Cannibal hunter: “CHILD 44” (Espinosa, 2015)

Most cannibal movies are about the cannibal, but Child 44 is almost entirely about the cannibal-hunter. He is a member of Stalin’s secret police, the MGB, the predecessor of the KGB, and the movie is set in the last days of the Stalinist terror. The perp is torturing and killing children and surgically removing their organs, so our hero wants to, like, stop him. There is an administrative problem though: in the Socialist Paradise of the USSR, there is no such thing as murder; it is a capitalist crime. So the first case is put down as a train accident. Then there are 43 more – thus the title.

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The film is based on the bestselling book by Tom Rob Smith, the first of a trilogy featuring former MGB Agent Leo Demidov. In the film, Leo is played by the English actor Tom Hardy, with a convincing mix of power and vulnerability that carries an otherwise rather overlong production. Leo is a war hero who planted the red flag on the Reichstag after the conquest of Berlin, and is now a senior investigator.

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One of his friends from the Berlin days, Alexei (Fares Fares), also a MGB officer, finds that his little boy has been brutally murdered, but Leo has to persuade him to accept the official explanation that he was hit by a train.

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The antagonist (not the killer, we barely see more than his legs or arms until half way through the film) is another veteran of Berlin named Vasili (Joel Kinnaman, who played the clean-cut Republican candidate running against Frank Underwood in House of Cards). He is a coward, liar, etc and manages to derail Leo’s career by accusing Leo’s wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) of being a spy. Stripped of his rank for refusing to denounce his (maybe) pregnant wife, Leo must start his investigation as a mere militiaman in a remote town. He is under the command of a General played by the brilliant Gary Oldman, who has portrayed everyone from Dracula to Beethoven, Sirius Black to George Smiley, Winston Churchill to Mason Verger (in Hannibal the movie).

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The General has two boys and is not pleased when another dead boy, with organs surgically removed, is found nearby. He arrests the man who found the body, not because he thinks he is the killer but because he is gay, and he assumes that a gay man must be responsible (also because homosexuality was a crime in the Soviet Union). But rounding up all the gay men in town doesn’t stop the killings. The killer is seen picking up a boy in a station, later making sweets (where would archetypal paedophiles be without bags of sweets) and still later abusing himself for being weak and prone to remorse.

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The film, as I said, is based on a book, which is based on the true story of Andrei Chikatilo, the “Rostov Ripper”, who was eventually convicted of 52 murders, although he confessed to more. Chikatilo was able to continue his killing spree from 1978 to 1995, due to a combination of general ineptitude, official denial of the concept of a Soviet serial killer, and luck (apparently his semen had a different grouping to his blood). He claimed that he had been told by his mother that his older brother had been kidnapped and cannibalised by starving neighbours when he was little. This may have been her way of trying to scare him into behaving, but he was born in Ukraine at the time of the Holodomor, when Stalin was busy starving millions of people to death as part of the process of Collectivisation, so could well have been true.  Chikatilo was a self-confessed cannibal, stating that he gained sexual satisfaction from torturing his victims, and would sometimes drink their blood and eat their nipples and tongues. The real Chikatilo was far more depraved than depicted in this movie. There is a list of his crimes at the criminal minds website.

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Andrei Chikatilo

This film has a lot going for it, particularly a first-rate cast, some good action scenes, and a lot of sets which capture the oppressive darkness of Stalinist Russia. But it has a lot of problems too. It’s over two hours and gets a bit tedious in parts, and the decision to have a bunch of English, Swedish, Lebanese, Polish and even Australian actors speak in English with heavy Russian accents to make it seem “authentic” was widely derided by critics. The Guardian critic called the film “an Iron Curtain version of ‘Allo ‘Allo”.

With a Rotten Tomato rating of only 26%, the film bombed at the box office, grossing just $13 million against its $50 million budget. It was banned in Russia, with the Minister of Culture accusing the film of making the Soviet Union look like Mordor. Outrageous of course. Stalin was far worse than Sauron.

