The first cannibal film was made in Australia? “The Devil’s Playground” (Bindley, 1928)

We tend to think of ‘cannibal films’ as starting with the Italians: Ruggero Deodato’s Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1977) or, before that, Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River (Italian title Il Paese Del Sesso Selvaggio, 1972). These followed a formula in which civilised Europeans blundered into savage lands (Lenzi’s film was set in Thailand) and are captured by cannibals, tortured, witness terrible atrocities and then escape.

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Chief Trelua, cannibal king, actually a Sydney lifeguard

But cannibals have appeared in movies well before the Italians invented their special exploitation genre. Tarzan films from the early twentieth century showed the lost British Lord living with apes but killing cannibals – they were prima facie cannibals, because they were savages. But they were background noise, they were the predators in the jungle, assumed to be cannibals by trade, but not usually caught in the act (and, in the books, Tarzan’s British aristocratic breeding stops him tasting human flesh, for reasons he can’t quite understand).

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Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan the podiatrist

One of the very first film to show savages as cannibals, before Johnny Weissmüller hit the vines, was actually an Australian film called The Devil’s Playground, written and directed by Victor A. Bindley.

This is the opening card (it’s a silent movie):

Far off the beaten track, in the South Seas, lies a beautiful island – a jewel of the sea. Its waters, abounding in the low grade island pearl shellfish, have brought a few white traders to its shores. The sinister reputation borne by its native population in fetish and cannibal rites, in the past, and the wild doings of some of its present white population, has earned for the island the name of:

“THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”

 Not to be confused with Fred Schepisi’s 1976 film of the same name, which revolved about quite different appetites.

Bindley’s silent movie was made with a budget of £2,000, not a fortune even in 1926, when production commenced. This required a certain financial prudence: according to Australian Film 1900–1977, scenes were shot on beaches near Sydney (Bilgola) and interiors in the Mosman Town Hall. Natives were played by Sydney lifeguards in
black-face!

Painted savages

The villain, however, is a corrupt white man named Bull Morgan who exploits the natives and forces the heroine, Naneena, to marry him, after murdering her brother. Fun fact: Naneena is played by Elsa Jacoby, later a prominent Sydney socialite, philanthropist and opera singer. Meanwhile, the locals are not content to put up with colonialist discourses:

Trelua seeks counsel of the wise man, Malatai!

“Malatai! Our warriors grow fat and lazy under the white-man’s rule, and our men-children are weaklings!

“Our spears would but splinter against the might of the whitemen, for they are as many as the white sands of the sea! Their great men are wise! Let Trelua seek justice in their councils!”

“Your puny words cannot hold me for long, O Malatai! Better to die fighting like men, than like women upon our sleeping mats!”

The natives rise up, but not to rescue Naneena – they are cannibals and cannot be seen to do too much good. She is rescued by an airman, who calls in a British cruiser to quell the native revolt although, before the cannons roar, the cannibal chief kills Bull, proving that no one is all bad.

Attacking the grog shop
The cannibals attack the grog shop!
Hero
The noble hero

The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 February 1930 reported that the film had been banned from export (another first for the director) under the censorship regulations which included blasphemy, indecency, or obscenity, being injurious to morality, or likely to be offensive to the people of the British Empire. It may be that the violence of Bull whipping poor Naneena was a bit over the top for the censors (although she gave him back as good or better than she got), or that the British navy blasting natives with cannons was “offensive to the people of the British Empire”.

Navy
The navy arrives to put down the cannibal mutiny
Bull-whip
Bull whips Naneena!
Bull whipped
Naneena whips Bull!

But the most likely reason for the ban is that showing the corruption of the white traders, who were widely known to be exploiting and corrupting the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, was a bridge too far. Like most cannibal films, it raises the question: who is eating whom?

At any rate, the film was shelved and did not have a public screening until 1966, by which time it was just a historical oddity. It is available in the NSW State Library on VCR, which led me to spend an excruciating two hours there recently. It’s not much of a cannibal film, really, but then it’s not much of a film. Pretty exciting, for a cannibal film blog, to find a very early specimen, especially when it’s home-grown!

