“An army of pissed-off man-hating feminist cannibals” DOGHOUSE (Jake West, 2009)

Doghouse is a British slapstick / splatter movie. The danger of mixing genres like that is that sometimes neither one will work, and this is a good example of just that. A bunch of young men head off for a weekend to cheer up one of their friends who has just been divorced. The film introduces them one by one with a placard showing their name (hoping vainly that we will thereafter remember them). They are all being verbally abused by their partners for leaving them, a condition sometimes known as being “in the doghouse”. They diagnose their situation as suffering from what they call “social gender anxiety” and plan to do male things like, you know, drink and smoke a piss on trees. They think they are recapturing their animal essences, whereas in fact they are just being dicks.

They head for a little town where, they have heard, the women outnumber the men four to one. Their minibus driver tells them that it is the middle of nowhere, and hey, there are worse things than divorce.

They are expecting

“an entire village of man-hungry women, waiting to jump the first band of desperadoes rolling up from London.”

Turns out that’s exactly what they get (yes, such subtle irony) because the women have all been infected with a virus in a biological warfare trial intended to turn one half of an enemy population against the other, and isn’t that a decent summary of human history? This virus turns them into what these guys call

“an army of pissed-off man-hating feminist cannibals”

Each woman is a caricature of her womanly role – a bride, a hairdresser, a grandma, etc.

While this is a remarkably silly film, it does illustrate quite nicely the themes of abjection and the monstrous feminine. Monsters are by definition outsiders, but more so when their appearance and violent activities are in a female form, because we are reminded of the archaic mother – the authority figure of early childhood who toilet trained us, dominated us, exemplified adult sexuality and offered us both nurturing and the threat of Oedipal competition with the father and ultimately castration or reabsorption. Just so, the women of the town represent female roles: the crone (one of the men’s gran), the bride (in virginal white), the hairdresser, the barmaid, the traffic warden. Freud might have enjoyed this film – the women carry castrating weapons – knives, scissors, axes, teeth, a dental drill. Even stilettos. One woman represents voracious appetite and therefore body dysmorphia (obesity) – she has an electric carving knife and kneels in front of her victim in a recreation of every fellatio-gone-wrong castration nightmare, cutting off his, well, his finger. But you know, symbolism.

In case the symbolism is still not clear, the local shop, with a mummified penis in the display case, is called

The men plan a violent exit, declaring “Today is not the day to stop objectifying women”. This gives the film an excuse to answer the women’s cannibalistic violence against the men with some very nasty misogynistic attacks by the surviving men, the ones who were the most obdurate male chauvinists, using ‘male’ weapons like fire and vehicles and sporting equipment, resulting in women being variously burnt, having their teeth knocked out, beheaded and beaten to death with golf clubs. At the climax, one of the surviving men growls “give me a wood” – yeah, you get the picture. There would be a certain section of the audience cheering those scenes, I suspect.

The movie managed to stumble to a surprising 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Guardian reviewer summing it up as:

“misogyny and creative bankruptcy in Jake West’s Brit gender-wars comedy horror about a bunch of hen-pecked blokes stuck in a village of cannibalistic women”

If I still haven’t dissuaded you, the full movie can be watched (when I last checked) on YouTube.

Six dead(ish) serial killers: THE BUTCHERS (Steven Judd, 2014)

If you could somehow bring a dead serial killer back to life, let me ask you this:

  1. What question would you ask him?
  2. Why the hell would you bring him back to life??

This movie was called The Butchers in some markets and Death Factory in others, but didn’t exactly set the world alight in either case. The “plot” (sic and sick) concerns a bunch of misfits reciting a spell that returns to life some of the more notorious recent serial killers, who are featured in a bizarre museum called The Death Factory: Albert Fish, John Wayne Gacy, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, and the Zodiac Killer. Wait – that doesn’t make sense? Well, enjoy the ride.

 Before the ride, though, a flashback – Simon (Damien Puckler – Grimm) is having a nightmare about when he was a little boy and killed his father with a golf club. First we get to sit through the father killing a neighbour and Simon’s mother, in grisly detail. Yeah, Simon has serious issues. So did I after watching a woman have her teeth knocked out.

He’s on a bus with his brother (who reads Dante’s Inferno, as you do) and a bunch of misfits representing various stereotypes of America, heading for the Grand Canyon, but the bus breaks down and so they hoof it the Death Factory.

Meanwhile, a lawyer from Africa comes to visit the Factory, gets a guided tour of the killers (for the sake of the audience rather than him I rather think) and sees the vials of blood collected from them (how the hell did they get blood from Jack the Ripper?) and then kills the owner.

He has a big antique book, which we just know is going to be full of magic spells. The Goth couple from the bus find it and recite the spell of resurrection (you know, just for fun), and all hell breaks loose. No, really, it’s all a Satanic plot. Say the words, and the drops of blood form columns of fire and the dead butchers are resurrected.

