became cult classics, particularly this little cannibal thriller.

 The story starts with a shy young man (Andrew Sachs, best known as Manuel from Fawlty Towers!) asking to be allowed into a trailer-home, from whence we know he will not be departing.

He’s not from Barcelona…

Then we see a very cranky judge sentencing Edmund and Dorothy Yates to a mental institution; he had hoped to send them to the gallows, but unfortunately there was this medical report…

Seventeen years later, Dorothy (Sheila Keith from Ballet Shoes) and Edmund (Rupert Davies from The Spy Who Came in from The Cold) have been deemed officially cured, and live in an isolated farmhouse. Dorothy ate at least six people in 1957, while her husband was convicted as well, having faked insanity in order to remain with his wife, although in reality he had not been involved in her murders. But that’s all in the past, says Dorothy, who now is just a harmless old pensioner. Dorothy has taken up hobbies, including needlepoint, and the use of power tools.

In the current day (well, 1974) Dorothy is back to her old tricks. She lures lonely and friendless young people to her home, promising tea and tarot card reading, at which she is deadly accurate, as the session always finishes with the same tarot card.

Then there’s the kids – Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage, who seems relatively normal, and Debbie (Kim Butcher), Dorothy’s actual daughter, conceived shortly before Dorothy was committed to the asylum; Debbie has never met her parents. Debbie is only fifteen but rides with a violent bikie gang and has apparently inherited her mother’s appetite for human flesh. She initiates a fight in which her boyfriend and his gang beat to death a barman, who had refused to serve her because she was under-age. The bikie gang flees when witnesses arrive, but Debbie stays, and carries off the body. Jackie meanwhile is delivering packages every week to her step-mother. They bleed, and they turn out to be the brains of some unfortunate sentient animal. She buys them at the butcher (oh the horror!), pretending she has been hunting humans, as a good step-daughter would, but Mum is not fooled – she wants human brains. Probably likes the way they come pre-scrambled.

Edmund tells his daughter that Dorothy has started up her old gustatory habits, and shows her a corpse in the back of his boss’ Rolls Royce to prove the point. If you have a chauffeur, you might want to dash outside now and check the boot (trunk) of your Roller. We’ll wait for you.

Jackie’s boyfriend is, conveniently, a psychiatrist, who searches out Dorothy’s case history. As a girl, the chief boffin says, she had a pet rabbit who, during the Great Depression, her family decided to kill for food. Traumatised by the consumption of her beloved family member (of the furry variety) she “twisted the horror of the situation into something pleasurable.” She started catching small animals and eating their brains, then started on larger ones, of the sapiens variety.

“It was the only case of cannibanthropy on record in this country. Pathological cannibalism. There were a couple of cases in the United States, almost unheard of anywhere else.”

Now we’re just getting silly, in a way that would embarrass Manuel and Basil. For a start, there is no such word, and if there were, it would just mean someone who cannibalises humans, which is somewhat redundant. Pathological cannibalism didn’t exist in 1974? In the country that birthed Jack the Ripper less than one hundred years earlier? Only fifteen years earlier, Tom Burns had killed, molested and eaten (more or less in that order) two little girls in the town of Barrow in Lancashire. But it’s an interesting observation that in less than fifty years ‘pathological cannibalism’ has gone from almost unknown to a regular headline for the yellow press.

Jackie confronts Debbie about her wild, wild ways, then tells the cops where to find the (partially chewed) body of the barman. Debbie and her boyfriend head to the country home to, you know, meet mum and dad. Find out a bit about the old folks.

It’s a touching reconciliation of mum and daughter, even when mum takes a pitchfork to the boyfriend.

Look, it might have been horrifying and gruesome in 1974, but maybe we’ve all become hardened by watching cannibal movies or the TV evening news. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a measly 55% but, to be fair, it is highly watchable and, being a British production, the character actors are superb, particularly Rupert Davies and Sheila Keith.

The daughters are also more than just the gorgeous young teens that seem to swarm in slasher films. There is conflict between the older Jackie who feels responsible for everyone, and the younger Debbie, who lives for kicks (and a bit of flesh). Jackie represents the delusional nature of modern social customs, which see humans as defined by being other-than-animal, and so she is happy to buy the brains of cows or sheep (socially acceptable) in order to fool her step-mother (socially awkward), but horrified to find the older woman preferring the real thing (socially unacceptable). I’m sure most cannibals (and zombies) would think she is delusional: a brain is a brain.

The fascinating part of the movie for me is the main antagonist, Dorothy, the (unfortunately rare) female cannibal. Cannibalism remains an extreme form of carnivorous virility, and women have not yet won equality in number of perps or number of victims, and they probably even earn less flesh than men. I liked that Debbie, who had never met her cannibalistic mother, was already eating bartenders, disproving the expert psychiatrists who had blundered in releasing Dorothy, and before that misinterpreted her cannibalism as an unfortunate response to the eating of her pet rabbit. Debbie adds nature into the mix, offering support for a kind of genetic cannibalism, almost a wendigo syndrome, something that runs in families, like the Finnish family in Bloody Hell, or the Parker family in the Catskills. Frightmare was released a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which of course became the quintessential family-cannibal movie.

