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?

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

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

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Chief Trelua, cannibal king, actually a Sydney lifeguard

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

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Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan the podiatrist

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

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

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

“THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”

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

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

Painted savages

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

Trelua seeks counsel of the wise man, Malatai!

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

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

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

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

Attacking the grog shop
The cannibals attack the grog shop!

Hero
The noble hero

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

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The navy arrives to put down the cannibal mutiny

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Bull whips Naneena!

Bull whipped
Naneena whips Bull!

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

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

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

 

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If you have any questions or comments, you can use the tag, or email me  on cannibalstudies@gmail.com.

 

The American Nightmare: “Dahmer” (Jacobson, 2002)

DVD cover

Dahmer is a 2002 American semi-biographical film starring Jeremy Renner as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who drugged and killed at least 17 men and boys, and ate parts of some of them, giving him the title in the popular press after his arrest of “The Milwaukee Cannibal. Dahmer (the man, not the movie) became perhaps the best-known modern real-life cannibal, not because he killed or ate more people than, for example, Andre Chikatilo, the “Rostov Ripper”, but perhaps because he did it in the belly of the beast, the consumer society of the USA.

The film shows two timelines; the story starts with a couple of days in the life of Dahmer before his arrest; the flashbacks show the evolution of his murderous career.

As the film begins, there are pools of – not blood – chocolate! Jeffrey Dahmer works in a candy factory in metropolitan Milwaukee. Enduring crippling shyness, partly due to his overbearing and intolerant father, he slips into alcohol abuse, drugs, and murder. In his flashbacks, he frequents gay clubs, but can only have sex with young men who have been rendered unconscious by mixing barbiturates into their drinks. Leaving a string of unconscious and sodomised men in the hourly rent rooms, he is caught by the barman, beaten and thrown out. The lesson he seems to draw: everything’s easier at home.

dahmerDahmer’s M.O. was to lure young men to his home, drug them with pills crushed into their rum and Coke, and then conduct experiments involving drilling holes in his their heads and pouring in acid, trying to create living zombies, partners who would never leave him. Cannibalism was a further attempt to achieve the same ends – rather than keeping their bodies with him, he hoped to keep their bodies inside him. Incorporation as love.

Although the script recreates actual events, the names of the victims were changed out of respect for the families. Some time is spent on the case of Khamtay, who is drugged and has a hole drilled in his head and acid injected into his brain. This really happened, except the young man was really a 14-year-old boy named Konerak Sinthasomphone. Like Khamtay in the film, he wandered out of the apartment while Dahmer was out buying booze, and was picked up by the police. When Dahmer came around the corner, he persuaded the police that the boy was his drunken boy-friend, and they helpfully delivered the child back to the apartment, where he was subsequently killed.

dahmer-knife

Dahmer received mixed reviews. It currently holds a 68% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Entertainment Weekly said “It lets you brush up against the humanity of a psycho, without making him any less psycho.” Most reviews, even those that did not like the film, praised the performance of Jeremy Renner. In fact, Kathryn Bigelow said that she cast Renner in The Hurt Locker because of his performance in Dahmer.

Chocolate, pooled, shaped and incorporated, is a continuing image throughout the film. Chocolate typifies our consumer fetishism: it is purely pleasurable (I keep hearing that the dark version is good for us, but my dentist disagrees). People love chocolate. The hypnotic pull of continuous, voracious and escalating consumption drives our society. When commodities run out, or try to escape, then incorporation, Dahmer argues, is the only solution. He cannot give up his nightly hunting sessions, even when he makes an emotional connection to a victim, any more than the rest of us can give up chocolate. Rejecting his family’s intolerant religiosity, he argues that he is not weird: “What’s weird is when you go to church and they make you eat Christ’s body and drink his blood”.

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The band Macabre released an album in 2000 called “Dahmer”

There is remarkably little gore in the film and surprisingly no mention of what made Dahmer so famous: his cannibalism. The violence is mainly in Dahmer’s words. He projects his own pain onto his intended victims. His last intended victim, Rodney (whose name in real life was Tracy Edwards), offers real affection and the possibility of a loving relationship to Dahmer, who projects his own pain back onto this gentle young man.

“You’re pissed at everyone because you’re gay. Everyone laughs at you. Shits on you.”

Yet Rodney returns opposite, loving words: “You’re beautiful. You’re tall, you’re strong, but gentle. I always dreamed about somebody – just like that.” But Dahmer cannot accept love (also there is the problem of the corpse of Khamtay in his bedroom). He responds to Rodney: “I am a pervert. I am an exhibitionist. I am a masturbator. And a killer. Like you”.

Dahmer is the incarnation of Bataille’s “accursed share” – the segment of production that must and will be spent on sex, destruction, sacrifice.

The victim is a surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth. And he can only be withdrawn from it in order to be consumed profitlessly, and therefore utterly destroyed. Once chosen, he is the accursed share, destined for violent consumption. But the curse tears him away from the order of things; it gives him a recognizable figure, which now radiates intimacy, anguish, the profundity of living beings.

Yet there is no power in hidden destruction; power for the giver is in the obligation of the receiver to reciprocate. So Dahmer is driven by the need to be caught. Not because he wants to be stopped, but so that he can be celebrated. Rodney escapes, after Dahmer cannot go through with his attempt to strangle him. The real-life victim, Tracy, led the police back to Dahmer’s lair, where they found much more than they expected.

The real Jeffrey Dahmer was not celebrated either, although he did receive several offers of marriage while awaiting trial (from women who, like his father, seemed to have no understanding of his sexual preferences). In 1992, he was handed a 937 year sentence, subsequently became a born again Christian in prison, and then in 1994 had his head caved in by a fellow prisoner with a metal bar.

The killer told a prison guard “God told me to do it”.

Dahmer - made of meat
The real Jeffrey Dahmer, in a popular vegan meme

 

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