Commodity cannibalism: NEVER LET ME GO (Mark Romanek, 2010)

NEVER LET ME GO is based quite faithfully on the beautifully written and quite disturbing 2005 novel of the same name by British author Kazuo Ishiguro, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize (which he had previously won with Remains of the Day) and was named by Time Magazine as the best novel of 2005, as well as being listed as fourth on their list of the 100 Best English-language novels published since 1923 (when they started publishing).

This gave the film a high bar, but it does not disappoint, due to the superb cast, the direction of Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), and the script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later), a friend of Ishiguro, who asked the author for film rights before he even finishing reading the manuscript. Yep, it’s that good.

OK. This is a spoiler alert, particularly if you are going to read the book, although any review will soon tell you what it’s about, and the “secret” is revealed quite early in the film. Here goes. The film is set in an alternative present, where incurable diseases have been conquered.

The protagonists are clones, bred to supply their organs to “real” humans, who can now live well into their hundreds, thanks in part to these donations, and the new medical technologies. The kids are brought up to live healthy lives. Smoking? Right out. A healthy replacement part in a healthy body. The stern principal, Miss Emily (the wonderful Charlotte Rampling) tells them not to spoil the merchandise:

“Students of Hailsham are special. Keeping yourselves well, keeping yourselves healthy inside, is of paramount importance.”

We see the childhood of the protagonists mainly through the eyes of 11-year-old Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small) who has a preteen crush on Tommy (Charlie Rowe).

Her best friend is Ruth (Ella Purnell). Ruth’s confidence and precocity wins over the shy and vulnerable Tommy, who is barely able to cope with the inevitable challenges and failures of growing up. Tommy represents so many of us – filled with rage at the injustices and humiliations of the world, but unwilling to stand up and take what he wants. Kathy accepts the loss of her first love to her first friend.

The children are encouraged to create pictures, poetry and sculpture, which may be chosen for display in a mysterious place called “The Gallery”. They are told that Hailsham children are special. They are told of dangers that befall children who leave the school grounds – the boy who was found tied to a tree with his hands and feet cut off, the girl who starved outside the gates. They are not told the truth. One teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins from The Shape of Water) dares to tell them what will happen when they grow up, which gets her fired. She tells them,

“You will become adults, but only briefly. Before you are old, before you are even middle-aged, you will start to donate your vital organs. That’s what you’re created to do. And sometime around your third or fourth donation, your short life will be complete.

The film moves to their adulthood – at 18, they are moved out of Hailsham and sent to a collection of farm buildings called the cottages, to wait until they are old enough to move to “completion centres” where they will begin to donate their organs. Tommy (Andrew Garfield) is now in a sexual relationship with Ruth (Keira Knightley) which shatters the friendship of Ruth and Kathy (Carey Mulligan).

The people from the outside, the delivery men and others, are reticent, unable to make eye contact with the kids; they exhibit the kind of cognitive dissonance you might see from people on a petting farm, admiring a piglet that they know will soon be bacon.

These kids are not considered human, even though they are genetically identical to some “original” whom they desperately want to meet – the ‘real’ human from whom they were replicated. Ruth is convinced they must be less than fully human, that they are cloned only from

“trash – junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps, convicts, as long as they aren’t psychos. If you want to look for originals… look in the gutter.”

Tommy finds Kathy looking through porn magazines, flipping through quickly, looking only at the faces. She is looking for the “trash”, the less-than-humans from whom they may have been cloned.

The other young people tell them of a rumour about the possibility of Hailsham students getting a “deferral”—a temporary reprieve from organ donation if they can prove they are in love. Tommy decides that The Gallery at Hailsham was part of a study to see if clones have souls, can fall in love, and are therefore worthy of deferral. He becomes obsessed with finding the Gallery, and seeing if love, verifiable love, makes them human.

They are also able to volunteer to become carers for the others, and Kathy decides to do this, delaying thereby her own donations. She finds Ruth at a completion centre – Ruth has endured two donations and is ready, willing to complete on the next.

They visit Tommy at another centre, who tells them that Hailsham has closed, and donors are now raised in schools that are like “battery farms”. The donation centre is full of “donors” with missing parts – and they often die (or complete) after two or more donations.

Ruth has heard that after the fourth donation, there are no more carers, no more recovery centres, just harvesting of parts until they switch you off. Kathy cares for Ruth, who dies (completes) after her third donation, and Kathy then takes Tommy, still reasonably well after two donations, to see the mysterious gallery owner.

They’re in love, they tell her. They want a deferral. But the gallery was just part of an ethical argument – Hailsham was the last place where the ethics of the donor system were questioned, and the art was supposed to show what they were capable of. But they were exploring an answer to a question no one was asking.

“Would you ask people to return to darkness – the days of lung cancer, breast cancer, motor-neurone disease? They’ll simply say no…. We didn’t have the gallery to look into your souls. We had the gallery to see if you had souls at all.”

Films on www.thecannibalguy.com tend to centre around violence and gore. That is what people expect from horror and from cannibal movies. But this is not a horror movie, or at least not a monster movie in the traditional sense of the grotesque, frightening and uncanny. But is it a cannibal movie?

I believe it is. Definitions of cannibalism vary according to who is accusing whom. At what point does exploitation of the human body or mind turn to abuse or consumption? Organ transplants, where a living organ is incorporated into the body of a recipient, is sometimes called cannibalism, particularly due to speculation that some part of the ‘donor’ remains imbued – consider James Whale’s classic 1931 film Frankenstein, where the monster is given a brain stolen from the cranium of a criminal, which makes him homicidal. In any case, if an organ is taken without the consent of the ‘donor’, such as the alleged cases of political prisoners being executed according to the demand for their tissue-type, how is this different to Hannibal’s feasts?

