Cry me a Reaver: “SERENITY” (Whedon, 2005)

Futuristic cannibal movies usually involve social dislocation and roving gangs of urban starvelings, but this one has the added attraction of being set well into the future, and in outer space. Space cannibals, what more could we ask? How about plenty of action, smart, sassy dialogue, and Joss Whedon at the helm, the man behind Buffy and Angel?

Stephen Hawking, among a lot of other people (none as smart as him though), suggested that humans will need to “escape the earth” sooner or later.

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Currently, the pace of climate change seems to suggest sooner rather than later might be a good idea, but in Serenity, it’s several hundred years into the future (the year 2517 to be precise). Humans have escaped an overcrowded planet Earth and colonised a new solar system. The central planets have formed the Alliance and won a war against the outer planet Independents, a war that they see as civilisation against barbarism. Most barbaric of all are the Reavers, They are savage, brutal and primal; as Zoe (Gina Torres from Hannibal) puts it in the TV series Firefly:

“If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing – and if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”

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Not pretty, but Reavers have good teeth

The Alliance government denies their existence. But the Reavers, like Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrei Chikatilo and dozens more cannibals in our own times, are real, and are more than ready to eat us. They first appeared in Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly, which sadly was cancelled after one season, only to become cult viewing thereafter. Serenity is the continuation of that story. Look, it’s a complicated plot, quite a lot of which has nothing for a cannibalism blog to chew on so, here, we’re just interested in the Reavers, who are particularly nasty cannibals.

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More than one critic has described the Firefly/Serenity story as “galactic Cowboys and Indians”, and the Reavers are the “Injuns”, in the sense that, in the old Westerns, they were portrayed as mindlessly aggressive, had no subjectivity in terms of any personal anecdotes, and could be gunned down (“bite the dust”) with no moral qualms. Joss Whedon himself said “Every story needs a monster. In the stories of the old west it was the Apaches.”

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We can’t do that anymore in movies – First Nation people are far more likely to be the sympathetic protagonists, while cowboys are either unemployed gunfighters, drunks, or psychopathic murderers. The unthinking racism of the early Westerns has been transformed into Reavers, Klingons, Sith lords, and so on. Westerns boldly migrated into space (think Star Wars, Star Trek). But in space, we still need evil degenerates facing off against a noble warrior (who is increasingly likely to be a female).

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So if we need a new terrifying, mindlessly destructive enemy, who better than the cannibal? The fear of cannibals worked for Columbus 500 years ago, and works for the Alliance 500 years hence. But the curse of modern cannibal films is that the audience, or perhaps just the producers, demand a back story, how did they get that way – or, as Clarice asks Hannibal, “what happened to you?”

This film tells us, at last, how the Reavers got that way, and it doesn’t reflect too well on the civilised parliamentarians of the Alliance. Imagine an experimental chemical distributed globally, that can reduce or remove human aggression. It stops people fighting. It also stops them doing anything, including eating and moving. Without some aggro, we become zombies. But without the appetite.

But on those who are resistant to the chemical, it has the opposite effect. Their aggression levels go through the roof. They become Reavers. So really, any of us could be Reavers, given the opportunity and the right (or wrong) chemicals.

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What would the government do? Bury the information of course. Pretend the dead world doesn’t exist. Then, sooner or later, come out with another way to make people “better”. As the philosopher John Gray says:

“the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.”

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“I’m giving very serious thought to eating your wife”: “HANNIBAL” (Scott, 2001)

It is quite extraordinarily, in retrospect, to realise that this 2001 film was the first Hannibal Lecter film to be about Hannibal Lecter. He was very much a bit player in both Manhunter and Red Dragon (both based on the book Red Dragon) – he was in an asylum and visited occasionally by Will Graham, desperate for a clue as to the identity of the serial killer the FBI was hunting. The movie that made him a household name, The Silence of the Lambs, saw him still in that Baltimore Asylum for the Criminally Insane, but now he was a major figure, even though only on screen for a bit under 16 minutes. But very good minutes they were (he won the Oscar for it, and the film won five in total) and, importantly, we saw him escape, to rejoin us, the viewers, in the breathing world, as we crept, with wide eyes, back to the dark parking lot of the cinema after the credits had rolled.

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“I need to come out of retirement and return to public life.”

In Hannibal, he is free, and doing what he loves best – being an expert on Renaissance art and poetry in Florence, drinking fine wines, and occasionally eating people. But, as in the previous movies, and in the TV series, Hannibal takes his sweet time before he actually appears on screen. His image appears at 24 minutes: an archive video of him attacking a nurse who was careless with his ECG (any comments on why he attacks the nurse would be appreciated. It seems out of character for Hannibal: discourteous even).