But keep your disbelief suspended – it gets worse. When they get killed, they return to dust and smoke and enter the one who killed them. Confused? So were the writers I fear.

Of course, no slasher film is complete without the impending victims arriving from a broken-down vehicle at a sinister and run-down gas station / diner.

But the interest in this script is not so much in the bus passengers but the six born again killers who stalk them. From the point of view of a cannibalism blog, we only really care about four of them (the cannibals) and there are some real plot problems here. For a start, Albert Fish was ostensibly a harmless old man, unless you were a young child (he used to kidnap children, flog them, murder them and eat them), but he was clearly not up to a fist fight, unless you were under eight years old. Here is the movie Fish, and the real one. Not a bad likeness, but a scary monster?

Jack the Ripper was never identified (nor was Zodiac come to that) so this one wears an old person mask and talks with an English accent. But we have a revelation when Jack takes off the mask! Yes, Jack the Ripper turns out to be a lesbian, who finds out what little girls are made of (with the help of a cut-throat razor). Well, glad they sorted out that mystery anyway. Any clues on who killed JFK while you’re there?

Ed Gein was technically not even a serial killer since he only killed a couple of people, preferring to source his body parts from gravesites, and he was also pretty decrepit, an unlikely partner for hand-to-hand combat. Not even trying for a likeness here – just a scary Fred Flinstone.

That leaves Jeffrey Dahmer who was certainly a serial killer, but his M.O. was to drug his victims then drill holes in their heads when they were unconscious, hoping thereby to keep them around as zombie boyfriends. So, Dahmer was a lover, not a fighter.

Dahmer does, however, have the best line in the movie; after biting one dude:

“33% of Caucasians are A positive… I prefer A negative.”

Another great line is when Simon and the bible thumping lady find a series of pentagrams and vials of serial killer blood (curiouser and curiouser). She has some expertise here, which turns out to be as useless as it sounds:

“I wrote a paper on the psychological dysfunction of fanatical religious behaviour. At Emory.”

But most of the dialog consists of people saying to other people “stay here, I’ll go check it out.” You just know that’s not going to end well. Several times (yawn).

This is a pretty awful movie, garnering a handsome 12% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you like gore, that is well done and you might enjoy it, if you can get past all the metaphysical nonsense of pentagrams and life force transfers. If, however, you are a student of cannibalism, you will be mystified by their portrayals of these murderers. Have these people never heard of Wikipedia?

More importantly, how did they decide on these six as the world’s worst serial killers, and why were four of them (67%) best known for their cannibalistic behaviour? Our fear of death is notorious – watch a group of people flee from a loud noise like a flock of pigeons. The primal part of our brain, like that of the pigeon, takes over when survival seems to be at issue. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that our terror of death is the basic motivation of human behaviour.

But the enormous interest in cannibalism indicates that there is something even more terrifying than dying: being eaten. Dramatic headlines announce the victim of the latest shark or crocodile attack, while meanwhile hundreds die unremarked, in more mundane incidents taking place all around them. We build mausoleums or place immense marble slabs over our graves to keep out marauders, we pour chemicals into the veins of our corpses to preserve them from worms and bacteria. The worst terror, though, is incorporation into the body of another human. Theologians write learned pieces on God’s options for restoring the body on the day of judgement; if we have been absorbed into another body, to whom would the restored flesh belong? Ed Gein is included in the canon of cannibals not for the numbers he killed but because he used the body parts to make furniture and lampshades.

Cannibalism feeds our darkest fears – that we are not made in the image of God (however that is interpreted) but that we are edible animals, no different to the millions of other animals we slaughter every day: for their flesh like Dahmer and Fish, for their skins and bones like Gein, or just to see what’s inside, like Jack.

Whales and cannibals: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (Ron Howard, 2015)

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the original ‘Great American Novel’, was based on the story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was destroyed by a bull sperm whale in 1820. The story of the wreck, and particularly the subsequent cannibalism that some of the survivors employed to survive, has largely faded from public knowledge (Moby Dick finished with the whale sinking the ship), but in the nineteenth century, every American child would have learnt about it at school, and this film starts with a young Melville (Ben Wishaw, who played a very different role in Perfume) seeking out the last survivor some decades later, hoping to get the full story to use in his novel.

This film is based on a meticulously researched 2000 book of the same name on the Essex disaster by Nathaniel Philbrick, which won him the National Book Award for Nonfiction in that year. Whaling was no more controversial in the early nineteenth century than crude oil in the early twentieth – it was used to power the factories and light up the cities of the world, and was worth a fortune. As the fleets decimated the whales near shore, the boats had to head further into, well, the heart of the sea, to find their victims. Whaling was, and remains, an incredibly brutal business, with small boats harpooning the giant mammals then drawing near and stabbing them to death. A successful kill was signalled by a plume of blood spurting out of the whale’s blowhole.

