“The mothers were empty… cored” – THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (Colm McCarthy, 2016)

In an alternative present, or perhaps near future, humanity has been decimated by a fungal disease that turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries“.

At an army base in rural England, a small group of infected children are being studied by biologist Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, fatally attractive once more), who considers them less than human, or at least dispensable in her search for a vaccine. A sacrifice for the good of humanity, which is on the brink of extinction.

Despite being “hungries”, compelled by their infected brains to tear any uninfected human apart for food, these children think rationally and feel human emotions. But only one person, their teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), considers them human.

One girl, Melanie (a brilliant performance by thirteen-year-old Sennia Nanua), is inquisitive, imaginative and excels in the classroom to which the children are wheeled each morning, strapped to their chairs to stop them eating the guards and teacher. Through the peephole of her stone cell, Caldwell gives Melanie riddles and even asks her to consider the Quantum Mechanics paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, in which a cat in a sealed box could be either alive or dead, or both, depending on a random state of subatomic particles controlling a potentially lethal radioactive charge. The hungries, strapped to their wheelchairs, polite until they smell flesh, are neither human nor subhuman, or perhaps, like the cat, alive and dead at the same time. Melanie is in a box (or a stone cell) and may be alive or dead, depending on the science; human or inhuman, depending on the politics. Like all of us, her life is in a state of quantum superposition, controlled by random forces over which we have no control. Ask anyone in an ER ward.

The children are kept in cells and only taken out by heavily armed soldiers. Their food is live worms.

Melanie is precociously brilliant and loves her teacher Miss Justineau.

When the base is invaded by hungries, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell and some heavily armed soldiers, some of whom she needs to eat to save Justineau. This causes her human side some ethical issues.

The group agree to take Melanie with them, believing that Caldwell will be cutting her up for a vaccine, but she is forced to wear a mask, like Hannibal Lecter as they try to find a fortified settlement in a world filled with hungries.

Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a respectable 86% although most of the reviewers saw it as a superior entry in the zombie tradition. It’s actually not a zombie movie, although there are very large numbers of rotting people standing around, ready to chase anyone that moves too fast or talks too loud.

But the hungries are not corpses who have risen from the dead like Night of the Living Dead; they are infected by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is a real fungus discovered by Wallace in 1859 (the dude who came up with the idea of natural selection at the same time as Darwin). The fungus, which normally affects insects, has in this story mutated to take over the brains of living humans, making them into hungries. Spores from the fungus, or a bite from a hungry, can turn a person into one in a few seconds. If you recall the virus that took over the UK in 28 Days Later and filled the victims with uncontrollable rage, this is an infection (albeit fungal) that fills its victims with voracious appetite. The hungries stand around like rotting statues, unresponsive to anything but the taste, sound, smell or movement of living animals, including humans. Is there a metaphor here for the way we drift through life, only mobilised, often by smart marketing, into sudden bouts of voracious hunger? The hungries are “free” of all the cares and duties of being human – they are only alive when they smell fresh flesh. They live what Kundera calls an “idyllic” existence of constant repetition. Melanie is equally free in her cell – to strap herself into her chair, learn her lessons, and eat her worms at night. Once she is freed, there are all sorts of decisions to be made – practical and ethical ones.

Although the fungus is not a virus like COVID-19, it does eventually kill the hungries to feed on their bodies, in order to grow its fruit body and create spoors.

Caldwell explains that the child hungries, including Melanie, were discovered in a maternity hospital.

“The mothers were there too. They were… empty. Cored. From the inside.”

The embryos were infected through the placenta, and

Melanie and the other children at the base were captured soon after birth and socialised (except for the, you know, growling and biting), but other child hungries have gone feral, and live in urban tribes that hunt and can communicate only in grunts and snarls. Melanie has to establish her authority over them by employing their own violent methods.

The movie (and book on which it is based by Mike Carey, who simultaneously wrote the screenplay) is a bildungsroman, the story of Melanie’s coming of age. Incarcerated since birth, Melanie has a burning desire to understand what she is, how she got that way, and control her own future.

The interviewer on rogerebert.com said:

“There’s a visceral, emotional impact to the horror and action of “The Girl with All the Gifts” that resonates because the characters and the world they live in feels real to us.”

We all live in that world, where infections run wild, the authorities are at a loss for solutions, and superspreaders and conspiracy theorists are hungries. This is an intelligent and gripping thriller that asks questions about the nature and ethics of sacrifice. While we are sacrificing front line workers to save oldies (like me) from COVID, what can we say about the sacrifice of the innocent like Melanie?

The favourite word of 2020 was “unprecedented” as an unknown and widely unforeseen virus disrupted all aspects of normal life. Derrida uses the term “arrivant” – an “Other”, an absolute newcomer about whom we know nothing, and who may take monstrous form. Melanie and the hungries, like SARS-CoV-2, are arrivants.

The big question Melanie asks the scientist and the teacher is: what if the arrivants, the child hungries who are symbiotes with the fungus, are a superior race of human? We eat animals we consider lesser beings – why shouldn’t they do the same?

2020: The Year in Cannibalism

2020 assailed us with fires, floods, famine and pestilence (both the pandemic and political varieties). The power of nature was demonstrated in several forms: in the massive power of storms, floods and fires, and the microscopically small virus that crippled the world economy and killed (probably well over) 1,700,000 people (so far). Our faith in being the masters of this planet and the manipulators of the natural world was finally shaken. We were toppled from our declared place at the top of the food chain by a miniscule virus that used our own cells as food to proliferate. We, like the animals we breed and kill by the billions, became fodder, not just to viruses, but occasionally to other humans. Some reported cases of alleged, proven or suspected cannibalism from 2020 are listed below. How many more are still unknown? Considering the hundreds of thousands of people who go missing each year, that is anyone’s guess.