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His voice appears at 28 minutes, and his person at 30. Hannibal never rushes things. Instead, the film starts with Hannibal’s nemeses: Mason Verger, intent on revenge and plotting to capture Hannibal and feed him to his pigs, and of course Clarice Starling, her career in tatters due to a combination of law enforcement ineptitude and toxic masculinity working to bring her down. She is caught on the news shooting a woman with a baby, even though that woman was a drug dealer who was shooting at her.

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Her only possible way to reinstate her career will be to work with Verger to capture Hannibal.

This wasn’t an easy film to make – sequels rarely are, particularly when they are following a film that did a lot better than anyone expected. And this film was made ten years after Silence, so there was a huge, pent up demand. There was also the brilliant book from Thomas Harris on which this was based; it had come out two years previously, and many, including the director of Silence, Jonathan Demme, the screenwriter, Ted Tally, and the star, Jodie Foster, considered the plot a bridge too far. All three declined to be involved in the new film. Lucklily, Anthony Hopkins was ready to get back in the saddle, so the film proceeded – without him, it would seem to have been unlikely.

So, sad not to get Demme back to direct, but hey, Dino di Laurentiis found a substitute: the brilliant Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise), who had just finished Gladiator and at first declined the script, as he thought it was another ancient history epic, and didn’t want to have to direct elephants crossing the Alps. Oh, it’s about a cannibal in Florence? OK then. The screenplay was first drafted by Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet and then written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List). And instead of the incomparable Jodie Foster, he chose, from a list of the greatest actors of the time, Julianne Moore, apparently the recommendation of Hopkins. di Laurentiis said of Jodie Foster’s refusal to take part: “when the Pope dies, they get a new Pope”. So it was off to a rollicking start.

Then there’s the supervillain. In Hannibal movies, there is always a much worse monster for us to hate, giving us licence to like Hannibal that much more. In this case, it is Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), heir to a huge fortune built on the cruel pork trade, a sadist and child molester in his youth.

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He is the only surviving victim of Hannibal: instead of killing him, Hannibal got him whacked on psychotropic drugs and suggested that he slice his own face off and feed it to the dogs. In the book, this is explained: Mason had adopted two dogs who were good friends, and put them in a cage with no food, to see if they would turn to cannibalism. Gratuitous cruelty and cannibalism – not what Hannibal is about at all. Hannibal’s cannibalism contains a nugget of justice. As the Asylum orderly Barney tells Clarice:

He told me that whenever feasible, he prefers to eat the rude. Free range rude, he called them.

Incidentally, Barney is portrayed by Frankie Faison (The Wire) who is the only actor to appear in all four Hannibal films up to this one.

Hannibal manages to communicate with Clarice throughout the film, usually by letter or phone call, explaining his point of view and questioning why she continues to serve her corrupt and venal masters.

Tell me Clarice, would you want to harm those who have forced you to consider it though? It’s perfectly OK to feel this. It’s perfectly au naturel to want to taste the enemy. It just feels so good.

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The camera lingers lovingly on Mason’s disfigurements: according to the DVD, Oldman spent six hours each day in makeup to make him so lovable. Hopkins, on the other hand, did not bother with makeup for this movie, allowing his advancing years and natural pallor to tell the story of the years since his escape.

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With Hannibal, there is always the question of who is the cannibal. In Red Dragon, was it Hannibal in his cell or Dolarhyde collecting movies of women he had killed and raped? In Silence, was it the same Hannibal in the same cell, or Jame Gumb, killing and skinning women to make a vest with tits? In this one, is it the Renaissance scholar Hannibal seeking a job as curator of the Capponi library or Inspector Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), threatening a local pickpocket into ambushing Hannibal, hoping to sell Hannibal to Verger to be fed to his pigs? The pickpocket loses his femoral artery to a small knife that Hannibal keeps in his sleeve. He dies, but Pazzi gets the fingerprint he needs for the deal to go ahead and in a scene full of Catholic symbolism, washes his bloody hands in the fountain of Il Porcellino, a porcine reference to the greed of Judas and the cowardice of Pontius Pilate, as well as a foretaste of the pigs who have been bred to eat Hannibal. Verger and his thugs get the pigs flown to the US and primed to eat humans (pigs usually prefer not to). Pazzi later gets from Hannibal the same treatment his treasonous ancestor received in Florence 500 years earlier – hanging from the window with his bowels protruding. But not until Hannibal has offered the line of the movie:

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Hannibal has met Pazzi’s wife, Allegra (Francesca Neri), at the sublime opera of Dante’s sonnet A ciascun’alma presa from Vita Nuova, which Hannibal and Allegra recite to each other meaningfully, all about Beatrice eating Dante’s heart, and clearly referencing Hannibal’s growing obsession with Clarice.

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In a scene that reveals both Pazzi’s desperation to make Allegra happy, including risking his career and life to capture Hannibal, and Hannibal’s own burning love for Clarice, she asks him:

Allegra: Dr Fell, do you believe a man could become so obsessed with a woman from a single encounter?
Hannibal: Could he daily feel a stab of hunger for her and find nourishment in the very sight of her? I think so. But would she then see through the bars of his plight and ache for him?

