American cannibal: THE DONNER PARTY (T.J. Martin, 2009)

The Donner Party was the name given to a group of pioneers heading from Missouri to California in 1846. They became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada over winter, and famously turned to cannibalism to survive. Only 48 of the original 87 members of the party survived.

There have been quite a few films and books about the events of that winter, including documentaries such as “Trail of Tragedy: The Excavation of the Donner Party Site by US Forest Service” and an episode of the PBS series American Experience (Season 5 Episode 3) called “The Donner Party” (you’ll need a VPN if you are outside the US). There are also a few supernatural potboilers like Donner Pass, about evil forces that turned poor George Donner and his mates into ravenous cannibals, and will do the same to any nice-looking millennials who stumble into the region. I am not intending to write about them until I run out of movies about “real” cannibals, which looks like it will be in several years, at the present rate.

Look, this movie doesn’t mess about with any set up. The opening is some written explanation of how they got into that mess

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Then there’s a dude, who turns out to be William Eddy (Clayne Crawford) pointing a gun, with his voiceover

“In situations like this, some men may abandon their obligations. This being said, I am resolved to provide for my family.”

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He goes back to camp with some meat (a bear? In winter?) which he shares with William Foster (Crispin Glover from lots of things including Back to the Future and American Gods). Eddy is the group’s guide, and feels that he was pressured to lead them the wrong way, onto the Hastings Cutoff; Foster argues that they all agreed to take the “short cut”. The audience by this point is yawning. From there, as Homer says, “it just gets worse and worse”. The Foster camp is running out of food when the “rescue party” reappears – with no rescue and no food. One of them dies on arrival and they bury him in the snow. Clearly, they had never seen Alive! Once you die, you’re assigned to the frozen food department.

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But as they set out for a last ditch expedition, later called “The Forlorn Hope”, Foster boasts that they have maintained a “clear line of civility”. We know from history that this won’t last.

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There is talk of going back to the camp, but Franklin Graves (Mark Boone Jnr from Sons of Anarchy and Memento) disagrees.

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As they get colder, hungrier and weaker, Foster suggests what we’ve been waiting 51 minutes to hear:

“In the misfortune that one of us should pass, in death we may save the living.”

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In a scene worthy of Monty Python, they all start volunteering. Eddy suggests he and Foster

“fight to the death, the loser dies like a man, feeds the group”.

Instead, they draw straws – Dolan (Crispian Belfrage – who is a bit wasted in this flick) gets the shortest stick and Foster shoots him (not what really happened, BTW). Eddy refuses to join in the lottery or the meal, but then it turns out he has a lump of bear that his wife smuggled into his backpack, so he’s doing OK.

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Graves stabs himself and becomes the next course. Before each meal, they say grace and thank God for what they have received. When they run out of those guys, Foster decides, against Eddy’s opposition, that the “Indian” guide will be the next course. This is the hierarchy of eating – the plant, the animal, the human, with the sub-human squeezed in there, defined by layers of contemptuous racism that was standard procedure in 19th century America (and in some places still is). Rather than wasting bullets, he uses the gun as a club.

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There are long scenes of the group trudging through the snow, interspersed with the survivors sitting around the campfire chewing on some guy and looking vaguely disgusted, but not looking all that gaunt. I guess it would require some pretty good makeup or CGI to make someone look to be genuinely starving, so I can accept that.

What I found disappointing was the total lack of moral debate – one person complains “we’ll go to hell” and Eddy points out that the “Indian” is a man, but still hands the rifle to Foster so he can do the deed. Foster, the gentleman, points out that he is their only hope because he is the only one willing to do whatever it takes. The fascination of the movie Alive! was the deliberation in the plane of the ethical situation, the immortal soul having fled, etc. This lot are devout enough that they could make it a lively discussion, the nature of humanity, why they think it’s wrong to eat white people but not “Indians”, but it never gets past the look of distaste as they chew on bits of other humans. The best scene is the long shot of Foster, the man of God, the keeper of civility, turning into a cannibal king as he watches his flock, waiting to see who will die next.

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It’s a fictionalisation of a true event, which is always fraught, because the historians will object to the inaccuracies, and everyone else to the squalid reality. But as an imagining of one incident from the Donner story (Donner himself never gets a look in) it’s not a bad taste of nineteenth century morality and its fragility. The disappointment is that the cannibalism is direct and honest, but never considered as anything other than abject but necessary. This is one of the defining stories of modern America, and much more could have been made of it. However.

Now, I’ve seen some great cannibal films and some pretty awful ones, and I don’t always agree with the verdicts of the reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes, but I think this is the first one I have seen where none of the reviewers even bothered to see it.

HorrorNews.Net gave the film a positive review, writing

“Overall The Donner Party was a nice change from the hard core horror films that I usually watch. … I also recommend that you have something to eat on hand while watching it as I was starving by the time I was done watching it. Then again, maybe I have issues.”

