Creepy old cannibal dude – THE GRAY MAN (Flynn, 2007)

The movie starts at St. John’s Orphanage in Washington in 1882. A young Albert Fish and other children are being beaten, to drive out their sins.

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Fast forward to Albert Fish (Patrick Bauchau) as an adult. He remembers, in a voiceover, a horse that some older boys at the orphanage set on fire; how the horse galloped off, trying to get away from the fire, but of course taking the fire with him. Fish compares himself to that horse.

“The fire chases you, and catches you, and then it’s in your blood. After that, it’s the fire that has control, not the man.
Blame the fire of passion for what Albert H. Fish has done.”

Scott Flynn’s debut film is not just a very well made and pretty creepy thriller / horror movie, it is an accurate retelling of the story of Albert H. Fish, who killed several children in the 1920s, and ate parts of their bodies.

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Albert Fish (Patrick Bauchau) with his grand-daughter. He hands her back to his daughter saying “I’m no good with little ones”. Truer words were never spoken.

Fish never got over the beatings at the orphanage, and is seen in the film whipping himself with a belt, interspersed with images of himself in the orphanage, watched by a pale boy – his younger self. That’s not the least of it: an X-ray found dozens of needles he had inserted into his groin for further punishment. In a sense, he punished himself in advance for sins he felt he was driven to commit.

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The film is structured around a film noir-style narration by Detective Will King (Jack Conley), of the NY Missing Persons Bureau.

Fish kills a boy scout, who is found by the other scouts hanging from a tree, his calf removed.

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Then comes the famous case: Fish sees a newspaper ad from a young man, Edward Budd (Eric Parker), who is looking for work, but when he visits the Budd family home, he is smitten by young Grace (Lexi Ainsworth), Edward’s ten year old sister, whom he stares at throughout the interview. No one seems to find this creepy, and when Fish comes back to pick up Edward and his friend, he suggests that Grace accompany him to his niece’s birthday party at Columbus and 135th – when he returns her, he says, he’ll pick up the boys. The mother (Jillian Armenante) has qualms, as well she might, but the father urges her to let Grace go. So, they have lunch. The father says “Let’s eat – I’m starved.” Fish replies: “Me too.” But it’s not for what the Budd’s are putting on their table.

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Of course, there is no party, no niece, no such street as 135th Street, and no return for Grace. When they get off the train, Grace dives back into the carriage to retrieve a package Fish has forgotten. She thinks it’s a present for the niece; it’s actually a bone saw that he bought earlier. Grace is picking flowers when Fish calls her into the creepy old house, purportedly to hide for the surprise party; the door slams shut. Fade to next scene. Fish is eating raw meat.

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Detective King searches for Grace Budd for six years, despite the department closing the case and the public forgetting about young Grace. Fish hasn’t forgotten though, and when he finds a stationery package in his room while chasing a cockroach, he writes to Grace’s mother, a break which finally allows Will to track down and arrest Fish. In the letter, Fish describes the crime in graphic detail, but modestly added that Grace had died a virgin – I guess he thought Mrs Budd would find that comforting. The movie gradually has Fish read the parts of the letter regarding the killing, chopping up and eating of Grace, although it omits the earlier section which told of his friend who returned from China in 1894, where:

“all children under 12 were sold to the Butchers to be cut up and sold for food… A boy or girls behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price”

The letter is quoted in full, with its dodgy grammar, in Wikipedia.

Fish said that this story had given him the idea:

“He told me so often how good human flesh was I made up my mind to taste it.”

In the trial, a psychiatrist with a suitably Germanic accent testifies that Fish told him that:

“What I did must have been right, or an angel would have stopped me, just as the angel stopped Abraham in the Bible.”

Genesis 22 has a lot to answer for.

Fish is found guilty, despite the psychiatrist’s evidence of his insanity, and put to death in the electric chair. The pale boy follows him down the corridor to the execution room.

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The real Albert Fish
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The real Grace Budd

The true number of Fish’s victims will never be known. He claimed to have “had children in every state” but whether he was referring to rape, murder or cannibalism, or just bragging, cannot be established. Fish was finally caught because he killed and ate Grace Budd, a white girl: he admitted that he mostly chose children who were mentally handicapped or African-American as his victims, explaining that he assumed the police would not look too hard for them. The fact that it took six years to catch him, and that this film does not even mention them, would seem to prove him right.