And perhaps the worst thing? Just as the Soviets would not admit that there was a serial killer in their paradise, this film does not approach the fact that he was also a cannibal (although it refers briefly to the widespread cannibalism of the Ukrainian famine). It asks some important questions about social ethics and who is actually responsible for people like Chikatilo, the individual or the state and its terrorist organisations. But without people getting eaten, it’s just another very long murder mystery.vlcsnap-2018-11-30-18h59m44s130.jpg

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Creepy old cannibal dude – THE GRAY MAN (Flynn, 2007)

The movie starts at St. John’s Orphanage in Washington in 1882. A young Albert Fish and other children are being beaten, to drive out their sins.

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Fast forward to Albert Fish (Patrick Bauchau) as an adult. He remembers, in a voiceover, a horse that some older boys at the orphanage set on fire; how the horse galloped off, trying to get away from the fire, but of course taking the fire with him. Fish compares himself to that horse.

“The fire chases you, and catches you, and then it’s in your blood. After that, it’s the fire that has control, not the man.
Blame the fire of passion for what Albert H. Fish has done.”

Scott Flynn’s debut film is not just a very well made and pretty creepy thriller / horror movie, it is an accurate retelling of the story of Albert H. Fish, who killed several children in the 1920s, and ate parts of their bodies.

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Albert Fish (Patrick Bauchau) with his grand-daughter. He hands her back to his daughter saying “I’m no good with little ones”. Truer words were never spoken.

Fish never got over the beatings at the orphanage, and is seen in the film whipping himself with a belt, interspersed with images of himself in the orphanage, watched by a pale boy – his younger self. That’s not the least of it: an X-ray found dozens of needles he had inserted into his groin for further punishment. In a sense, he punished himself in advance for sins he felt he was driven to commit.

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The film is structured around a film noir-style narration by Detective Will King (Jack Conley), of the NY Missing Persons Bureau.

Fish kills a boy scout, who is found by the other scouts hanging from a tree, his calf removed.

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Then comes the famous case: Fish sees a newspaper ad from a young man, Edward Budd (Eric Parker), who is looking for work, but when he visits the Budd family home, he is smitten by young Grace (Lexi Ainsworth), Edward’s ten year old sister, whom he stares at throughout the interview. No one seems to find this creepy, and when Fish comes back to pick up Edward and his friend, he suggests that Grace accompany him to his niece’s birthday party at Columbus and 135th – when he returns her, he says, he’ll pick up the boys. The mother (Jillian Armenante) has qualms, as well she might, but the father urges her to let Grace go. So, they have lunch. The father says “Let’s eat – I’m starved.” Fish replies: “Me too.” But it’s not for what the Budd’s are putting on their table.

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Of course, there is no party, no niece, no such street as 135th Street, and no return for Grace. When they get off the train, Grace dives back into the carriage to retrieve a package Fish has forgotten. She thinks it’s a present for the niece; it’s actually a bone saw that he bought earlier. Grace is picking flowers when Fish calls her into the creepy old house, purportedly to hide for the surprise party; the door slams shut. Fade to next scene. Fish is eating raw meat.

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Detective King searches for Grace Budd for six years, despite the department closing the case and the public forgetting about young Grace. Fish hasn’t forgotten though, and when he finds a stationery package in his room while chasing a cockroach, he writes to Grace’s mother, a break which finally allows Will to track down and arrest Fish. In the letter, Fish describes the crime in graphic detail, but modestly added that Grace had died a virgin – I guess he thought Mrs Budd would find that comforting. The movie gradually has Fish read the parts of the letter regarding the killing, chopping up and eating of Grace, although it omits the earlier section which told of his friend who returned from China in 1894, where:

“all children under 12 were sold to the Butchers to be cut up and sold for food… A boy or girls behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price”

The letter is quoted in full, with its dodgy grammar, in Wikipedia.