Whaling was a class-based system, with the captains drawn from the powerful old families in Nantucket, the tiny American island that was the centre of the industry. The main protagonist of the film is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth – the mighty Thor) as the first mate, who was refused the captaincy because he is socially inferior, an “off-islander”.

His best friend is the second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy from 28 Days Later). The Captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is ineffectual but is from one of the original Nantucket families, and so has been promoted over Chase. In fact, the ships were run on strict class and race lines: the African-Americans and off-islanders lived in the Foc’s’le or front of the ship, where the food was inferior, and did the dirty work. The Nantucketers lived aft, and were fed and treated better. They were, in general, the ones that survived sinkings. Six African-Americans made it into the whaling boats – none survived. True Nantucketers were also mostly devout Quakers, pacifists who, however, saw no problem in killing magnificent whales and “raising bloody havoc at sea” as Philbrick put it. Class conflict is the basis of the story for the first half, before the angry whale comes along.

The story of the Essex is told to Melville by a decrepit old drunk who is the last remaining survivor, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, who was also in 28 Days Later). Nickerson had been a cabin boy (played by Tom Holland – Spiderman) when the boat sank. Nickerson did write an account of the events, but it was not discovered until 1980, so Melville did not in fact use his words. Chase’s brief account would have been the one known to Melville, who embroidered the conflict, as authors do, to make the whale white and almost supernatural, and avoided the controversy, not mentioning the cannibalism that resulted from the wrecking of the boat.

This does shed some light on the different reception of cannibalism over time. When the Essex set sail, cannibalism at sea after shipwrecks was not uncommon, and was generally considered embarrassing but necessary. The Monty Python team did a skit based on a version of this incident.

In the Heart of the Sea suggests a conspiracy by the whaling company to ignore the cannibalism as the presence at sea of a giant, angry whale would discourage further exploration, but Chase and Pollard refuse to cooperate. By Melville’s time, cannibalism was too graphic for his potential audience (he wanted to sell books after all). In our time, the great white whale is still of interest, in that he represents nature fighting back against human rapaciousness, but the real point of this film is now the cannibalism. Would anyone go to see a movie about a shipwreck if Thor didn’t eat anyone?

Or even if he did. The film’s tagline was “Based on the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick”, which did not inspire enough people to see it – it grossed $93 million, which sounds great until you see that it’s budget was $100 million. It scored a paltry 42% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Seattle Times critic summarising it as:

“Thor and Spider-Man fight a whale.”

Despite some critics seeing the movie as over-long and dull, the scenes at sea are full of action (if not exactly Pirates of the Caribbean) and very well done, and the special effects are spectacular, especially the whales and the sails, and the whales demolishing the sails (you can guess which side I was on).

But as Philbrick wrote in his book,

The Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told. (p.236)

The halfway point of a movie is usually the turning point in some form, and it certainly is here – in the middle of the film, in the middle of the Pacific, they finally find an abundance of whales, including the great white whale that they were warned about on a stop in Ecuador. He charges the ship, staves in the side, the whale oil they had collected goes up in flames, and they have to abandon ship and fit as much food as they can (which isn’t much) into their little whaling boats.

The rest of the movie is all about how some (a few) of them survived the long voyage of 4,500 nautical miles back to South America. They reach a small but uninhabitable island, and the white whale makes them welcome by tipping over their boats as they head for the beach. Chase and the Captain abandon their class struggle to engage in dialogue about anthropocentric carnivorous virility instead.

Pollard answers with presupposed anthropocentric arrogance.

“We are supreme creatures, made in God’s own likeness. Earthly kings, whose business it is to circumnavigate the planet bestowed to us…”

The island cannot sustain them – they find the skeletons of a previous party that took shelter there, so repair the boats and head off again for another agonising trip across the endless ocean. After 48 days stranded, with almost no food or water, one of the sailors on Chase’s boat dies. The others prepare to toss him overboard, but Chase stops them. It’s all handled quite delicately, but it’s definitely become a cannibal movie.

“We prepared the body. We removed the organs. Separated his limbs from his body and cut all the flesh from the bones.”

In the other boat, no one dies so conveniently, so they draw straws for a victim. The captain gets the short straw, but his cousin cannot shoot him and shoots himself instead, keeping the catering in the family.

The whale comes back, but he and Chase exchange a look, and Chase cannot bring himself to kill the magnificent bull.

After ninety days at sea, the survivors reached South America. According to the book, a boat that drew up alongside saw two men sucking the marrow from the bones of the dead, refusing to give them up. Unlike some survivor cannibal stories such as Alive, where the actors looked pretty much the same weight at the end of the ordeal, Hemsworth reported that the cast were put on a strict ration of 500–600 calories a day, and he lost 40 pounds (18kg), giving him a reasonable idea of what the sailors had gone through.