I am well aware that, as I write this, there are still a handful of days to go in the year, and there is a good chance 2020 may still have some more surprises for us. But anyway (as far as I know), this is the year 2020 in cannibal news.

Note: 2020 saw reports about the guy who allegedly hung his Grindr date upside down, cut off his testicles and ate them, but he is not counted here as he did it last Christmas eve, which technically was still 2019.

2020: INDIA

A blind couple in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur district allegedly had a seven-year-old girl killed so they could eat her organs, as they believed that this would result in them having a child. Police said that a seven-year-old girl had gone missing on the night of Diwali on Saturday. Her blood-stained body was recovered from a field near the village on Sunday.  ”Several organs of the body were missing….her stomach had been ripped open” and the girl was also raped before being brutally murdered.

How UP's Badhras Was Left Jolted by the Horror of Cannibalism on Diwali Night

2020: GERMANY

On 8 November a hiker came upon the skeletal remains of a human leg in a field on the northern outskirts of Berlin. Investigators discovered bite marks on the bones, though they said it was still unclear if they were human or from another animal. A 41-year-old man was arrested at his home close to the site where the victim’s bones were found, on suspicion of murder with sexual motives. “The suspect had an interest in cannibalism,” Berlin prosecutors’ office spokesman Martin Steltner said. “He searched online for the topic.” Well really, who hasn’t?

'CANNIBAL': Teacher Stefan R, pictured, is suspected of killing a man he met on a dating site
Suspect, a teacher known as Stefan R.

Because the alleged killer and victim met on an on-line dating site, reports of the arrest have evoked parallels to the infamous case of the “Rotenburg cannibal”. In 2006, a German court convicted Armin Meiwes of murder and disturbing the peace for killing a man he had met online and eating him. Meiwes is serving a life sentence.

2020: RUSSIA

66-year-old Viktor Zakharov was arrested on suspicion of three murders after a severed penis was found in his garden in the Siberian village of Severnoye. Skeletal remains of two other men were subsequently found under his floorboards. Authorities are investigating whether the scrap metal collector ate the men. He is now also being investigated concerning the disappearance of 14-year-old Alexey Bakun in 2012.

Alleged cannibal arrested after severed penis found in garden

2020: UKRAINE

A 41-year-old Ukrainian admitted that he killed his girlfriend, then fried and ate her legs after the two had a drinking session at home on April 13. He hid the rest of her body in the reeds of a nearby river, where it was found the next day by a father taking his two children for a stroll. Officers ambushed Oleksandr in his home and found him frying flesh from his girlfriend’s leg before eating it. Local reports said the police felt sick after witnessing the horrific scene. According to Ukrainian media, Oleksandr cooked his girlfriend’s legs and ate them after he reportedly ‘got hungry’.

A 41-year-old man (left), identified only as Oleksandr, admitted to killing his girlfriend (pictured) and cooking her legs after feeling hungry during their drinking party in Ukraine

Also in Ukraine, Maxim and Yaroslav Kostyukov, 42 and 21, were convicted of killing Yevgeny ‘Zhenya’ Petrov, 45. The three had been drinking together when a row developed over the conflict between Kiev’s army and pro-Moscow rebels in the eastern part of the country. A court heard how the son had held Petrov from behind while the father stabbed him twice in the chest. Yaroslav Kostyukov then beheaded the victim and cut flesh from the corpse as well as his heart, kidneys, liver and other internal organs. He confessed to cooking the meat which was served when the father and son hosted a homeless man called Yura. Prosecutor Oksana Karnaukh said: “There is no such crime as cannibalism listed in the Criminal Code of Ukraine.” The pair were, however, charged with murder and aggravating circumstances committed by a group of persons, and illegal possession of arms. And, presumably, legs.

Father and son cannibals admit to eating former policeman
Father and son cannibals who beheaded an ex-cop and cooked his meat and organs.

2020: USA

In Oklahoma, a hospital admitted a severely bleeding 28-year-old patient, who told the staff that two men had surgically removed his testicles as he lay on a wooden table in their remote cabin in the woods. One of the men said he was a “cannibal” who kept body parts in a refrigerator. The unnamed “patient” met the “surgeon”, Bob Lee Allen, on a website advertising castrations. Allen said that he had 15 years’ experience doing similar surgeries and would remove the man’s testicles free of charge. Why so generous? After the two-hour procedure, Allen “laughed and said that he was a cannibal,” the victim told investigators, adding he had a freezer full of body parts.

Oklahoma Cannibal Arrested For Illegal Castration, Body Parts In Freezer
Bob Lee Allen (or possibly Santa Claus?) and Thomas Gates

In Brooklyn NY on April 15, Khaled Ahmad ran up to some cops from the 68th Precinct who were on meal break in a bagel shop about 4:30 a.m., and told them he had killed his 57-year-old father. The victim had been gutted and “the victim’s innards were removed but not found, leading some investigators to believe Ahmad may have eaten them”. Ahmad “had a history of mental illness” while the unfortunate father was a retired grocer, who had just sold his store in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Ahmad had created a GoFundMe page in September 2019 that asked the public to help fund his return to the Palestinian territories, but at the time of the murder, he and his 57-year-old father, Imad Ahmad, were sheltered at home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn to avoid getting the coronavirus. One high ranking cop said, “it’s the worst crime scene I’ve ever seen.”

Alleged Brooklyn cannibal killer who dismembered dad tried raising money to  return home | amNewYork

On the other side of the country, police were called to a home in Richmond, California, where they found Dwayne Wallick, a “suspected” cannibal, “digging into his grandmother’s dead body and trying to eat her remains”. The murder involved both a knife and an ice pick. “Police believe unspecified drugs may have played a role in the crime”. No shit, Sherlock. A Richmond Police spokesman said the crime scene was among the most gruesome he’s seen in his career.