Fish said that this story had given him the idea:

“He told me so often how good human flesh was I made up my mind to taste it.”

In the trial, a psychiatrist with a suitably Germanic accent testifies that Fish told him that:

“What I did must have been right, or an angel would have stopped me, just as the angel stopped Abraham in the Bible.”

Genesis 22 has a lot to answer for.

Fish is found guilty, despite the psychiatrist’s evidence of his insanity, and put to death in the electric chair. The pale boy follows him down the corridor to the execution room.

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The real Albert Fish
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The real Grace Budd

The true number of Fish’s victims will never be known. He claimed to have “had children in every state” but whether he was referring to rape, murder or cannibalism, or just bragging, cannot be established. Fish was finally caught because he killed and ate Grace Budd, a white girl: he admitted that he mostly chose children who were mentally handicapped or African-American as his victims, explaining that he assumed the police would not look too hard for them. The fact that it took six years to catch him, and that this film does not even mention them, would seem to prove him right.

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The DVD cover shows Albert and Grace heading for the deserted house where she will be killed and eaten. The tag line is interesting: “a real life Hannibal Lecter”‘ would eat anyone who compared him to Albert Fish.

The full movie is not easy to find. There is a copy on Youtube, but it is not great quality.

 

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Not easy being green (or lunch): THE GREEN INFERNO (Roth, 2013)

Green Inferno (Eli Roth) is a homage to Italian cannibal films of the late 1970s and early ’80s “cannibal boom”, particularly Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which featured a film-within-a-film called, you guessed it, The Green Inferno. The film follows a group of activists who are forced to fight for survival when they are captured by a cannibal tribe. This is a standard trope of the Italian cannibal films, although Roth tries to inject a few twists to bring it up to the 21st century (they are trying to save the tribe).

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The film was made in 2013 but only released on September 25, 2015.

The protagonist is Justine (Chilean actress Lorenza Izzo, at that time soon to be, and since then divorced, wife of Eli Roth). She plays a college freshman, who is a rebel without a cause. As the film opens, she is involved in a hunger strike to win health insurance for campus janitors. She escalates to outrage over female genital mutilation when she attends a lecture on the practice, and rushes off to lobby her father, who is a UN lawyer.

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The trouble starts when Jonah (Aaron Burns) invites her to a meeting of an activist group led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy). The group plans a trip to the Amazon rainforest to stop a big corporation from illegally logging the forest and exterminating the ancient native tribes who live there; their goal is to film the logging crews with cell phones and stream footage, to raise public awareness.

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The operation is funded by a drug dealer named Carlos, who flies them into Peru in a small plane. They arrive in the Amazon and head to a logging site where they begin their protest, chaining themselves to bulldozers while filming the loggers cutting down trees. A private militia arrives, and the protest receives viral attention on the internet when Justine is nearly shot by one of the militia officers. The group is arrested, but Carlos pays the police to let them go.

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In a scene reminiscent of Alive!, the plane crashes into the forest; OK, they are bouncing through trees instead of snow, but like Alive! wings are falling off, people are falling out of the back of the plane, etc. The survivors search for a GPS phone to call for help, but then the cannibals arrive, painted blood red. The group are shot with tranquiliser darts and taken to a small village where they are imprisoned in a bamboo cage.

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The female elder of the cannibal tribe dismembers and decapitates Jonah, in graphic detail, starting with his eyeballs and tongue.

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Tongues traditionally get a beating in cannibal movies, maybe because they represent the human ability to communicate with language, and so are ideal targets for those whose prime directive is not the survival of civilisation. Man From Deep River had a similar scene. Hannibal serves tongue to his friends in episode six of the first season of the television series, and Cordell promises to do the same to Hannibal in Season 3 episode seven:

I’ll boil it, slice it very thin, marinate it in olive oil, garlic, parsley and vinegar.

And of course, Clarice is warned about the time Hannibal ate a nurse’s tongue in Silence of the Lambs.