Dante and Beatrice were nine years old when his obsession with her started. Hannibal’s obsession with Clarice started at a more mature age, but burns just as brightly.

The music, Vide Cor Meum, is by Hans Zimmer (Lion King, Gladiator, the Dark Knight trilogy and heaps more) and is so beautiful that it is used again in the TV series Hannibal, in the season finales of both the first two seasons. As she leaves with Pazzi, another couple brush past saying “let’s get something to eat!” Hannibal mutters to himself, and to us, “why not?”

Verger understands that the way to trap Hannibal is by threatening Clarice, and pays Paul Krendler (Ray Liotto), the man who has conspired to destroy Clarice’s career since she first rebuffed his advances, to fabricate evidence of collusion with Hannibal.

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“But not to help…”

She is suspended from the FBI. Hannibal goes shopping for fine furniture, and burglaring for medical equipment. He breaks into Clarice’s apartment in DC, where she has drunk herself to sleep, and leaves a collage of her face on a fashion shoot in a magazine. The game is afoot. He leads her to Union Station where he engages her in a discussion of her life, her future, and why the forces of the law, the law she loves and respects, have totally betrayed her.

Why are you so resented? You serve the idea of order, Clarice. They don’t. You believe in the oath you took. They don’t. You feel it is your duty to protect the sheep. They don’t.

As he leaves, Verger’s Sardinian hit-men hit him with a tranquiliser dart and drive him off. Now who will save whom?

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Hannibal is strapped to a forklift in a crucifixion position, his feet are to be fed to the pigs, then he is to be kept alive for several hours until the rest of him is given to them. She cuts him loose, leading to one of the funniest exchanges in the film.

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Clarice can deal with most of these thugs, but is shot while rescuing Hannibal, who picks her up and walks through the hogs. They leave him alone – since they cannot smell fear on him. He arranges for Verger’s helper to push the furious billionaire into the pig pen. Dinner is served.

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Krendler returns to his lakehouse, but Hannibal is already there. So is Clarice; Hannibal has removed the bullet and she is sedated. She wakes dressed in full evening gown and high heels and staggers downstairs where, in the most famous scene of the film, Hannibal has sawn Krendler’s cranium off, and is preparing to serve his brain. Of course, the brain has no pain receptors on its surface, so Krendler is awake and joins the meal.

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Most of this is fairly true to the book. Only the ending was changed, apparently to appeal to those whose morality could stand seeing a man eat his own brains, but not to seeing Starling, so long an honest cop, go over to Lecter’s side – the side of cynicism about authority and enjoyment of the finer things of life. Instead, she rebuffs him and with her remaining strength tries to stop the dinner, and then the escape. She hancuffs the two of them together, Hannibal goes to bite her, then to cut off her hand, but it is he that leaves minus one. That’s love.

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But then, there is the single tear – does she regret the opportunity to dance with the devil?

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I admit to preferring the story the way the author wrote it in the book. I think Hannibal would have too. Read the book and you will see that is the perfect denouement to the Hannibal saga. I think they compromised on the end to avoid controversy (although they did get away with feeding Krendler his own brain, so they weren’t totally devoid of courage).

I suspect that the idea of amputation of his hand came from Sir Anthony Hopkins, who had starred in Shakespeare’s Titus only two years earlier, in which he cuts off his hand, and his daughter suffers a worse fate involving both hands and her tongue. [I nearly said Hopkins had a hand in the decision, but I restrained myself].

Titus is also a cannibal movie, by the way. You can read my blog about it at Titus.

Why does Hannibal eat people? Clarice speculates on this earlier in the film, while she is still on the case, as Krendler asks her what she’s doing sitting in the dark.

Thinking about cannibalism. Aren’t you curious why he dines on his victims? To show his contempt for those who exasperate him. Or sometimes to perform a public service. In the case of the flutist, Benjamin Raspail, he did it to improve the sound of the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra, serving the not so talented flute player’s sweetbreads to the Board with a nice Montrachet at $700 per bottle.

Yes, Clarice, quite right. But also, like any cuisine, it’s a habit, or a preference. Hannibal simply cannot see any reason not to eat people, particularly rude ones. In the final scene, he offers to give it all up for her:

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BTW: note the books on Krendler’s fridge: Southern Cooking and Vegetarian Times. Our ethical choices: what we consider right, or what we consider delicious. Hannibal, unlike everyone else, makes his choices without hesitating. He considers them the same thing.

