Christmas slasher: “THE 12 DEATHS OF CHRISTMAS (MOTHER KRAMPUS)” James Klass, 2017

In case you are breathing a sigh of relief that Christmas has been and gone, here’s the latest news – it goes for twelve days, and involves a lot of odd things like lords leaping and pear trees containing medium sized birds. This film covers the twelve days, but omits French hens and turtle doves, etc, in favour of lots of blood and gore.

“Bah! Humbug” always seems like a pretty good response to the confected cheer of Christmas, particularly to those who do not, for various reasons, celebrate the event or conform to the voracious consumerism that accompanies it. If you are one of the many who is over the Christmas rom-coms and tear-jerkers, you may have already come across the German Christmas demon Krampus, who appeared in a 2015 movie from Michael Dougherty, involving goblins, killer toys, malicious snowmen and a jack-in-the-box that eats a child whole, although he has been punishing naughty children for a lot longer than that, and may date back to pre-Christian folklore.

The cannibal movie reviewed today, though, was originally called The 12 Deaths of Christmas and features a different villain – a Christmas witch named Frau Perchta who, according to legend, steals a child each of the twelve nights of Christmas. The witch is also said to slit open the bellies of disobedient children (not dissimilar to the threats of cannibalism which Andre Chikatilo’s mother used to keep him in line). The film’s name was changed to Mother Krampus for the American audience, many of whom have adopted Krampus as a sort of anti-Santa. Frau Perchta does not have nearly the same fan base.

The Santa Claus dogma is of course about socialisation – children are told that a large stranger will sneak into their houses at night and reward them if they are “good”. What if they are not good? Who will sneak into their house then, and what mayhem will ensue? Krampus was one answer, Frau Perchta another. Then there was Santa’s assistant, Père Fouettard who, like the Australian Prime Minister, hands out lumps of coal to children who are not deemed to have been good, and sometimes whips them too (the name Père Fouettard translates as “Father Whipper”. Following Santa around appears to have been his punishment for engaging in a bit of entrepreneurial cannibalism, in which he and his wife drugged three children, slit their throats, cut them into pieces, and stewed them in a barrel, to be sold as Christmas hams. The taste, allegedly, is almost identical.

But today’s film is not just about stealing the bad children, and perhaps killing them, no, it’s all about the punishment of the wicked being extended to the following generations – a popular theme in the Bible (check out Deuteronomy 5:9 for some unfair shit). Perchta is coming for the children of adults who wronged her.

One of these children, and the protagonist of what passes for the plot, is Amy (Faye Goodwin – Mandy the Doll). Her mum is Vanessa (Claire-Maria Fox of Suicide Club and Bride of Scarecrow), and Vanessa’s dad – Amy’s grandpa – (Tony Manders, from The Young Cannibals) lives outside the village, near a scary forest in Belgrave (the UK one), and asks her to drive him, on Christmas no less (no Ubers I guess) to the Church, where a bunch of locals want to discuss the focal local issue – lots of village children are disappearing. There we finally get to hear the legend of the witch:

“Frau Perchta was a witch, who over Christmas stole the souls of children.”

Dad admits to Vanessa that the peaceful villagers got together to kill an old woman 25 years ago (in 1992). We, the audience, know the background, through an endless voiceover accompanied by cards at the start of the movie. 12 kids disappeared over the 12 days of Christmas in 1921, and none were found, except for one girl whose mind was gone, and she could only scream “the witch! The witch!”

Then, in 1992, five more kids disappeared, their bodies were found in the forest, and the villagers believed, for reasons far from clear, that a nice old lady was the killer and was in fact Frau Perchta the witch, so they stabbed her and lynched her, as you do if the local constable is on leave, in a backward and primitive town like Belgrave, which apparently hosts the National Space Centre!

But as she died, she shouted a curse – that Frau Perchta would be back to wreak revenge on them, and their children. So, maybe she wasn’t quite so nice. Yeah, that’s about it for plot – we see (several times) the stringing up of the old woman, we see the risen witch. The witch kills lots of people in creative ways, including one who is cut up and made into a Christmas light show, another whose flesh is pressed into a cookie cutter to make Christmas peoplebread men, while another is trussed up like a Christmas turkey with an apple in her mouth and carved up, and her flesh cooked and fed to her boyfriend, who is Amy’s absentee dad. Then dad has his heart pulled out and eaten (not uncommon in cannibal stories – think Fresh Meat or even Hannibal).