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The DVD cover shows Albert and Grace heading for the deserted house where she will be killed and eaten. The tag line is interesting: “a real life Hannibal Lecter”. Pretty sure Hannibal would eat alive anyone who compared him to Albert Fish.

The full movie is not easy to find. There is a copy on Youtube, but it is not great quality.

 

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

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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.

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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”.

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The real Jeffrey Dahmer, in a popular vegan meme

 

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Highway cannibalism: “The Road”, (Hillcoat, 2009)

Cormac McCarthy wrote his chilling book The Road in 2006 and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. I remember reading it at the time, and it was a very disturbing experience. Diving into the book was like one of those dreams where you walk out of the sunshine into a cold, dark and ominous environment. It left me both sorry and relieved to finish it. The sense of loss and wasted opportunity left a deep impression for weeks after reading it, maybe forever. The film captured some of this deep sense of menace and loss, but to a much lesser extent. Roger Ebert and many other reviewers praised the film, at the same time pointing out that it was not as powerful as the book. The Guardian reviewer summed the film up as intensifying the poignancy while deflecting the horror, and some of the more graphic examples of cannibalism are skipped in the film, particularly the finding of an infant’s corpse, all prepared for consumption by his desperate parents. But perhaps it’s an unfair comparison: experiencing a book through one’s own imagination is never really comparable to seeing the interpretation of the actors and director.

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So: what’s it about? Well, it’s post-apocalyptic. A great catastrophe has wiped out most life on earth, including most of the forests that we rely on for the very air that we breathe. The earth is dying; the voice-over tells us “No animals have survived, and all the crops are long gone”. We are never told what happened: there is a flash and there are two characters: man and boy. They are given no names beyond those.

“Cannibalism is the great fear”

The earth is stripped of life, the survivors of their names and their humanity. Armed gangs roam the highways, killing and eating anyone they can find. When the man shoots a member of a cannibal gang who encounters them on the road, he is left with only one bullet in his gun. It will be for the boy, if it should ever come to the point where the only choice is to kill him or let him be eaten. When they come across a big house, they find a number of people locked in the basement – kept for future meals. When the cannibals arrive, they hide in the bathroom, and the man gets the gun ready at the boy’s head.

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There is a lovely scene where they find a survivalist shelter and spend a few days eating as much as they want, and even bathing – feeling clean is an almost forgotten luxury. But there is a pervasive sense of dread, of a world spiralling down into total extinction. Viggo Mortensen from Lord of the Rings plays the nameless man, cold, dirty and desperate, Strider who will never become Aragorn. The mother is played by Charlize Theron in a lamentably brief appearance, and Robert Duvall makes an appearance as a nearly blind old fellow somehow surviving in a time with no hope. The man teaches the boy a stripped down deontological ethic – there are “good guys” and “bad guys”, and the good guys are “carrying the fire”. They also don’t eat people. It is a final grasp at a humanism which failed humanity and failed the planet.

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The impact of The Road comes from its feasibility. We know that we will probably not meet a psychopathic psychiatrist or even hairdresser, we don’t go to fly-over towns where the local abattoir workers have gone feral, we certainly don’t charter Uruguayan military planes to fly us across the Andes. But the threat of some sort of apocalypse confronts us from the front pages of the papers every day, in stories of natural disasters, nuclear wars, pandemics and environmental collapses. Human history is replete with examples of disasters followed by social collapse and cannibalism. The Road takes this scenario into our own time. We see the J-curves of human population matched by the same graph of species extinctions and carbon emissions, and we are forced to think – if the worse happens, what, or whom, will we eat?

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I feel pretty? “Dumplings” 餃子 (Chan, 2004)

“Do you dare to be pretty and young forever?”

Dumplings, (Chinese: 餃子) directed by Fruit Chan, was expanded from a short segment in the horror compilation, Three… Extremes.

Mrs Li, a former actress, wants to regain her youthful looks and her husband’s passion. She seeks the help of Aunt Mei, a local chef. Mei cooks her some special dumplings which, she says, initiate rejuvenation. Mrs Li sneaks a look as they are being made and discovers the main ingredient: Mei tells her that unborn fetuses imported from an abortion clinic are the secret to reversing ageing.  Mrs Li’s husband finds out what’s going on and wants a taste – it all goes downhill from there.