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Hell is in Hello: “MOTEL HELL” (Connor, 1980)

Lee Marvin “sang” these words in the musical Paint Your Wagon:

Do I know where Hell is? Hell is in hello…

Don’t know whether Director Kevin Connor got the idea from Lee Marvin, but he certainly borrowed from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with an actual chainsaw duel between two brothers featuring at the climax of the film. Texas, in its own low budget way, revolutionised the horror genre, introduced slashers, and let us in on the world of the neglected, socially isolated “flyover zone” cannibal.

It’s also a spoof on Psycho – the killer in the motel, the unsuspecting travellers. You might also call it a precursor of the film Delicatessen that was considered on this blog last week: once again there are rooms for rent, human meat for sale.

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The motel is actually called MOTEL HELLO but the “O” keeps flickering off, thus giving the sinister name, and the title of the film.

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Vincent (Rory Calhoun) is a neo-lib dream: an entrepreneur who relishes his freedom to do whatever he likes in the name of business. The hidden hand of the market is his, and that hand carries a shotgun, or sometimes a chainsaw. Vincent runs the motel, but in his spare time (of which he has plenty) he ambushes motorists and stores them until he slaughters them and sells their flesh in his butcher shop as FARMER VINCENT’S SMOKED MEATS.

Simpsons fans will know Rory Calhoun of course!

Farmer Vincent’s is a family business, and Vincent’s sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) is involved in the process, which involves burying the victims up to their necks in the garden and cutting their vocal chords so they can’t make a fuss, then feeding them up like hogs until they are fat and edible. But Vincent fancies one of the victims, Terry (Nina Axelrod) and asks Ida to help her heal from the accident he caused. His kid brother Bruce (Paul Linke) is the local sheriff, and is as clueless as we expect local sheriffs to be, but he soon develops a crush on Terry. But she develops a crush on Vincent, so we know that (murder and cannibalism aside) there’s going to be trouble.

In a scene that perfectly parodies slasher movies, two little girls sneak into the smoking room, and with the requisite spooky backing track, are terrified by the scenes of carnage they see there – a lot of dead pigs. Only pigs, we might chuckle but, for Vincent, pigs and people are just the same: dumb animals good for nothing except slaughter and smoking for profit.

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Terry is pretty upset about losing her boyfriend (to whom she was not married, the religious Vincent notes), but he convinces her that being with them is “preordained”

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“Ah, the ways of the Lord are mysterious!”

Vincent’s methods of harvesting meat animals are not too particular: the local meat inspector who gets too nosy, a bus full of hippie musicians, even a pair of swingers whom he has lured with an ad – all get buried up their necks in the garden, unable to make any intelligible sound.

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He explains to Ida how important his various traps are, because “they give me a chance to be a free agent” and his work will remain special and important. Yep, Vincent is a classic neo-lib. As Ida pulls the latest victims out of the truck toward the holes he has dug, he tells her “plant ‘em!”. As they reflect on the strangeness of the hippies, they chant their motto:

It takes all kinds of critters
To make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!

As Vincent and Ida settle down to “plant” their critters and pull out the scalpels to cut their vocal chords, are they really behaving differently to the farmer who ties down a bull or hog to castrate him or to burn off his horns, or a sheep farmer who cuts hunks of skin off the backside of a lamb because it’s an easy way to avoid fly-strike (and saves money on insecticides)? They cleverly portray the hard work and care of farmers who really can see nothing wrong in the suffering they inflict for the sake of profit. He checks out one victim, smiling “not quite – tomorrow he’ll be ready to become famous.”

Terry asks how Vincent got started in the meat business and he tells her of the days when they couldn’t afford an icebox, and Granny would smoke anything she could catch – chickens, rabbits, frogs. One day, she asked Vincent to do something about an annoying dog who was barking, and that dog ended up smoked too. Did Granny know she was eating a dog, asks Terry, now repulsed, although she has just been enjoying Vincent’s smoked “ham”. Vincent replies:

Why Granny never put any distinctions on any of God’s creatures. She always used to say [Ida and Bruce join in the chant] MEAT’S MEAT, AND A MAN’S GOTTA EAT!

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Ida doesn’t like the wheezing and hissing noises the captives make as they try to talk without vocal chords. Vincent replies “They’re good animals! Not like taking care of chickens, or hogs.” Ida asks: “Vincent, do you think in the years to come people will appreciate us for what we’re doing here?” She goes on “Somebody’s gotta take a little responsibility for the planet!” Vincent and Ida are also ecologists, performing a valuable service by combating the scourge of human overpopulation.

The action is interspersed with the seemingly continuous telecast of a televangelist on the TV. Also with cannibal puns: as the swingers get ready for what they expect will be a wild evening (it will, but not quite as they hoped), Ida tells them “you look good enough to eat”. And the final credits roll to the Kregg Nance song “You’re eating out my heart and soul”.