The horror in this film is in the human struggle with questions of mortality, what it even means to be human. These kids seem to be normal people – they laugh, they sing, they tease each other, they fall in love. But they are aware of their own deaths, something that most of us repress more or less successfully, assuming that we will always have another tomorrow. They know better; they are destined to be cut up and emptied of organs until their bodies give out. They are not fully human, despite looking just like any other bunch of kids, because they are cloned, and so are classified as beneath the human line in the anthropocentric scorecard. They are at best “all but human” through their art. But the ‘real’ humans don’t care. Redefine someone as less than human, objectify them, be they a different race, gender or species, and the range of abuses is unlimited. Nothing matters but our delusion that we will live forever, necessitating the sacrifice of the other.

The critic Roger Ebert wrote:

“Essentially it asks, how do you live with the knowledge that you are not considered a human being but simply a consumer resource? Many hourly workers at big box stores must sometimes ponder this question.”

There is no option for resistance. They have been brought up all their young lives to obey, to believe that it is necessary to be cut up, to complete, for the benefit of unknown others, because that’s what they were bred for, just as we justify cutting up cows and pigs and chickens and lambs because that’s we bred them for. Only Tommy rebels, but it’s an inchoate howl of rage, the same scream at the butchering world that he aimed at the kids who didn’t pick him for their game when he was 11. Powerless, all he can do is bellow like a steer in an abattoir. It may be that defiance of death that verifies his humanity, because, as Dylan Thomas said, we ought to “rage against the dying of the light”.

Or as another Dylan said (Bob), “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Kathy sums this up at the end:

“What I’m not sure about is if our lives have been so different from the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through. Or feel we’ve had enough time.”

Beautiful inside: THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS (T.L.P. Swicegood, 1966)

We all are vaguely aware of our eventual deaths, and some people even take it seriously enough to arrange insurance of other funding for their funerals. But how many of us consider the environmental cost of burying or burning human bodies? Over one million people die every week – all those bodies going into landfill under granite slabs, or adding to the carbon emissions from the crematoria.

Why not eat them? Many of these corpses are still covered in healthy flesh. If human meat is comparable to that of the other animals we choose to eat (apparently somewhere between veal and pork), why not let those who are hungry eat some of the corpses, preferably the ones that are minimally diseased? Is death by starvation less abject than cannibalism?

Most readers will find this unthinkable and assert that they would die rather than eat human flesh, as many did after hearing about the Uruguayan rugby team survivors from Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 which crashed in the Andes, leaving nothing to eat but frozen passengers. But like most taboos, this one is based on cultural conditioning rather than any rational thought. After all, why is it fine to source meat from a pig who has lived a short and brutal life and suffered an agonising death, but repulsive to eat a person who no longer is capable of pleasure or pain?

That is the question this short film seems to ask.

An undertaker and his two friends, who are restaurant owners, go out on the town killing people; the restaurant owners cook parts of the bodies, and the undertaker earns his keep burying the left-overs. The rather thickly ladled humour involves the victims having the names given to the flesh of animals: their first victim is Sally Lamb, and the specialty at their restaurant that day is lamb leg.

Their racket goes awry when a detective, who has a secretary conveniently named Miss Poultry, suspect that something isn’t quite kosher.

Lévi-Strauss wrote in “A Lesson in Wisdom from Mad Cows”

“The link between a meat-based diet and cannibalism (a notion broadened to take on a certain universality) thus has very deep roots in thought…. Indeed, a day may come when the idea that human beings in the past raised and slaughtered living things for food and complacently displayed slabs of their flesh in shop windows will inspire the same revulsion as what travellers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries felt about the cannibal meals of American, Oceanian, or African indigenous peoples.”

Acceptance of violent slaughter, particularly the impersonal conveyer-belt killing of modern agriculture, legitimises cannibalism by removing all subjectivity from the victim. The voracious and ever growing desire for meat, together with the fading of the clarity of the naïve dualism of human and animal, leads inexorably to acceptance of the consumption of human meat; thus the boom in cannibal films and television shows. The harvesting methods in this film are repulsive because they are similar to what we pay slaughterhouse workers to do, hidden from our sight.

There’s even pre-slaughter stunning.

With its bad jokes, wooden acting and terrible script, this movie scored a paltry 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the only official critic writing “You’ve never heard of this movie. Keep it that way.”

But the full movie (all 63 minutes of it) is on Youtube should you wish to ignore that advice. With its mid-century kitsch and ironic soundtrack, it’s so bad it’s good, if you know what I mean.

Patriarchal civilisation, Derrida tells us, depends on what he calls “carnivorous virility”:

The subject does not want just to master and possess nature actively. In our cultures, he accepts sacrifice and eats flesh.

‘Eating Well’ or the Calculation of the Subject.

The movie makes this abundantly clear in the macho strutting of the killers and the detective on their trail, but also in its choice of female victims. Men are killed violently, but as a struggle for power. Women must be subjugated, terrorised then cut up and eaten. One of the killers uses a chain to destroy a statue of the goddess Aphrodite (the Venus de Milo) in a spa, then kills a woman with the same chain. Yes, it’s symbolism, double-strength. The women are nature, presented in this film as seductive and edible. The men are the symbolic order, at war with nature and controlling her through their carnivorous sacrifice.

As one of the killers asks, his hands full of intestines:

“Isn’t she beautiful inside?”