Anyway, Dorothy is a superb villain, a mixture of Arsenic and Old Lace and Leonarda Cianciulli, who murdered three women to make soap and teacakes in wartime Italy. Sheila Keith portrays at one moment a frail old woman, broken by years in an asylum, and the next a cackling serial killer with an electric drill and a flaming poker, both of which she plunges into various victims. Her husband has the role of the weak, supportive spouse, he is Mrs Lovett to Dorothy’s Sweeney Todd. Simon Flynn on the Peter Cushing tribute website called her “the most memorable woman the horror genre has ever seen.” Amen to that.

You can get the movie at Amazon or you might find it on Youtube – currently the full movie is showing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJj_ir8vi2I

Harvesting hitchhikers: UNDER THE SKIN (Book: Michel Faber, 2000) (Film: Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

“We’re all the same under the skin.”

The philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed that we are unable to understand the point of view of another being, giving as examples the difficulty imagining what it’s like for a human to imagine being a bat, or for a blind person to imagine being sighted. J.M. Coetzee in the guise of his character Elizabeth Costello thought differently – it’s about being, seeking, feeling, and of course eating. We all do those sort of things. We can sympathise, no matter how alien that other may be.

The movie and the book of Under the Skin feature a ‘real’ alien – a being from another planet, disguised as a human woman, here to harvest human flesh for food. They both ask – what’s it like to be an alien? In the book, the aliens are quadrupeds, looking something between a horse and a sheep apparently, except for the protagonist, Isserley, who has been surgically mutilated to make her look like a ‘human’ of earth. I say ‘human’ in inverted commas because her people, like many clans interviewed in the reports of anthropologists, believe that they are the humans, and so everyone else must be aliens or subhumans. To Isserley’s people, the denizens of Earth are “vodsels” (Dutch for “food” – the author Michel Faber is originally Dutch) – dumb animals that can be captured, castrated, fattened up and then slaughtered for meat, which is exported back to the home planet.

Isserley is a hunter. Her weapon in the book is a small car which has anaesthetic needles in the passenger seat. In the movie, it’s her appearance – she looks like (because she is played by) Scarlett Johansson (identified in the credits as “The Female”).

Men get in her car and eagerly accept the offer to come home with her, but at home, they disappear into a pool of black ectoplasm.

She stalks her prey, driving around the roads of Scotland and picking up hitchhikers, asking them questions to draw out whether they will be missed and, if they are loners, losers, tranquilising them with a drug called icpathua and taking them back to be processed. The film took an audacious decision to use real men, not actors (most of them), many of whom were offered a lift by Johansson, and recorded by secret cameras in her van. They don’t recognise Johansson as a movie star, just as their unwitting “characters” don’t recognise her as an alien hunter. In the book, Isserley is not portrayed as any kind of Scarlett Johansson, but does have huge breasts, the prototype for the surgery being based on some questionable magazines sent back to the home planet by the advance crew.

The story in both media is not just about being alien (which she is in several ways: as a woman, as an alien, and as a hunter) but about how difficult it can be to sympathise with the other, the stranger, the prey, and how dangerous it can be when one finally does so. In the book, Isserley is purely interested in whether they will be missed, and is unconcerned about what is done to them, which is described in graphic detail: they are shaved, castrated, tongues removed and fattened up. In the film, she will go to any lengths to capture her prey, at one point dragging away a man who had tried to save a drowning couple, leaving their baby crying on the beach.

But what happens when the hunter starts to identify or at least sympathise with the prey? Isserley is made to think through the implications when she needs to convince the aristocratic scion of the ruling family of her planet that the vodsels are just dumb animals, and their feeble attempts to beg for mercy by scratching in the sand of their cages are just gibberish (he is unaware they can speak, as their tongues have been cut out). He is a believer in animal rights, and frees some of the captives, whom Isserley then has to hunt once again, this time with a shotgun. Isserley never really challenges the morality of hunting, mutilating, fattening and slaughtering the stupid vodsels (us) although she is horrified at the suggestion of eating sheep, serene animals who look like the children of her species, unlike the “brutish cunning of the vodsels”. Her morality, like so much of ours, is based on similarity. Her challenge comes when she picks up a man who (we know, although she doesn’t) is a serial killer, sedates him, then realises she has left his dog to starve in his van. She heads back to where she picked him up, frees the dog, and decides to quit, try to make a life as an Earthling, even though she cannot even eat our food.

The Female of the film has a different challenge. She picks up a man with severe facial deformity, who admits that not only will no one miss him, but that there has never been anyone who might have.

