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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Highway cannibalism: “The Road”, (Hillcoat, 2009)

Cormac McCarthy wrote his chilling book The Road in 2006 and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. I remember reading it at the time, and it was a very disturbing experience. Diving into the book was like one of those dreams where you walk out of the sunshine into a cold, dark and ominous environment. It left me both sorry and relieved to finish it. The sense of loss and wasted opportunity left a deep impression for weeks after reading it, maybe forever. The film captured some of this deep sense of menace and loss, but to a much lesser extent. Roger Ebert and many other reviewers praised the film, at the same time pointing out that it was not as powerful as the book. The Guardian reviewer summed the film up as intensifying the poignancy while deflecting the horror, and some of the more graphic examples of cannibalism are skipped in the film, particularly the finding of an infant’s corpse, all prepared for consumption by his desperate parents. But perhaps it’s an unfair comparison: experiencing a book through one’s own imagination is never really comparable to seeing the interpretation of the actors and director.

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So: what’s it about? Well, it’s post-apocalyptic. A great catastrophe has wiped out most life on earth, including most of the forests that we rely on for the very air that we breathe. The earth is dying; the voice-over tells us “No animals have survived, and all the crops are long gone”. We are never told what happened: there is a flash and there are two characters: man and boy. They are given no names beyond those.

“Cannibalism is the great fear”

The earth is stripped of life, the survivors of their names and their humanity. Armed gangs roam the highways, killing and eating anyone they can find. When the man shoots a member of a cannibal gang who encounters them on the road, he is left with only one bullet in his gun. It will be for the boy, if it should ever come to the point where the only choice is to kill him or let him be eaten. When they come across a big house, they find a number of people locked in the basement – kept for future meals. When the cannibals arrive, they hide in the bathroom, and the man gets the gun ready at the boy’s head.

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There is a lovely scene where they find a survivalist shelter and spend a few days eating as much as they want, and even bathing – feeling clean is an almost forgotten luxury. But there is a pervasive sense of dread, of a world spiralling down into total extinction. Viggo Mortensen from Lord of the Rings plays the nameless man, cold, dirty and desperate, Strider who will never become Aragorn. The mother is played by Charlize Theron in a lamentably brief appearance, and Robert Duvall makes an appearance as a nearly blind old fellow somehow surviving in a time with no hope. The man teaches the boy a stripped down deontological ethic – there are “good guys” and “bad guys”, and the good guys are “carrying the fire”. They also don’t eat people. It is a final grasp at a humanism which failed humanity and failed the planet.

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The impact of The Road comes from its feasibility. We know that we will probably not meet a psychopathic psychiatrist or even hairdresser, we don’t go to fly-over towns where the local abattoir workers have gone feral, we certainly don’t charter Uruguayan military planes to fly us across the Andes. But the threat of some sort of apocalypse confronts us from the front pages of the papers every day, in stories of natural disasters, nuclear wars, pandemics and environmental collapses. Human history is replete with examples of disasters followed by social collapse and cannibalism. The Road takes this scenario into our own time. We see the J-curves of human population matched by the same graph of species extinctions and carbon emissions, and we are forced to think – if the worse happens, what, or whom, will we eat?

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Autocannibalism – you Reddit here first

This is not a movie review – they come out on Sundays.

So this is from Reddit, which is a social news aggregation, web content rating and discussion website. People post under pseudonyms, and then win points for how many people like the post. This means that stuff sometimes is, let us say, exaggerated. Reddit has over 200 million users. Which still doesn’t mean the stories are true.

However, nothing is guaranteed true in this world, not even promises to denuclearise, which you might think everyone would want to happen. Therefore: I’m giving this story the benefit of the doubt, and if it isn’t true, the dude went to a lot of trouble, so he deserves an up vote just for all the hard work.

Come on. If this was on a cooking blog, you wouldn’t even blink.