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People certainly don’t like the idea of cannibalism, but they usually find it hard to articulate what is wrong with it, compared to eating other “critters”. For most, it is enough to say it is taboo, but that really begs the question. The genius of this film is that Vincent is not the usual psychotic serial killer type of cannibal. He is good humoured, kind, and has a strong sense of morality, seen in his choice of religious programs, as well as his shock when Terry comes on to him – he recoils, saying “we should be married first”.

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Well, they are going to get married, by none other than the local pastor, played by the legendary Wolfman Jack, a gravelly voiced DJ of the golden age of Rock.

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Ida drugs Terry, so that she and Vincent can go prepare the meat for the wedding feast. Vincent insists on offering his victims a humane death – he believes that “no animal should ever suffer any unnecessary pain”. Well, we nearly all believe that! Just a question of semantics – define ‘animal’. Define ‘pain’. And define ‘unnecessary’.

Anyway, Bruce is royally pissed off and starts looking for evidence against Vincent, and the “animals” start digging themselves out and staggering about in a scene reminiscent of just about every zombie movie.

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Terry finds out the truth, but it’s her version (what else could it be?) As far as Vincent is concerned, he is just preparing the wedding feast. He says:

Haven’t you ever cleaned a fish? There’s nothing cruel in what I’m doing here. I treat most of my stock better than farmers treat their animals. I don’t feed them chemicals or hormones. When you consider the way the world is today, there’s no question I’m doing a lot of them a big favour.

Terry ask him what right he has to play God. Vincent denies that is what he is doing.

I’m just helping out. There’s too many people in the world and not enough food. This takes care of both problems at the same time.

And that’s Vincent’s truth. And there is some truth in it.

The climax is the two brothers battling it out with chainsaws (a Texas Chain Saw reference) while Vincent wears a pig’s head on his head, which would not help his visual acuity much, but takes us to all sorts of interesting tropes, such as Animal Farm. The shock ending: as Vincent dies, he admits to his whole life being a lie, to being the biggest hypocrite of them all. Why?

My meat. I used – preservatives!

The film received a respectable 70% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The reviews range from “a rather well-executed dark comedy” to “tasteless, gruesomely awkward and moronic.” I liked it because it ticked all the boxes in my quest to understand cannibalism’s undermining of anthropocentrism. And Rory Calhoun is terrific – or as Montgomery Burns would say:

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Meating the future: “DELICATESSEN” (Caro & Jeunet, 1991)

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Delicatessen is a classic French black comedy set in a post-apocalyptic village where seeds and grains are the exchange currency. The butcher advertises for handy-men in a journal called Hard Times and then slaughters the applicants and sells their meat to his weird tenants, who have surrealistic activities: a man who lives in a flooded room full of frogs and snails, a woman who constantly fails at suicide attempts so involved they would be worthy of Wile E Coyote, and two brothers who manufacture mooing machines for no apparent reason.

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The trailer for Delicatessen is a scene from the early part of the film, where the butcher, Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) is having sex with a woman (Karin Viard) who seems to be as much captive as partner.

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As his lustful tempo, played out on the squeaky bedsprings, increases in speed, so do the activities of all the tenants: the butcher sets the pace in this world (and by implication in our world too).

Into this house of horrors comes a gentle (vegetarian) clown, Louison (Dominique Pinon), who has left the circus after his partner, Doctor Livingstone, was eaten.

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Livingstone, it turns out, was a chimp, but his sorrow is no less real for that.

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The butcher’s daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) falls in love with him and tries to warn him of his likely fate.

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Julie dreams about the upcoming butchery of Louison, and decides to save him. To do this, she has to seek the help of the Troglodistes, an underground group who are vegetarian and hate the “surfacers”, who hunt them. Their motivation is the 30 bags of corn in her father’s house. Her motivation: love. Her father’s: meat. Can there be a more French theme? She returns to find:

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But he’s a clown – this is a new act he is rehearsing.

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Since Louison did not appear on the steps last night, where the killings are done, the butcher is instead selling bits of the mother of one of the tenants. As the tenant leaves the butcher, a neat packet of her mother’s flesh under her arm, she says:

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“We’ll do that now” her husband assures her.

Look, none of it makes any sense, but that’s to be expected. All we can conclude is that voracious appetite (of which cannibalism is the highest form) doesn’t pay.

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And love always triumphs…

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… even if it’s underwater.

The director Marc Caro’s cameo (in goggles).

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Rotten Tomatoes currently gives Delicatessen an impressive 89% “fresh”. The Washington Post called Delicatessen “a tasteless variation on Sweeney Todd set geographically near the border of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil” while Unsung Films said it was “reminiscent of Amélie – and …much braver”. Amélie was the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 masterpiece.

Empire summed up Delicatessen as “simply essential viewing for vegetarians”.

Cannibalism films often have that effect.