Here’s the twist: Alejandro had cynically staged the protest to benefit a rival company, and the eventual deforestation of the area is inevitable. If they can survive until the next lot of bulldozers arrive they might be saved – and because they cooked Jonah first, the village may not need to eat any more of them for a while (he’s a big lad).

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OK, no more spoilers – if you like gratuitous gore, go watch the movie. Suffice it to say that female genital mutilation manages to get back into the plot, and people get eaten – one alive, another by ants. Not sure which is worse.

Green Inferno was filmed on location in Chile, the Peruvian Amazon and New York City.

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But to make it feel really authentic, Roth decided to cast the Callanayacu tribe from Peru as the main “stars”. Nearly every person (except the Americans) in the movie is an actual member of the tribe that Roth discovered in the Amazon. A remote, self-sustaining farming (definitely not cannibal) community with no electricity or running water, the Callanayacu had little contact with the outside world beyond the occasional supply boat.

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While Roth had found the perfect cast, he soon found that most of the tribe had no concept of what a movie was, and had never seen one. So Roth brought a generator and a TV and made them watch the 1980 grindhouse film, Cannibal Holocaust.

“We had to explain to them conceptually what a movie was, and showed them Cannibal Holocaust — and they thought it was the funniest thing that they had ever seen” Roth said in an interview.

Roth says the decision to film in the Peruvian jungle paid off.

“The footage looks so spectacular. It’s something you couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. We went farther than any cameras had ever gone before. They call the river gorge ‘Pongo de Aguirre’ because Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God was the last film to shoot there. But we went deeper, to a point where there was nothing but river and jungle. It was an incredible experience.”

Roth’s movies are all tributes to the great horror classics. Green Inferno does not try to say much new – it puts a bunch of (mostly) white people in a jungle full of primitive irrational cannibals, out of their depth, and makes them face their worst fears – the key trope of cannibal films. Probably the majority of cannibal movies do that, including Road to Zanzibar. The twist here is that the cannibals are not the bad guys – they are doing what Roth imagines primitive people did all the time (he is certainly wrong there).

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The people he is condemning are of course the venal corporations, but also the sanctimonious “social justice warriors” as he calls them:

“the film is really about people getting caught up in causes they don’t know anything about and doing it for vanity reasons more than for the cause itself.”

But Roth is not doing much for the locals either, showing them as brutal and merciless killers, and Survivor International said the group was “disturbed” by the depiction of the tribe, explaining, “These stories have created a racist view of uncontacted and isolated groups.” Amazon Watch and AIDESEP voiced similar concerns.

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The film took a hammering by the critics. Variety said:

“A project that boasts all the appeal (and aroma) of a carcass rotting in the rainforest.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it a measly 36%, with the audience rating below even that.

Stephen King, on the other hand, who knows a bit about horror, tweeted that the film is:

“like a glorious throwback to the drive-in movies of my youth: bloody, gripping, hard to watch, but you can’t look away.”

 

Incidentally, this is not the only Green Inferno movie. As well as the film within a film in Cannibal Holocaust, the cannibal film genre was supposed to have died with Antonio Climati’s 1988 film  Natura Contro (English: Against Nature), also known in English as The Green Inferno and Cannibal Holocaust II.

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Climati had no intention of making a sequel to Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, and the title was used by distributors of the film to cash in on the success and notoriety of the earlier film. In 2002, British distributor VIPCO released Natura Contro on VHS and DVD as Cannibal Holocaust II, the film’s best known name. Not much cannibalism in it though.

Next week: more Hannibal episodes!

 

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From the sublime to the ridiculous: LOVE BOAT Season 3 episode 13 (Duchowny & Rafkin, 1979)

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Tom Paine said it is only a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous, so it seems fitting to move from last week’s blog, HANNIBAL, one of the most concise studies of the cannibal psychosis of postmodern society, to a glimpse of the bourgeoisie at play, or at least their aspirations of what that might look like. I refer, of course, to LOVE BOAT, a series that ran for an absurdly long nine years and 250 episodes. Aaron Spelling was the producer – he also made Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Beverley Hills 90210, Charmed and a string of other shows, which always seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the time.