This guy, who calls himself Incrediblyshinyshart, served his friends tacos, made from his own amputated leg. He reported to Vice that he was involved in an accident a couple of years ago – a car hit his bike, and his foot was shattered to the point that he would never walk on it again. When the doctor asked if he wanted to amputate, his one question was, “Can I keep it?”

To make a long leg story short, he invited ten of his most closest friends to a special brunch. They ate apple strudel, they drank gin lemonade punches and mimosas. And then he served fajita tacos made from Shiny’s severed human limb.

The foot was not going to be fixed.

The full process is described in the June 12 on-line edition of Vice, and I don’t intend to repeat it all here. There were a number of pictures, some quite grizzly, which were not included in the article, but they did conveniently put in a link if you really want to go there. I don’t recommend it, but then I also avoid the meat section at the supermarket.

The article emphasised that what he did was in no sense illegal. Cannibalism can often be linked to murder (thank you Dr Lecter) or at least interference with a corpse, both of which are legally frowned upon. But this was his own body part, and did not involve a corpse – he is very much alive and kicking. [Sorry – Reddit is full of much worse puns]. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell makes it clear that, in the USA, there are no laws against cannibalism per se.

Why am I not surprised at the t-shirt caption?

The bit I was most interested in was: what did he taste like? His answer is quite comprehensive:

“People think it tastes like pork because in movies we hear it called “long pig.” But that term originated in places like Papua New Guinea, where they eat wild boar. They’re not eating our big, fat, domesticated pigs that have white meat. Boars don’t have white meat. They just don’t…. I think it’s more akin to that. This particular cut was super beefy. It had a very pronounced, beefy flavor to it. The muscle I cut was tough and chewy. It tasted good, but the experience wasn’t the best.”

The Reddit entry by Shiny is here.

Enjoy.

Revenge is (sweet) meat: “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (Burton, 2007)

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Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, made in 2007, seeks explanations, rationalisations and even justifications for the depicted crimes of murder, cannibalism and various pure food offences. This version of the 19th century pot-boiler is a star vehicle and also a musical, a most unlikely format for a ‘slasher’ film. It is an adaptation of the Sondheim stage musical, in which Todd is an honest man wronged by a corrupt power establishment: Judge Turpin (the late, great Alan Rickman) has falsely convicted him and transported him to the colonies so that he, the judge, can abduct Todd’s wife, Lucy. Todd meets Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who tells him Lucy was raped by Turpin and committed suicide, leaving their daughter a ward of the wicked judge, who now lusts for the young girl. In the twenty-first century, Sweeney Todd is not the entrepreneur that he was in earlier versions of the story, but the wronged anti-hero, and the forces of the law and government demonstrate the unregulated libidinism that previously characterised Todd. His plans to trap the judge thwarted, Todd wreaks revenge on all males (females being fortunate not to need barbers) with his cutthroat razors.

The abjection is constant, starting with the opening credits where we see streams of blood, mincemeat, pies going into ovens and more blood flowing into the sewer. The 2007 Todd is an artist: Depp’s portrayal is almost balletic in his use of the razor to slice each throat, and the viewer is treated each time to fountains of arterial blood. There is no polite avoidance of the cannibal question in this film: Todd and Lovett share a song where they speculate on the gastronomic features of different professions (she recommends priests). Todd puts this discussion in a social context:

“The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above! How gratifying for once to know, that those above will serve those down below!”

Despite this class-based comment, they agree to forgo the alterity that their working class roots would demand: “We’ll not discriminate great from small… we’ll serve anyone… and to anyone”. The reification of any adult male that comes into the shop arises not from Todd but from Lovett: he wishes only to waste everyone, to revenge himself on a society that has betrayed and (he believes) killed all those he held dear. She argues that this would be wasteful: “With the price of meat what it is, when you get it, if you get it; good, you got it!”