 

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Auto-cannibalism: “In My Skin” (de Van, 2002)

First off, if you don’t like gore (hey, it’s a blog about cannibal films, not necessarily slashers), then you may want to avoid this little French number. If graphic scenes don’t bother you (or if you like them) then this one is quite intriguing and very well made. But –– you’ve been warned.vlcsnap-2019-02-16-15h47m58s843.png

Marina de Van both directed and starred in this film, one in a genre of French movies which became known as New French Extremity films. There’s not a great deal of plot, but there’s a lot to the film in terms of the concepts and questions it raises. The film starts with a series of scenes: traffic, buildings, doors, etc, split screen into the image on one side, and a negative version on the other. So we’re already exploring dualism. The lead character, Esther (played by the director, Marina de Van), is a picture of privilege: she is white, well paid, well off, has a loving boyfriend – she’s on top of her world. Then she has a fall. A real fall, onto some rubbish, and actually injures her leg. But it doesn’t hurt. She doesn’t even notice the abrasions for some time.

Her doctor (played by her real-life brother, Adrian de Van) and her boyfriend (Laurent Lucas) are both concerned about her feeling no pain, but she brushes them off. Then she starts poking her wound, then the cutting starts, then the stabbing, then later the chewing (which qualifies it for my cannibal blog). That’s all I’m saying – no spoilers.

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In the director’s words, the movie asks “does this body really belong to me?” In an interview, she revealed that the story is based on an childhood accident, when she was hit by a car and had her leg broken, and she saw her leg not as part of her, but as a “fascinating, deformed object.”

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Here’s the point: we look at each other with love or lust or hatred or fear, but it’s always only skin deep. What is beneath that surface? Derrida tells us that the binary opposition of inside to outside is the “matrix” of all oppositions. We consume the insides (muscle, fat, blood) of other animals but are horrified at our own internals – think of the warning given on the news when showing an accident or terrorist event, often quickly followed by an advert or a kitchen show involving bits of a dead lamb.

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Why are we so repelled by what’s under our skin? Judith Halberstam tells us that skin is a “metonym for the human”, and any breach of it reveals a “semiotic of monstrosity” – the uncanniness within the body. Or as Angela Carter put it, “if flesh plus skin equals sensuality, then flesh minus skin equals meat”.

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This film, and cannibal films generally, remind us that we are not gods or angelic beings – we are animals, and are made of meat, just like the animals we torment and slaughter. When Esther looks into her own being, she feels the same appetite others feel when walking past a roast.

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In My Skin received 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, with one reviewer saying “A spellbinding, forceful film that refuses to be ignored” and another slamming it as “a bloody mess, in more ways than one.” The film received the Best International Film award at the Fantasia Film Festival in 2003. Make up your own mind.

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Innocent cannibalism: “SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET” (King, 1936)

One of the earliest films in the range of cannibal stories I have chosen to cover is George King’s 1936 version of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney is a modern myth, but is a descendant of the shadow archetype, those who destroy themselves in trying to destroy others, including Homer’s Cyclops, whose behaviour, Lacan would say, is governed by “unregulated libidinism”. This Todd is certainly so governed.

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The poster on the wall of the barber shop, where the story is told

The title role is played by the wonderfully named Tod Slaughter, who presents Todd as pure evil: socially respectable, yet greedy for money and lusting after the young heroine, Johanna. This is a far more straight forward explanation of cannibalism than the 21st century version where Depp is motivated by revenge at injustice (and insists on singing as well).

The plot is straightforward: Todd has a barber shop near the docks where he lures passers-by in for a shave, kills them and steals their valuables, the kind of simple but effective business plan that any bank would find beguiling.

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Todd’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, has a pie shop and profitably disposes of the bodies. Johanna is the daughter of a local merchant and Todd offers to go into partnership with him, planning to ruin him and blackmail him into approving marriage with his daughter. When the girl’s true love, Mark, returns with riches from the African colonies, (he also bravely fights off a tribe of savages, who are probably cannibals in terms of the colonial trope) he is robbed by Todd but saved from death by Mrs Lovett, who is jealous of Todd’s attention to Johanna. In an interesting instance of early (pre-‘slasher’) gender displacement, Johanna decides to save Mark by dressing as a boy, but is captured by Todd and, setting the gender roles back to basics, has to be rescued from the resulting fire (which consumes Todd) by Mark.

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Neither Todd nor Lovett are ever seen eating human flesh – all cannibalism is performed by the unwitting customers, alluded to when Mark’s comic relief friend and shipmate, Pearley, munches through a pie while speculating on what Todd does with the bodies. The word ‘cannibal’ is never uttered, and the only whiff of abjection is when the narrator, a modern day barber in Todd’s old shop recounting the story to a customer, reveals there is a pie shop next door, and watches in amazement as the man flees. This is textbook abjection: the smell of meat from some non-human mammal cooking next door has made the customer in contemporary London realise his own mortality.