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Why are we watching Love Boat you ask (or wail, while pathetically covering your ears)? Well, there is an interesting cannibal reference in episode 13 of season 3, which went to air on November 24, 1979. The episode has the catchy title of “Not Now, I’m Dying / Eleanor’s Return / Too Young to Love” – there were always a few threads going on at the same time.

Warning: the following theme song is a mind worm and will be running through your head relentlessly during your worst hangovers.

Anyway, getting to the point. One of the main characters on the ship is the Doc (Dr Adam Bricker) played by Bernie Kopell, who also played the KAOS agent Siegfried in Get Smart. On this particular cruise, Lucy, a friend of Doc’s (Barbi Benton), comes on board with her boyfriend Peter (Dack Rambo). She wants a romantic conclusion, a proposal, but Peter keeps on making excuses.

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Eventually, Peter “admits” to having a terminal illness, saying he has Kuru, a disease he spotted on the front of a magazine. Doc calls his bluff, pointing out that Kuru is only contracted by “eating people”. But then Peter drops a pen, can’t hold a book, and Doc realises that he really does have a disease – ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). A sad irony in that Dack Rambo was to die of complications from AIDS only five years after this episode went to air. Barbi Benton, who started off as a Playboy model, is still going strong, as is Bernie Kopell at the time of writing.

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This is interesting not so much for the longevity of the stars but the mention of Kuru. This is a prion disease, a rare, incurable neurodegenerative disorder that was found in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. Kuru is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, related to the “mad cow” disease that cured people from eating beef for many years and is still tested for when you go to donate blood.

Kuru was first suspected to be related to funerary cannibalism (eating your relatives rather than burying them, to return their life force to the village) after extensive studies by the Australian anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum starting in 1961. Kuru was found to be eight to nine times more prevalent in women and children than in men. Fore men reported that they considered that consuming human flesh would weaken them in times of conflict or battle, while the women and children were allowed to eat the bodies of the deceased, including the brain, where the prion particles were particularly concentrated. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, a virologist, was later awarded a Nobel prize for mapping the transmission of the disease to chimpanzees by transferring into them parts of the brain of an 11-year-old Fore girl who had died of Kuru.

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From a 2010 documentary of Kuru

Kuru is rare and hard to catch (even the Fore people have a high rate of immunity to the disease). It is, however, very popular among people who write about cannibalism on social media, as they think it proves that human cannibalism is a ‘bad thing’ because it can make you ill (although they don’t mention the bovine version, in case that ruins their dinner). The Nobel prize was the cherry on top of the brain tissue theory of cannibalism.

In 1979, the same year this episode of Love Boat was aired, an American anthropologist, William Arens of Stony Brook University, New York, published his book The Man-Eating Myth, in which he challenged the automatic assumption of cannibalism among those dubbed “savages” by the colonial powers of the West. In fact, Arens caused a major uproar in anthropological circles by saying he could find no adequate documentation of cannibalism as custom in any form for any society – it may have happened, but not as a socially sanctioned system. He was more interested in why people are so fascinated by the depiction or suspicion of it (and so am I, hence this blog). As for the Fore, Arens said “the evidence is circumstantial, since Fore cannibalism has never been observed by an outsider”.

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So, did the Fore get Kuru by eating their dead? We’ll never know for sure, but we can be confident, with Doc, that Peter didn’t.

NEXT WEEK: HANNIBAL Season 1 Episode 2

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The first cannibal film was made in Australia? “The Devil’s Playground” (Bindley, 1928)

We tend to think of ‘cannibal films’ as starting with the Italians: Ruggero Deodato’s Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1977) or, before that, Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River (Italian title Il Paese Del Sesso Selvaggio, 1972). These followed a formula in which civilised Europeans blundered into savage lands (Lenzi’s film was set in Thailand) and are captured by cannibals, tortured, witness terrible atrocities and then escape.