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Todd and Lovett never seem to eat their abject products; the pies being hugely financially successful they can, like the ruling class in Soylent Green, afford better fare. In fact, Lovett is presented as the psychopath in this version. She suggests the pie-making scheme despite her abjection at her rival’s use of local cats, and then, despite the young apprentice Toby’s clear devotion to her, locks him in the cellar with the corpses when he discovers the truth, and goes to fetch the murderous Todd. She is coldly rational like Hannibal Lecter, does no killing herself, and is in fact a perfect reflection of free trade capitalism, adding value to the raw materials that come her way. Todd is persuaded: the crunching sounds outside are “man devouring man my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?”

Todd almost kills his own daughter, who is disguised as a boy, finally kills the wicked Judge Turpin,  unknowingly kills his wife who is alive but insane, then throws Lovett into her own furnace when he discovers that she could have told him the truth. He once again kills for revenge, while Lovett dies not for her evil schemes but because she hoped to win his love. It is up to Toby, the innocent cannibal (he just loved Mrs Lovett’s pies), to slit Todd’s throat and thereby restore the social balance.

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Todd kills and dies because there are no legal recourses for injustice in Burton’s universe. Although he is a ruthless killer, the audience of the 2007 Todd is clearly invited to identify and sympathise with the anti-hero, much as we did the previous decade with Hannibal Lecter. Todd is a killer, but ordinary folks like us who jostle to get a table and eat one of Mrs Lovett’s delicious and very affordable pies are the real cannibals.

Sweeney Todd 2007 eating pies

Sweeney Todd received three Oscar nominations at the 80th Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role for Depp, Best Achievement in Costume Design, and Best Achievement in Art Direction, which it won.

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The cannibal in the will: (Ingrid Newkirk, PETA)

There seem to be less heroes lately. If you watch the news, the heroes – the paramedics, the nurses, the teachers, the activists – those who choose to do good things because it’s the right thing to do – are usually unrecognised. The ones in the spotlight, the ones being treated as heroes, are the rich and famous, even the ones whose only claim to fame is being famous. The news cycle concentrates not on virtue but on suffering, and on vanity, fear, guilt and greed: the tools of the marketers.

I present for your consideration a hero of mine: Ingrid Newkirk, who founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) almost forty years ago, and has steered it into becoming the largest and most active animal advocacy organisation in the world, with more than 6.5 million members and supporters.

The PETA mantra is:

Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.

How does this relate to a cannibal studies blog?

Well, Ingrid Newkirk has put a number of requests in her will, one of which is:

That the “meat” of my body, or a portion thereof, be used for a human barbecue, to remind the world that the meat of a corpse is all flesh, regardless of whether it comes from a human being or another animal

Ingrid tells the press: I want it fried up with onions, because people find it hard to resist the smell of frying onions.  I can imagine them coming over and saying enthusiastically,  “Oooh, what’s that?’ and then, “OMG, it’s HER!” 

All abuse starts at the point where the proposed victim is objectified, turned from a living, breathing subject into a thing, an other, an “animal”, a piece of meat. To achieve this, we have all sorts of linguistic tricks which range from changing the names of victims (cows become “beef”, pigs become “pork”) to absurd suggestions that other animals are either mentally incapable or are automata that feel no pain. To make an animal brainless and painless, and therefore morally insignificant, is done through a nifty sleight of hand where non-humans are called “animals” and the Great Ape known as Homo sapiens somehow is not an considered an animal at all.  An example: reports from medical researchers will usually distinguish “animal” trials from “human” trials.

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Human cannibalism reminds us that we are animals, and that we are made of meat. It reminds us that, while we may be different to other animals (cognitively swifter than some, physically slower than others), we all suffer and die in the same ways. As Shakespeare said:

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

One of the additional dangers of stripping moral worth from “animals” is that this can so easily be done to other humans who happen to be different colours, different genders, different faiths, different anything to us.