2020: The Year in Cannibalism

2020 assailed us with fires, floods, famine and pestilence (both the pandemic and political varieties). The power of nature was demonstrated in several forms: in the massive power of storms, floods and fires, and the microscopically small virus that crippled the world economy and killed (probably well over) 1,700,000 people (so far). Our faith in being the masters of this planet and the manipulators of the natural world was finally shaken. We were toppled from our declared place at the top of the food chain by a miniscule virus that used our own cells as food to proliferate. We, like the animals we breed and kill by the billions, became fodder, not just to viruses, but occasionally to other humans. Some reported cases of alleged, proven or suspected cannibalism from 2020 are listed below. How many more are still unknown? Considering the hundreds of thousands of people who go missing each year, that is anyone’s guess.

I am well aware that, as I write this, there are still a handful of days to go in the year, and there is a good chance 2020 may still have some more surprises for us. But anyway (as far as I know), this is the year 2020 in cannibal news.

Note: 2020 saw reports about the guy who allegedly hung his Grindr date upside down, cut off his testicles and ate them, but he is not counted here as he did it last Christmas eve, which technically was still 2019.

2020: INDIA

A blind couple in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur district allegedly had a seven-year-old girl killed so they could eat her organs, as they believed that this would result in them having a child. Police said that a seven-year-old girl had gone missing on the night of Diwali on Saturday. Her blood-stained body was recovered from a field near the village on Sunday.  ”Several organs of the body were missing….her stomach had been ripped open” and the girl was also raped before being brutally murdered.

How UP's Badhras Was Left Jolted by the Horror of Cannibalism on Diwali Night

2020: GERMANY

On 8 November a hiker came upon the skeletal remains of a human leg in a field on the northern outskirts of Berlin. Investigators discovered bite marks on the bones, though they said it was still unclear if they were human or from another animal. A 41-year-old man was arrested at his home close to the site where the victim’s bones were found, on suspicion of murder with sexual motives. “The suspect had an interest in cannibalism,” Berlin prosecutors’ office spokesman Martin Steltner said. “He searched online for the topic.” Well really, who hasn’t?

'CANNIBAL': Teacher Stefan R, pictured, is suspected of killing a man he met on a dating site
Suspect, a teacher known as Stefan R.

Because the alleged killer and victim met on an on-line dating site, reports of the arrest have evoked parallels to the infamous case of the “Rotenburg cannibal”. In 2006, a German court convicted Armin Meiwes of murder and disturbing the peace for killing a man he had met online and eating him. Meiwes is serving a life sentence.

2020: RUSSIA

66-year-old Viktor Zakharov was arrested on suspicion of three murders after a severed penis was found in his garden in the Siberian village of Severnoye. Skeletal remains of two other men were subsequently found under his floorboards. Authorities are investigating whether the scrap metal collector ate the men. He is now also being investigated concerning the disappearance of 14-year-old Alexey Bakun in 2012.

Alleged cannibal arrested after severed penis found in garden

2020: UKRAINE

A 41-year-old Ukrainian admitted that he killed his girlfriend, then fried and ate her legs after the two had a drinking session at home on April 13. He hid the rest of her body in the reeds of a nearby river, where it was found the next day by a father taking his two children for a stroll. Officers ambushed Oleksandr in his home and found him frying flesh from his girlfriend’s leg before eating it. Local reports said the police felt sick after witnessing the horrific scene. According to Ukrainian media, Oleksandr cooked his girlfriend’s legs and ate them after he reportedly ‘got hungry’.

A 41-year-old man (left), identified only as Oleksandr, admitted to killing his girlfriend (pictured) and cooking her legs after feeling hungry during their drinking party in Ukraine

Also in Ukraine, Maxim and Yaroslav Kostyukov, 42 and 21, were convicted of killing Yevgeny ‘Zhenya’ Petrov, 45. The three had been drinking together when a row developed over the conflict between Kiev’s army and pro-Moscow rebels in the eastern part of the country. A court heard how the son had held Petrov from behind while the father stabbed him twice in the chest. Yaroslav Kostyukov then beheaded the victim and cut flesh from the corpse as well as his heart, kidneys, liver and other internal organs. He confessed to cooking the meat which was served when the father and son hosted a homeless man called Yura. Prosecutor Oksana Karnaukh said: “There is no such crime as cannibalism listed in the Criminal Code of Ukraine.” The pair were, however, charged with murder and aggravating circumstances committed by a group of persons, and illegal possession of arms. And, presumably, legs.

Father and son cannibals admit to eating former policeman
Father and son cannibals who beheaded an ex-cop and cooked his meat and organs.

2020: USA

In Oklahoma, a hospital admitted a severely bleeding 28-year-old patient, who told the staff that two men had surgically removed his testicles as he lay on a wooden table in their remote cabin in the woods. One of the men said he was a “cannibal” who kept body parts in a refrigerator. The unnamed “patient” met the “surgeon”, Bob Lee Allen, on a website advertising castrations. Allen said that he had 15 years’ experience doing similar surgeries and would remove the man’s testicles free of charge. Why so generous? After the two-hour procedure, Allen “laughed and said that he was a cannibal,” the victim told investigators, adding he had a freezer full of body parts.

Oklahoma Cannibal Arrested For Illegal Castration, Body Parts In Freezer
Bob Lee Allen (or possibly Santa Claus?) and Thomas Gates

In Brooklyn NY on April 15, Khaled Ahmad ran up to some cops from the 68th Precinct who were on meal break in a bagel shop about 4:30 a.m., and told them he had killed his 57-year-old father. The victim had been gutted and “the victim’s innards were removed but not found, leading some investigators to believe Ahmad may have eaten them”. Ahmad “had a history of mental illness” while the unfortunate father was a retired grocer, who had just sold his store in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Ahmad had created a GoFundMe page in September 2019 that asked the public to help fund his return to the Palestinian territories, but at the time of the murder, he and his 57-year-old father, Imad Ahmad, were sheltered at home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn to avoid getting the coronavirus. One high ranking cop said, “it’s the worst crime scene I’ve ever seen.”