Dwayne Wallick From Richmond Police
Dwayne Wallick

Here’s the thing – would you pick any of these guys as cannibals? They don’t have a single eye in the middle of their forehead like the cyclops or dog-faces like the cyanocephali. They don’t have bones through their noses like the mythical cannibals of the colonial stories. In fact, since Jack the Ripper, or perhaps Sweeney Todd, cannibals have looked “normal” – indistinguishable from anyone else. Cannibalism has come home, and the cannibal could be living next door. Or even closer.

2020 CANNIBAL MOVIES

Pretty amazing that anyone managed to produce anything in 2020 with all the lockdowns and social distancing, yet below we have a bunch of cannibal movie releases. Several others were put on the backburner and will hopefully appear in 2021 when things get back to abnormal.

Gretel & Hansel (Oz Perkins) – a reboot of the Grimm Brothers tale.

Human Hibachi (Mario Cerrito III) – Indie cannibalism, banned by Amazon.

The Last Thanksgiving (Erick Lorinc) – cannibal pilgrims attack a restaurant that stays open for Thanksgiving.

Cannibal Comedian (Sean Haitz) – you know how comedians like to say “I killed out there”?

Spell (Mark Tonderai) – Hoodoo cannibal rituals.

The Dinner Party (Miles Doleac) – an invitation from the cultural elites – they’d like to have you for dinner.

Butchers (Adrian Langley) – stranded in the backwoods, attacked by cannibals, did anyone mention chainsaws?

Cadaver (Jarand Herdal) – post-apocalyptic family are invited to a show, where they can join the cast, or the menu.

If you’re staying home in 2021, why not browse through my blog, which reviews films and TV shows that feature cannibalism. There is a complete listing of Hannibal Lecter films and TV episodes, and heaps more as well.

Short cuts: WRONG TURN (Rob Schmidt, 2003)

How to make a slasher: take a group of young and pretty people, travelling and (gasp) sleeping together and therefore sinning against Gud and the Hays Code. There’s usually a gas station run by a creepy dude whose advice it might be wise to ignore (but they never do). Then there’s a freaky villain or group of villains: outsiders, possibly mutant, and always psychopathic killers. The killers slaughter all the pretty people, using sudden montage cuts and loud music, except (usually) one, known as a “last girl” who will scream a lot but ultimately survive, and probably wreak revenge.

In that sense, Wrong Turn is a fairly formulaic slasher movie and, like The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and many others, it went on to generate a slew of sequels and prequels, many of which were treated less than generously by the critics and fans. There are six so far, and 2021 promises a reboot which will no doubt be widely called number 7, so you’d have to say that this indicates a successful franchise, even if a reboot won’t add anything very new to the formula.

Slashers don’t always eat their victims, which is essential if their stories are to grace this blog, but Wrong Turn does not let us down in that area. These movies, what are sometimes called hillbilly horror, depict a clash of cultures, and attempt to show both sides through the eyes of the other. For the hillbillies, the effete city slickers are weak, spoiled and elitist, their wealth and privilege giving them an infuriating sense of entitlement. To the pretty city kids, lost in an alien land (in this case West Virginia), the locals in the flyover backwoods are inbred, amoral subhumans.

Three cannibalistic inbred mountain men are the antagonists, and their names are Three Finger, Saw Tooth and One Eye, names presumably earned by their current physical state rather than bestowed at birth. The film’s opening sequence shows examples of genetic mutants, with implications that this is due to inbreeding (although there are no females in the clan). This lot are so degenerate that they do not even speak, except for some Paleolithic grunting. And these guys definitely follow the paleo diet. Their enormous strength and ability to shrug off apparently mortal wounds may come from their diet of flesh, but seems more likely to be an unexpected benefit of their genetic reinforcement.

Not much information is given (until Wrong Turn 4, which I suppose we’ll get to sometime), as to how they got that way, or as Clarice said to Hannibal Lecter “what happened to you”. In this one, behaviourism really doesn’t matter – these are quintessential bad guys, monsters, inhumans, existing only to frighten, to kill (and eat) and then to get their comeuppance, with of course an unexpected survivor to point toward (yawn) the inevitable sequel.

There are six beautiful people, two couples, who quickly come to sticky ends, and their friend Jessie (Eliza Dushku) whom they had invited to a getaway after her messy relationship breakup. She is the only one not currently living in sin (although one of the other couples are planning their wedding as they are slaughtered) so she seems destined by the morality of slashers to be the “last girl”. They are lost on a dirt road with a flat tyre, caused by the mutants laying barbed wire across the road, when the square-jawed hero Chris (Desmond Harrington) crashes into their car, taking a wrong turn to get to a business appointment which we all know is going to seem pretty irrelevant. Four of them head off into the woods looking for a phone (they have mobile phones, but hey, it’s out in the middle of nowhere – no cell towers?) The couple who stay with the cars are slaughtered almost immediately. Now there’s a turnaround, Chris show himself to be a leader, he is going to be last boy! The intersection of the two groups, heroes and mutants, comes when the lost city folks find the house of the mutants, and have to hide under the furniture, where they have to watch the killers chop up their friends for dinner.

This is extreme slasher binary conflict: human vs inhuman, normal vs freak, civilised vs wild, prey vs predator. We follow Jessie and Chris as they watch their friends die and flee into the woods, and we barely see the ghastly faces of the antagonists, until toward the climax.

Most victims in slashers are despatched quickly, but the last girl is traditionally captured, tied up in what looks like a rape scene but usually isn’t, because the bad guys are interested in gustatory rather than sexual carnality.