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We need to be reminded that we are not demi-gods, that when we eat or wear or laugh at or test on “animals” we are causing massive suffering to beings not essentially different from ourselves. Even if no one eats from Ingrid’s planned barbecue (which I hope will not be held for many decades to come) they will hear the message. And if this offer of a cannibal feast makes people question why they are willing to feast on other sentient beings, then one more hole will be made in the rotten edifice that holds up the death industries, the exploitative corporations whose existence future generations will rightly condemn.

The cannibal goes out and hunts, pursues and kills another man and proceeds to cook and eat him precisely as he would any other game. There is not a single argument nor a single fact that can be offered in favor of flesh eating that cannot be offered with equal strength, in favor of cannibalism.
             Dr. Herbert Shelton, Superior Nutrition

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Silence of the Romans: “Titus” (Taymor, 1999)

Well, first off, it’s Anthony Hopkins as a sort-of-cannibal – a welcome return! Titus, the first filmic version of Shakespeare’s first tragedy Titus Andronicus, was made eight years after Silence of the Lambs, which had brought Hopkins fame and an Oscar for best actor. He had played other monsters in the years between Titus and Silence, including Richard Nixon and Pablo Picasso. A couple of years later (2001) he reprised the role of Hannibal Lecter in the movie Hannibal, so Titus was a handy reminder of that sudden Hannibal facial contortion. The movie Titus cost $25 million to make, and grossed less than a tenth of that, so it was, in technical language, a bomb. Shame, as it is a rollicking version of one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays, and the cast is sublime.

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Shakespeare was well aware of stories of strange foreigners known as anthropophagi, or as Columbus had named them “cannibales” (a corruption of the name of the Carib tribe whose neighbours had been telling him tall tales about them). Later references, particularly to the monstrous anagram Caliban in The Tempest, were more nuanced, probably due to his reading of the essays of Montaigne. But in Titus, although there is a POC or “Moor” who is a malevolent villain, it is not the Moor who is the cannibal, and the eating of human flesh is done neither for gustatory or psychotic reasons – it is an act of revenge.

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Titus refuses power in Rome, never a good idea in tragedies, and is subsequently betrayed by the Emperor Saturninus, a role camped up mightily by Alan Cumming, Alan Cummingand his bride Tamora, Titus’ sworn enemy, played by the splendid Jessica Lange. There is much bloodshed, even for Shakespeare, quite a lot even for a cannibal blog, but the act of cannibalism is an “innocent” one, in the sense that the person eating humans is not aware of the contents of the pie until digestion has commenced. Much like the Board of the Baltimore Philharmonic, unknowingly tucking into the second flautist around Hannibal Lecter’s dinner table.

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The cannibal, the person who eats human flesh, is Tamora, and the flesh is that of her sons, who have not only raped Titus’ daughter, killed her husband and cut off her hands, but have also cut out her tongue to stop her giving evidence against them (based on another Greek myth – Philomela). Yeah, that trick was never going to work, and so we find them hanging upside down, buck naked, while Titus explains his plans for them:

Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,
Like to the earth, swallow her own increase.

Jessica Lange regrets

And so he does, and Mummy rather enjoys the pie, until Titus explains his little jest, and kills her. The Greeks of course were very big on revenge cannibalism – think Atreus and Thyestes – so Shakespeare had plenty of literary meat for his inspiration. Well, we’ve all been to awkward family dinners, but these guys take the cake. Or in the case of Titus, the pie.

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Waste not, want not: “Soylent Green” (Fleischer 1973)

SPOILER ALERT!!

Yeah, but this movie 45 years old, so if you haven’t seen it by now, you’re either not going to, or if you are, it’s because you found out (maybe from this blog) that it’s a cannibal film! So: that IS the spoiler.