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In all good arguments, the premises must be opposed, otherwise there is nothing to argue about. So, in the abortion debate, one side starts with the premise that a fetus is human, the other that it is only potentially human. Both agree on the unspoken premise that human life (if it is human) is sacred, which is pretty rich in a world where, according to the UN, some twenty thousand children die every day of starvation or diseases caused by malnutrition. Anyway, this movie does not really take sides in that debate, although if the fetuses are not human then that kind of ruins this as a cannibal movie. So let’s pretend for 91 minutes.

dumplings rejuvenate

Eating children as an elixir of life or an aphrodisiac is not exactly a new idea. Probably the most famous case is Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian noblewoman who was perhaps the world’s most prolific serial killer, well before the term was invented – she was accused of torturing and killing hundreds of young women and girls between 1585 and 1609. Drinking blood, or the claim that she bathed in the blood of virgins (almost certainly a beat-up) was supposed to keep her young. Pavel Novotny made a doco about her in 2014 – 400 Years of the Bloody Countess – but I am not granting her true cannibal status (it’s about flesh, Liz), so you’re on your own with that one.

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If you’re not enamoured of dumplings, you may never eat one again after watching this. One reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes said:

  1. Do not watch it when you are eating. 2. Do not watch it when you are pregnant. And as someone who watched it whilst both pregnant and eating, my third piece of advice would be to NEVER do the two together.

However. I liked this movie, and I admit it gave me an appetite, but then I am very partial to Chinese dumplings. It is beautifully filmed, and it raises some important questions about how far people are willing to go in the quest for eternal youth. Why go under the knife if a simple Chinese feed can do the trick?

Young and pretty

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Is cannibalism sexy? “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death” (Lawton, 1989)

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is a 1989 film which was the directorial debut of J. F. Lawton, who also authored Pretty Woman and Under Siege. He released this one under a pseudonym, J. D. Athens, and at first glance you have to agree with his decision.

The film drips with a sometimes forced irony, inspiring one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes to call it “One of the best bad movies I’ve ever seen”. Here is some typical dialogue:

Margo Hunt: “They’re an ancient commune of feminists, so radical, so militant, so left of center they… they eat their men.”
Bunny: “Oh, that. Well, if I like a guy, I usually start at…”
Margo Hunt: “They don’t eat their men like that, Bunny.”

Or this one:

There aren’t any modern feminists who advocate cannibalism- at least not since the sixties.

The “jungle of death” is southern California, where a group of radical feminists have occupied the avocado plantations and kill and eat their men, as well as several companies of US troops who try to eliminate them. The film is rich in intertextual references: the protagonists enter the jungle in pursuit of Dr Kurtz, a professor of feminist studies who has become emperor of the cannibal women, a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (set in the Congo) and the movie version of it Apocalypse Now (set in Vietnam), in which Brando plays the deranged Colonel Kurtz, who famously dies with the words “the horror, the horror!” on his lips. The Dr Kurtz in this film similarly meets her end, but her “horror” refers to having had to defend feminism on the David Letterman Late Show.

Intertextual humour depends on the reader being familiar with the sometimes cryptic references. Apocalypse Now is pretty well known, but some of the other references are either too obvious to be funny or else too obscure to score a laugh. The film opens with the kind of “male gaze” scene expected in an exploitation pic: semi-naked warrior women bathing in a stream while a couple of randy male explorers look on, but the scene concludes with both the men tracked down and slaughtered for the cannibals’ next meal. The main character, Margo Hunt, is played by Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy model, who does not drop her clothes at any point; her ditzy assistant, who wants to change her major from Home Economics to Feminist Studies, is named “Bunny”, another reference to the Playboy world. The bumbling comic relief and token male chauvinist is played by Bill Maher of the television show Real Time, a show which goes out of its way to skewer such prehistoric thinking.  He dresses like Indiana Jones and even wields a bull whip, rather less expertly. Topics from Margaret Mead to Disneyland all get a brief reference, and there is little time to wonder what they are about before the next gag is upon us. Some of the references are double barrelled: when Bunny is told that the women eat their men, she asks “boiled or roasted”, a reference both to the many Home Economics jokes, but also to Levi-Strauss’s musings on the different ways cannibals would cook their relatives or their enemies.