She takes him back to the black pond, but rescues him at the last moment, and then flees. Then she ceases to be the hunter, and becomes the hunted. Both the film and the book have a vicious rape scene when the prey, the desperate from among men she collects, turn on her.

The story may be interpreted according to many discourses of our times. It can be interpreted as the struggle of immigrants against the racism and resentment of those whose territory they enter. It is more widely interpreted as a feminist narrative, in which the standard horror trope of the sexually active female being stalked by the monster is turned on its head – the males walking alone at night are the prey, the woman is the molester and murderer. It is also a comment on economic class distinctions: the men she picks up are the strays, the unemployed who are exiled, isolated and vulnerable. She is culling those whom society has expelled, like a lion preying on the old and weak of a herd of antelopes. They are the aliens from this planet. 

The book in particular is a metaphoric condemnation of modern factory farming. The vodsels (that’s you and I) are considered “vegetables on legs”.

“The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly.  There was always the tendency to anthropomorphise. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions. In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan.”

Aren’t these the same arguments thrown at vegans on social media every day? “Humans” are intellectually superior, and therefore the only ones worthy of moral consideration. And to these aliens, we are not the humans. Isserley and her crew are the embodiment of John Harris’ famous quote (usually misattributed to George Bernard Shaw):

Suppose that tomorrow a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth, beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals. Would they have the right to treat you as you treat the animals you breed, keep and kill for food?

The film is less distinct in its message. Glazer said in an interview that he wanted

“to make a film representing, as purely as possible, an alien view of our world.”

How do we step into another’s consciousness, be it a man or woman or bat, be it a predator or prey? How is it to be an outsider, an alien, a stranger in a strange land? It is difficult to comprehend, and yet sometimes it is easy, because we have all felt like aliens at one time or another. Think of your first day at a new school.

The brilliance of this story is that we see humanity (us, that is) through the eyes of an alien. In the book it’s Isserley’s thoughts and feelings about the vodsels, Earthlings, to whom she feels both contempt and grudging admiration. In the film, it’s images – the dark streets of Glasgow, the crowds jostling and threatening, the shopping mall that suddenly seems like an alien landscape.

In other words, we get to feel how it is to be an alien, proving the truth of Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello when she says: “there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination”. But this insight is not accessed through rational contemplation, which tells us we can do whatever we want if we have the power and the will, but rather from the heart, “the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another.” We sympathise with this alien, as she begins to sympathise with us.

Matt Zoller Seitz, the critic from RogerEbert.com, interprets the story’s message as saying:

“Here is an experience that’s nothing like yours, and here are some images and sounds and situations that capture the essence of what the experience felt like; watch the movie for a couple of hours, and when it’s over, go home and think about what you saw and what it did to you.”

The film earned a very respectable 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, The Guardian called it a masterpiece, but it was a box office flop. Let’s hope it, and the book, continue to ascend into the realms of cult texts. They are both highly recommended for your consideration.

Meat the wife: “MICROWAVE MASSACRE” (Berwick, 1979)

“Anthem Pictures reluctantly presents what is considered to be the worst horror film of all time…”

That’s the start of the trailer (above) and like many trailers, it has some exaggeration and outright untruths to offer. This is not the worst horror film of all time, it may not even be a horror film, being perhaps better categorised as a comedy with blood and boobs (both presented somewhat gratuitously).

The story ‘follows’ a construction worker named Donald (Jackie Vernon, who was an American stand-up comedian and actor best known for his role as the voice of Frosty the Snowman; this was his last feature film). Donald’s wife May has bought an absurdly huge microwave, and after a quarrel about the fact that he doesn’t like the gourmet dishes she prepares in it (he only likes “food he can pronounce”), he kills her and puts her in it.

Has he never heard of preparing his own meals? Well, that’s what he ends up doing, with a sudden abundance of meat – perfectly cooked, as soon as he turns on the microwave.

He finds that his friends on the construction site love his cooking, turning them into what cannibal studies calls “innocent cannibals”, those who eat human flesh unknowingly, as did the customers of Sweeney Todd.

To keep the food flowing, he takes home a prostitute and kills her during sex, then lights a cigarette, only to wonder if the smoke is for “after sex or before dinner.” Getting the picture? Other victims follow, including a woman dressed as Big Bird which allows the film some levity with chicken jokes such as “I thought you were a leg man, not a breast man”. We witness Donald’s M.O. – screw them, kill them and cook them. He tells his psychiatrist, who sleeps through his confession, that

The psychiatrist, newly awakened, assumes he is talking about a more symbolic cannibalism, cunnilingus, and encourages him to “do it do it do it! She’ll lose her head over you!” Ah, the witty double entendres! Donald goes to Chinatown, and promises his friends he’ll be making “Peking Chick”.

It’s full of those sorts of puns, and they are closer to horrendous than humorous. Each joke is based on racism, sexism or speciesism, and usually all three woven together, into a dish less palatable than the unfortunate May. Except for May and her sister, women are presented as promiscuous and available temptresses: a mixture of Eve and the Serpent who enticed her to taste the forbidden fruit in the original sin. There is in this film virtually no character development required before the victims are fucked and eaten.