What the film doesn’t mention is that the survivors could have had a much easier time of it if they had headed not for South America but west toward the Marquesas Islands, only 1,200 miles away. They chose not to do so, because of earlier reports that the natives were, yep, cannibals. One mariner, Georg von Langsdorff, had written in 1804 that the natives so loved human flesh that “those who have once eaten it can with difficulty abstain from it.” Of course, it was all nonsense.

Instead, they headed east, and ended up eating each other.

Disney’s savages: ALICE CANS THE CANNIBALS (Walt Disney 1925)

The most interesting aspect of Disney’s “Alice” silent cartoon series was that it predated Mickey Mouse by several years. The “Alice Comedies” were a hybrid of live action (a young girl named Virginia Davis) with animated characters, particularly a cat named Julius.

Cats were winning the media wars over mice in those days, almost a century ago, when the most recognisable cartoon character was Felix the Cat from Australian cartoonist Pat Sullivan. Winkler Pictures had dropped Felix after a row with his creator, and Disney was able to get them to distribute Alice and even pay to bring young Virginia from Missouri to Los Angeles to star in the work. Julius was so similar to Felix he could have been a littermate.

In the Alice series, Julius does most of the heavy lifting, but Alice gets the naming rights, since the universe they inhabit originates in her dreams after she visits a cartoon studio in the very first episode, Alice’s Wonderland (based on Lewis Carroll of course, but also perhaps a nod to Surrealism and Dada that were revolutionising art after the Great War). There were 57 cartoons in total, all directed, produced and animated by Walt, but of course we are only interested in number 12, Alice Cans the Cannibals, released in 1925.

Alice and Julius drive their car into the sea and lasso a fish to drag them to land (the car floats! The fish cooperates! They have a lasso in their possession! It’s a dream, OK?) They land on an island that is inhabited by cannibals (luckily, there is a signpost in the ocean saying “this way to the Cannibal Islands”). Cannibals, of course, were then widely considered the ubiquitous inhabitants of any land not yet settled by white people – the eternal others. The cannibal king wears a crown, so he must be every inch a king, and the cannibals spend the rest of the cartoon chasing Alice and Julius, hoping, no doubt, to eat them.

The image of a six-year-old girl being chased as prey, hit with a rock and speared in her behind might seem a little unusual these days, but it was 1925, it was a dream, and it was a cartoon, so what the hell, huh Walt? Anyway, Alice can hold her own against a bunch of primitive natives, and she instructs Julius to use a rubber tree to shoot rocks to knock them all down.

The cannibals are very accurate spear throwers, hitting both Alice and Julius in their bums, the only places that spears ever penetrated in cartoons. Alice throws the spears back with surprising accuracy.

The barrage of spears proves useful – they form a ladder up the cliff, from which our heroes can brain the cannibals below with rocks and old ostrich eggs (once again, it’s a dream).

Alice saves the day when she realises that cannibals always have rings through their noses and throws a spear which manages to go through those rings and into the bum of a hippo, who pulls them to a watery grave.

One more spear, this time into the rather easier target of the king’s bum, and white supremacy over the dark cannibals is restored.

Let’s not take it too seriously – it’s a light-hearted cartoon about a little girl’s dream of overcoming cannibals – I wonder if Freud saw it? The main interest is its depiction of the outsider – those who had not yet been colonised and enlightened (or massacred) were unarguably cannibals, and a spear up the wazoo was the least they could expect. It was the white man’s burden.

The cannibal apocalypse: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, 1968)

The author John Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1941 that:

“It isn’t that the evil thing wins—it never will—but that it doesn’t die… two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”

Horror depends on our inability to accept the inevitability of our own deaths, and cannibalism adds to the recipe the terror of that death involving our total disappearance, not just our spirit but our bodies, incorporated into the stomach, then the cells and finally the shit of another. We cheer the death of the ‘bad guy’ because we feel at a primal level that his death is required for the continuance of our life. But what if, as Steinbeck says, the evil never dies, and keeps coming back for us?

This I think is the attraction of the zombie, who has become a critical character in our culture since the release of this movie in 1968. An earlier movie, The White Zombie (1932) saw Bela Lugosi turned Madge Bellamy into a mindless love object – returned to life, but as a slave with no will of her own. Those zombies did what they were told, but they did not go out of their way to eat people. That type of compliant, submissive zombie is pretty much what Jeffrey Dahmer was hoping to achieve when he drilled holes in his lovers’ skulls and poured in what he hoped were non-lethal doses of acid.

George Romero’s genius was to combine the undead with the cannibal to create what in this story is called a “ghoul”. The zombie was still, in 1968, the undead servant of Haitian mythology. In this film, the ghoul, a figure that traditionally hangs out in graveyards and sometimes digs up corpses, becomes those corpses, and so gives birth to what we will ever after call zombies. These zombies are cheaper by the dozen – they have no will, no intelligence, just the force of numbers, and overwhelm the living with their ragged, shuffling weight of numbers.