Soylent Green presents quite a different picture of survival cannibalism to Alive. Starting with idealised images of leisured gentlefolk posing before Victorian and Edwardian cameras, the opening montage rapidly records the deterioration of humanity through mass production of commodities (starting with Model T Fords) through to alienated office workers, packed freeways and trains, mountains of garbage and clouds of pollution. The montage is followed by an intertitle explaining that the year is 2022 (sure, not so far away now, but fifty years in the future when the film was made) and that New York City now has a population of forty million. People are crammed everywhere – sleeping on the stairs of apartment blocks and in the abandoned cars that fill the broken roads. The protagonist, Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston), is a New York cop, sweltering in his tiny apartment. He watches an advertisement for the Soylent corporation promoting new “Soylent Green”, a miracle food said to contain ocean plankton. His room-mate Sol (Edward G Robinson) tells us of the days of his youth when food was real: the Greenhouse Effect has made everything “burn up”. The only food now is manufactured – Soylent biscuits and margarine. The rich, however, can buy fresh food from highly fortified shops; even meat is available “under the counter”.

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This is class warfare – the rich can eat real food from the rural areas, which are guarded like fortresses to protect them for the privileged. The poor must queue for water and whatever artificial fare the giant corporations manufacture. Meat itself is described as “something special” by both the shopkeeper and Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), the woman buying it for her rich lover, Simonson (Joseph Cotten). Shirl is considered “furniture” in that she comes with the apartment (Thorn asks “personal or building?”) and is only prized for her beauty and utility. This is classic commodity fetishism: she is a commodity, while the food she buys is personalised and admired. Shirl and the other “furniture” women are given one day off a month and can be beaten indiscriminately by the owners and building manager. On the street, crowd control consists of “scoops”: bulldozers which shovel rioters up and dump them into disposal trucks.

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Thorn investigates the murder of Simonson, who has been slaughtered by a corporation assassin with a blow to the cranium, as happens routinely to cattle. Sol discovers from an oceanographic survey taken from the dead man’s apartment that the oceans are incapable of supplying the plankton supposedly used to make Soylent Green – it is in fact being made from the only protein still in good supply: dead humans. Sol is shattered and decides to seek euthanasia, called “going home”, at a luxurious establishment where people are, for once, treated with respect, as human, and euthanised to scenes of bucolic beauty and their choice of music. Thorn arrives in time to witness Sol’s death, and Sol begs him to expose the conspiracy. Thorn sneaks into the sanitation plant, a vast factory where people are turned into protein under high security. The bodies are dumped into a giant vat, and a conveyor belt at the other end bears Soylent Green wafers. Shocked at this objectification of human corpses, Thorn proceeds with no qualms to kill several factory workers who are trying to stop him: the sanctity of human life is not the issue, it is cannibalism of the dead that bothers him. After the required chase, he utters the famous words: “Soylent Green is people!” The final scene shows Thorn carried out on a stretcher, bloodied fingers in the air as he demands that “Everyone must be told”. But does anyone care? The credits roll over the same scene and music (Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony) that Sol enjoyed when going “home”, the implication being that Thorn dies, while the people struggling to exist continue to demand their Soylent Green.

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Soylent Green is a mixed form of cannibalism: the people who don’t hear Thorn’s message are “innocent cannibals” who continue to believe the plankton story, while those who do hear have little option but to ignore the message: like the stranded footballers in Alive, the poor can either eat dead people or starve. The abjection of processed corpses is probably of minor concern to the masses: barely eking out an existence, sleeping on stairwells or in abandoned cars, murdered at the rate of hundreds per day, herded like cattle and shifted with bulldozers when they complain. The disrespect of the dead, so shocking to Thorn who has discovered the good life in Simonson’s apartment, is mild compared to the suffering of the starving masses. Abjection is a luxury only the ruling class can afford. Class if everything for the living: a tiny minority of powerful men live in heavily guarded apartment blocks enjoying fresh food and “furniture” women, while the rest live in squalor. At death, though, all are equal: the same sanitation truck picks up (and pays for) Simonson’s corpse as anyone else’s. Rich and poor alike become crackers.