The movie is barely longer than a modern TV episode at just under 1¼ hours. That seemed at times to be about seventy minutes too long. However, the film somehow managed to get 35% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Allmovie stating:

“Despite utterly failing as comedy, horror and pornography, Microwave Massacre is grotesque enough in design and attitude to be fascinating, much like a car accident.”

This is actually a better result than the director’s later movie The Naked Monster which managed a massive 12% rating of rottenness.

On the other hand, The Independent Critic thought it was “incredibly funny”, but warned:

“Vegetarians beware, this is a meateaters (sic) delight and the faint of heart should probably steer clear.”

Now, I’m just not sure why ‘meateaters’ would find images of women being murdered and cut up a ‘delight’. It seems to me after some careful study that meateaters prefer to maintain a judicious nescience about the source of their protein, which is why we see high walls around slaughterhouses and the careful dismemberment and presentation of the ‘products’ as not the parts of an animal but ‘just meat.’ Donald’s friends are horrified to find that the food they have been eating is a different kind of mammal to the one they expected. But they never asked about the species inside the lunchbox.

The combination of sex and slaughter is entirely aimed at and inflicted upon young women (Donald is nauseated at the prospect of having to eat May’s middle-aged sister, and leaves her tied up in a closet). This reflects the practices of animal agriculture which predominantly exploits the juvenile female body (eggs, milk, babies) before slaughtering them for meat. As a cannibal studies text (as opposed to a bad movie), this might appeal less to ‘meateaters’ and more to Carol J. Adams, who describes this process in detail in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, which she describes as:

“an attitude and action that animalises women and sexualises and feminises animals.”

If I haven’t put you off yet, the film is available at Amazon for sale as a 2-disc special edition or for download or rent.


While we’re here, I would like to thank you for reading this blog – the readership has been going up steadily each month, and set a new record in March.

THANK YOU!

Meat is meat! THE BUTCHERS (Paulmichel Mielche, 1973)

Since at least the time of Sweeney Todd, the barber who killed his customers and turned them into pies in the early 19th century, enterprising business people have been selling human meat to their customers. In Soylent Green, the US government does a roaring trade in it, and demonstrates sustainable recycling, well before it became fashionable. It’s a trope that is enduringly popular, because it offers metaphors for the fears people hold about their own society. Who among us has not suspected we have been exploited, chewed up and spat out at some time? Except for those doing the chewing up of course. 

The movie was originally called Maxie, but that must have been a bit subtle, as it was renamed for marketing purposes to The Butchers or sometimes Murderer’s Keep. The lead character is a young girl named Maxie (K.T. Baumann) – a difficult role as Maxie is a deaf mute who witnesses the local butcher chopping up dead people for his shop, and is kidnapped by his assistant to ensure her “silence”. They’re afraid she is going to learn to talk. It’s complicated (not really). Baumann expresses what most actors get to say by using her face, movements and sounds, and she is very impressive.

The butchers are Smedke (Vic Tayback from Bullitt as well as bit parts in almost every TV show ever made) and his half-witted assistant Finn, played with gusto by Robert Walden (Lou Grant and lots of other shows). The problem is that, as horror movie villains, they are neither scary nor villainous. Except for their business practices, they are quite sympathetic characters. The gore we usually associate (expect?) with cannibal movies is mainly the result of Finn, the apprentice butcher, screwing up the slaughter of some unfortunate hens. We see that in gory detail, as if the director wants us to question whether it’s worse to eat a living, breathing animal fighting for her life, or a dead body who can feel nothing. The scene reminded me of the gratuitous animal cruelty in Cannibal Holocaust and other Italian cannibal movies, which were supposedly added to make the audience think the violence and cannibalism were real. No such pretence here – they just kill chickens. Life is cheap.

Smedke is buying human corpses, wrapped in brown paper, from a shipping yard (no further explanation is offered) and happily chopping them up for customers who don’t want to pay the prices he charges for the regular cuts. His refrain is:

“Meat is meat! And a man has to make a living.”

A refrain that is lost in this film, but was used to great effect a few years later (“meat is meat and a man’s gotta eat!”) by the ever-cheerful Rory Calhoun in Motel Hell. Smedke is an entrepreneur in Nixon’s America, which is careering toward neo-liberalism, Reagan and “greed is good”. Although he doesn’t get to expand on his philosophy, it seems clear that a dead body is worthless buried, so it might as well be bought and sold.

The interesting aspect of the ‘plot’ is that Maxie cannot tell anyone what she has seen (basically a human foot sticking out of the brown paper) and has no social skills since her father has kept her at home rather than risk her humiliation at school. Yet she can take an ethical position – she tosses out all the meat in her father’s fridge, choosing vegetarianism.