What raises these dead? We are told by a TV newsreader that a strange phenomenon, perhaps radiation from a space probe that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, is causing the dead to rise from their graves. They are voraciously hungry, but very fussy eaters – their preferred cuisine is living human flesh, although cooked (when a truck explodes) will do. But the horror in this movie is from the “banality of evil” – the things that really haunt our nightmares are not ogres and aliens, but cemeteries at dusk,

Ordinary (ish) looking people trying to get into our car, when we can’t find the keys

Technology that won’t work at times of crisis

And of course the dead. Particularly when they look angry. And hungry!

Romero did not just bring to life the zombie hordes, but also very many cannibal movies owe a debt to him, as do “splatter” movies generally. The simple opening scene of a couple of siblings driving across the desert to visit their father’s grave was later replicated to some extent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. And of course many, many zombie movies and TV shows have followed in the shuffling footsteps of this one. Without Night of the Living Dead, there is no Walking Dead.

The story revolves around a group of people sheltering in a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, which is under assault by a growing crowd of cannibalistic, undead corpses. The phone doesn’t work, which is annoying, but the radio and even the TV are fine, which is useful as a dramatic device to fill us in on what’s going on.

The radio reports that they are:

“things that look like people but act like animals.”

The horror of this film seems so much greater by their ordinariness (although the low budget may have had something to do with it). Cannibals are often described as acting “like animals”, but of course, we are all animals, great apes, and cannibals are just as likely to be accused of treating their prey “like animals.”  Ordinary people, animals, fall down when shot, but the horror of these undead is their invincibility. It’s hard to kill someone who is dead, and has just risen from the grave. Shoot them in the chest and they fall over and then get up again and keep coming. They can however be shot in the brain or walloped on the head or burnt, so we are not left without hope.

But there are other dynamic binaries – heroism and cowardice, fire and fuel, shelter and intrusion, eater and eaten, and a scene where an infected girl within the boarded up house eats her own parents, and an undead brother returns to eat his sister. In two short scenes, Romero takes Freud’s insistence that cannibalism and incest are the two original prohibitions of mankind, and merges them into incestuous cannibalism. The film comprehensively problematises the narrative of humans vs monsters. We are all hiding in our houses, terrified of the latest headline, and we are also all members of the monster horde.

The protagonist is Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American hero, which in itself was rare in the sixties. Romero says Jones was chosen just because he gave the best audition, but the dynamic he brings, particularly in the inter-relationship battles inside the house, where he insists on being boss, and of course in the climax, took the film into the heart of darkness that was 1968 America. As the ghouls lurched toward the house, the Vietnam war was raging, students and police were battling on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic Party convention, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down, and in Paris revolution was in the air.

But it’s not “all right”. The racism issues raised by the film further complicate the dichotomy between human and ghoul; human and, well, inhuman. Because when the authorities arrive, they are basically a vigilante mob killing ghouls with a random collection of guns, and building bonfires to dispose of the corpses. When they see a black man – will they recognise him as a real, live human? Well, no, Ben has made it through the night, surviving the attack of hundreds of the ghouls, only to be shot through the head by a police sharp-shooter as he emerges. The film ends with grainy images of him being pulled from the house with meat-hooks and burnt with the corpses of the again-dead, and the pictures are unmistakably reminiscent of photos taken at lynchings.

The review from the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, sums up the response to the movie at the time. This was written after he had watched the movie in a cinema filled with kids, who had been dropped at the cinema, unaccompanied, for an afternoon of fun scary time.

The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire…

The movie has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Chicago Reader summing up:

Over its short, furious course, the picture violates so many strong taboos — cannibalism, incest, necrophilia — that it leaves audiences giddy and hysterical.

Interestingly, the movie was removed from Netflix in Germany, following a written demand from the German Commission for Youth Protection.

“Banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi organiser of the death camps in which millions died. What shocked Arendt was that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann, one of the most pivotal figures in the Holocaust, was a monster, in fact she found him “terribly and terrifyingly normal”.

This is the crucial difference between the early cannibals of Herodotus or Columbus and the ones inside our cities after 1888 (the year of Jack the Ripper). They don’t look that different from us. They are men and women, young and old, dressed and naked. We can no longer tell them for sure from our next-door neighbours.

The ghouls of Night of the Living Dead are human but dehumanised. They are dead, but still walking and eating, and the dead and the undead all burn in the same fire. In fact, the ghouls are us, filled with rage at the fact of our mortality, but they don’t look that dissimilar from people you might be standing next to at a political rally.

Cannibals and windbags – WINDBAG THE SAILOR (William Beaudine, 1936)

This blog was written in the week of the 2020 US election; the film is not a classic of the cannibal canon, but then, the title sounded somehow appropriate.