The climax of a horror film (or any action movie) is usually the last ten minutes, in which the story is resolved and the bad guy defeated (until the sequel). This one goes on (and on and on) for about half an hour, presumably to ensure the film is considered a full-length feature, and it resolves nothing much, with a twist at the end that makes no sense at all. But lots of people get killed, and several have parts of them eaten, which is enough to get a mention in this blog, I guess. The plot is thin, the acting is often appalling, the continuity director in some parts seems to have been taken into the forest and eaten. But it’s presented as a low-budget slasher, and that’s what they are often like – they are not dramatic masterworks, but gruesome pantomimes. The idea of one child’s aunt walking him home through the dark forest at night when bodies are turning up everywhere is narratively absurd but, in a panto, we want to anticipate the villain, we want to guess what is going to happen, and yell at the actors to “look behind you!” And the gore, and the fright factors, are quite well done.

The moral of the story, if there is such a thing, is pronounced by a mysterious woman who turns out to be Amy’s grandma, not that it does her much good.

“Taking it into our own hands, playing God. That’s why all this is happening.”

Isn’t that exactly what humans do – play God? Nietzsche told us that God is dead, we killed him, so we have to become God. We play God in so many ways – the Christmas story in essence is about a Jewish family trying to escape one of the many psychopaths who have played God over the centuries. We play God when we nominate ourselves as above nature, more angel than animal, and proceed to destroy our own ecosystem. Who bears the suffering from such follies? The children, who are the ultimate examples of what Judith Butler calls “precarious life”. Like Frau Perchta, our vicious brutality usually comes back to haunt us, through the generations.

At the time of writing, the full movie (should you wish to bother) was available on YouTube.

Cannibals in the Soviet paradise: CITIZEN X (Chris Gerolmo, 1995)

Three years ago (where has the time gone?) I reviewed a pretty great movie called Child 44, with Tom Hardy as a Soviet investigator in pursuit of a murderer, based on the most prolific serial killer of the Soviet Union (excluding Stalin), Andre Chikatilo. Yes, pretty great, but it had some problems; from the point of view of this blog, it barely mentioned cannibalism. The murderer was “just” a psychopathic sadist. It also changed all the names and dates, presumably to protect the guilty.

But ten years earlier, today’s film Citizen X was made as an HBO television movie, based on Robert Cullen’s non-fiction book The Killer Department. This is a much more accurate rendering of the career of Andrei Chikatilo, the “Rostov Ripper”, who was eventually convicted of 52 murders, although he confessed to several more.

Chikatilo was able to continue killing for seventeen years, from 1978 to 1995, due to a combination of general ineptitude, official denial of the possibility of such a thing as a Soviet serial killer (they considered it a bourgeois American crime, inconceivable in the workers’ paradise), and luck (apparently his semen was found to have a different grouping to his blood). The authorities preferred to round up the Rostov homosexual community because of some absurd reasoning that homosexuals are also paedophiles, and some of the victims had been boys, which resulted in some gay men committing suicide in custody.

Chikatilo claimed that his mother had told him that his older brother had been kidnapped and cannibalised by starving neighbours when he was little. This may have been her way of trying to scare him into behaving, but he had been born in Ukraine at the time of the Holodomor, when Stalin was busy starving millions of people to death as part of the process of Collectivisation, so could well have been true.  Chikatilo was a self-confessed cannibal, stating that he gained sexual satisfaction from torturing his victims, and would sometimes drink their blood and eat their genitals, nipples and tongues.

This film is presented as a true-crime documentary. The viewer knows very early who the killer is – Chikatilo, a loser driven insane by rejection and humiliation at work and in bed.

Chikatilo is played with nerdish rage by Jeffrey DeMunn, who we know now as Charles Rhoades, Sr. in Billions; no wonder he captures a psychopath perfectly. The rest of the cast is just as impressive – the forensic cop is played with tightened jaw and occasional tears by Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire), his wife is played by the iconic actress Imelda Staunton, and his boss, Colonel Fetisov, is the wonderful Donald Sutherland, looking uncomfortable in a Soviet army uniform yet getting away with it due to his devilish grin.