Incidentally, the Oxford Apartments in Milwaukee where Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate most of the boys and young men who took his fancy in the 1980s was torn down after his arrest and a playground built, but the locals refused to use it, calling it – you guessed it – the devil’s playground”.

 

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No law against cannibalism – “Rake” Season 1 Episode 1 (ABC, 2010)

Rake ABC

Rake was a television series which first aired on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission for those of you in other parts of the world) in 2010. It ran for four seasons, which is pretty impressive, although Australian series are generally much shorter than those from the US – each season was only eight episodes, making 32 episodes in total, not much longer than season 3 of Lucifer (24 episodes).

Rake_Program_Page

Richard Roxburgh is superb as Cleaver Greene, a brilliant Sydney barrister who is always in trouble due to his predilection for the good life. A Sydney Morning Herald reviewer said of the show “Cleaver Greene is a magnificent comic creation, but you wouldn’t want him staying in your place too long.” Incidentally, the Americans had a go at making a version of it with Greg Kinnear as the “rake” but, without the laconic Aussie humour, it only lasted one season (of 13 episodes mind you).

Season 1 Episode 1 starts with a bang – the guest star is the superb Hugo Weaving (Elrond for Tolkien fans) who is a prominent economist with a habit that gets him into trouble: he is a cannibal. Turns out that he advertised for someone who wanted to be eaten (I’m not making this up – there are enough people out there who like this idea that the psychologists have coined a word, vorarephilia, which the enthusiasts have shortened to “vore”).

Hugo Weaving meat cleaver

Like all truly unbelievable plots, this one is based on a true story. Armin Meiwes, a German computer technician, advertised on a fetish website called The Cannibal Café (not to be confused with the popular Vancouver restaurant) for “a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”. He actually received a heap of replies, but the only one that seemed sincere was Jürgen Brandes. The two met in 2001, Brandes took a lot of sleeping pills and half a bottle of schnapps, and they collaboratively sliced off Brandes’ penis and tried, unsuccessfully, to eat it with salt, pepper, wine, and garlic (it ended up in the dog’s bowl. Hope the dog was OK – garlic can be poison for them). Brandes went off to die in the bath while Meiwes read a Star Trek novel (well, he showed some good taste there) and, when he found Brandes still alive hours later, killed him and proceeded to eat quite a lot of him over the coming weeks and months.

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Meiwes and Brandes

Rake doesn’t have that sort of time to waste (or presumably any Star Trek novels) so they simplified the plot – the defendant’s meal-ticket makes a video of himself taking a lethal dose of drugs, and he is definitely dead when Hugo’s character chops him up to fridge-sized portions. Where life and art meet is that in Germany, and in New South Wales, and pretty much everywhere else in the world, there is no actual law against cannibalism. Meiwes was charged with manslaughter as he had killed Brandes (at his request – a kind of assisted suicide), and was sentenced to eight years. Due to the ensuing publicity, a retrial was ordered and he was convicted of murder, on the grounds that he had talked Brandes into letting him kill him, for his own sexual pleasure.

In Rake, there is no such complication. The dude was dead at dinner time, and the case only becomes a murder trial because there is a State election coming up and the government needs to appear tough on cannibals. However, it is clear that there is no evidence for murder – you cannot really murder dead people. Hugo looks forward to his release, but as Cleaver points out “you ate someone. You’re never going home”.

Cannibalism is seen as so abject, so vile, that there is no chance of the cannibal going home, even when he clearly is not a murderer, and is guilty at worst of defiling a corpse. Yet why is it so? Eating a cow or sheep or pig who clearly wants to live (watch any one of thousands of Youtube abattoir clips) is fine, but eating a person who wanted, longed, to be eaten is grounds for being locked up for life.

“What could be more natural than wanting to consume human flesh? It combines our two most primal instincts into one single act…. you go that one tiny step further and we’re considered vampires, monsters that should be consigned into eternal darkness. It’s the worst sort of hypocrisy.”

Incidentally, Armin Meiwes is still in jail, this time under a life sentence. He now claims to be a vegetarian, and runs the local prison chapter of the Greens Party. I guess eating someone can make you think twice about eating meat.

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