In fact, it’s quite a nice change to watch a gentle English comedy after so many gruesome and gory stories from the usually humourless world of modern cannibalism. This one is about primitive, savage cannibals on foreign shores, and racist Eurocentric accounts have always found them hilarious!

Ben Cutlet is played by Will Hay, an actor who usually portrayed some sort of windbag (most often a teacher) whose comic effects involved the deflating of his pretensions. Hay was an influence on many later comedians including Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper and Ronnie Barker. Cutlet spends his days in his sister’s pub entertaining the locals with tall tales of his exploits at sea as a bold ship’s captain, even though he has never been to sea, and has only ever captained a coal barge.

He is tricked into captaining the unseaworthy Rob Roy by a gang of criminals who want to scuttle the ship for the insurance money. With Hay’s regular troupe, Jerry (Moore Marriott) and Albert (Graham Moffatt), he manages to escape the clutches of the crew and drift off on a raft. Another popular cannibal story is the starving shipwrecked crew eating the cabin boy, as happened for example in 1884, when a small ship called the Mignonette hit a big storm and sank. The four crew members survived in a lifeboat for a couple of weeks on two tins of turnips and a turtle they managed to catch. When the cabin boy fell into a coma, probably from drinking too much salt water, they slit his throat, drank his blood and ate him. In a scene that I suppose was considered most humorous, Cutlet soon starts to see Albert as a pig.

They finally drift to a West Indian island full of stereotypical natives. These primitive savages are amazed at the ship’s radio and bow down to it as the god Voiceinbox, worshipfully carrying the sailors to their chief.

He speaks cannibalised English, and Cutlet asks where he learnt it?

“My father, him meet good missionary.  Missionary, him good meat”.

Further dialogue is carried out in what the English imagine is native English:

“him belong me. Him taboo.”

Then the mutineers arrive and become the butt of cannibal puns.

Cutlet: “Well gentlemen, we meet again.”
Chief: “Ah, good meat. Plenty meat!”
Cutlet: “Voiceinbox seems very angry.”
Chief” “Me hungry too!”

Although Cutlet has promised to have the mutineers hanged, he won’t let the chief eat them, and instead stows them in the hold for the trip back to England, where he is hailed as a hero.

In 1936, when this film was made, Windbags were ruling the world (has much changed?) White supremacists saw themselves at the apex of civilisation, contemptuously exploiting, invading and exterminating the ‘lesser’ peoples of the world, demonstrated in the way Cutlet tricks his cannibal chief.

That year in Europe, Hitler was invading the Rhineland, while Stalin was purging his generals and his comrades alike in a paranoid bloodbath. Mussolini was dreaming of a new Roman Empire and invading Ethiopia. Spain was about to sink into a vicious civil war, and in England, Edward VIII, who admired Hitler, was succeeding to the throne, only to abdicate months later. The world was about to enter a new round of the Hemoclysm of the twentieth century, an orgy of bloodletting that would kill an estimated 85 million people.

Last century, killing was routine, but cannibalism? Him taboo.

Cannibalism 2020: the year so far

Look, 2020 hasn’t been dull, you gotta admit. So far this year, we’ve had fire, flood, famine and pestilence (pandemic variety) and it’s not even the solstice yet.

What Does 2020 Have in Store for the Life Sciences? | BioSpace

In reports of cannibalism, it’s all happening in the countries starting with the letter U; the United States and Ukraine are neck and neck. The US could have pulled ahead, but the guy who allegedly hung his Grindr date upside down, cut off his testicles and ate them, did it on Christmas eve, so technically that’s still 2019 (a pretty big year for cannibal stories – six cases documented).

2020: USA

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.

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.

PICTURED: California 'cannibal', 37, 'found eating his 90-year-old ...

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’.

Also in Ukraine, Maxim and Yaroslav Kostyukov, 42 and 21, were convicted of killing Yevgeny ‘Zhenya’ Petrov, 45, in Ukraine. 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 them with murder and aggravating circumstances committed by a group of persons, and illegal possession of arms. And, presumably, legs.

Father and son cannibals who beheaded an ex-cop and cooked his ...

 

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, cannibals have looked “normal” – indistinguishable from anyone else. Cannibalism has come home, and the cannibal could be living next door.

This one is NOT cannibalism

“The US has been processing dead bodies from Covid-19 diseases into hamburgers”

That was a post on the now defunct WeChat conspiracy theory site Zhidao Xuegong (it translates as “the Scholar Forum for Ultimate Truth”) in May 2020. Another post claimed that Covid-19 may have killed a million people in the US, with the corpses:

“very likely being processed into frozen meat, fake beef or pork, or processed into cooked meat as hamburgers and hot dogs. Cannibalism has existed in the US before … and only a few dozen years ago, Americans ate blacks, Indians and Chinese.”

