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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When your family are cannibals: “Parents” (Balaban, 1989)

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Parents is a real cannibal film. None of these feeble excuses about starvation or uncontrollably psychotic – here are people who enjoy eating tasty animals, and their chosen tasty animals are humans.

Parents is a Canadian/American production, the first feature film directed by Bob Balaban, who you will recognise from the Christopher Guest movies like Best in Show if you can be bothered to search for a picture of him. He’s a funny guy, and Randy Quaid leads a terrific cast, but the movie never quite got off the ground, scoring a measly 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Roger Ebert writing that the movie couldn’t really decide if it was satire, comedy, or horror.

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The satire is of the complacent fifties family, Mom at home, Dad at work, kid at school. The kid is Michael, played by a child actor who later made a fine career in Canada as an accountant, another commentary on the film, perhaps. He is traumatised by his family’s move to suburbia, by his increasingly gory dreams, and by seeing his parents having sex (he thinks they are biting each other – if only Freud had hung around long enough to make a cameo).

Michael’s Dad works at Toxico, a fine American corporation making toxic substances to defoliate jungles, and his particular job is working with human corpses, those who have donated their bodies for the good of science. Well, a man has to bring home the bacon, and Dad surely does, straight from the long pigs. Michael begins to suspect that their meals are what Nietzsche called Human, All Too Human after he sneaks into Toxico and sees Dad cutting up corpses. But he can’t get a straight answer out of his parents:

“What are we eating?”
“Leftovers.”
“Leftovers from what?”
“From the refrigerator.”

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So it’s comedy. But when Michael’s sceptical social worker takes him home and finds a body in the cellar, shit gets real. There is much death and bondage. Dad tells Michael he is an “outsider” like them, and that if he can get people to believe him, they will all burn. “Is that what you want?” He tells Michael “I’m sure you’ll acquire a taste for it. Your mother did.” She flashes a pretty fifties advertising smile: “I learnt to love it.”

Michael demurs and ends up bound up by his father like Isaac on the mountain with Abraham. Talk about sacrificial discourses! He manages to turn the tables, without the aid of angels and/or rams, and well, the fire happens.

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Michael ends up living with his (also archetypal fifties) grandparents who tuck him into bed and leave him a rather suspicious sandwich, in case he gets peckish during the night. Like all of us, he has moved on from his parents, but not from the patriarchal and carnist violence that helped to form him, us, and our polite, blood-soaked culture.

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Frank is in the sauce: “Fried Green Tomatoes” (Avnet, 1991)

Come on, this is a blog about cannibal films, innit? We’re talking comedy/weepy here, not Hannibal Lecter. The big issue is not cannibalism but, decades before the age of #metoo, domestic abuse. Jon Avnet’s directorial debut tells the story of Ruth and Idgie who form a special relationship (not as explicitly special as it was in the book on which it was based, but still special) when Ruth rescues Idgie from chronic depression after the death of her brother, while Idgie later rescues Ruth and her child from her abusive husband. They move to the town of Whistle Stop and start a café serving – yeah, you got it. Tomatoes. Green ones. And barbecued meat.

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When the abusive husband turns up, things get nasty, until he disappears, and then of course the cops turn up. But the abusive Frank has vanished, and it remains a mystery. The investigator is baffled, but he does enjoy the barbecue served at the Whistle Stop Café.

Investigator: “why this about the best barbecue I ever ate!”

Sipsey (the cook): “The secret’s in the sauce”.

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So it is. And so is Frank. Apologies if you were planning to watch this, but the statute of limitations on spoilers is only 25 years. Still a classic though, with one of the best casts you could hope for. And – it is definitely a cannibal movie.