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The reviewer John Puccio called Soylent Green “a movie based on an ending. And if you can’t figure out that ending ten minutes into the movie, you aren’t paying attention”. It is one of the most revealed spoilers of any film, with those who have never seen the film knowing the quote, thanks largely to a satirical version on Saturday Night Live. Despite this, I find the film still compelling; its vision of a near future dystopia caused by global warming, more relevant now than ever, offers a glimpse into the mirror: if what we fear comes to pass, would we eat the green crackers or instead choose to go “home”?

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Contagious cannibalism: “Ravenous” (Bird, 1999)

Ravenous – this is the 1999 Antonia Bird film, not the recent Canadian Ravenous by Robin Aubert. Aubert’s movie is about zombies, and they also tend to eat people (or bits of them), but this one is about people eating people, a more pure form of cannibalism. Except that there is still a supernatural aspect to this: the cannibalism comes from the mythical wendigo, a creature or spirit from Algonquian folklore, who possesses humans and turns them into cannibals.

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The film draws inspiration from two of America’s favourite cannibalism stories: the ill-fated Donner Party and the story of Alferd Packer. At least, it involves pioneers, snow, hunger and, of course, cannibalism. Guy Pearce plays Lieutenant Boyd of the United States Army, who plays dead in battle as his unit is massacred by the Mexicans. His body, along with the other dead are put in a cart and hauled back to the Mexican headquarters.In a moment of bravery, Boyd seizes the chance to capture the Mexican HQ. His heroism earns him a Captain’s promotion but General Slauson (the last film role of John Spencer, who went on to play Leo McGarry on The West Wing) learns of his cowardice and posts Boyd into exile at Fort Spencer, a remote military outpost high in the Sierra Nevada.

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A stranger named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle from Trainspotting, Full Monty, etc) arrives and describes how his wagon train became lost in the mountains. A Colonel named Ives had appeared and led them on a circuitous route, resulting in the party getting trapped by snow. People were reduced to cannibalism, he tells them, to avoid starvation. Before the soldiers leave for the rescue, they are warned by their Native American scout, George, of the Wendigo myth: anyone who consumes the flesh of their enemies takes their strength but becomes a demon cursed by an insatiable hunger for more human flesh. They also become almost invincible: if wounded, a bite of human flesh is – well, very invigorating.

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Anthropologists love to divide their supposedly cannibalistic studies into endo- and exo-cannibals, i.e. those who eat their enemies and those who eat their friends. In both cases, they claim, the eater believes they will take on the courage, strength and virility of their meal. The wendigo has another advantage – the people he bites (as long as he doesn’t go overboard) will heal and become wendigos themselves. You’re never alone if you’re a wendigo cannibal.

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The curse of cannibal studies is that eventually the audience will want to know: how did the cannibal get that way? Explaining the psychological / social / starvation causes often reduces the mystique of the act and the eater – many critics were furious when Hannibal Lecter turned out to be a traumatised survivor of WWII, for example. But the wendigo is good value: there is no particular reason he/she/it chooses anyone, in fact a simple bite from a person already bitten is sufficient – there, explanation given, let’s move on to the gore. So, we’re kind of back to the modus operandi of the zombie (and vampire) – open the mouth and spread the love. But zombies usually restrict themselves to brains, vampires to blood. Cannibalism is so much more environmentally sustainable.

The late Roger Ebert gave the film a decent review, 3 stars out of 4, and said it was “the kind of movie where you savour the texture of the film-making, even when the story strays into shapeless gore.”

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Frozen dinners: “Alive” (Marshall, 1993)

Alive is not “just” a cannibal movie – it actually delves into the ethical issues involved in eating other people. Most cannibal films assume that it is grotesque and taboo and generally yucky, and go on to treat the cannibal in the plot as simply a freak of nature, best destroyed ASAP. Except for Hannibal Lecter of course, who can see nothing much wrong with the idea.