The psychiatrist who helps them crack the case is played by the doyen of cinema Max von Sydow, who played chess with Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told and even got an Emmy nomination for his role in Game of Thrones. With a cast like that, what could go wrong?

Roger Ebert nominated Citizen X as his example of a movie that totally immerses the viewer in a believable reality:

“We experience the hopelessness, self-loathing, fear, and bleak reality displayed by most of the characters, regardless of station, age, self-discipline, or level of humanity.”

Chikatilo, the very image of the alienated outsider, preys on society’s lost and abandoned, befriending them (like Fritz Haarmann in Germany in the 1920s) and then luring them to their death.

The story shows a lot of murders, children falling backwards, blood dribbling from their mouths, knife plunged into their defenceless breasts.

We see graphic scenes of their post mortem examinations after the bodies are eventually found.

But that’s not really what the film is about – it takes us into the stultifying atmosphere of a grey bureaucracy in which truth is determined not by facts but by favouritism, prejudice and nepotism. In that sense, it is a fascinating portrait of the closing years of the Soviet Union, but it also jolts us into the realisation that we have all been there, a system where, in order to make any progress, you have to play along with the idiots in charge. A world where who you know is more important than what you do, a frustration that is felt universally. It is really a psychological thriller more than a murder procedural. The militsia make little progress, stymied by the bureaucracy, the unwillingness to admit to the fact that a serial killer could inhabit the workers’ paradise, by the apparent blunder in typing Chikatilo’s blood and semen, and by the insistence that the hectoring interrogation is the only way to succeed in getting the truth.

Ultimately, it is the psychiatrist, reading his paper, in which he had earlier tried to profile the killer, that makes Chikatilo confess, recognising that someone has finally understood the torments churning inside him.

The story is not about Chikatilo’s hunger for flesh, but his appetite for compliant sex, for a partners unable to resist his sexual appetite, because they are dead or squirming in agony. Children were ideal objects for his cravings, particularly young ones who were lost, homeless or runaways.

“Citizen X has probably had a tendency towards isolation since childhood. His internal world, filled with fantasy, is closed to those around him, even those close to him. The adolescence of such a person is, as a rule, painful, because he is often subjected to the laughter of his peers, at a time when success among them is the subject of his secret dreams. His sexuality is not noticeable to those around him, however it is an external asexuality that frequently coincides with steady masturbation and wild erotic fantasies. He is painfully sensitive in company, incapable of flirting and courtship, however it cannot be excluded that he has fathered a family.

There is reason to think that Citizen X has a weakness of sexual potency.He sits or squats astride his victim. The orgasm and ejaculation most likely occur at this stage of the act and in this position, sitting on the victim in the period of her agony…. You ejaculated while stabbing them.”

The film scored an 86% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The director, Chris Gerolmo, also wrote the screenplay, which earned him an Emmy nomination, a Writers Guild of America Award, and an Edgar Award. It’s an absorbing film, the acting is great (although the fake Russian accents don’t really convince anyone), but I still have an issue. Chikatilo is known for being the most prolific serial killer in the Soviet Union. But he is most notorious for being a cannibal, and that is barely mentioned.

What is it about cannibalism that makes it so comprehensively abject that a film about a serial killer who admitted to murdering over 53 people, 35 of them children, cannot bring itself to mention his regular feasting on the bodies?  Evidence aplenty spoke of the mutilation of the victims, particularly their eyes and sexual organs, and Chikatilo admitted in court that he had eaten the sexual organs. Yet the film, like the later Child 44, skipped over this aspect except for one brief glimpse.

Freud wrote that the two primary taboos of humanity are incest and cannibalism. It seems that his words are still accurate. We routinely see murder in films and television series – but it happens to someone else, and our attention is usually on the authority figure solving the crime. Cannibalism though is different – it opens up the human body and shows that we are made of meat, just like the animals we so carelessly torment and kill by the billions. Unlike the sometimes shocking, sometimes light-hearted killing of other people, cannibalism shows us what is inside us. It shows us our own mortality.

“…we are all potential cannibals”: SERIAL KILLERS: THE REAL LIFE HANNIBAL LECTERS (Sean Buckley, 2001)

This is an American documentary about serial killers, but specialising in those who ate parts of some of their victims. I guess that makes it inevitable that they will throw the name Hannibal Lecter in there, even though the similarities are not immediately apparent.