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Chief Trelua, cannibal king, actually a Sydney lifeguard

But cannibals have appeared in movies well before the Italians invented their special exploitation genre. Tarzan films from the early twentieth century showed the lost British Lord living with apes but killing cannibals – they were prima facie cannibals, because they were savages. But they were background noise, they were the predators in the jungle, assumed to be cannibals by trade, but not usually caught in the act (and, in the books, Tarzan’s British aristocratic breeding stops him tasting human flesh, for reasons he can’t quite understand).

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Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan the podiatrist

One of the very first film to show savages as cannibals, before Johnny Weissmüller hit the vines, was actually an Australian film called The Devil’s Playground, written and directed by Victor A. Bindley.

This is the opening card (it’s a silent movie):

Far off the beaten track, in the South Seas, lies a beautiful island – a jewel of the sea. Its waters, abounding in the low grade island pearl shellfish, have brought a few white traders to its shores. The sinister reputation borne by its native population in fetish and cannibal rites, in the past, and the wild doings of some of its present white population, has earned for the island the name of:

“THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”

 Not to be confused with Fred Schepisi’s 1976 film of the same name, which revolved about quite different appetites.

Bindley’s silent movie was made with a budget of £2,000, not a fortune even in 1926, when production commenced. This required a certain financial prudence: according to Australian Film 1900–1977, scenes were shot on beaches near Sydney (Bilgola) and interiors in the Mosman Town Hall. Natives were played by Sydney lifeguards in
black-face!

Painted savages

The villain, however, is a corrupt white man named Bull Morgan who exploits the natives and forces the heroine, Naneena, to marry him, after murdering her brother. Fun fact: Naneena is played by Elsa Jacoby, later a prominent Sydney socialite, philanthropist and opera singer. Meanwhile, the locals are not content to put up with colonialist discourses:

Trelua seeks counsel of the wise man, Malatai!

“Malatai! Our warriors grow fat and lazy under the white-man’s rule, and our men-children are weaklings!

“Our spears would but splinter against the might of the whitemen, for they are as many as the white sands of the sea! Their great men are wise! Let Trelua seek justice in their councils!”

“Your puny words cannot hold me for long, O Malatai! Better to die fighting like men, than like women upon our sleeping mats!”

The natives rise up, but not to rescue Naneena – they are cannibals and cannot be seen to do too much good. She is rescued by an airman, who calls in a British cruiser to quell the native revolt although, before the cannons roar, the cannibal chief kills Bull, proving that no one is all bad.

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The cannibals attack the grog shop!
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The noble hero

The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 February 1930 reported that the film had been banned from export (another first for the director) under the censorship regulations which included blasphemy, indecency, or obscenity, being injurious to morality, or likely to be offensive to the people of the British Empire. It may be that the violence of Bull whipping poor Naneena was a bit over the top for the censors (although she gave him back as good or better than she got), or that the British navy blasting natives with cannons was “offensive to the people of the British Empire”.

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The navy arrives to put down the cannibal mutiny
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Bull whips Naneena!
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Naneena whips Bull!

But the most likely reason for the ban is that showing the corruption of the white traders, who were widely known to be exploiting and corrupting the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, was a bridge too far. Like most cannibal films, it raises the question: who is eating whom?

At any rate, the film was shelved and did not have a public screening until 1966, by which time it was just a historical oddity. It is available in the NSW State Library on VCR, which led me to spend an excruciating two hours there recently. It’s not much of a cannibal film, really, but then it’s not much of a film. Pretty exciting, for a cannibal film blog, to find a very early specimen, especially when it’s home-grown!

Incidentally, the Oxford Apartments in Milwaukee where Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate most of the boys and young men who took his fancy in the 1980s was torn down after his arrest and a playground built, but the locals refused to use it, calling it – you guessed it – the devil’s playground”.