The first cannibal film? “Doctor X” (Curtiz, 1932)

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The Dr X of the title is Doctor Xavier, a name used by Marvel some thirty years later for the leader of the mutants known as the X-Men. This Dr Xavier leads a different bunch of outcasts – unhinged scientists, one of whom, the police are pretty sure, is a serial killer and cannibal. There is much use of early psychoanalytical tropes including Xavier’s theory that “strong mental repressions phobias, hidden in the darkest corners of the subconscious mind can be brought to the surface and made to register through certain reactions of the heart.” This idea, which was to become the polygraph or “lie detector” machine, was popularised later in the decade by William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, who published a book called The lie detector test in 1938. Maybe it was just the zeitgeist.

Anyway, the film is populated by kooky scientists, as well as Doctor X’s daughter, played by Faye Wray the year before she rose to great heights in King Kong, and a lovably slapstick journalist, Lee Taylor, who is working on the story of the serial murderer known as the “Moon Killer”, so called because the murders always happen on the full moon, a device widely used in fiction (and fact) as there is a widespread belief that the full moon causes people to become “lunatics” – a theory employed to the full in this story. Taylor sneaks into the morgue disguised as a corpse (there is a lot of dark humour in the film, with Taylor conversing with various dead bodies and even skeletons). He hears Xavier telling the police that the latest victim’s deltoid muscle is missing: the police observe that it was torn out. Dr X corrects them: “Gentlemen, it wasn’t torn. This is cannibalism!” The police are then permitted to tour the research centre in which the dedicated crazies in their various labs offer crazy anecdotes: one gratuitously has a heart in a jar, which has been kept alive for three years by electrolysis, and another has spent years in Africa researching cannibalism. In each lab, the police are convinced they have found the killer, but the stories get worse – two of the scientists were shipwrecked off Tahiti in a boat with another man, and, although they claimed he had died and they had thrown him overboard, it was suspected that they had, in fact, eaten him.

Dr X believes that one of his scientists was, in the past driven by “dire necessity” into cannibalism. “The memory of that act was hammered like a nail into the mind of that man”. Although he could conceal his madness from others, perhaps even from himself, Dr X can use his radio sensitivity machine to reveal the truth. The police allow Dr X to run his own tests with his prototype lie detector, but of course nothing goes smoothly, and the apparent perp (according to the machine) turns up dead. Later, when they look closer at the body, they find that it has been… Well, they don’t want to put it into words, and certainly not while Faye Wray is around. The real killer is busy making synthetic flesh, but not to eat (he is apparently into natural, whole foods). He needs flesh from humans, originally supplied by willing savages, for his experiments in creating faux flesh. “What difference did it make if a few people had to die?” he asks – a question oft repeated by the patients who are being mentored by Dr Hannibal Lecter in the TV series Hannibal. Now he’ll be able to “make a crippled world whole again”, a novel take on eugenics – build new people instead of breeding them.

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Does that even count as cannibalism? Well, he is using human flesh, much as the medical cannibals of early modern Europe loved to do. He has learned his trade from cannibals, who, even in 1932, were assumed to make up the entire population of Africa. He has imported savagery from the Dark Continent to our peaceful, law-abiding shores, and isn’t that what we fear most?

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Homer Simpson: the (self) cannibal: “Treehouse of Horror XXVIII” (2017)

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The Simpsons is still one of the smartest and funniest shows on TV, even though it’s now in its 29th season (really!). Every year since 1990 they have brought out the Treehouse of Horror for Halloween, and every year they have tried to exceed the horror, abjection and disgust of all the previous years.

This last one, XXVIII, was regarded by many fans as the ultimate. In a nutshell (it’s awful hard to avoid food puns in a cannibal blog), Homer accidentally slices off his fingers, they fall onto the barbecue, and he finds the taste irresistible. As the family is away, the situation (as always with Homer) escalates. Flanders invites him over for a meal, but he refuses to eat Flanders’ meat, preferring his own:

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One of the truly great Simpson puns.

It’s not the first time The Simpsons has approached the subject: in Treehouse of Horrors V,  misbehaving students at Springfield Elementary were ground up into meat and served as lunch. But this is fascinating as it is both scrupulously not gory (the slicing is always devoid of any blood or even pain) and yet conceptually manages to deliver the shock value that the producers sought.

As one fan tweeted:

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