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The log line “They survived by doing the unthinkable” is clearly borrowed from Alive! (“They overcame the impossible by doing the unthinkable”).

The vampire of Sacramento: “RAMPAGE” (Friedkin, 1987)

Rampage is a 1987 film from William Friedkin, the director of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). It is based on the case of RICHARD CHASE, an American serial killer who murdered six people in the span of a month in December/January 1977-78. He was nicknamed “The Vampire of Sacramento” because he drank his victims’ blood and cannibalized their remains. In this version, the victims have been altered, as has the killer, who is now named Charlie Reece (Alex McArthur). Charlie is presented as the nice, helpful boy-next door. He’d mow your lawn, or bring in your shopping.

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Then maybe kill you and drink your blood.

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The film wastes no time on showing Charlie getting hungry, killing three people who appear to be chosen at random, and then revealing his self-perception, as a caged tiger.

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The film is mostly about the keen young prosecutor, Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn). Fraser is caring, empathetic, liberal, an opponent of capital punishment, until he comes across this case.

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“The women’s bodies were cut open to get at the organs… Some of the organs were removed.”

There’s also a glass that has been filled with blood, and drained.

Another family are burying their dog. They know Charlie poisoned the dog, and report him to the police. Then Charlie comes visiting. The mother is cut up like the others and sexually assaulted, the child has vanished.

Charlie is quickly arrested, and we see his cellar, full of body parts, weapons and Nazi regalia. His mother tells his lawyer about how Charlie had to witness domestic violence at a very young age. Charlie tells his psychiatrist about hearing Satan on the radio, telling him to kill people, and taking his blood from him when he disobeys. He describes shooting the little boy so he could suck his blood, then putting him in a trash can.

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All the pieces are there for an insanity plea. The psychiatrists agree to say he was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed his blood was poisoned and his heart failing.

At the trial, we hear how normal Charlie was – his friends talk of his reasoned non-violence, his scout master says he was a good boy, his steady girl tells how thoughtful he was. Then a nurse tells of finding his diary, listing all the dogs, cats and rabbits he had killed. The prosecution’s psychiatrist is asked “did he know he was killing living human beings?”

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That was the point. That was why he did it. He claims he has a belief that his body is failing and infected and he’s convinced himself that someone else’s blood will repair him. He had to kill them to get the blood.

In other words, he was psychotic, but he knew what he was doing at all times, and is therefore legally sane.

As the movie bogs irretrievably down in legal and psychiatric argument, Charlie livens it up as he escapes (something Chase did not do), kills the guards and then invades a church, killing the priest and drinking his blood.

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Back in court, the defence’s psychiatrist says Charlie was driven by his sickness and had no free will. He asks

What makes a respectable young man turn into a killer?

After he is found guilty, the judge orders a PET scan, a new technology that scans the brain.

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“We’re looking at a computer enhanced image of the chemistry of the brain. And what we’re seeing is a picture of madness.”

But it’s too late; in the original version of the film at least, Charlie’s mom has smuggled him pills, and he kills himself.

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Rampage was completed in 1987, just in time for DEG, the production company, to go bankrupt. It was not released in the US for the next five years, and was finally released, with a different ending, in 1992 by the Weinstein company. In that version, he is sent to a state mental hospital, and writes to a man whose wife and child he has killed, asking him to visit. A final title card reveals that Reece is scheduled for a parole hearing in six months. He will probably kill again. While the original version quibbled with the idea of capital punishment, the revised version reinforced the necessity of putting him down. European versions usually show the original ending, in which Charlie commits suicide, and the DA regrets fighting for the death penalty.

Basically, this movie is like a long episode of CSI or SVU, and in fact there is an episode of CSI called “Justice Is Served” which is also based on Chase’s murders. The director, Friedkin, called it “among the lowest points in my career.” The film scored what could charitably be called a modest 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. With only nine reviews, you might call it ignored rather than despised. The script is clunky and some of the acting is wooden, although Alex McArthur as the killer is great, looking a bit like a (more) demented John Travolta. The soundtrack is by the wonderful Sergio Leone, who wrote over 400 movie scores, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Roger Ebert, the doyen of movie critics, wrote, “This is not a movie about murder so much as a movie about insanity”.

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The real Richard Chase

Well, yes – Chase was, by the age of ten, exhibiting evidence of all three parts of the Macdonald triad: bed-wetting, arson, and cruelty to animals, considered as indicators of future violent tendencies.