Alleged Brooklyn cannibal killer who dismembered dad tried raising money to  return home | amNewYork

On the other side of the country, police were called to a home in Richmond, California, where they found Dwayne Wallick, a “suspected” cannibal, “digging into his grandmother’s dead body and trying to eat her remains”. The murder involved both a knife and an ice pick. “Police believe unspecified drugs may have played a role in the crime”. No shit, Sherlock. A Richmond Police spokesman said the crime scene was among the most gruesome he’s seen in his career.

Dwayne Wallick From Richmond Police
Dwayne Wallick

Here’s the thing – would you pick any of these guys as cannibals? They don’t have a single eye in the middle of their forehead like the cyclops or dog-faces like the cyanocephali. They don’t have bones through their noses like the mythical cannibals of the colonial stories. In fact, since Jack the Ripper, or perhaps Sweeney Todd, cannibals have looked “normal” – indistinguishable from anyone else. Cannibalism has come home, and the cannibal could be living next door. Or even closer.

2020 CANNIBAL MOVIES

Pretty amazing that anyone managed to produce anything in 2020 with all the lockdowns and social distancing, yet below we have a bunch of cannibal movie releases. Several others were put on the backburner and will hopefully appear in 2021 when things get back to abnormal.

Gretel & Hansel (Oz Perkins) – a reboot of the Grimm Brothers tale.

Human Hibachi (Mario Cerrito III) – Indie cannibalism, banned by Amazon.

The Last Thanksgiving (Erick Lorinc) – cannibal pilgrims attack a restaurant that stays open for Thanksgiving.

Cannibal Comedian (Sean Haitz) – you know how comedians like to say “I killed out there”?

Spell (Mark Tonderai) – Hoodoo cannibal rituals.

The Dinner Party (Miles Doleac) – an invitation from the cultural elites – they’d like to have you for dinner.

Butchers (Adrian Langley) – stranded in the backwoods, attacked by cannibals, did anyone mention chainsaws?

Cadaver (Jarand Herdal) – post-apocalyptic family are invited to a show, where they can join the cast, or the menu.

If you’re staying home in 2021, why not browse through my blog, which reviews films and TV shows that feature cannibalism. There is a complete listing of Hannibal Lecter films and TV episodes, and heaps more as well.

Short cuts: WRONG TURN (Rob Schmidt, 2003)

How to make a slasher: take a group of young and pretty people, travelling and (gasp) sleeping together and therefore sinning against Gud and the Hays Code. There’s usually a gas station run by a creepy dude whose advice it might be wise to ignore (but they never do). Then there’s a freaky villain or group of villains: outsiders, possibly mutant, and always psychopathic killers. The killers slaughter all the pretty people, using sudden montage cuts and loud music, except (usually) one, known as a “last girl” who will scream a lot but ultimately survive, and probably wreak revenge.

In that sense, Wrong Turn is a fairly formulaic slasher movie and, like The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and many others, it went on to generate a slew of sequels and prequels, many of which were treated less than generously by the critics and fans. There are six so far, and 2021 promises a reboot which will no doubt be widely called number 7, so you’d have to say that this indicates a successful franchise, even if a reboot won’t add anything very new to the formula.

Slashers don’t always eat their victims, which is essential if their stories are to grace this blog, but Wrong Turn does not let us down in that area. These movies, what are sometimes called hillbilly horror, depict a clash of cultures, and attempt to show both sides through the eyes of the other. For the hillbillies, the effete city slickers are weak, spoiled and elitist, their wealth and privilege giving them an infuriating sense of entitlement. To the pretty city kids, lost in an alien land (in this case West Virginia), the locals in the flyover backwoods are inbred, amoral subhumans.

Three cannibalistic inbred mountain men are the antagonists, and their names are Three Finger, Saw Tooth and One Eye, names presumably earned by their current physical state rather than bestowed at birth. The film’s opening sequence shows examples of genetic mutants, with implications that this is due to inbreeding (although there are no females in the clan). This lot are so degenerate that they do not even speak, except for some Paleolithic grunting. And these guys definitely follow the paleo diet. Their enormous strength and ability to shrug off apparently mortal wounds may come from their diet of flesh, but seems more likely to be an unexpected benefit of their genetic reinforcement.

Not much information is given (until Wrong Turn 4, which I suppose we’ll get to sometime), as to how they got that way, or as Clarice said to Hannibal Lecter “what happened to you”. In this one, behaviourism really doesn’t matter – these are quintessential bad guys, monsters, inhumans, existing only to frighten, to kill (and eat) and then to get their comeuppance, with of course an unexpected survivor to point toward (yawn) the inevitable sequel.

There are six beautiful people, two couples, who quickly come to sticky ends, and their friend Jessie (Eliza Dushku) whom they had invited to a getaway after her messy relationship breakup. She is the only one not currently living in sin (although one of the other couples are planning their wedding as they are slaughtered) so she seems destined by the morality of slashers to be the “last girl”. They are lost on a dirt road with a flat tyre, caused by the mutants laying barbed wire across the road, when the square-jawed hero Chris (Desmond Harrington) crashes into their car, taking a wrong turn to get to a business appointment which we all know is going to seem pretty irrelevant. Four of them head off into the woods looking for a phone (they have mobile phones, but hey, it’s out in the middle of nowhere – no cell towers?) The couple who stay with the cars are slaughtered almost immediately. Now there’s a turnaround, Chris show himself to be a leader, he is going to be last boy! The intersection of the two groups, heroes and mutants, comes when the lost city folks find the house of the mutants, and have to hide under the furniture, where they have to watch the killers chop up their friends for dinner.