There are a lot of documentaries about cannibals, some mostly interested in sensationalism, and others seeking some sort of journalistic accuracy. This is one of the better ones, with a good selection of experts commenting on the various cases.

Cannibals, and particularly cannibal serial killers, are a real problem for the media. The difficulty comes from the scepticism that journalists need to cultivate in interpreting a world of stories that are stranger than fiction, or sometimes are fiction disguised as fact, or just fiction that people want to believe. Cannibal books and films fall into the horror genre and are usually lumped together with vampires, zombies, ghouls and other strange monsters out of their creators’ nightmares. So cannibals are a problem.

Cannibals are real. Many cannibals have had their activities thoroughly documented, some are even willing to be interviewed. Jeffrey Dahmer gave a range of interviews in which he spoke openly of the way he lured young men and boys to his apartment in Milwaukee and drugged them, then drilled holes into their heads and injected acid, hoping to create compliant zombie lovers, or else strangled and ate them. Dahmer was killed by a fellow prisoner after serving only a tiny fraction of his sentence of 937 years imprisonment.

But others are still alive – Armin Meiwes is in prison in Germany for eating a willing victim whom he met on the Internet and has willingly given interviews revealing his deepest passions, and he even gets out on day release from time to time. Another documentary reviewed on this site a couple of years ago compared him to, yep, Hannibal Lecter.

Issei Sagawa was arrested in Paris for killing a Sorbonne classmate whose body he lusted after and then eating parts of her, but was not sent to prison as he was declared insane. When the asylum sent him back to Japan, he was released (the French didn’t send any evidence with him), and lives in Tokyo where he has made porn movies, written for cooking magazines, and yes, done interviews for unnerved journalists. There are at least three documentaries on him, which we will get to – eventually.

Documentaries like this one love to compare real-life cannibals, or the much wider field of serial killers, with the fictional character, Hannibal Lecter, “Hannibal the Cannibal”. The problem here is that the serial killers in this doco (or any that weren’t) are not very much like Hannibal. Actual modern cannibals are usually categorised as banal, normal-looking folks who under the polite surface are depraved psychopaths, while Hannibal is civilised, educated, rational, brilliant and independently wealthy. He is a highly respected psychiatrist (until his arrest) and remains a likeable protagonist to many readers and viewers, despite his penchant for murder and guiltless consumption of human flesh. He even introduces his own ethical guidelines: he prefers to eat rude people: the “free range rude” to quote another Hannibal epigram.

Much of the commentary in this documentary is by Jack Levin, a Criminologist with a rather distracting moustache, or perhaps a pet mouse that lives on his upper lip. He sums up the modern cannibal serial killer:

 “Many Americans when they think of a serial killer will think of a glassy-eyed lunatic, a monster, someone who acts that way, someone who looks that way. And yet the typical serial killer is extraordinarily ordinary. He’s a white, middle-aged man who has an insatiable appetite for power, control and dominance.”

The standard serial killer appears very ordinary indeed. According to the doco, 90% of serial killers are white males. Many serial killers, we are told, experienced a difficult childhood, abused emotionally, physically or sexually. Hannibal of course saw his sister eaten, and probably innocently joined in the meal, so I guess you might call that a difficult childhood. But of course many people have difficult childhoods (less difficult than Hannibal’s, one hopes) without becoming cannibals or serial killers. Many of these so-called “real life Hannibal Lecters” featured in this program were not even cannibals, such as John Wayne Gacy, who murdered at least 33 young men and boys, but did not eat them, and was not even vaguely similar to Hannibal in appearance, MO, or dining habits. Same with Ted Bundy, who also gets a segment. These killers killed because they enjoyed it – as an act of dominance. Serial killers, Levin tells us, get “high” on sadism and torture. Hannibal, on the other hand, just killed his victims the way a farmer might choose a chicken for dinner – slaughter the tastiest, fattest one, or else the one who has been annoying him.

 “There is much discussion as to whether cannibalism is an inherent characteristic in all human beings, our animal impulses, or whether cannibalism stems only from the minds of mad beasts such as some of the most prolific serial killers.” Richard Morgan, narrator.