This barely ranks as a B movie, and while I have reviewed a few films on this blog that got a fat zero on Rotten Tomatoes, this might be the first that did not even get onto the site at all. Check this less than glowing review:

“Miekhe… ends up creating the cinematic equivalent of a staph infection, an oblique mess that just spreads and oozes across the screen like fissures on an untreated leg gash. By the end, you aren’t hoping for closure so much as a conclusion – ANY conclusion – just to get us out of this asylum as anti-horror film… And yet, for all its baffling movie machinations, its lack of gory goodness and substantially less than successful storytelling, The Butchers is still a fascinating film experience.”

Indeed, it has a certain fascination if you can navigate through the paper-thin plot – it is a glimpse of small-town America in 1970 as it moves from the optimism of the sixties to the rapacity of the seventies. The cast are mostly great, particularly Baumann and Walden. Talia Coppola, (aka Talia Shire, the sister of Francis Ford Coppola) is shown as a star on the credits, although she has a minor role in the film. She played Connie Corleone in the Godfather series, and Adrian Pennino in the Rocky films, and was nominated for an Oscar in both roles. She is a bit wasted here.

The music is quirky, sometimes totally inappropriate and never boring or obvious like so many horror films. And sometimes it’s just fun to watch a film that no one has heard of, and probably no one ever will. And it asks the key question of cannibal studies: why do people find the killing and eating of some animals unremarkable and others repulsive?

BLOODY HELL (Alister Grierson, 2020)

This is a ripsnorter of a thriller, and full of surprises. Defiantly internationalist, the film is an Australian-British action/horror film directed by Alister Grierson (Kokoda, Sanctum, Tiger) and written by Robert Benjamin. It is set in a basement in Helsinki Finland with scenes in Boise, Idaho, and features mostly Australian and New Zealand actors, with American or Finnish accents and dialogue as necessary. It was made on the Gold Coast in Queensland (as many blockbusters have been recently).

The main characters are both personas of Rex (Ben O’Toole – Hacksaw Ridge, Detroit, The Water Diviner).  O’Toole is superb (imagine a combination of Bruce Willis and Robert Downey Jr) in two roles: both the physical Rex and his inner voice, the part of him (and all of us) which commentates his life and ordeals, screams abuse, even when pretending to be calm and collected or even unconscious, and debates the best responses, rational or emotional, to every aspect of what is going on around him. O’Toole called this Rex his character’s “conscience”, but it’s not a Freudian split between an ego and a superego (or id) – it is more nuanced, and the invisible Rex (invisible to other characters – the audience and physical Rex can see and hear him) argues about practical and ethical issues all the time, sometimes compassionate, sometimes sneering and violent. That inner voice, as we all know, is exhausting.

Rex and his inner voice are off to Finland. Why? Well, Rex was in a bank, chatting to a teller he fancied, when a gang of heavily armed men came storming in and violently robbed both the bank and the customers. Rex, ex-military, was able to take on the gang and kill them all, but the last one was ready to surrender when invisible Rex screamed:

As the last robber collapsed, dickless, his gun went off, killing an innocent teller who had been hiding in a cupboard. Rex became a media sensation, with half the population calling him a hero, and the rest a “psycho twat”, and a plea bargain saw him in jail for eight years for causing the teller’s death, leading to his decision to emigrate, on his release. In a flashback to his court case, Rex is asked why he shot the bank robber in that particular spot.

“I wanted him down… and I didn’t want him to reproduce… win – win!”

Why Finland? Well, he shot spitballs at a world map in his jail cell, and fate led him to that country. Where, unfortunately, a family of cannibals awaited him, and he wakes up, barely twenty minutes into the film, hanging by his wrists from a water pipe in a dark basement.

With the classic trope of cannibal films, used so well in Texas Chain Saw Massacre – the extreme close-up.

He is missing a leg, blood dripping from the stump, but his inner Rex is still fine and walking around, and furious at their precarious situation. Our imaginary self, after all, is as threatened by our mortality as we are.

It is clear to us, the audience, that Rex’s body parts are a living larder, although it takes the Rexs a bit longer to figure out why his leg is missing.

“Black market limb trade… is that a thing? I’m pretty sure there’s a niche there.”

It’s actually a very funny film – the dialogue between the two Rexs and even some of the murderous Finns is often hilarious. Rex pulls himself up to the huge knot to try to free himself with his teeth, observing that, short of one leg,

Rex’s love interest is Alia (Meg Fraser – Leech) the daughter, who has spent her life trying to escape her family.

Rex offers to “rescue” her (which considering his position is ambitious), and tells her,

“If we get out of here, I’ll tell you the whole story over dinner. I’ll even pay, huh?”

