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.

Titus

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.

Martyr you

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.

baked in that pie

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 (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”?

soylent green is high cholesterol people

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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.”

If you like my blog, please feel free to recommend it (with discretion) to friends on social media. If you have any questions or comments, you can use the tag or email  cannibalstudies@gmail.com.

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.

Alive

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.

bound by sacrificial discourses of old testament

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”.

Secret in the sauce

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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Having an old friend for dinner: “The silence of the lambs” (Demme, 1991)

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The silence of the lambs is, almost without exception, the film that people first mention when I talk to them about cannibalism. This is a little surprising as, although the male lead, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), is a cannibal, for most of the film he is incarcerated, and even on the loose he is not seen actually eating anyone (although he certainly discusses the idea with some gusto). In the sequel, Hannibal (Scott 2001), he is indeed shown serving human flesh – the brain of Clarice’s nemesis – to its owner. In a later prequel, Hannibal rising (Webber 2008), an attempt is made to trace Lecter’s psychopathy to childhood trauma: the cannibalism of his sister during the war, much to the displeasure of many of his fans, who complained of the loss of the nuance and the mystery.

The silence of the lambs has become something of a cinematic classic, while the sequels and prequels have largely faded from memory. Robert Butler in the Chicago Tribune credited the film with legitimising cannibalism in the movies, with its star cast and haul of all five major Academy Awards – best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and best adapted screenplay. Before this, Butler claimed, cannibalism was limited to exploitation films. No doubt directors from Luis Buñuel to Peter Greenaway might demur.

Silence of the lambs trailer

The film is a psychological thriller with Hannibal Lecter, an evil genius, trading insights into the most private neuroses of trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling in exchange for his profiling of the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, whose very name seems to animalise him. Bill is killing and skinning women to make a woman suit. He is pure monster, closer to the gender-challenged Leatherface of Texas chain saw massacre than the urbane, sophisticated, civilised psychiatrist Lecter, who remains a mystery. Bill and Leatherface are in fact both based on the real-life murderer and grave robber Ed Gein (as was Norman Bates from Psycho), who was very keen on making things out of human bodies, although whether he was a cannibal is still uncertain (and he’s not telling).

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Lecter’s jailer, Dr Chilton, comes closest to attempting a diagnosis, saying “Oh, he’s a monster. A pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive”. Starling, asked by a young policeman if Lecter is a vampire, simply replies “they don’t have a name for what he is”. Maggie Kilgour, who wrote an excellent book on cannibalism as a “metaphor of incorporation”, wrote that Hannibal is defined by “rhyming logic” – anyone named “Hannibal” must end up a “cannibal”. That is good enough for the viewers – the man is considered pure evil, but deliciously, he is not a monster in the sense of Leatherface or even Sweeney Todd: we appreciate his style and wit, we even like him in contrast to the other psychopaths we meet in the film: Buffalo Bill, and Multiple Miggs, who ejaculates on Starling on her way out of the asylum, a dastardly act that the chivalrous Lecter abhors, and because of which he chooses to assist her. The psychological or legal weaponry of modern society is useless against his brilliance and primitive, raw power; Staring is sent to interview him like the lamb of the title being led to slaughter. Buffalo Bill has captured his latest victim, Catherine Martin, daughter of a powerful US Senator, and there are only days or hours before he kills and skins her to make his “woman suit”.

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The opening of the film finds Starling running in the woods, small and alone like Red Riding Hood, yet we soon find that she is on an FBI obstacle course in Quantico, running past the motto “hurt, agony, pain – love it”. Starling is not one of the screaming victims that we find in Texas chain saw massacre: Starling is still a victim, though, of patriarchy from her colleagues, mental probing from Lecter and stalking in the dark by Bill, but she is smart, well trained, strong and sassy, standing up to her boss when he uses the chauvinist card: she is the perfect example of the prey woman becoming the avenging hero.