This is extreme slasher binary conflict: human vs inhuman, normal vs freak, civilised vs wild, prey vs predator. We follow Jessie and Chris as they watch their friends die and flee into the woods, and we barely see the ghastly faces of the antagonists, until toward the climax.

Most victims in slashers are despatched quickly, but the last girl is traditionally captured, tied up in what looks like a rape scene but usually isn’t, because the bad guys are interested in gustatory rather than sexual carnality.

Jessie is tied to a bed, about to be slaughtered – no particular reason why she has not been killed instantly like the others, but we need time for a rescue. The freaks are predators, but Chris and Jessie are warriors. Like The Hills Have Eyes, the victims have to adopt the savagery of the killers to survive, and there is plenty of gore and explosions if that’s your thang. Unlike THHE, where the victims arguably become the savages, Chris and Jessie look to have grown through their ordeal, so that’s a novel approach.

Wrong Turn earned a measly 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic writing,

“the gore is so ridiculously overdone and the script so lame, that it undermines all sense of suspense.”

But I didn’t think so. The cast is great, the plot is fast moving and certainly never dull, and the suspense is well done. There is no reason given for the murders, except that humans are their preferred quarry. But that is the question that cannibalism, as a concept, poses in every film – why eat humans? Because they’re made of meat?

“There’s something evil in those woods”: SUPERNATURAL Season 1, Episode 2 “Wendigo”

Supernatural is a TV series created by Eric Kripke, first broadcast in 2005. Fifteen seasons later, the final episode (there were 327 in total) aired on November 19, 2020. You could call that a successful series.

The plots follow two brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester, who hunt demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural beings. The first two episodes were directed by David Nutter, who later won an Emmy for Game of Thrones.

Sam and Dean’s origin story in the pilot episode shows an idyllic home with a loving mother, doting father, and a demon who drips blood into baby Sam’s mouth, then ties their mom to the ceiling where she bursts into flames. Well, you can’t blame them for being a bit down on supernatural entities.

Dean’s metaphysical mission statement is:

“Killing as many evil sons of bitches as I possibly can.”

In episode 2, the boys come across a Wendigo, normally explained as a human transformed into a monster by the act of cannibalism. They find a love interest in a girl who is looking for her brother, one of a group of campers recently snatched by said Wendigo while playing computer games with friends in their tent in the deep woods (as you do) and reading Joseph Campbell’s book about the hero’s journey

Turns out the Wendigo eats a sounder of people every 23 years, and they find a man who, as a child, was attacked by the monster in 1959 but survived, with massive scars. He tells them:

Well, they finally get around to reading their Dad’s journal – he has a slim leather volume of handwritten notes on every evil thing you could need to know about. They explain the Wendigo to the other campers.

Cultures all over the world believe that eating human flesh gives a person certain abilities: speed, strength, immortality. You eat enough of it, over years you become this less-than-human thing. You’re always hungry.”

You can’t kill a Wendigo with bullets or knives.

Dean attempts to draw the Wendigo away from the others, with the hilarious taunt:

“You want some white meat, bitch?”

The Wendigo is a figure from Algonquin folklore, a spirit who possesses his human victim, giving him an insatiable hunger for human flesh, but the flesh makes him grow larger, and so his appetite can never be satisfied, thus the emaciated form.

The Wendigo is said to have a heart, or whole body, made of ice. The creation of the Wendigo, like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, is a “becoming” which requires the destruction or transformation of lesser beings, just as humans like to believe that the processing of “lower” animals into meat is required for their continued existence. In the television series Hannibal, Lecter is often shown as a dark figure with antlers, a Wendigo, who manifests and wreaks carnage (e.g. the episode “Hassun”).

Margaret Atwood in her lecture on the Wendigo pointed out that, unlike most monsters, the Wendigo offers two different terrors – being eaten by it, but also transforming into it. While all cannibals threaten us with physical dissolution through their digestive tracts, a simple bite from the Wendigo, or being possessed by its spirit during the act of eating human flesh (even if the act is necessary to survive) can destroy one’s will and endanger the whole tribe.

To the First Nations people, the Wendigo represented winter, hunger or selfishness and, particularly in subsistence communities, there is a direct causal link between those things – winter means shortages, which lead to hunger and struggles for resources, and sometimes cannibalism. In times of starvation, we are capable of anything. Cannibalism stories were not uncommon on the American Frontier, and popular culture has often told tales of white-man cannibalism using the Donner Party, Alferd Packer and the Wendigo, sometimes all mixed together, as in Antonia Bird’s Ravenous.

But when the Europeans came with their ships and guns and viruses, those they dispossessed, enslaved, raped, tortured and massacred came to the obvious conclusion that the white man must be possessed by a Wendigo spirit. This Wendigo spirit of ruthless and voracious consumption may be less blatant in the twenty-first century, but is still evident in the exploitation of sweat-shop workers, in human trafficking, and in the intensive factory farming that turns sentient animals into commodities by the billions. Also in the covert sexism and racism in shows like this, that depict “cis-het” white men taking on the world of evil and saving civilisation from the outsiders and aliens that haunt our dreams.

Monstrous appetites: THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Just over 200 years ago, Mary Shelley, at the age of just eighteen, conceived the story of “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus” while sheltering with her lover (and later husband) the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the home of Lord Byron, the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Frankenstein is a brilliant but tortured scientist who creates a creature and brings it to life, whereupon it wreaks havoc, due to Frankenstein’s actions in first abandoning his creation, then reneging on his promise to create a wife for it. Shelley’s story perfectly summed up the fears of the Romantics: Science was capable of the improvement or even perfection of humanity, but if misused, could lead only to catastrophic consequences. She would have been fascinated by the modern versions of this paradox: global warming, weapons of mass destruction, and pandemics issuing from factory farms and slaughterhouses.