Jessie is tied to a bed, about to be slaughtered – no particular reason why she has not been killed instantly like the others, but we need time for a rescue. The freaks are predators, but Chris and Jessie are warriors. Like The Hills Have Eyes, the victims have to adopt the savagery of the killers to survive, and there is plenty of gore and explosions if that’s your thang. Unlike THHE, where the victims arguably become the savages, Chris and Jessie look to have grown through their ordeal, so that’s a novel approach.

Wrong Turn earned a measly 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic writing,

“the gore is so ridiculously overdone and the script so lame, that it undermines all sense of suspense.”

But I didn’t think so. The cast is great, the plot is fast moving and certainly never dull, and the suspense is well done. There is no reason given for the murders, except that humans are their preferred quarry. But that is the question that cannibalism, as a concept, poses in every film – why eat humans? Because they’re made of meat?

“There’s something evil in those woods”: SUPERNATURAL Season 1, Episode 2 “Wendigo”

Supernatural is a TV series created by Eric Kripke, first broadcast in 2005. Fifteen seasons later, the final episode (there were 327 in total) aired on November 19, 2020. You could call that a successful series.

The plots follow two brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester, who hunt demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural beings. The first two episodes were directed by David Nutter, who later won an Emmy for Game of Thrones.

Sam and Dean’s origin story in the pilot episode shows an idyllic home with a loving mother, doting father, and a demon who drips blood into baby Sam’s mouth, then ties their mom to the ceiling where she bursts into flames. Well, you can’t blame them for being a bit down on supernatural entities.

Dean’s metaphysical mission statement is:

“Killing as many evil sons of bitches as I possibly can.”

In episode 2, the boys come across a Wendigo, normally explained as a human transformed into a monster by the act of cannibalism. They find a love interest in a girl who is looking for her brother, one of a group of campers recently snatched by said Wendigo while playing computer games with friends in their tent in the deep woods (as you do) and reading Joseph Campbell’s book about the hero’s journey

Turns out the Wendigo eats a sounder of people every 23 years, and they find a man who, as a child, was attacked by the monster in 1959 but survived, with massive scars. He tells them:

Well, they finally get around to reading their Dad’s journal – he has a slim leather volume of handwritten notes on every evil thing you could need to know about. They explain the Wendigo to the other campers.

Cultures all over the world believe that eating human flesh gives a person certain abilities: speed, strength, immortality. You eat enough of it, over years you become this less-than-human thing. You’re always hungry.”

You can’t kill a Wendigo with bullets or knives.

Dean attempts to draw the Wendigo away from the others, with the hilarious taunt:

“You want some white meat, bitch?”

The Wendigo is a figure from Algonquin folklore, a spirit who possesses his human victim, giving him an insatiable hunger for human flesh, but the flesh makes him grow larger, and so his appetite can never be satisfied, thus the emaciated form.

The Wendigo is said to have a heart, or whole body, made of ice. The creation of the Wendigo, like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, is a “becoming” which requires the destruction or transformation of lesser beings, just as humans like to believe that the processing of “lower” animals into meat is required for their continued existence. In the television series Hannibal, Lecter is often shown as a dark figure with antlers, a Wendigo, who manifests and wreaks carnage (e.g. the episode “Hassun”).

Margaret Atwood in her lecture on the Wendigo pointed out that, unlike most monsters, the Wendigo offers two different terrors – being eaten by it, but also transforming into it. While all cannibals threaten us with physical dissolution through their digestive tracts, a simple bite from the Wendigo, or being possessed by its spirit during the act of eating human flesh (even if the act is necessary to survive) can destroy one’s will and endanger the whole tribe.

To the First Nations people, the Wendigo represented winter, hunger or selfishness and, particularly in subsistence communities, there is a direct causal link between those things – winter means shortages, which lead to hunger and struggles for resources, and sometimes cannibalism. In times of starvation, we are capable of anything. Cannibalism stories were not uncommon on the American Frontier, and popular culture has often told tales of white-man cannibalism using the Donner Party, Alferd Packer and the Wendigo, sometimes all mixed together, as in Antonia Bird’s Ravenous.

But when the Europeans came with their ships and guns and viruses, those they dispossessed, enslaved, raped, tortured and massacred came to the obvious conclusion that the white man must be possessed by a Wendigo spirit. This Wendigo spirit of ruthless and voracious consumption may be less blatant in the twenty-first century, but is still evident in the exploitation of sweat-shop workers, in human trafficking, and in the intensive factory farming that turns sentient animals into commodities by the billions. Also in the covert sexism and racism in shows like this, that depict “cis-het” white men taking on the world of evil and saving civilisation from the outsiders and aliens that haunt our dreams.

Monstrous appetites: THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Just over 200 years ago, Mary Shelley, at the age of just eighteen, conceived the story of “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus” while sheltering with her lover (and later husband) the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the home of Lord Byron, the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Frankenstein is a brilliant but tortured scientist who creates a creature and brings it to life, whereupon it wreaks havoc, due to Frankenstein’s actions in first abandoning his creation, then reneging on his promise to create a wife for it. Shelley’s story perfectly summed up the fears of the Romantics: Science was capable of the improvement or even perfection of humanity, but if misused, could lead only to catastrophic consequences. She would have been fascinated by the modern versions of this paradox: global warming, weapons of mass destruction, and pandemics issuing from factory farms and slaughterhouses.

A century after his literary birth, Frankenstein and his monster were popularised by Hollywood (with the story considerably changed) in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), with Boris Karloff as the huge, shuffling, homicidal monster.

The British company Hammer Horror, the virtuosi of Gothic films, revived the story in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, their first colour horror movie, and the first gory slasher, with Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature. This week’s choice, Revenge of Frankenstein, was the first in a string of sequels, which made Hammer the pre-eminent horror studio, and Peter Cushing the master of cultured monstrosity.