Now Rex has to dump on vegans to the girl whose family is upstairs eating the meat of his right leg; the family are definitely not vegans, nor can they see anything much wrong in giving their oldest son his preferred meat species. Alia explains that her older brother Pati is “the oldest and the hungriest”. Like Rex, he certainly does like a bit of meat, but, like the Wendigo, there is only one source that will satisfy him. Many omnivores will eat any meat except human. Pati will eat any meat as long as it’s human. As omnis like to say “it’s a personal choice.”

“He’s the reason you’re here. And very soon, there will be nothing left of you.”

Cannibal Studies is usually concerned with the anthropological or metaphorical aspects of the act – exposing the outsider as uncivilised, or else dripping irony about our own rapacious appetites. This film manages to do both, as Rex rants about the Finnish family, and how he wants to be back in the good ol’ USA,

Which is ironic, because if you check the “Cannibal News” category on this blog, you will see that a goodly proportion of modern cases of cannibalism occur in the good ol’ USA (and none in Finland*). The USA is the apotheosis of consumer societies where, just like Alia’s brother,

The rest of the film concerns Rex’s attempts to escape – not easy when one leg is gone and one of the family members has just tried to saw off the second one. You’ll have to see it to find out how that goes. It’s well worth it. Film critic Rob Hunter sums it up nicely:

“It’s a serious tale of survival encased in blackly comic humor, maliciously creepy twins, and the most sweetly sensual stump-washing scene you’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.”

The movie premiered in Australia on October 8, 2020, and in the United States a day later at the Nightstream Film Festival. It has a 91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with comments like “blissfully, absurdly over-the-top, but in a twistedly charming way”.

This is a blackly humorous horror-thriller, and is quite brilliantly executed by Alister Grierson, particularly as the hero, normally the action figure of such stories, is tied to the ceiling and missing a leg for most of the film. You might think that would slow down the pace, but director Grierson keeps it tearing along. I usually stop and start when reviewing a movie, but this one I gulped down in one sitting, then came back for details.

As for the lead actor, Ben O’Toole, he seems to have got a taste for the cannibal stories. He said in an interview that he’d like to play Titus Andronicus, who was William Shakespeare’s favourite cannibal.

Let’s not forget, too, how much cannibalistic symbolism is involved in sex, such as “I could eat you up” as well as various foodie words for cunnilingus and felatio. And of course the French (or Finnish) kiss, when Rex and Alia finally escape.

And just to prove other people like puns too, here is the last frame of the film.

* Actually, there is a case of Finnish cannibalism – Jarno Elg, a supposed Satanist, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998 for murdering a 23-year-old man, eating some of the body parts and inciting some friends to participate in a ritual that included torturing the victim while listening to songs from The Cainian Chronicle album by the Norwegian black metal band Ancient. Elg was granted parole in 2014.

The movie is available at Amazon.

   

Whales and cannibals: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (Ron Howard, 2015)

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the original ‘Great American Novel’, was based on the story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was destroyed by a bull sperm whale in 1820. The story of the wreck, and particularly the subsequent cannibalism that some of the survivors employed to survive, has largely faded from public knowledge (Moby Dick finished with the whale sinking the ship), but in the nineteenth century, every American child would have learnt about it at school, and this film starts with a young Melville (Ben Wishaw, who played a very different role in Perfume) seeking out the last survivor some decades later, hoping to get the full story to use in his novel.

This film is based on a meticulously researched 2000 book of the same name on the Essex disaster by Nathaniel Philbrick, which won him the National Book Award for Nonfiction in that year. Whaling was no more controversial in the early nineteenth century than crude oil in the early twentieth – it was used to power the factories and light up the cities of the world, and was worth a fortune. As the fleets decimated the whales near shore, the boats had to head further into, well, the heart of the sea, to find their victims. Whaling was, and remains, an incredibly brutal business, with small boats harpooning the giant mammals then drawing near and stabbing them to death. A successful kill was signalled by a plume of blood spurting out of the whale’s blowhole.

Whaling was a class-based system, with the captains drawn from the powerful old families in Nantucket, the tiny American island that was the centre of the industry. The main protagonist of the film is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth – the mighty Thor) as the first mate, who was refused the captaincy because he is socially inferior, an “off-islander”.

His best friend is the second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy from 28 Days Later). The Captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is ineffectual but is from one of the original Nantucket families, and so has been promoted over Chase. In fact, the ships were run on strict class and race lines: the African-Americans and off-islanders lived in the Foc’s’le or front of the ship, where the food was inferior, and did the dirty work. The Nantucketers lived aft, and were fed and treated better. They were, in general, the ones that survived sinkings. Six African-Americans made it into the whaling boats – none survived. True Nantucketers were also mostly devout Quakers, pacifists who, however, saw no problem in killing magnificent whales and “raising bloody havoc at sea” as Philbrick put it. Class conflict is the basis of the story for the first half, before the angry whale comes along.