The site reportedly had millions of followers on WeChat, which is the Chinese equivalent to Facebook, before the Chinese government shut them down. Apparently China did not want to make relations with the US any worse than they already were.  The site was closed for “fabricating facts, stoking xenophobia and misleading the public” which apparently is illegal in some parts of the world (and very popular in others).

Now THAT would have supplied some interesting stats for my 2020 cannibalism tally.

Thank you!

This blog reviews films and TV shows involving human cannibalism. Sounds creepy, well, it is a bit, but it’s part of an exercise investigating how we decide what is edible and what is repulsive. Why are we happy to kill for food an animal that doesn’t want to die, yet unwilling to eat another animal that is already dead? Every work considered contributes to the answer to that question, some more than others of course.

Anyway, this post is to say thanks for reading this blog. In May, for the first time, the blog received well over 1,000 views, which is very exciting. As a special thank you, here is one of my favourite cannibal songs, by the wonderful Mr Tom Lehrer.

And remember:

Hannibal-only if equals

The last CANNIBAL on Earth — (“Last Man on Earth” Season 4, episodes 9-11, Will Forte)

The Last Man on Earth was a four-season American post-apocalyptic comedy series that showed on Fox from 2015-17. The protagonist (Will Forte, who also created the series) is Phil (or Tandy as everyone calls him – long story). Phil believes he is the only survivor of a mysterious virus (not coronavirus, but hard not to think about it while watching) that has killed off humanity and most other animals. He travels around the USA leaving signs on billboards asking other survivors to contact him in Tucson, but gradually goes crazy from loneliness.

Then he starts meeting other humans. As it’s a comedy, they are (nearly) all nice, friendly, peaceable people, who bicker but generally don’t bite. Until season 4, when he meets Karl (Fred Armisen), a serial-killer cannibal. In a flashback to before the virus, Karl is being socially inept, disgusting his dinner date with recollections of a boil he had just had lanced.

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The art of cannibalism stories is to disgust the viewer. Otherwise, where’s the conflict?

Karl’s modus operandi is to invite his prospective victim in for a sitting where he paints their portrait (a skill in which he is almost as deficient as his romantic conversation), then reach for his

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When his model goes looking for a refreshing drink in the fridge, Karl has to run.

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He flees to Mexico and sets up the same artistic practice, but is soon arrested and sent to a maximum-security prison, where he starts painting the other inmates, with designs to convert them into his next meal.

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Karl is also somehow immune to the virus, but has been unable to escape the prison in which he was confined for the four years after everyone else died. Karl has killed the only other virus survivor, a guard, and is wearing his uniform, to hide his status as prisoner/cannibal. Karl is nice too. Except for being a serial killer cannibal.

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Karl has an unexplained compulsion to eat human flesh, and is powerless to defy it, despite his desperate efforts to do so.

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He is obsessively drawn to a used Band-Aid, which is stained with the flesh of a burnt finger.

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He is unmasked when he is followed to a cemetery, where he hopes to satiate his longings with some well-rotted corpse-flesh, much to the disgust of the observers.

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What makes a cannibal? We have looked in this blog at several motivations such as savageism, starvation, revenge, psychopathy and entrepreneurship, and particularly at the figure of the wendigo, the mythical Algonquin spirit that inhabits the lost and drives them to an ever-escalating hunger for human flesh. Bryan Fuller implies in Hannibal that the good doctor Lecter is such a spirit, appearing as a figure with antlers, often disturbingly dressed in suit and tie. Traditionally, the cannibal required no explanation. In Classical stories, he (and cannibals were usually male) was a super-human or else hybrid figure, monstrous in appearance and easily identified as an ‘other’. In colonial times, they were tribes of savages, whose ignorance of the morals of Europe required the intervention of the conquistadors to ensure they were re-educated, which would usually involve the appropriation of their lands and the enslavement or extermination of the ‘cannibals’.

The contemporary cannibal is often typified by his inconspicuousness – acquaintances of cannibals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert Fish or Armin Meiwes often spoke of how normal and prosaic they seemed. Karl fits exactly into this model of the contemporary cannibal – the others like him, and can hardly believe it, even when he admits to his addiction, as if it was an AA meeting.

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There are many ethical issues raised in this apparently light-hearted comedy. Everything in the world before the virus was about voracious appetite and power, and things have not changed that much. Now of course there is no money, and the stores are full of whatever you could want, but it’s all starting to go bad, even the tins. The few animals they have found alive have usually come to a sticky end – the cow whose milk they took died, her calf was left behind when they left for Mexico, the bull was killed and eaten. They found crickets and ate them. They catch a fish with a hook, much to their surprise. Phil threatens to eat a little dog’s butt at one point. Anthropocentrism, sometimes called speciesism or human narcissism, is now the supreme ideology, even though it has apparently led to the extermination of almost all life on Earth.