 

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NOT a cannibal movie: “Black Panther” (Coogler, 2018)

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Western culture, and cinema is no exception, has shamelessly used cannibalism as an unexamined accusation against “others” – mainly the black and brown people of lands coveted by imperial powers: Africa, the Pacific, South America and others. The Greeks used it to dehumanise any barbarians who happened to become bothersome, and of course Columbus made some very nice profits when he “discovered” that the Caribs, a tribe he hadn’t met, were man-eaters and needed to be converted, enslaved or exterminated (and the Spanish then did all three, very successfully, to most of South America).

Very early cannibal movies showed stereotyped cannibals, bones in their noses, dancing around a cauldron containing a sorry looking white man, often a man of God.

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This is from a 1928 film called Be My King (Lupino Lane)

Doctor X (Curtiz, 1932) saw the villain going to Africa to learn the secrets of the cannibals.

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Even Bing Crosby and Bob Hope headed off to the “Dark Continent” and almost got eaten.

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Road to Zanzibar (Schertzinger, 1941)

The cannibals’ nationality changed, but the victim, the civilised white man (or sometimes even woman) stayed pretty pale, just being in the wrong (savage) place at the wrong (then) time. Think of Robinson Crusoe (Bunuel 1954)

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The after-party from Robinson Crusoe (Bunuel, 1954)

Robinson Crusoe is one of the classic stories of the savage being tamed by the civilised white man. Crusoe has been shipwrecked on an island. Friday is a cannibal whom Crusoe saves from a rival tribe as he is about to become lunch. Friday is taught to serve the master, and has to promise never again to eat humans.
The civilised Crusoe, incidentally, is described as having been shipwrecked on his way to the area to capture slaves.

Think of the “Cannibal Boom” of the 1970s:

Man from deep river 1972
Man from Deep River (Lenzi, 1972)

The cannibal story likes to pretend that civilisation has eliminated such savagery, but it still fascinates and repels us at the same time. In 2013, the “savages” were at it again in Eli Roth’s Green Inferno (this time white people, just trying to save the jungle, being eaten by crazy Peruvian cannibals).

So this is the image of the intersection of empire and indigenous culture: civilisation and savagism. Uncivilised cannibals are shown as inexplicable antagonists, as amoral as sharks or predatory aliens. Their cannibalism is usually seen as acculturated and therefore distinguishes those cultures as uncivilised and morally inferior to the white (usually male) hero’s culture.

That’s why I was interested to see the take on cannibalism in Black Panther, which is set in the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda, but involves a lot of cultural interchange with an increasingly violent America. Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), a U.S. State Department employee stationed in Wakanda, becomes an ally to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the King of Wakanda. When Ross attempts to speak to the leader of the Jabari tribe — M’Baku (Winston Duke) — he’s told:

“One more word, and I will feed you to my children.”

There it is. There’s the colonialist trope. And here is how Black Panther handles it:

“I am kidding – we are vegetarians.”

So, not a cannibal movie, but a worthwhile flipping of the tired imperialist stereotypes.
It sneaks into this blog because of the cool cannibal joke.

And they’re not really vegetarians, because they are wearing furs and catching fish. Sigh.

Good movie though.

 

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Sex and appetite: “Suddenly, Last Summer” (Mankiewicz, 1959)

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Some movies drip with stars, to the extent that you start to wonder if most of the conflict in the film was about who would get higher billing. Not this one – as well as star power, we have a story of homosexuality and cannibalism, and it’s not totally clear which was more shocking to the audiences of 1959.

As for the stars – we have Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, in a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra, etc), and loosely adapted from a play by Tennessee Williams. Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay. A veritable galaxy of stars.