The story of the Essex is told to Melville by a decrepit old drunk who is the last remaining survivor, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, who was also in 28 Days Later). Nickerson had been a cabin boy (played by Tom Holland – Spiderman) when the boat sank. Nickerson did write an account of the events, but it was not discovered until 1980, so Melville did not in fact use his words. Chase’s brief account would have been the one known to Melville, who embroidered the conflict, as authors do, to make the whale white and almost supernatural, and avoided the controversy, not mentioning the cannibalism that resulted from the wrecking of the boat.

This does shed some light on the different reception of cannibalism over time. When the Essex set sail, cannibalism at sea after shipwrecks was not uncommon, and was generally considered embarrassing but necessary. The Monty Python team did a skit based on a version of this incident.

In the Heart of the Sea suggests a conspiracy by the whaling company to ignore the cannibalism as the presence at sea of a giant, angry whale would discourage further exploration, but Chase and Pollard refuse to cooperate. By Melville’s time, cannibalism was too graphic for his potential audience (he wanted to sell books after all). In our time, the great white whale is still of interest, in that he represents nature fighting back against human rapaciousness, but the real point of this film is now the cannibalism. Would anyone go to see a movie about a shipwreck if Thor didn’t eat anyone?

Or even if he did. The film’s tagline was “Based on the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick”, which did not inspire enough people to see it – it grossed $93 million, which sounds great until you see that it’s budget was $100 million. It scored a paltry 42% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Seattle Times critic summarising it as:

“Thor and Spider-Man fight a whale.”

Despite some critics seeing the movie as over-long and dull, the scenes at sea are full of action (if not exactly Pirates of the Caribbean) and very well done, and the special effects are spectacular, especially the whales and the sails, and the whales demolishing the sails (you can guess which side I was on).

But as Philbrick wrote in his book,

The Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told. (p.236)

The halfway point of a movie is usually the turning point in some form, and it certainly is here – in the middle of the film, in the middle of the Pacific, they finally find an abundance of whales, including the great white whale that they were warned about on a stop in Ecuador. He charges the ship, staves in the side, the whale oil they had collected goes up in flames, and they have to abandon ship and fit as much food as they can (which isn’t much) into their little whaling boats.

The rest of the movie is all about how some (a few) of them survived the long voyage of 4,500 nautical miles back to South America. They reach a small but uninhabitable island, and the white whale makes them welcome by tipping over their boats as they head for the beach. Chase and the Captain abandon their class struggle to engage in dialogue about anthropocentric carnivorous virility instead.

Pollard answers with presupposed anthropocentric arrogance.

“We are supreme creatures, made in God’s own likeness. Earthly kings, whose business it is to circumnavigate the planet bestowed to us…”

The island cannot sustain them – they find the skeletons of a previous party that took shelter there, so repair the boats and head off again for another agonising trip across the endless ocean. After 48 days stranded, with almost no food or water, one of the sailors on Chase’s boat dies. The others prepare to toss him overboard, but Chase stops them. It’s all handled quite delicately, but it’s definitely become a cannibal movie.

“We prepared the body. We removed the organs. Separated his limbs from his body and cut all the flesh from the bones.”

In the other boat, no one dies so conveniently, so they draw straws for a victim. The captain gets the short straw, but his cousin cannot shoot him and shoots himself instead, keeping the catering in the family.

The whale comes back, but he and Chase exchange a look, and Chase cannot bring himself to kill the magnificent bull.

After ninety days at sea, the survivors reached South America. According to the book, a boat that drew up alongside saw two men sucking the marrow from the bones of the dead, refusing to give them up. Unlike some survivor cannibal stories such as Alive, where the actors looked pretty much the same weight at the end of the ordeal, Hemsworth reported that the cast were put on a strict ration of 500–600 calories a day, and he lost 40 pounds (18kg), giving him a reasonable idea of what the sailors had gone through.

What the film doesn’t mention is that the survivors could have had a much easier time of it if they had headed not for South America but west toward the Marquesas Islands, only 1,200 miles away. They chose not to do so, because of earlier reports that the natives were, yep, cannibals. One mariner, Georg von Langsdorff, had written in 1804 that the natives so loved human flesh that “those who have once eaten it can with difficulty abstain from it.” Of course, it was all nonsense.

Instead, they headed east, and ended up eating each other.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s CANNIBAL THE MUSICAL (Trey Parker, 1993)

Ever wondered what Trey Parker and Matt Stone did before South Park? Here’s a surprise – they went to college, where they wrote, directed, produced, co-scored and acted in a musical about cannibalism. This is it.

How’s your American history? It’s certainly never dull – full of wars, insurrections, and also a good deal of cannibalism – historical and contemporary. Probably the most famous incident is the Donner Party, a group of families who became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada over winter 1846-47, and famously turned to cannibalism to survive. Also up there in the mythology is the story of the famous typo, Alferd Packer, a prospector and self-proclaimed wilderness guide, who confessed to cannibalism during the harsh winter of 1874. Packer and five other men had attempted to travel across the San Juan Mountains of Colorado through the bitter winter snow, and Packer was the only one to arrive, some two months later, at the Los Pinós Indian Agency, near Saguache, Colorado. He first claimed the other men had abandoned him, then changed his story to tell of shared cannibalism of the men who had died of the cold, but was eventually charged with murder.