The trailer to the movie (above) gives a succinct summary of the story so far: Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) was sentenced to the guillotine in 1860 for creating a version of a human, and was blamed for its murderous rampage, caused by the creature’s brain being damaged.

“It should have been perfect. I made it to be perfect. If the brain hadn’t been damaged, my work would have been hailed as the greatest scientific achievement of all time.”

He escapes the guillotine by substituting a priest whom he pays the executioner to decapitate instead of him, and relocates to Carlsbrück under a false name (Dr Stein). Here he treats the hypochondriac rich and the grimy poor, whose limbs and other parts he amputates for his continued research.

Another doctor recognises him and blackmails him into agreeing to work together, and they plan to transfer the brain of Stein’s hunchback assistant Karl (played by Oscar Quitak) into a “healthy” (i.e. not disabled) body (played by Michael Gwynn).

“Nobody. He isn’t born yet. But this time he is perfect… All I need is a brain, and then I can give it life.”

Karl is a hunchback, and can’t wait to get his brain removed and put into Frankenstein’s jigsaw of spare parts.

Is the hybrid human getting a brain transplant? Or is Karl getting a body transplant? There’s another character, Otto, a chimpanzee into whom Stein has already (unforgivably) transplanted the brain of an orang-utan. After the operation, however, Otto “ate his wife”.

Yes, brain transplants, followed by head trauma, lead to cannibalism – who knew? Karl, in his new body, escapes but is spotted and beaten up by a janitor, whom Karl (now brain-damaged) then kills and eats. The Otto syndrome has spread to Karl! His injured brain then, somehow, starts restoring his hunchback, and his withered arm and leg – he starts turning into Richard III. An eyewitness tells the police that Karl’s first victim was killed by “some sort of animal”. Karl is dehumanised – again, first as through his disability, then through his monstrous appetite, caused by the tinkering of Frankenstein and the violence of the janitor. As expected of a monster, Karl gets right into killing and eating people.

But Karl’s violence is not really the point. Earlier movies had a shuffling, terrifying monster to amaze the audience but, in this one, it is pretty clear that the monster is not Karl, in either of his bodies, but it is the handsome, brilliant Doctor Frankenstein, a forerunner of the serial-killer Renaissance man, Doctor Hannibal Lecter. While Karl’s brain, twisted by insertion in a “perfect” body after a life living with societal rejection and shame at his disability, drives him to kill and eat human flesh, the good doctor deliberately and calculatedly ‘consumes’ the limbs, organs and other parts of the poor who fill his clinic, in order to satiate his scientific curiosity. Organ transplants save lives, but if taken from unwitten donors, how are they different to gustatory cannibalism? Like Hannibal, Victor Frankenstein is the real cannibal in this story.

It’s an interesting and at times engrossing film; the dramatic music by composer Leonard Salzedo  is annoying, but Peter Cushing and the rest of the cast are great and, in 1958, it might possibly have seemed as scary as the hype made out. The film has 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Empire Magazine calling it an:

“Expertly executed example of a golden time in British cinema – one to savour.”

Of course. All cannibal movies should be savoured, as long as they are properly prepared.

Disney’s savages: ALICE CANS THE CANNIBALS (Walt Disney 1925)

The most interesting aspect of Disney’s “Alice” silent cartoon series was that it predated Mickey Mouse by several years. The “Alice Comedies” were a hybrid of live action (a young girl named Virginia Davis) with animated characters, particularly a cat named Julius.

Cats were winning the media wars over mice in those days, almost a century ago, when the most recognisable cartoon character was Felix the Cat from Australian cartoonist Pat Sullivan. Winkler Pictures had dropped Felix after a row with his creator, and Disney was able to get them to distribute Alice and even pay to bring young Virginia from Missouri to Los Angeles to star in the work. Julius was so similar to Felix he could have been a littermate.

In the Alice series, Julius does most of the heavy lifting, but Alice gets the naming rights, since the universe they inhabit originates in her dreams after she visits a cartoon studio in the very first episode, Alice’s Wonderland (based on Lewis Carroll of course, but also perhaps a nod to Surrealism and Dada that were revolutionising art after the Great War). There were 57 cartoons in total, all directed, produced and animated by Walt, but of course we are only interested in number 12, Alice Cans the Cannibals, released in 1925.

Alice and Julius drive their car into the sea and lasso a fish to drag them to land (the car floats! The fish cooperates! They have a lasso in their possession! It’s a dream, OK?) They land on an island that is inhabited by cannibals (luckily, there is a signpost in the ocean saying “this way to the Cannibal Islands”). Cannibals, of course, were then widely considered the ubiquitous inhabitants of any land not yet settled by white people – the eternal others. The cannibal king wears a crown, so he must be every inch a king, and the cannibals spend the rest of the cartoon chasing Alice and Julius, hoping, no doubt, to eat them.

The image of a six-year-old girl being chased as prey, hit with a rock and speared in her behind might seem a little unusual these days, but it was 1925, it was a dream, and it was a cartoon, so what the hell, huh Walt? Anyway, Alice can hold her own against a bunch of primitive natives, and she instructs Julius to use a rubber tree to shoot rocks to knock them all down.

The cannibals are very accurate spear throwers, hitting both Alice and Julius in their bums, the only places that spears ever penetrated in cartoons. Alice throws the spears back with surprising accuracy.

The barrage of spears proves useful – they form a ladder up the cliff, from which our heroes can brain the cannibals below with rocks and old ostrich eggs (once again, it’s a dream).

Alice saves the day when she realises that cannibals always have rings through their noses and throws a spear which manages to go through those rings and into the bum of a hippo, who pulls them to a watery grave.

One more spear, this time into the rather easier target of the king’s bum, and white supremacy over the dark cannibals is restored.