The film is about a young woman who has descended into mental illness due to a traumatic experience with cannibalism, the details of which the audience are not shown until the very end. Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) is being evaluated by a psychiatrist, Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), at the insistence of her wealthy New Orleans aunt Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn). Violet suspects there is more to her son Sebastian’s death than she wishes to become public, and offers to finance a new wing for the hospital if they will pressure Dr Cukrowicz to give Catherine a lobotomy (which is what had happened to Tennessee Williams’ sister). Violet hopes thereby to remove the memory of what happened to Sebastian (who is only seen in flashbacks and never front on), while Catherine was travelling with him in Spain “last summer”.

Sebastian has rejected his smothering mother, with whom he has had an almost Oedipal relationship, and instead has been using his cousin Catherine, as he used his mother on earlier trips, to attract young boys, whom he then procures for sex. Sebastian’s appetite changes though – just as he discarded his mother when she got older, now he no longer wants these Spanish boys: he says he is “fed up with the dark ones” and is “famished for blondes”, intending to head to Northern Europe.

Suddenly-Last-Summer
Catherine reflects on her naivety

Catherine in the final scene is given a truth serum by her psychiatrist and finally recalls Sebastian’s death. She remembers that the boys followed Sebastian, calling for bread (pan), and when he refused and ran, they chased him, tore him to pieces and ate his flesh.

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“…there were those children along the beach which was fenced off with wire. Our table was less than a yard away from the wire fence. And those… children… there was a band of them, they looked like a flock of plucked birds and they came darting up to the wire fence as if they’d been blown there by the wind by the hot white wind from the sea. And they were all calling out… Pan Pan Pan.”

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Psychiatry and cinema evolved together and are closely tied, particularly in cannibal films (consider Hannibal Lecter), where madness is sometimes used as a convenient explanation to avoid deeper social analyses. This film brings together complex themes that often were avoided in the 1950s. In the conflict between the rich tourists and the starving children of the seaside village we witness savagery as a response to a colonialist mentality of exploitation, objectification in Sebastian’s use of the boys and of his relatives as sexual objects to bait the boys, voracious appetite and the breakdown of normative morality. Sebastian’s sexual appetite is mirrored in the hunger of the boys he has abused, enjoyed and abandoned.

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“…cousin Sebastian was, he was lying naked on the broken stone… and this you won’t believe…nobody, nobody could believe it… it looked as if they had devoured him…as if they had torn or cut parts of him away with their hands or with knives or with jagged tin cans they made music with. As if they had torn bits of him away and stuffed them in their gobbling mouths.”

Tenessee Williams hated the adaptation of his play. To him, the cannibalism should have been metaphorical, not graphically represented (although it was certainly polite by today’s standards). He wrote:

“I walked out. Sam Spiegel, the producer, gave a private showing of it at a big party, and I just got up and walked out. When you began to see Mrs Venable, and it became so realistic, with the boys chasing up the hill – I thought it was a travesty.”

The New Yorker called the film “a preposterous and monotonous potpourri of incest, homosexuality, psychiatry, and, so help me, cannibalism.”

It’s not totally clear how a film about incest and homosexuality got round the Hollywood “Production Code”, which had strict rules against such immoralities. Critics have opined that Sebastian’s grisly death gave the film a free pass, because, the review board said, it “illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle” and “can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.” Weirdly, the cannibalism seems to have cancelled out the homosexuality.

Anyway, it was a hit at the box office due to its big stars and scandalous content, earning $6.4 million on release, a tidy sum in those days. Both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

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The film pressed all the buttons of 1959 America: homosexuality, incest and cannibalism. But what happens to the cannibals? The film leaves them on the top of the hill, their mouths stuffed with pieces of Sebastian. Like the angel of death in Violet’s parlour, they have passed judgement on Sebastian’s proclivities and handed him a sentence equally unpardonable (in those days) – to be eaten alive. Presumably they remain there, ignored and hungry until another rich man seeks to sate his appetite by arousing theirs. There is no judgement offered – these cannibals are simply forces of nature, a “flock of plucked birds”. Savages inhabiting our own travel itineraries.

 

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