The real Alferd (Alfred) Packer

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, his name was probably Alfred, but according to some sources, he changed it to Alferd after a mix up with a tattoo. Don’t know if that’s true, but just think of Jame Gumb in Silence of the Lambs, who refused to correct his birth certificate by adding an S to his first name. The author of that book, the meticulous researcher Thomas Harris, may have been having a wink at Alferd with that one.

According to a book on Packer, the judge at his trial sentenced him to death, saying:

Stand up yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch and receive yir sintince. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’ be hanged by th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin’ ag’in reducin’ th’ Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.

Packer was not hanged, due to a legal technicality – he was sentenced under state law, but Colorado was not a state at the time of the cannibalism. Antonia Bird’s film Ravenous was also partly based on Packer.

That is pretty much the story that Trey Parker tells, using the names, dates and versions of the events that happened, and even in musical form, he tells it rather more accurately than an earlier biopic called The Legend of Alfred Packer (1980); also a lot more accurately than a later film called Devoured: The Legend of Alferd Packer (2005), which offered audiences the ghost of Alferd eating people in the modern day. Parker and Stone add lots of humour and gore and some very impressive and catchy songs, all written by, and mostly sung by, Trey Parker. Parker and Stone are masters of irony, and it is laid on thick, starting with the card at the beginning saying that the film was originally released in 1954 (some 15 years before Parker and Stone were born) but was eclipsed by the release of Oklahoma. The card goes on to claim that the violence has been edited out, and they follow this with a scene showing Packer killing the other members of his group by biting their necks and tearing off their arms.

The film moves between Packer’s trial (the bloody scene at the start is the prosecution lawyer re-enacting the alleged crime) and Packer’s description of the actual events, complete with dance routines and love songs to his horse, Liane.

The group who persuade Packer to be their guide are totally unprepared for the march from Utah to the Colorado gold fields over the snowbound Rockies, and are warned not to proceed into a big storm by a tribe of Indians, played by Japanese foreign exchange students, who speak Japanese, and even carry Samurai swords.

In a nice bit of cannibal intertextuality (Homer’s Odyssey), they try to kill a sheep belonging to a one-eyed cyclops (actually a Confederate soldier who lost his eye in the civil war). Early shades of South Park, as the cyclops squirts pus from his missing eye.

Sitting around the campfire, starving, they recall the story of the Donner party, and that gives them an idea. Yeah, they eat the guy who was an incurable optimist, who they shot for wanting to build a snowman. Look, it makes sense at the time. They even discuss not exactly the ethics of cannibalism, but at least the aesthetics – they won’t eat the dead guy’s butt, and Packer (Parker) is sick at what part Humphrey (Stone) chooses to eat.

There’s a ballet dream with Alfred dreaming of a reunion with Lianne (the horse), who has run away with a gang of trappers. Yeah, you’ll have to see it.

But the snow has them trapped, and they run out of food, and now the discussion is not which parts of a corpse to eat, but which member of the team should be sacrificed for the next meal. There is a hugely extravagant massacre, following which Packer waits out the winter, but now with plenty of meat, and then heads into town with his story of losing the rest of his party. That doesn’t wash, particularly when the well chewed bodies are found.

There’s a bar fight, pretty much de rigueur in Westerns, and Packer escapes to Wyoming, which he says is worse than being torn apart by the furious townspeople. Eventually he is arrested and brought back to Colorado. During his trial, there is a love interest, Polly (Toddy Walters), who interviews Packer through the bars of his cell in a scene that kept reminding me of Clarice Starling interviewing Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, which had swept the Oscars in 1992, the year before this was made. She becomes convinced of his innocence and – well, it’s complicated. But the film is well worth your 100 minutes, just to see what Parker and Stone could do with real people instead of simulated cut-outs.

The film had mixed reviews, with some of the reviewers not knowing what to make of it. The critic score on Rotten Tomatoes is only 65%, but the audience score is 82%. The critic from Empire said: “there’s an air of genial enthusiasm, tempered by sick humour, that is surprisingly engaging”.

The tagline for the film is:

“In the tradition of Friday the 13th Part 2… and Oklahoma… comes the first intelligent movie about cannibalism!”

Parker and Stone are not shy about their fascination with cannibalism, for example, check out the South Park episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die”, in which Cartman takes revenge on a boy by killing the boy’s parents, and cooking and feeding them to him.

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For a movie made by a couple of students at the University of Colorado, this is very impressive. It’s well made, the cast is great and the music is hard to get out of your head afterwards. I guess not so surprising, when we consider that four years later, in 1997, Parker and Stone launched South Park, which has been running ever since with over 300 episodes shown so far, and more seasons booked until at least 2022.

Modern geniuses.