‘Slasher’ films like Texas chain saw massacre routinely pit the redneck monster against the civilised hero. The silence of the lambs turns the ‘slasher’ order on its head: Lecter is the city sophisticate, Starling the West Virginia redneck – he skewers her with the observation “you’re not more than one generation from poor, white trash, are you Agent Starling?” Yet when she is splashed with his neighbour’s semen he tells her that “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me”. Lecter is a pastiche of classical monsters: Dracula’s hunger for blood (and exaggerated courtesy), Dr Frankenstein’s scientific insight, Dr Jekyll’s secret identity; his power to terrify is precisely his amiable, civilised charm: we would rather be scared of cannibals who wear leather masks and grunt than those who eat us with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Clarice Starling has to overcome not just the mind games of Lecter the monster, but also the political ineptitude of the men around her in order to blow away the psycho-sexual killer Buffalo Bill, who is not a cannibal, at least not in gustatory terms. Bill is a depraved cannibal in the sense that he incorporates human skin into his persona, but it is Lecter, the deprived cannibal in the asylum, who is the protagonist.

The silence of the lambs trades in close-ups: Starling usually pensive, Bill leering and imagining a valid sexuality, Lecter directly threatening, staring, unblinking, in extreme close up, straight into the audience’s eyes. It is us that he is addressing, analysing, threatening. Under the menace is a keen humour, often rare in the genre. Besides Lecter’s pun about “having an old friend for dinner”, he also reflects on Starling’s offer that, in return for helping catch Bill, he will be allowed to use a beach (under SWAT surveillance of course) where there are terns. Terns – the word suggests to him that he and Starling should have “turns” at sharing information. Starling’s turn will not relate to the case, but to her life, her childhood traumas. Despite her boss’ instruction to tell him nothing personal – “you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head” – she describes her worst memory: the death of her father, a town marshal gunned down while on duty, and her subsequent life on an relative’s ranch, where she found the truth of animal agriculture, being awoken one night by the screaming of the spring lambs as they were slaughtered. She tried to free the lambs, took one and ran, but was caught and sent to an orphanage. Since then, Starling has been struggling with the contradictory messages given to children that harming animals is wrong, but eating them is fine. Lecter’s speculative diagnosis is that she believes that if she saves Catherine, the lambs will stop screaming in her dreams. She has made the lambs subjects, while Bill makes his victims objects. As Starling tears up under the intense and massively magnified gaze of Hannibal Lecter, she gives a glimpse into the abyss of what Carol Adams calls the “absent referent”, the process that objectifies animals (and women) who are the victims of violence.

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Starling’s lambs are not the only part of modern civilisation scrutinised and turned inside out by The silence of the lambs. The social order is very commonly defined in film by showing not examples of it but characters or events that transgress it. The strength of Lecter’s character is his ability not just to offend the social order but to be an extreme example of it: like modern America, he is educated, rational, even enlightened, yet, like modern society, there is an undercurrent of voracious appetite and extreme violence. Similarly, Starling transgresses social boundaries with her challenge to masculine power structures and her role as the rescuing hero rather than the hero-victim. Cary Wolfe believes that the most important discourse in this film is that of species. While cross-gender conflicts are examined through the minor character of Bill and to some extent Starling, and class issues in the clash of the civilised Lecter with the often inept and backward authority figures, at the heart of the film (reflected in its title) is the struggle of Starling to come to terms with the objectification of the innocents – the lambs of her childhood or the women Bill is skinning. Objectification is seen throughout: Bill speaks to Catherine in the third person: “it rubs the lotion on its skin; it does this whenever it’s told”; Lecter speaks of his victims by function: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”.

One critic went so far as to say that Hopkin’s brilliance in the role makes Lecter “the cannibal we all want to be”. Lecter does not resist humanist symbology, he takes it to its logical extreme: he orders rare lamb chops, (a reference to Starling’s trauma), in his cell before he slaughters his jailers and escapes, as if to say that he does not eat animals instead of humans: he eats animals, so why not eat humans? He represents consumerism taken to its logical conclusion. As Maggie Kilgour summarised, the film demonstrates the continuing power of primal appetites: “man-eating is a reality – it is civilisation that is the myth”.

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