Eventually, we get to the cannibals. First up is Andrei Chikatilo, the Russian cannibal who sexually assaulted, murdered, and mutilated at least fifty-two women and children between 1978 and 1990. Chikatilo, we are told, liked to cook and eat the nipples and testicles of his victims, but would never admit to eating the uterus – far too abject for his psychosis. Sigmund Freud and Julia Kristeva would find that fascinating.

 We look in some detail at Albert Fish, the “Gray Man” who tortured and killed probably fifteen children around the US at the beginning of the twentieth century. He mostly specialised in the children of the poor and people of colour, but was eventually caught because he ate a little white girl, causing the police to take the cases seriously at last.

A large section of the documentary is dedicated to Jeffrey Dahmer, perhaps the most famous of the modern real-life cannibals. Dahmer was not a sadist, disliking violence and suffering, so he did not really fit the description used in the doco, and was certainly no Hannibal.

The other experts wax lyrical about cannibals, such as author and psychiatrist Harold Schechter, who speculates that

Anthropological evidence seems to suggest that cannibalism was a kind of activity that our pre-human ancestors indulged in with a certain regularity, so I think there is probably some sort of innate impulse towards that kind of activity… serial killers act out very archaic, primitive impulses that clearly still exist on some very very deep level.”

Well, that’s definitely not Hannibal, the Renaissance man, who carefully considers each action and dispassionately stays several steps ahead of his pursuers. Jack Levin again:

“Any serial killer who cannibalises victims has broken one of the most pervasive and profound taboos in all of society. Psychologically, this means the killer has achieved the opposite of what he had hoped… in terms of ego, in terms of self-image, he has got to feel worse about himself.”

That certainly is not Hannibal!

But there are some interesting observations in this documentary if we set aside the obvious problems with the comparisons with Hannibal. Zombie flesh-eaters were first popularised in Night of the Living Dead which came out in 1968, what the documentary calls “the most murderous decade” – the 1960s, followed a few years later by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. People flocked to the cinema to see people being eaten because two Kennedys and MLK were assassinated and the brutal, unending Vietnam war was filling the television screens? Maybe so.

Levin tells us

Most people don’t see the difference between Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer. To the average person, there is no difference between fact and fantasy.

 Col. Robert K. Ressler, who founded the FBI Behavioural Sciences Unit (which makes him a real life Jack Crawford) points out that there are no serial killer psychiatrists, nor do serial killers normally become well integrated into the upper levels of society like Hannibal. So he’s not helping the Hannibal comparison at all. Nor is Levin, who points out that Dahmer was remorseful at his trial, and went out of his way to avoid inflicting pain, unlike most serial killers to whom the killing is a “footnote” to the main text – the torture of the victim. So Dahmer does not fit into the model of serial killer presented here, and he has nothing in common with Hannibal Lecter.

But author Richard Lourie, who wrote a book about Chikatilo, points out that we, the audience, really want to see the serial killer as a Nietzschean Übermensch (superman) – a brilliant criminal genius. He also tells us that Hannibal seems asexual, above the primal drives that motivate people like Chikatilo and Dahmer. Not entirely true of course, if you have read the end of the book Hannibal or read any of the Fannibals’ fan fiction which speculates on some juicy homoerotic episodes between him and Will.

But there is a point to all these rather painfully stretched comparisons between real serial killers and the fictional Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal, Leatherface, the Zombies, are all the inchoate faces of our nightmares, and horror stories are our way of understanding the terrors that fill the news sites. Hannibal is not typical of the real-life serial killer or cannibal, but remember that the apparently kindly old woman who wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel was hardly typical of the horrors of Europe at the time of famine and plague when the Grimms were writing their stories. Each is a facet of horror.

Schechter talks about the simplistic view that cannibalism is in itself “evil”. Which is actually worse, he asks, to torture and kill a person or to eat their flesh when they are dead, an act which can certainly do them no more harm? Indeed.

Levin sums up:

It could be argued that cannibalism as this ultimate form of aggression lurks within every one of us…. We have an aggressive part of ourselves, it’s part of basic human nature, and to that extent we are all potential cannibals.

A kind face, a deceptive smile, a gingerbread house or psychiatrist’s couch can sometimes be more terrifying than the sordid crime scenes left by Chikatilo, Dahmer and Fish. The seeming normality of Albert Fish, Andrei Chikatilo, Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter conceals something that we hide deep within our shadow selves.

The full documentary is available (at the time of writing) on YouTube.