Alive is the semi-fictional retelling of an actual event: the crash of a Uruguayan Air Force plane chartered by a football team in the Andes in 1972. The subject of cannibalism is not hidden: in case viewers missed the synopsis, reviews or word-of-mouth titillation, the film starts with Carlitos, a survivor of the crash (played by a chain-smoking John Malkovich), reflecting on his ordeal some twenty years earlier, and sharing the moral conclusions he drew from it. So many people, he complains, have told him they would have rather died than done that which he coyly does not name, but “until you’re in a situation like that, you have no idea how you’ll behave”. Wreathed in smoke, he explores the metaphysical lesson which we will hopefully glean from the tale, that the God he learnt about at school was not the God he met on the mountain: “the God that’s hidden by what surrounds us in this civilisation”. He caught a glimpse, it appears, of that savage and indifferent world of eat or be eaten, the inhuman universe that shocks those who have ever experienced the fury of nature.

The metaphorical nature of this tale is established at the beginning of the narrative. Two women play female stereotypical roles, one enthusing about, the other terrified of the mountains over and into which the plane bounces. They are the mother and sister of Nando (Ethan Hawke), who is to become the lead character when he finally awakens from his coma. The sister, Susana, thinks the mountains are beautiful, the mother replies that they look like “big teeth”. So the metaphor of incorporation is established, and so the plane and the mountain meet, in a feat of special effects impressive for 1993.

Nevertheless, we are 44 minutes into the film before the subject of cannibalism arises: Nando plans to walk over the mountains for help, but cannot do it on a piece of chocolate and a sip of wine (their only apparent food stores). “Then I’ll cut some meat off the pilots. After all they got us into this mess” he says. The others think he’s joking and go on reciting their rosaries, but by day nine, when his sister dies and they hear on the radio that the search has been called off, Nando calls them together and announces “We’re going to save ourselves”. His meaning is clear: they will have to eat the dead.

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Piece of broken glass, dead team mate, lunch

A crucial debate follows between those who “won’t do it” because it’s “disgusting” and those arguing in favour. These arguments boil down to the common themes of cannibal films. Revulsion: we sometimes have to do things that are disgusting, for example “if I had a wound that was rotting and needed washing out, wouldn’t you do it, even though it was disgusting?” The sanctity of life: “if the soul leaves the body when we die, then the body is just a carcass… What’s there in the snow is just meat, Antonio. Food.” Then of course the main theme: survival. Our families (and perhaps God too) would rather see us alive than morally pure. As they prepare to cut the first pieces of human flesh, one of them comments: “It’s like communion. From their deaths, we’ll live.” Nando, the instigator, hangs back from feeding until he is reassured they are not eating his sister’s body. Immediate family is hard to redefine as “just meat”.

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This was probably some innocent chicken, but for the audience, it was the other passengers

It’s unusual, even in survival films, to see women cannibals (excepting comedies). Although the survival arguments have been fought and won, the last woman alive in the plane, Liliana, is still holding out, but decides that she wants another baby, will need nourishment, and accordingly agrees that tomorrow she will eat. That night an avalanche engulfs the wreckage and she is one of the victims, saved from abjection by death. Note: in the book upon which the film was based, she eats the flesh. Then gets killed.

In the bitter cold of the High Andes, the survivors are packed together in the wrecked interior of the plane, sharing their hopes and despairs, discussing ethics and strategies. We, the audience, are sitting among them, considering the same life and death questions, asking ourselves what we would do in their position. By contrast, the scenes outside in the dirty snow or struggling across the mountains to safety are remote: we are just observers, our distance confirmed by syrupy music.

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Little attempt is made to show the physical effects of seventy days without (non-human) food: the men look ready for their next football match when rescue finally arrives. Roger Ebert admitted that he does not know what it would be like to huddle in a wrecked plane for ten weeks eating human flesh, but complains “I cannot imagine, and frankly this film doesn’t much help me”. It seems a minor quibble: the film was clearly a vehicle for Ethan Hawke, Vincent Spano and other Hollywood “young guns”: Newsweek stated that Hawke has “a face for which close-ups were invented”, suggesting that not everyone in the audience may have been there to struggle with ethical dilemmas.