A century after his literary birth, Frankenstein and his monster were popularised by Hollywood (with the story considerably changed) in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), with Boris Karloff as the huge, shuffling, homicidal monster.

The British company Hammer Horror, the virtuosi of Gothic films, revived the story in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, their first colour horror movie, and the first gory slasher, with Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature. This week’s choice, Revenge of Frankenstein, was the first in a string of sequels, which made Hammer the pre-eminent horror studio, and Peter Cushing the master of cultured monstrosity.

The trailer to the movie (above) gives a succinct summary of the story so far: Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) was sentenced to the guillotine in 1860 for creating a version of a human, and was blamed for its murderous rampage, caused by the creature’s brain being damaged.

“It should have been perfect. I made it to be perfect. If the brain hadn’t been damaged, my work would have been hailed as the greatest scientific achievement of all time.”

He escapes the guillotine by substituting a priest whom he pays the executioner to decapitate instead of him, and relocates to Carlsbrück under a false name (Dr Stein). Here he treats the hypochondriac rich and the grimy poor, whose limbs and other parts he amputates for his continued research.

Another doctor recognises him and blackmails him into agreeing to work together, and they plan to transfer the brain of Stein’s hunchback assistant Karl (played by Oscar Quitak) into a “healthy” (i.e. not disabled) body (played by Michael Gwynn).

“Nobody. He isn’t born yet. But this time he is perfect… All I need is a brain, and then I can give it life.”

Karl is a hunchback, and can’t wait to get his brain removed and put into Frankenstein’s jigsaw of spare parts.

Is the hybrid human getting a brain transplant? Or is Karl getting a body transplant? There’s another character, Otto, a chimpanzee into whom Stein has already (unforgivably) transplanted the brain of an orang-utan. After the operation, however, Otto “ate his wife”.

Yes, brain transplants, followed by head trauma, lead to cannibalism – who knew? Karl, in his new body, escapes but is spotted and beaten up by a janitor, whom Karl (now brain-damaged) then kills and eats. The Otto syndrome has spread to Karl! His injured brain then, somehow, starts restoring his hunchback, and his withered arm and leg – he starts turning into Richard III. An eyewitness tells the police that Karl’s first victim was killed by “some sort of animal”. Karl is dehumanised – again, first as through his disability, then through his monstrous appetite, caused by the tinkering of Frankenstein and the violence of the janitor. As expected of a monster, Karl gets right into killing and eating people.

But Karl’s violence is not really the point. Earlier movies had a shuffling, terrifying monster to amaze the audience but, in this one, it is pretty clear that the monster is not Karl, in either of his bodies, but it is the handsome, brilliant Doctor Frankenstein, a forerunner of the serial-killer Renaissance man, Doctor Hannibal Lecter. While Karl’s brain, twisted by insertion in a “perfect” body after a life living with societal rejection and shame at his disability, drives him to kill and eat human flesh, the good doctor deliberately and calculatedly ‘consumes’ the limbs, organs and other parts of the poor who fill his clinic, in order to satiate his scientific curiosity. Organ transplants save lives, but if taken from unwitten donors, how are they different to gustatory cannibalism? Like Hannibal, Victor Frankenstein is the real cannibal in this story.

It’s an interesting and at times engrossing film; the dramatic music by composer Leonard Salzedo  is annoying, but Peter Cushing and the rest of the cast are great and, in 1958, it might possibly have seemed as scary as the hype made out. The film has 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Empire Magazine calling it an:

“Expertly executed example of a golden time in British cinema – one to savour.”

Of course. All cannibal movies should be savoured, as long as they are properly prepared.

“…to keep your family alive”, CADAVER (Herdal, 2020)

New cannibal movies keep arriving, thick and fast. This one is from a young Norwegian director, Jarand Herdal, and was released on Netflix in October 2020. It is a traditional dystopian story, a genre in which people are driven to cannibalism by desperate circumstances – think Soylent Green, Delicatessen, or 28 Days Later. Dystopian films sometimes don’t bother telling you what happened to destroy our civilisation, for example We Are The Flesh or The Road. Others spell it out, and nuclear war is always a popular explanation, as is the case in Cadaver.

The film starts with children running into a vast room, playing among huge piles of clothes and bags. They try things on, and one girl discards a shirt, when she finds a stain on it. A bloodstain of course. We see a family making its way through a street where bodies lie in the road and survivors fight for food.

Discarded newspapers tell of a nuclear disaster. A family, Leonora and Jacob (Gitte Witt and Thomas Gullestad) and their daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) are desperate and terrified, down to their last tin of food, when they are offered tickets to dinner and a show at a grand hotel. Who hasn’t fallen for that line?

The showman is the suave, beautifully dressed Mathias (Thorbjørn Harr) who seats the crowd at dinner tables where waiters bring steaming plates of meat. Mathias welcomes them to the show, and tells them that

“everything that takes place tonight is staged. Everything is a show. Everything.”

The show is the theatre itself. The “audience” are told to wander the corridors, explore the rooms, but they have to wear bronze masks in order to distinguish themselves from the “actors”, who look like normal (maskless) people, and act out dramatic scenes of conflict and sex and suicide.

Alice disappears and, as Leonora and Jacob search, they ditch their masks, making them indistinguishable – they become actors instead of audience. Just as well, as the audience keep disappearing. And given the plates of meat served up in the middle of mass starvation, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out where they are disappearing to. Our protagonists, however, are clueless.