Let’s not take it too seriously – it’s a light-hearted cartoon about a little girl’s dream of overcoming cannibals – I wonder if Freud saw it? The main interest is its depiction of the outsider – those who had not yet been colonised and enlightened (or massacred) were unarguably cannibals, and a spear up the wazoo was the least they could expect. It was the white man’s burden.

“…to keep your family alive”, CADAVER (Herdal, 2020)

New cannibal movies keep arriving, thick and fast. This one is from a young Norwegian director, Jarand Herdal, and was released on Netflix in October 2020. It is a traditional dystopian story, a genre in which people are driven to cannibalism by desperate circumstances – think Soylent Green, Delicatessen, or 28 Days Later. Dystopian films sometimes don’t bother telling you what happened to destroy our civilisation, for example We Are The Flesh or The Road. Others spell it out, and nuclear war is always a popular explanation, as is the case in Cadaver.

The film starts with children running into a vast room, playing among huge piles of clothes and bags. They try things on, and one girl discards a shirt, when she finds a stain on it. A bloodstain of course. We see a family making its way through a street where bodies lie in the road and survivors fight for food.

Discarded newspapers tell of a nuclear disaster. A family, Leonora and Jacob (Gitte Witt and Thomas Gullestad) and their daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) are desperate and terrified, down to their last tin of food, when they are offered tickets to dinner and a show at a grand hotel. Who hasn’t fallen for that line?

The showman is the suave, beautifully dressed Mathias (Thorbjørn Harr) who seats the crowd at dinner tables where waiters bring steaming plates of meat. Mathias welcomes them to the show, and tells them that

“everything that takes place tonight is staged. Everything is a show. Everything.”

The show is the theatre itself. The “audience” are told to wander the corridors, explore the rooms, but they have to wear bronze masks in order to distinguish themselves from the “actors”, who look like normal (maskless) people, and act out dramatic scenes of conflict and sex and suicide.

Alice disappears and, as Leonora and Jacob search, they ditch their masks, making them indistinguishable – they become actors instead of audience. Just as well, as the audience keep disappearing. And given the plates of meat served up in the middle of mass starvation, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out where they are disappearing to. Our protagonists, however, are clueless.

They witness Mathias addressing his actors, like a pope or king, as they kneel before him.

“You know where you came from. You know what we have here. If we don’t stick together like family, it will devour us.”

The rest of the movie is Leonora wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric corridors, trying to work out what is going on, and where the hell Alice has got to. There’s a plot reveal: Mathias is running a factory farm, with the only mammal still available in large numbers. The actors’ job is to put on a show so audience members will split up and follow them into rooms where they will fall through trapdoors, to an unknown fate. At the bottom of the trapdoor are the brawny butchers. It’s Sweeney Todd, in Norwegian.

When the actors and audience follow Leonora into the kitchens, they are shocked and horrified. I mean come on, where did they think all this meat was coming from?

We also find out why the audience must wear masks – because the actors might know some of them, and:

“as long as they are masked, you won’t be able to tell.
It makes it easier.”

The identical masks give them an air of indifference and facelessness – they look like victims. It’s the same reason farmers will tell you they never give names to the animals they plan to kill. Anonymity is essential for objectification. You don’t want to meet your meat.

When Leonora confronts Mathias, he offers her the opportunity to join the cast, asking her

“What would you do to keep your family alive?”

The title “CADAVER” (“Kadaver” in Norwegian) is an interesting choice. According to Dictionary.com, it means “a dead body, especially a human body to be dissected”. It is therefore a scientific term, implying research or study. Mathias and his merry men are chopping up the guests for dinner, but there is a way out for a talented person like Leonora – like Theseus and the Minotaur, she can navigate the maze of corridors and trapdoors and confront the beast, or even choose to join him. Survival depends on her choices and decisions. Almost certain starvation outside or murder and cannibalism inside. You can watch on Netflix to see which way she goes.

The Digital Spy review (which, I warn you, is full of spoilers) has a poll at the end, which asks:

“Would you have joined Mathias’ cannibal cast?”

The possible answers are:

1. Look… it’s the apocalypse, OK?
2. No way, I’m a vegetarian.

When last checked, the vote was about 50/50.

The cannibal apocalypse: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, 1968)

The author John Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1941 that:

“It isn’t that the evil thing wins—it never will—but that it doesn’t die… two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”

Horror depends on our inability to accept the inevitability of our own deaths, and cannibalism adds to the recipe the terror of that death involving our total disappearance, not just our spirit but our bodies, incorporated into the stomach, then the cells and finally the shit of another. We cheer the death of the ‘bad guy’ because we feel at a primal level that his death is required for the continuance of our life. But what if, as Steinbeck says, the evil never dies, and keeps coming back for us?

This I think is the attraction of the zombie, who has become a critical character in our culture since the release of this movie in 1968. An earlier movie, The White Zombie (1932) saw Bela Lugosi turned Madge Bellamy into a mindless love object – returned to life, but as a slave with no will of her own. Those zombies did what they were told, but they did not go out of their way to eat people. That type of compliant, submissive zombie is pretty much what Jeffrey Dahmer was hoping to achieve when he drilled holes in his lovers’ skulls and poured in what he hoped were non-lethal doses of acid.

George Romero’s genius was to combine the undead with the cannibal to create what in this story is called a “ghoul”. The zombie was still, in 1968, the undead servant of Haitian mythology. In this film, the ghoul, a figure that traditionally hangs out in graveyards and sometimes digs up corpses, becomes those corpses, and so gives birth to what we will ever after call zombies. These zombies are cheaper by the dozen – they have no will, no intelligence, just the force of numbers, and overwhelm the living with their ragged, shuffling weight of numbers.