Part of the attraction of the movies, particularly thrillers or horror movies, is the safety of recognising that we are anchored in a cinema watching actors on a set, and that realisation is never far away in watching Alive. Comfortable, warm and well-fed, we can watch our proxy desperadoes wrestle with fascinating questions of body and soul while ourselves munching thoughtfully on a choc-top. We may conclude that they would have been better to die in the crash, or that they made the heroic choice, but either way the genius of this iteration of the cannibal film is that we have watched the dehumanising of the human body, while allowing ethical ambiguity.

Is cannibalism sexy? “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death” (Lawton, 1989)

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is a 1989 film which was the directorial debut of J. F. Lawton, who also authored Pretty Woman and Under Siege. He released this one under a pseudonym, J. D. Athens, and at first glance you have to agree with his decision.

The film drips with a sometimes forced irony, inspiring one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes to call it “One of the best bad movies I’ve ever seen”. Here is some typical dialogue:

Margo Hunt: “They’re an ancient commune of feminists, so radical, so militant, so left of center they… they eat their men.”
Bunny: “Oh, that. Well, if I like a guy, I usually start at…”
Margo Hunt: “They don’t eat their men like that, Bunny.”

Or this one:

There aren’t any modern feminists who advocate cannibalism- at least not since the sixties.

The “jungle of death” is southern California, where a group of radical feminists have occupied the avocado plantations and kill and eat their men, as well as several companies of US troops who try to eliminate them. The film is rich in intertextual references: the protagonists enter the jungle in pursuit of Dr Kurtz, a professor of feminist studies who has become emperor of the cannibal women, a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (set in the Congo) and the movie version of it Apocalypse Now (set in Vietnam), in which Brando plays the deranged Colonel Kurtz, who famously dies with the words “the horror, the horror!” on his lips. The Dr Kurtz in this film similarly meets her end, but her “horror” refers to having had to defend feminism on the David Letterman Late Show.

Intertextual humour depends on the reader being familiar with the sometimes cryptic references. Apocalypse Now is pretty well known, but some of the other references are either too obvious to be funny or else too obscure to score a laugh. The film opens with the kind of “male gaze” scene expected in an exploitation pic: semi-naked warrior women bathing in a stream while a couple of randy male explorers look on, but the scene concludes with both the men tracked down and slaughtered for the cannibals’ next meal. The main character, Margo Hunt, is played by Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy model, who does not drop her clothes at any point; her ditzy assistant, who wants to change her major from Home Economics to Feminist Studies, is named “Bunny”, another reference to the Playboy world. The bumbling comic relief and token male chauvinist is played by Bill Maher of the television show Real Time, a show which goes out of its way to skewer such prehistoric thinking.  He dresses like Indiana Jones and even wields a bull whip, rather less expertly. Topics from Margaret Mead to Disneyland all get a brief reference, and there is little time to wonder what they are about before the next gag is upon us. Some of the references are double barrelled: when Bunny is told that the women eat their men, she asks “boiled or roasted”, a reference both to the many Home Economics jokes, but also to Levi-Strauss’s musings on the different ways cannibals would cook their relatives or their enemies.

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Bill Maher as Jim. That isn’t a spa.

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is neither as stupid as it sounds or as funny as it intends. But it is diverting and it’s fun to tease out the cultural references, and the lead actors are really very good at delivering their sometimes painful lines. Its commentary on cannibalism is actually quite perceptive: the cannibal women are all gorgeous and young and scantily clad, presentations which are usually intended for the consumption of a male audience. This binary is reversed as they seize their knives and proceed to butcher and consume the male gazers (not on screen – the film is careful not to lose its PG13 rating, although it got an R18 in New Zealand). There is usually a male hero and a female in need of saving; in this, the roles are totally reversed. Cannibalism is not presented as evil or deranged by definition, but rather as another variety of power struggle. To quote Dr Kurtz:

This is a war between men and women. Anything short of cannibalism is
just beating around the bush.

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