They witness Mathias addressing his actors, like a pope or king, as they kneel before him.

“You know where you came from. You know what we have here. If we don’t stick together like family, it will devour us.”

The rest of the movie is Leonora wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric corridors, trying to work out what is going on, and where the hell Alice has got to. There’s a plot reveal: Mathias is running a factory farm, with the only mammal still available in large numbers. The actors’ job is to put on a show so audience members will split up and follow them into rooms where they will fall through trapdoors, to an unknown fate. At the bottom of the trapdoor are the brawny butchers. It’s Sweeney Todd, in Norwegian.

When the actors and audience follow Leonora into the kitchens, they are shocked and horrified. I mean come on, where did they think all this meat was coming from?

We also find out why the audience must wear masks – because the actors might know some of them, and:

“as long as they are masked, you won’t be able to tell.
It makes it easier.”

The identical masks give them an air of indifference and facelessness – they look like victims. It’s the same reason farmers will tell you they never give names to the animals they plan to kill. Anonymity is essential for objectification. You don’t want to meet your meat.

When Leonora confronts Mathias, he offers her the opportunity to join the cast, asking her

“What would you do to keep your family alive?”

The title “CADAVER” (“Kadaver” in Norwegian) is an interesting choice. According to Dictionary.com, it means “a dead body, especially a human body to be dissected”. It is therefore a scientific term, implying research or study. Mathias and his merry men are chopping up the guests for dinner, but there is a way out for a talented person like Leonora – like Theseus and the Minotaur, she can navigate the maze of corridors and trapdoors and confront the beast, or even choose to join him. Survival depends on her choices and decisions. Almost certain starvation outside or murder and cannibalism inside. You can watch on Netflix to see which way she goes.

The Digital Spy review (which, I warn you, is full of spoilers) has a poll at the end, which asks:

“Would you have joined Mathias’ cannibal cast?”

The possible answers are:

1. Look… it’s the apocalypse, OK?
2. No way, I’m a vegetarian.

When last checked, the vote was about 50/50.

Ladies that lunch: CANNIBAL GIRLS (Ivan Reitman, 1973)

Mention cannibalism in conversation (sorry, yes, I often do), and you will usually (in my experience) be met with either humour or revulsion and very often both at once. Ivan Reitman has wrestled with that paradox in this early movie – he went on to direct Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters I and II, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Dave and Junior. Great comedy classics, but none of them involved cannibalism, unfortunately.

This Canadian film employs the classic horror trope of the young couple lost or having car problems or, in this case, both at once. The couple are Clifford and Gloria, played with gusto by the very young and almost unrecognisable Eugene Levy (American Pie, Schitt’s Creek, most Christopher Guest movies) and Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

There’s the creepy gas station person, the corrupt cop, and a particularly unctuous reverend. When shown in the cinemas, there was apparently a bell that rang immediately preceding the gore to warn the squeamish to close their eyes. This was omitted in the version I watched, and with good reason – if you don’t know what to expect when a guy starts pulling on his clothes and a woman reaches for a sharp implement, then you are probably watching the wrong channel.

Then there’s the hotel of horrors, where the motel proprietor tells them the “legend of the three beautiful girls”, who lure men to their farmhouse, take them to bed, and then kill and eat them.

“Food can be a marvellous appetiser” one of them tells her chosen victim. The girls have a ritual – a dab of blood between the breasts and the incantation:

“Within me and without me, I honour this blood, which gives me life.”

There’s the wink to the audience as the butcher holds up a piece of meat and tells a customer: “Mrs Wilson, if it was any fresher, it would get up and tell you itself”.

And then, there are the cannibal girls of the title. Turns out they are, I dunno, maybe succubi? Anyway, they eat human flesh, drink blood, and live forever. And, we are told, they never get sick. They feed the reverend, who seems to be in charge of all this hocus pocus, on their blood, as they chant:

“We shall drink the blood of life, of life eternal, and we shall live forever.”

The problem here is that the film is trying to be a horror story and a comedy at the same time, and does OK at both, but brilliantly at neither. It was made on a low budget, not uncommon in cannibal movies, but, to make a long story short, the less the money, the greater the tendency to make a short story long. It drags a bit, and although there’s lots of blood and meat, there’s not much terror or humour.

But it does get to the point of cannibal stories – humans are edible, under the skin we are just another large mammal, and probably taste, as several cannibals report, somewhere between veal and pork. The movie reminds us of that sad truth with subtle hints like cows grazing beside the road, and a meat truck carrying some sort of mammal flesh to the local butcher.

Hard to build a whole horror show on that, so of course there has to be a supernatural element, based on traditional beliefs about capturing the strength, wisdom, skill or even soul of the one being eaten. You can trace this belief, or hope, in contested stories of cannibalism, such as the Fore tribe of PNG who ate their ancestors and acquired not strength or skill but a nasty shaking disease called Kuru. A popular version is the myth of the Wendigo, a spirit that inhabits humans and gives them an insatiable desire for human flesh, which makes them immortal and invulnerable – a topic covered rather nicely in the movie Ravenous.

These cannibal girls are not Wendigos – they are not particularly strong, just well armed, and are under the thrall of the reverend, who lives off their life forces and can hypnotise anyone with just a glance. Maybe he is some sort of evil spirit.

But real life cannibals do not gain strength from their meals, and they do not live forever. Jeffrey Dahmer hoped only to keep his boyfriends with him as zombie sex slaves, and eventually was beaten to death in prison. Ottis Toole died of cirrhosis of the liver, also in prison. In the final analysis, what cannibals eat is just meat, it has no magical powers, and usually results in legal trouble rather than invulnerability.