What raises these dead? We are told by a TV newsreader that a strange phenomenon, perhaps radiation from a space probe that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, is causing the dead to rise from their graves. They are voraciously hungry, but very fussy eaters – their preferred cuisine is living human flesh, although cooked (when a truck explodes) will do. But the horror in this movie is from the “banality of evil” – the things that really haunt our nightmares are not ogres and aliens, but cemeteries at dusk,

Ordinary (ish) looking people trying to get into our car, when we can’t find the keys

Technology that won’t work at times of crisis

And of course the dead. Particularly when they look angry. And hungry!

Romero did not just bring to life the zombie hordes, but also very many cannibal movies owe a debt to him, as do “splatter” movies generally. The simple opening scene of a couple of siblings driving across the desert to visit their father’s grave was later replicated to some extent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. And of course many, many zombie movies and TV shows have followed in the shuffling footsteps of this one. Without Night of the Living Dead, there is no Walking Dead.

The story revolves around a group of people sheltering in a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, which is under assault by a growing crowd of cannibalistic, undead corpses. The phone doesn’t work, which is annoying, but the radio and even the TV are fine, which is useful as a dramatic device to fill us in on what’s going on.

The radio reports that they are:

“things that look like people but act like animals.”

The horror of this film seems so much greater by their ordinariness (although the low budget may have had something to do with it). Cannibals are often described as acting “like animals”, but of course, we are all animals, great apes, and cannibals are just as likely to be accused of treating their prey “like animals.”  Ordinary people, animals, fall down when shot, but the horror of these undead is their invincibility. It’s hard to kill someone who is dead, and has just risen from the grave. Shoot them in the chest and they fall over and then get up again and keep coming. They can however be shot in the brain or walloped on the head or burnt, so we are not left without hope.

But there are other dynamic binaries – heroism and cowardice, fire and fuel, shelter and intrusion, eater and eaten, and a scene where an infected girl within the boarded up house eats her own parents, and an undead brother returns to eat his sister. In two short scenes, Romero takes Freud’s insistence that cannibalism and incest are the two original prohibitions of mankind, and merges them into incestuous cannibalism. The film comprehensively problematises the narrative of humans vs monsters. We are all hiding in our houses, terrified of the latest headline, and we are also all members of the monster horde.

The protagonist is Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American hero, which in itself was rare in the sixties. Romero says Jones was chosen just because he gave the best audition, but the dynamic he brings, particularly in the inter-relationship battles inside the house, where he insists on being boss, and of course in the climax, took the film into the heart of darkness that was 1968 America. As the ghouls lurched toward the house, the Vietnam war was raging, students and police were battling on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic Party convention, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down, and in Paris revolution was in the air.

But it’s not “all right”. The racism issues raised by the film further complicate the dichotomy between human and ghoul; human and, well, inhuman. Because when the authorities arrive, they are basically a vigilante mob killing ghouls with a random collection of guns, and building bonfires to dispose of the corpses. When they see a black man – will they recognise him as a real, live human? Well, no, Ben has made it through the night, surviving the attack of hundreds of the ghouls, only to be shot through the head by a police sharp-shooter as he emerges. The film ends with grainy images of him being pulled from the house with meat-hooks and burnt with the corpses of the again-dead, and the pictures are unmistakably reminiscent of photos taken at lynchings.

The review from the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, sums up the response to the movie at the time. This was written after he had watched the movie in a cinema filled with kids, who had been dropped at the cinema, unaccompanied, for an afternoon of fun scary time.

The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire…

The movie has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Chicago Reader summing up:

Over its short, furious course, the picture violates so many strong taboos — cannibalism, incest, necrophilia — that it leaves audiences giddy and hysterical.

Interestingly, the movie was removed from Netflix in Germany, following a written demand from the German Commission for Youth Protection.

“Banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi organiser of the death camps in which millions died. What shocked Arendt was that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann, one of the most pivotal figures in the Holocaust, was a monster, in fact she found him “terribly and terrifyingly normal”.

This is the crucial difference between the early cannibals of Herodotus or Columbus and the ones inside our cities after 1888 (the year of Jack the Ripper). They don’t look that different from us. They are men and women, young and old, dressed and naked. We can no longer tell them for sure from our next-door neighbours.

The ghouls of Night of the Living Dead are human but dehumanised. They are dead, but still walking and eating, and the dead and the undead all burn in the same fire. In fact, the ghouls are us, filled with rage at the fact of our mortality, but they don’t look that dissimilar from people you might be standing next to at a political rally.

Ladies that lunch: CANNIBAL GIRLS (Ivan Reitman, 1973)

Mention cannibalism in conversation (sorry, yes, I often do), and you will usually (in my experience) be met with either humour or revulsion and very often both at once. Ivan Reitman has wrestled with that paradox in this early movie – he went on to direct Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters I and II, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Dave and Junior. Great comedy classics, but none of them involved cannibalism, unfortunately.

This Canadian film employs the classic horror trope of the young couple lost or having car problems or, in this case, both at once. The couple are Clifford and Gloria, played with gusto by the very young and almost unrecognisable Eugene Levy (American Pie, Schitt’s Creek, most Christopher Guest movies) and Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

There’s the creepy gas station person, the corrupt cop, and a particularly unctuous reverend. When shown in the cinemas, there was apparently a bell that rang immediately preceding the gore to warn the squeamish to close their eyes. This was omitted in the version I watched, and with good reason – if you don’t know what to expect when a guy starts pulling on his clothes and a woman reaches for a sharp implement, then you are probably watching the wrong channel.

Then there’s the hotel of horrors, where the motel proprietor tells them the “legend of the three beautiful girls”, who lure men to their farmhouse, take them to bed, and then kill and eat them.