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The class nature of nineteenth century England is illustrated by young Tobias, who is brought to Todd as an apprentice: Todd gets one guinea for each boy he takes from the parish. The Beadle warns Todd that this is the last boy he is getting: presumably he has killed, and Mrs Lovett has cooked, the previous seven.

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“You’ve brought me another apprentice. And a nice little boy, too!”

The boy prepares the victims by applying shaving cream, and is then sent off for a walk with a penny pie from next door, making the innocent lad the chief innocent cannibal. In fact, all the cannibalism is innocent and is carried out by the lower classes, represented by Pearley and Tobias, an apparent metaphor for the exploitation with which the working class was struggling in the 1930s when the film was made. Todd’s unconscionable slaughter of men (never women, except, almost, the disguised Johanna) for profit is pure objectification: he treats his fellow humans as commodities. No explanation is given, nor needed: Todd’s maniacal laughter is necessary and sufficient to make clear that he is a psychopath; in this, he is a mythic figure: the stuff of nightmares.

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Full movie (with some audio issues) is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W0YoxQkTjs

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Cannibal Cheesecake: “Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals”, (D’Amato, 1977)

Joe D’Amato (real name Aristide Massaccesi) was nothing if not prolific, directing some 200 films from 1972-99. These covered a multitude of genres from westerns to war, comedy to fantasy, but he is best known for his horror, erotic and adult films. His first softcore movie was Emanuelle’s Revenge in 1975, followed by his work on five of the six “Black Emanuelle” movies starring Laura Gemser as a globe-trotting journalist who gets into all sorts of merry scrapes, usually involving violence, horror and rape. They were based around the French Emmanuelle movies, with one “m” removed from the title to avoid copyright problems.

D’Amato’s first Emanuelle movie, Emanuelle’s Revenge (1975), was with German actress Rosemarie Lindt as Emanuelle and George Eastman as Carlo, whose role as a murderous monster with a machete prefigured his later role in D’Amato’s Antropophagus (1980). Both these movies deserve a mention in this blog, since the first has Carlo fantasising about cannibalism while under the influence of LSD, while the second has a demented cannibal who actually eats his own intestines (all right, don’t believe me). We’ll get to them – maybe.

Emanuelle and the Cannibals was the fifth of the Black Emanuelle films; the fourth that D’Amato directed. The porn level is a great deal lower than the others in the series (Emanuelle in America for example had a naked woman masturbating a horse), but this had something better: cannibalism! Who needs horses?

The film starts with a claim to be a true story, which was the thing in those days.

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Emanuelle is in an asylum in New York, in which women do crazy things (just like they do in Suddenly Last Summer, so it must be true). Mostly they just talk to themselves and carry dolls, and Emanuelle is “embedded” as they say – an investigative journalist from the Evening Post, cleverly disguised as a doll-carrying crazy. The boss doctor (a cameo by the Director) tells her she will cause a scandal if discovered, and his price if she wants to come back and do it all again will be double.

Meanwhile, one particular crazy is busy biting off and eating a nurse’s breast, which Emanuelle finds fascinating. The staff say she is a “complete savage” and she snarls and snaps at them, but is quickly tamed by Emanuelle, who introduces herself with some hand gestures (between the girl’s legs).

Emanuelle’s editor is fascinated by the story of the cannibal and even asks how the nurse is. Emanuelle answers “she asked for it. She’s well known for her homosexual inclinations.” Well, that’s OK then. Emanuelle has taken photos of the girl with her gown hoisted up, and after studying them extensively, they raise their eyes high enough to notice a huge tattoo “above her pubic region” (I’m not sure if the dialogue really is this bad or if it is the poor translation used for the dubbing). It’s an Aztec symbol – from the Tupinambas according to the newspaper’s resident nerd (do you remember when newspapers could afford to employ nerds?). The Tupinamba were everyone’s favourite Brazilian cannibals since Hans Staden was captured by them and claimed to have witnessed their cannibalistic rituals in the sixteenth century. Fortunately, the Portuguese came to save them from their sins, and through enslavement, assimilation, extermination and the introduction of Smallpox, managed to wipe them out completely.

But not in this movie. Emanuelle goes to the Natural History Museum to meet up with the “famous anthropologist” Mark Lester (Gabriele Tinti, who was Gemser’s real-life husband). He takes her to lunch, to his house to look at films of Tanzanian ritual cannibals cutting off heads, penises and what have you from a pair of adulterers, and then to bed. She takes him to the Amazon. Fair exchange.

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now you know how to say “it’s about cannibalism” and “you’re crazy” in Swedish

Before leaving, the movie treats us to scenes of New York traffic and several gratuitous sex scenes including one with Emanuelle’s steady boyfriend, who seems to be able to make sweet sweet love while still wearing skin-tight jeans. And lots of close-ups of Gemser.

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On the plane, they smoke (!) and discuss anthropology and history, appropriate since it’s a Pan Am flight.