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Bill Maher as Jim. That isn’t a spa.

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is neither as stupid as it sounds or as funny as it intends. But it is diverting and it’s fun to tease out the cultural references, and the lead actors are really very good at delivering their sometimes painful lines. Its commentary on cannibalism is actually quite perceptive: the cannibal women are all gorgeous and young and scantily clad, presentations which are usually intended for the consumption of a male audience. This binary is reversed as they seize their knives and proceed to butcher and consume the male gazers (not on screen – the film is careful not to lose its PG13 rating, although it got an R18 in New Zealand). There is usually a male hero and a female in need of saving; in this, the roles are totally reversed. Cannibalism is not presented as evil or deranged by definition, but rather as another variety of power struggle. To quote Dr Kurtz:

This is a war between men and women. Anything short of cannibalism is
just beating around the bush.

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When your family are cannibals: “Parents” (Balaban, 1989)

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Parents is a real cannibal film. None of these feeble excuses about starvation or uncontrollably psychotic – here are people who enjoy eating tasty animals, and their chosen tasty animals are humans.

Parents is a Canadian/American production, the first feature film directed by Bob Balaban, who you will recognise from the Christopher Guest movies like Best in Show if you can be bothered to search for a picture of him. He’s a funny guy, and Randy Quaid leads a terrific cast, but the movie never quite got off the ground, scoring a measly 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Roger Ebert writing that the movie couldn’t really decide if it was satire, comedy, or horror.

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The satire is of the complacent fifties family, Mom at home, Dad at work, kid at school. The kid is Michael, played by a child actor who later made a fine career in Canada as an accountant, another commentary on the film, perhaps. He is traumatised by his family’s move to suburbia, by his increasingly gory dreams, and by seeing his parents having sex (he thinks they are biting each other – if only Freud had hung around long enough to make a cameo).

Michael’s Dad works at Toxico, a fine American corporation making toxic substances to defoliate jungles, and his particular job is working with human corpses, those who have donated their bodies for the good of science. Well, a man has to bring home the bacon, and Dad surely does, straight from the long pigs. Michael begins to suspect that their meals are what Nietzsche called Human, All Too Human after he sneaks into Toxico and sees Dad cutting up corpses. But he can’t get a straight answer out of his parents:

“What are we eating?”
“Leftovers.”
“Leftovers from what?”
“From the refrigerator.”

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So it’s comedy. But when Michael’s sceptical social worker takes him home and finds a body in the cellar, shit gets real. There is much death and bondage. Dad tells Michael he is an “outsider” like them, and that if he can get people to believe him, they will all burn. “Is that what you want?” He tells Michael “I’m sure you’ll acquire a taste for it. Your mother did.” She flashes a pretty fifties advertising smile: “I learnt to love it.”

Michael demurs and ends up bound up by his father like Isaac on the mountain with Abraham. Talk about sacrificial discourses! He manages to turn the tables, without the aid of angels and/or rams, and well, the fire happens.

bound by sacrificial discourses of old testament

Michael ends up living with his (also archetypal fifties) grandparents who tuck him into bed and leave him a rather suspicious sandwich, in case he gets peckish during the night. Like all of us, he has moved on from his parents, but not from the patriarchal and carnist violence that helped to form him, us, and our polite, blood-soaked culture.

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Divine cannibalism

This picture is “Saturn devouring his son” by Peter Paul Rubens, painted in 1636.

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The Greek myth tells of Chronos, who in Roman mythology became Saturn. He learned that one of his children would overthrow him, so he ate each one as they were born. His wife hid Zeus, who of course did eventually overthrow Chronos to become king of the gods, and she replaced him with a stone. This painting presumably represents one of the less stoned siblings.

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Almost 200 years later, in his Black Paintings, Francisco Goya shows the same divine cannibal god as nightmare and psychopath, and the victim as a bleeding, barely recognisable figure, neither human or god, but clearly animal in content. There is evidence that, in the original version, Goya gave Saturn a partially erect phallus, implying that cannibalism is, at least in the divine realm, apparently something of an aphrodisiac.

Good to know even gods can be cannibals.