“Food can be a marvellous appetiser” one of them tells her chosen victim. The girls have a ritual – a dab of blood between the breasts and the incantation:

“Within me and without me, I honour this blood, which gives me life.”

There’s the wink to the audience as the butcher holds up a piece of meat and tells a customer: “Mrs Wilson, if it was any fresher, it would get up and tell you itself”.

And then, there are the cannibal girls of the title. Turns out they are, I dunno, maybe succubi? Anyway, they eat human flesh, drink blood, and live forever. And, we are told, they never get sick. They feed the reverend, who seems to be in charge of all this hocus pocus, on their blood, as they chant:

“We shall drink the blood of life, of life eternal, and we shall live forever.”

The problem here is that the film is trying to be a horror story and a comedy at the same time, and does OK at both, but brilliantly at neither. It was made on a low budget, not uncommon in cannibal movies, but, to make a long story short, the less the money, the greater the tendency to make a short story long. It drags a bit, and although there’s lots of blood and meat, there’s not much terror or humour.

But it does get to the point of cannibal stories – humans are edible, under the skin we are just another large mammal, and probably taste, as several cannibals report, somewhere between veal and pork. The movie reminds us of that sad truth with subtle hints like cows grazing beside the road, and a meat truck carrying some sort of mammal flesh to the local butcher.

Hard to build a whole horror show on that, so of course there has to be a supernatural element, based on traditional beliefs about capturing the strength, wisdom, skill or even soul of the one being eaten. You can trace this belief, or hope, in contested stories of cannibalism, such as the Fore tribe of PNG who ate their ancestors and acquired not strength or skill but a nasty shaking disease called Kuru. A popular version is the myth of the Wendigo, a spirit that inhabits humans and gives them an insatiable desire for human flesh, which makes them immortal and invulnerable – a topic covered rather nicely in the movie Ravenous.

These cannibal girls are not Wendigos – they are not particularly strong, just well armed, and are under the thrall of the reverend, who lives off their life forces and can hypnotise anyone with just a glance. Maybe he is some sort of evil spirit.

But real life cannibals do not gain strength from their meals, and they do not live forever. Jeffrey Dahmer hoped only to keep his boyfriends with him as zombie sex slaves, and eventually was beaten to death in prison. Ottis Toole died of cirrhosis of the liver, also in prison. In the final analysis, what cannibals eat is just meat, it has no magical powers, and usually results in legal trouble rather than invulnerability.

But it’s an entertaining enough movie, and after all the movies we have reviewed, it is a refreshing change to see some women tucking in to a bit of man-flesh.

That’s a carrot she’s peeling. Behave yourselves.

Cannibals and windbags – WINDBAG THE SAILOR (William Beaudine, 1936)

This blog was written in the week of the 2020 US election; the film is not a classic of the cannibal canon, but then, the title sounded somehow appropriate.

In fact, it’s quite a nice change to watch a gentle English comedy after so many gruesome and gory stories from the usually humourless world of modern cannibalism. This one is about primitive, savage cannibals on foreign shores, and racist Eurocentric accounts have always found them hilarious!

Ben Cutlet is played by Will Hay, an actor who usually portrayed some sort of windbag (most often a teacher) whose comic effects involved the deflating of his pretensions. Hay was an influence on many later comedians including Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper and Ronnie Barker. Cutlet spends his days in his sister’s pub entertaining the locals with tall tales of his exploits at sea as a bold ship’s captain, even though he has never been to sea, and has only ever captained a coal barge.

He is tricked into captaining the unseaworthy Rob Roy by a gang of criminals who want to scuttle the ship for the insurance money. With Hay’s regular troupe, Jerry (Moore Marriott) and Albert (Graham Moffatt), he manages to escape the clutches of the crew and drift off on a raft. Another popular cannibal story is the starving shipwrecked crew eating the cabin boy, as happened for example in 1884, when a small ship called the Mignonette hit a big storm and sank. The four crew members survived in a lifeboat for a couple of weeks on two tins of turnips and a turtle they managed to catch. When the cabin boy fell into a coma, probably from drinking too much salt water, they slit his throat, drank his blood and ate him. In a scene that I suppose was considered most humorous, Cutlet soon starts to see Albert as a pig.

They finally drift to a West Indian island full of stereotypical natives. These primitive savages are amazed at the ship’s radio and bow down to it as the god Voiceinbox, worshipfully carrying the sailors to their chief.

He speaks cannibalised English, and Cutlet asks where he learnt it?

“My father, him meet good missionary.  Missionary, him good meat”.

Further dialogue is carried out in what the English imagine is native English:

“him belong me. Him taboo.”

Then the mutineers arrive and become the butt of cannibal puns.

Cutlet: “Well gentlemen, we meet again.”
Chief: “Ah, good meat. Plenty meat!”
Cutlet: “Voiceinbox seems very angry.”
Chief” “Me hungry too!”

Although Cutlet has promised to have the mutineers hanged, he won’t let the chief eat them, and instead stows them in the hold for the trip back to England, where he is hailed as a hero.

In 1936, when this film was made, Windbags were ruling the world (has much changed?) White supremacists saw themselves at the apex of civilisation, contemptuously exploiting, invading and exterminating the ‘lesser’ peoples of the world, demonstrated in the way Cutlet tricks his cannibal chief.

That year in Europe, Hitler was invading the Rhineland, while Stalin was purging his generals and his comrades alike in a paranoid bloodbath. Mussolini was dreaming of a new Roman Empire and invading Ethiopia. Spain was about to sink into a vicious civil war, and in England, Edward VIII, who admired Hitler, was succeeding to the throne, only to abdicate months later. The world was about to enter a new round of the Hemoclysm of the twentieth century, an orgy of bloodletting that would kill an estimated 85 million people.

Last century, killing was routine, but cannibalism? Him taboo.