The main question of this brave new world, then, is: are there any ethical constants? The survivors are mostly besotted with the idea of having babies and repopulating the world with humans: is that a great idea? And while they are satisfied to smash down shop doors and take whatever they need, they are shocked at the cannibal doing the same. To Karl, to all of us, morality is simply relative to his immediate needs. Certainly not a view confined to cannibals.

Karl suggests they all go to bed, and discuss the problem in the morning. They will have questions for him. He will have questions for them too! His morality is straight out of Trump at Charlottesville:vlcsnap-00031.jpg

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As Dostoevsky said in the Brothers Karamazov:

“…there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality…. if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful. even cannibalism.”

Karl exemplifies what Aristotle called the “rational principle”.

Cannibalism as female empowerment: JENNIFER’S BODY (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

Jennifer’s Body is classified as a comedy, even though it’s rated R for sexuality, bloody violence, language and drug use. Well, all those things can be funny. Even cannibalism is sometimes the butt of jokes (well, quite often), and a lot of people get eaten in this movie.

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The story does not start with Jennifer (Megan Fox) but with her nerdy bestie Needy (Amanda Seyfried), “short” for Anita, although no one calls her that. Needy is revealed to be an ultra-violent resident of an asylum.

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The rest is flashback. Jennifer is the popular girl, the sexy girl, the one no one can believe is friends with the boring Needy, but she is bored in their little town of – wait for it – Devil’s Kettle. Jennifer wants to get off with the big city band in town, Low Shoulder. At their gig, Needy hears them arguing about whether Jennifer is a virgin, and leaps to her friends defence

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Jennifer later tells her that’s not even close to the truth.

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Now, when men are looking for virgins, there are only two possible explanations, depending on whether they are of a metaphysical bent, and these guys are very bent. So telling them Jennifer fits their shopping list turns out to be a very bad idea. Jen gets in the band’s truck as the venue burns down. Needy is distraught.

But she meant well. And later that night, here’s Jen, looking quite sanguine, in both sense of the word.

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Jennifer has been a virgin sacrifice to a demonic force, which promised greatness to the band. However, not being a virgin (even backdoor) means that the sacrifice, instead of killing her, left her possessed by the demon, a succubus.

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Yeah, OK, but the audience needs a good reason for a woman to start eating her dates (even if, after 100+ blogs, you and I could think of a dozen good ones). So she is possessed, and eating people. When she’s hungry, she’s weak and unhealthy, but when she’s fed (and cleaned up) she’s the life, or undeath, of the party.

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This is a really good film, with all the ingredients of greatness: the cast are excellent, the director, Karyn Kusama, is in her element (she made Destroyer with Nicole Kidman recently) and it was written by Diablo Cody, fresh from the triumph of Juno, for which she won an Oscar for best original screenplay. But the film bombed at the box-office, the accepted wisdom in those days being that successful films were made exclusively for 14-year-old (white) boys. This one wasn’t, it was about strong and often violent women, and has been gathering a cult following in the decade since its release.

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There have been many horror movies about women, often (e.g. Carrie or Teeth) involving revenge for something done to them. This fits with the cultural expectation that men will be the aggressors and the monsters, and from this fetid swamp arose the slasher movies, including most cannibal films. Jennifer herself has been sexualised by most of the men and boys who appears in the plot. She is kidnapped and murdered by the band, despite begging for mercy.

But Jennifer is not seeking revenge on the band – that will (but not until the credits) be Needy’s job.

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Jennifer is a monster for all the males who have objectified her.

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The film plays with the assumptions about male power and appetite. The boys Jennifer eats are gentle and considerate, not violent or aggressive – the huge line-backer she tears apart after her return is seen first crying for his friend, who died in the fire.

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Everyone assumes, of course, that his killer is male.

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But the body when found is being eaten by a gentle fawn.

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Despite widespread cultural beliefs, female monsters are not rarities.  Earliest mythology tells of the Medusa, the sight of whom “made the spectator stiff with terror” (much to Freud’s amusement) and even earlier, there are claims that Lilith, Adam’s ex before he met up with Eve, was, or became, a succubus. Jennifer is an ideal example of what film scholar Barbara Creed calls “The Monstrous-Feminine”, a concept of monstrosity that depicts not a female version of male monsters, but a cultural force defined by male fears about the feminine. These fears include being castrated (Freud’s favourite explanation), as well as confronting “the monstrous womb” – a terrifying image of a “black hole which threatens to reabsorb what it once birthed” (Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, p. 27). As the writer, Diablo Cody, says, it is an unashamedly feminist horror movie.

Jennifer’s Body was before it’s time. In an article explaining the woeful critical reaction to the film, Vice summed up:

‘Jennifer’s Body’ Would Kill if It Came Out Today

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