Rampage is a classic psychogenic cannibalism story. Like Jeffrey Dahmer or Albert Fish, we can hate what Charlie did and yet not quite blame him for it – he is driven by what we consider wrong beliefs, which cause him to ignore the sanctity of human life. Yet how sacred is human life, in a world in which thousands of children die of malnutrition every day while their government exports grain to the West to feed pigs and chickens? Charlie believes he needs blood due to an imaginary illness, just as so many people are convinced they need to eat animal flesh. He starts on dogs, cats and rabbits and graduates to humans. To the cannibal, we are just one more species on the shopping list: if it’s OK to eat Fido, it must be OK to eat the neighbours. There is a logic there, which the meat industry would much rather you ignore.

 

Next week = some light cannibal relief with the new comedy CORPORATE ANIMALS

The cannibal next door: The Santa Clarita Diet (Fresco, 2017)

OK, last week’s cannibal film blog, Dahmer, was a bit grim (even if we didn’t see anyone eat anyone, for a change), so this week something witty and clever, and with lots of people-eating.

I’ve watched 20 episodes now of the Netflix series Santa Clarita Diet, and I’m still wondering: is this even a cannibalism show? Without risking too many spoilers, the protagonist, Sheila (the wonderful Drew Barrymore) is undead, what we sometimes (but never in this show) call a “zombie”. But she’s not the type that shuffles about, rotting bits falling off of her (well, maybe a few) and drooling for brains. She is sweet, witty, strong, loving and over-sexed. And dead. Sorry, undead.

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She just seems so human. Presently human, not just formerly, decrepit, rotting human. I guess there’s room in cannibal studies for the undead human people-eater?

Sheila and husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) are realtors, living the perfect suburban life-style in sunny Santa Clarita, Los Angeles County. The American Dream becomes more dream-like when Sheila is showing a house to a prospective buyer, but ruins the sale by expelling copious amounts (we’re talking gallons) of vomit on the perfect bedroom carpet, together with a small object that might be her life force or soul or something (later it grows legs, so maybe not a soul). She realises that night that, while she is feeling just fine and dandy, she no longer has a pulse.

And then she gets hungry, and it’s a diet that could only be zombie, or perhaps broadminded paleo. No carbs, just meat. And only one species will do. But, like Hannibal, she will only eat bad people – rude, abusive, Nazis, etc. Can they find a cure? Does Sheila want to?

Don’t you want to be cured?

Of course I do. Although, I do like the way I feel. I have endless energy, and I sleep two hours a night. I get so much done.

You eat people!

I know, it’s just that I’m so much more confident now. And our sex is incredible… And I can parallel park in one move now.

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The dialogue is sparkling and very funny. I can imagine the hilarity in the writers’ room when they were putting all this together. Lines like:

We have to kill someone who won’t be missed. Someone without a family. And someone bad, who deserves it… the prototype would be a young, single Hitler.

I’m feeling a little low energy. Maybe I need to eat people with more iron in their diet.

She gets this look in her eye. The next thing you know, she’s yanking intestines out of these guys, like a magician pulling out scarves! The other day I came home and my kitchen looked like someone shot a person out of a confetti gun. There was a dick in my fruit bowl. The next morning I’m eating oatmeal at the same counter like my life is Leave it to Fucking Beaver!

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Here’s the thing: it’s very funny, and the characters are sympathetic and honest. Barrymore and Oliphant are brilliant, and so is their daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson) and her friend Eric (Skyler Gisondo), the nerd next door who understands both the science and the occult aspects of the problem.

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I’m asking because last night you saw your mom and dad scrape a half-eaten dead guy into a grave.

Please. I once walked in on my grandparents changing in a cabana. That was intense.

Yes, lots of gore (also vomit in episode 1) but in so much surfeit that it is cheerfully fake. The manicured lawns and perfect houses feel even faker – this is the Stepford Wives gone feral. The neighbours suspect nothing, even when Sheila eats one of them.

If you’re wondering how cannibal movies prepare the flesh, the special effects designer said in an interview:

Drew Barrymore is essentially a vegetarian, so a lot of the methods that we might have used traditionally — sushi, tuna coated with fake blood or ground meat or turkey meat or anything like that — was an absolute no. So we had to find other resources. One of the resources that we went to was gummy bears.

And this is the heart of the Santa Clarita Diet. For one thing, it celebrates the resurgence of the monstrous feminine cannibal. From Sheila, to Justine in Raw, and Melanie in The Girl With All The Gifts, and even the Cannibal Women of the Avocado Jungle of Death, we see women cannibals emerge from their niches in myth and fairy tale to stand their ground, glorying in their power. Sheila says she hunts when she feels “a tingle in her vagina” and tells Joel all about the orgasm she enjoyed while eating a human liver.

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She so did not eat this heart sandwich. It’s a strictly no-carb diet

It’s also a biting commentary on the stories we tell about appetite and about power. Sheila believes she is a good person, who is strong enough to hunt anyone she chooses, and to eat whatever or whoever she feels she needs or wants. And isn’t that the story of every carnivore?

The only things I believe in enough to crochet on a pillow are “I’m winging it” and “all races taste the same.”

 

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