But it’s an entertaining enough movie, and after all the movies we have reviewed, it is a refreshing change to see some women tucking in to a bit of man-flesh.

That’s a carrot she’s peeling. Behave yourselves.

Cannibal movies for your Halloween enjoyment (or any time, really)

Remember when the scariest thing on the screen was cannibalism? Ah, the good old days…

The link above covers some of the many cannibal movies I have reviewed. All of them have in common that they ask the most important question of 21st century ethics (IMHO):

Also, how do cannibals maintain social distancing?

Scentless cannibalism: “PERFUME, The Story of a Murderer” (Tom Tykwer, 2006)

Making a movie of a hugely successful book is always fraught – if it is faithful to the book, it is criticised as too derivative and unoriginal, if it diverges, it is damned for breaking the spell by adding new and extraneous material.

The 2006 film of Perfume sticks pretty closely to Patrick Süskind’s novel of the same name, (originally written in German) which has sold over twenty million copies in 49 languages. There is also a German Netflix TV series of Perfume released in 2018. I haven’t checked that out yet, but it sounds very postmodern (the protagonists have read Süskind’s book!)

This 2006 film features a stellar cast, who do a pretty great job with it. Hard to go wrong with Dustin Hoffman and the sadly missed Alan Rickman, and you will also recognise Ben Wishaw as the main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. It is directed by Tom Twyker, and who can forget his Run Lola Run? Since Grenouille doesn’t say much, we have a narrator, and who can fault the pipes of the late, great John Hurt – you may remember him giving birth through his chest in Alien.

The lead character, Grenouille (Ben Wishaw), is a kind of supervillain, whose superpower is, wait for it, his nose. Grenouille is born in eighteenth century France in the worst circumstances – his mother drops him in the muck under her fish stall, assuming he will be stillborn like all her previous births. But he survives, and turns out to have the most sensitive nose ever – he can identify any smell, good or bad. He is raised in an orphanage and sold to a tanner, who eventually takes him to town, where he discovers the ‘scent of a woman’ (not to be confused with Al Pacino’s rather better behaved but still slightly creepy obsession). Young women are all too often the victims in modern movies, but usually they are desired for sex or (in cannibal movies) for nutrition. These young women just smell good. Grenouille is obsessed with capturing that scent, and thus their beauty.

One of the great teachers of Cannibal Studies is a certain Doctor Hannibal Lecter, seen sniffing Will Graham in the episode Coquilles. He taught us, among other things, that

“Taste and smell are the oldest senses, and closest to the centre of the mind. Parts that precede pity and morality.”

Well, a whole lot of cannibal movies concern the taste of humans (short summary: we taste somewhere between wild boar and veal). But smell, that primal sense that so many animals rely on, is usually neglected. Not so in this movie. If cannibalism is the consumption of another member of one’s own kind, then it can involve the devouring of any part, and that includes their odour.

Grenouille sniffs people, a bit like Hannibal, but with a different appetite. He terrifies a young woman by sniffing her, then unintentionally smothers her as he tries to silence her screams. He is horrified to find that her scent disappears as her body cools, and he becomes obsessed with the craving to recreate that smell. He decides that his life mission is to learn how to preserve scent,

He persuades a creator of perfumes, Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), to teach him the trade, in return for creating perfumes that make Baldini rich and famous.

But Grenouille cannot distil the essence of a person (or a cat in a particularly objectionable scene). For that, he needs to go to the perfume capital, Grasse, and learn their art of enfleurage. Baldini has told him that a great perfume has twelve different components, and a thirteenth scent that must be exquisite. On the way to Grasse he sees a young woman, Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood) who he realises must become his thirteenth scent.

Her father Antoine (Alan Rickman) disagrees. He guesses the murderer’s motive.

Of course, killing the other twelve girls for the first twelve scents throws the town into panic, and in a startling recreation of 2020’s COVID-19 headlines, the town is closed down and the economy devastated as the murderer (he is variously described as a plague, a madman, an angel and a demon) is sought.

There’s a chase, Antoine leaves a false trail, but hey, you can’t hide from Supernose. He’s out to create Love Potion No. 9.

The film received mixed reviews (59%) on Rotten Tomatoes. The doyen of film critics, Roger Ebert, wrote

“This is a dark, dark, dark film, focused on an obsession so complete and lonely it shuts out all other human experience. You may not savor it, but you will not stop watching it, in horror and fascination.”

But his long-term co-host on Ebert & Roeper, Richard Roeper, said “Hated this movie. Hated it.

Look, I try to avoid spoilers, but I will mention that absorbing the scent of beautiful women is not the only kind of cannibalism in this movie. The ending has some of the more traditional kind but, to me, this would still have been a cannibal movie if he had only incorporated scents. Cannibalism is about voracious appetite, but not necessarily for food. We never see Grenouille eat or drink – scent seems to be all he needs, like the Astomi peoples who, according to Pliny, had no mouths and lived on odours. Furthermore, Grenouille has no scent of his own, this makes him an outsider, an alien, and explains why he seems invisible to others and can sneak past guard-dogs (who would understand, with Grenouille, the importance of smell). The modern cannibal, from Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, is typically invisible, unidentifiable, blending in with the crowd. Grenouille, though, is appalled to find that he has no identity to others in the only way that matters to him – through smell. He seeks to steal that identity from his victims, and incorporate the essence of their beauty into himself. The scent he creates is distilled beauty, with a menacing power – it can command love, leading to a mass orgy at what was supposed to be an execution.

Absence is one thing, surfeit another, but both can be lethal.

Incorporating the other, be it through eating, smelling, farming, enslaving or invading, is cannibalism.