Why are there still cannibals? asks Emanuelle. He tells her about political cannibalism like Idi Amin, or “tolerated” cannibalism like the Andes plane crash survivors. But in the Amazon, they live by their own rules, and may eat human flesh for ritual purposes, or because they are peckish. Lucky she brought along an anthropologist.

They interview the dude who found the cannibal girl, and he says he has lived among the Amazonian tribes for 25 years and only come across two cases of cannibalism, which were quickly hushed up by the government. He has a daughter, Isabelle (Mónica Zanchi) who has grown up since she last saw Lester and lusts after him, and she spies on Lester and Emanuelle as they go through the same motions, and the same soundtrack, as the New York sex scenes, while Isabelle masturbates outside. Now that’s the sort of thing that you’d expect to cause a lot more problems than extinct cannibals.

Isabelle is taking supplies to a Missionary down the river who knows all there is to know about the “savages” as they call them, and a Nun and two Indians are going with them (definitely redshirts). The Nun tells them that superstition is still strong in the jungle, and there are still witch-doctors curing people with herbs! Oh, the horror. She does admit that the herbs work, so much so that the mission has appropriated (sorry, adopted) many of the concoctions.

There is a totally superfluous scene where Emanuelle and Isabelle are in the river washing each other (mostly concentrating on each other’s breasts, which I guess must get grimy on the river) and being watched by a chimp, who smokes their cigarettes and tries on their sunglasses. Of the three actors in the scene, the chimp seems to be portrayed as the most intelligent. They meet up with some adventurers, Donald and Maggie, who tell them that the Mission was attacked by savages and everyone massacred. Donald saves Emanuelle from a snake, and she asks him what he is doing in the jungle.

“Hunting. Hunting is my life. I’ve sacrificed a lot to satisfy my craving for – hunting…. The satisfaction of catching it. And to kill! … you have to share risks with the animals. Man too can be hunted.”

And what’s Maggie doing there? Well, she’s doing the African cook, Salvador. And no one seems to wonder what the hell he’s doing there in the middle of the Amazon basin. Donald catches them hard at it in the jungle, but it doesn’t become much of a thing, because they have their own agenda – searching for a crashed plane full of diamonds. When the others decide to go back, they find one of the redshirts cut up, cannibal style, and their boats missing.

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They try to head back down the river on foot, but on the way find a Bible, and Father Morales from the Mission to which they had been heading.

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So, we all know what happens next. This is a cannibal film after all. The Nun disappears and – well, we know from the very start of the movie which part of the body is the favourite of these particular cannibals. They also like intestines. And we get to see it all happen.

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The expeditionaries find the Nun (or some of her), and it just gets worse from there. Donald and Maggie find the plane and the diamonds, pause for a celebratory quickie, and are attacked by the cannibals. Donald forgets to duck and the savages take Maggie, and the diamonds. Our few remaining heroes find the village and the villagers, who are about to sacrifice Maggie to the Goddess of Fertility. We know this because we have an anthropologist along. After that, they put a wire around Donald’s midriff, and have a tug of war.

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Donald’s quick weight-loss diet

Isabelle is drugged and naked, but they want to sacrifice a pregnant girl to the river gods, and she’s not pregnant – yet. Cue a rather morose gang rape, led by the Shaman, where the rapists all seem bashful – doing it in front of a crowd I guess?

When everybody has had a turn at poor Isabelle, Emanuelle comes up with an idea – she paints the tattoo found on the crazy girl onto her stomach and appears to the superstitious locals as their Goddess of the river. They hand over Isabelle and the two women dive into the river hand in hand, much to the rage of the hoodwinked cannibals, who pursue them in canoes. Luckily, Emanuelle is willing to do anything for a story, even shoot people, but she’s a bit sorry about the white people (and servants) they lost on the way, even remembering the names of the redshirts. But Mark sums it up, with typical anthropological moral relativity:

“Don’t take it badly, Emanuelle. It’s nobody’s fault.”

And nor, apparently, is cannibalism. Or colonialism. Or killing natives for following their rituals. Or making really bad movies.

Rottentomatoes.com has not bothered to gather the reviews of critics, but the viewers’ score is a miserable 26%, with a “Super Reviewer” pointing out that “The acting may be appalling, but it’s difficult to tell for sure because this is dubbed — badly.”

The Allmovie site summed it up:

“excruciating tedium punctuated by occasional kinky sex in the first half of the film and cheap, gag-inducing special effects in the second…
Too gory for softcore fans and too dull for gorehounds, this is basically a film with no target audience whatsoever.”

Perhaps the Director was making a subtle point with this scene where they are planning to eat some innocent creature from the jungle:

The full movie is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oPfifnhGNo (dubbed into English, with Spanish subtitles!).

IF YOU LIKE MY BLOG, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO RECOMMEND IT (WITH DISCRETION) TO FRIENDS ON SOCIAL MEDIA.
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