Cannibal supermodels: THE NEON DEMON (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Marcellus (Hamlet Act I, scene iv) claimed that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, but it’s not their cannibal films or actors. The Neon Demon is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (currently in trouble with PETA for killing a pig for a TV series). Refn has made several movies (Pusher, Valhalla Rising, etc) starring Mads Mikkelsen, probably known best by the readers of this blog as Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps Svend in Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Green Butchers. This film does not have Mads in it, but it does have Elle Fanning as a sixteen-year-old model who, we just know, is going to be chewed up, swallowed and spat out by the Los Angeles fashion industry.

Books about screen-writing always stress the opening image – it sets the scene, establishes the atmosphere, tells the viewer what to expect. Well, this one sure does.

Jesse (Elle Fanning from The Great) dead on a couch, blood caked onto her throat and down her arm. A grim male gaze from a photographer. The killer? Police forensics?

No, he’s an amateur photographer doing audition shots for her, and is probably the only nice guy in the story, and we all know where nice guys finish. Anyway, Jesse is befriended, as she wipes off the fake blood, by a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone from The Hunger Games), who takes her to a party to meet the LA fashion scene.

The other models hate her for being young and pretty and not needing the constant plastic surgery to fix all the things the surgeon and our culture say is wrong with their bodies. In the bathroom, as you do, they discuss lipsticks, which they note are always named after either food or sex, and speculate on this new commodity, Jesse. Is she food or sex?

Either way, it’s about appetite. Think of an animal, any animal – a snail, a snake, a human. What is the animal thinking about? It’s almost certainly food or sex. This film combines the two. The men have the power – the celebrity photographer, the fashion designer, even the sleazy motel manager (played with black humour by Keanu Reeves) – Jesse is their fresh meat.

The young, hopeful girls have their looks, and a useful booster of narcissism, a taste for the neon demon of fame, which fuels their journey through the fashion jungle.

When they get “old” (over twenty apparently), they inject various toxins and go under the plastic surgeon’s knife to fix what they are convinced are their failings. But it’s never enough. Jesse sees visions which confirm her own beauty in her eyes:

Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, praying that one day they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.

But once used up, the women and girls are rejected, discarded, left to fight among themselves – to the death. Jesse is edible to them too, but not in the male way, more in the way that Elizabeth Báthoryis alleged to have bathed in the blood of virgins to keep her youth.

That’s a small taste of the real cannibalism in the film, which infiltrates the metaphoric cannibalism of the meat markets of advertising and fashion. There is an ancient tradition, from the earliest days of tribal ceremonies and the Wendigo to Richard Chase and Armin Meiwes, that eating the flesh or drinking the blood of a victim (preferably a young fit one) will transfer their strength and attractiveness to the eater. If you can keep them down of course.

An even older tradition talks of killing and eating the gods of the harvest, in order that they may be reborn and bring with them next year’s prosperity. The tradition survives in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist service. Jesse is a young and beautiful. She is, or thinks she is, a goddess. How can she not be eaten, in this film both metaphorically and literally?

There is no point in going on with the plot, it’s filled with rape, paedophilia, murder, masturbation, necrophilia, and of course cannibalism, but you really need to see it yourself, and anyway, the plot is not the point. Brian Tellerico, the reviewer from Rogerebert.com, summed this up:

It is a sensory experience, driven by the passion of its fearless filmmaker and a stunning central performance by Elle Fanning.

The director called the film an “adult fairy tale”:

“I woke up one morning a couple of years ago and was like, ‘Well, I was never born beautiful, but my wife is,’ and I wondered what it had been like going through life with that reality. I came up with the idea to do a horror film about beauty, not to criticize it or to attack it, but because beauty is a very complex subject. Everyone has an opinion about it.”

Everyone had an opinion about The Neon Demon too, with some of the audience at Cannes booing it and the rest giving it a standing ovation. You can make up your own mind – it’s an Amazon original, so you should be able to find it quite easily wherever you are in the world. It is a beautiful film, the acting is superb, the direction is assured and precise. The horror is not so much from the gore, as the scenes of young girls being treated as meat. But that is exactly the point.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke of what he called “carnivorous sacrifice”:

“The establishment of man’s privileged position requires the sacrifice and devouring of animals.”

The animals we sacrifice and devour are little more than infants – chickens for example are slaughtered at seven weeks of age. Pigs are killed at six months (less if they run into Refn, apparently). We no more eat old animals than photographers seek out old models. Remember Curtis’ line in Snow Piercer:

“I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.”

Or the words of John Jacques Rousseau:

The animals you eat are not those who devour others; you do not eat the carnivorous beasts, you take them as your pattern. You only hunger after sweet and gentle creatures who harm no one, which follow you, serve you, and are devoured by you as the reward of their service.

Cannibalism is no more or less than the sacrifice and devouring of animals – in this case, the Great Ape known as Homo sapiens. As voracious consumerism and greed extends its reach, to plunder the entire planet, the distinction between us and the other animals seems increasingly to evaporate.

“From the perspective of the virus, the human being is irrelevant” – ANTIVIRAL (Brandon Cronenberg, 2012)

I have in my (very odd) library a title called The In Vitro Meat Cookbook. It has a series of recipes, none of which you can cook, because they require as their main ingredient meat grown in the laboratory rather than cut from the quivering corpse of an animal who probably lived her whole life in horrendous conditions. When this lab meat becomes commercially available, it will doubtlessly be great news for the billions of animals who die in terror for our plates each year, but these recipes go beyond the meats you might see at a butcher shop to such suggested dishes as Dodo Nuggets and Dinosaur Leg and, yes, Celebrity Cubes:

“Forget autographs and posters. Prove that you’re the ultimate fan of a celebrity by eating him or her.”

Pop stars in whiskey glaze. If that isn’t intimate enough, how about “IN VITRO ME”? Yep, it’s grown from your own stem cells, and it’s “best shared with a lover as the ultimate expression of unity”.

I digress, but it is relevant to this week’s movie. Antiviral is a film even more relevant now than when it was released a decade ago. For a start, the daily news speaks of little else than viruses and antivirals, and when they do turn to other issues, these usually involve celebrities. This film covers both. It is set in an alternative present, where the obsession with celebrities has moved past adulation and stalking (and occasional cannibalism) to a lucrative business – selling their diseases. For a lot of money, you can suffer the same symptoms and weeping, bleeding pustules as your favourite star!

The movie is the first work by Brandon Cronenberg, the son of body-horror pioneer David Cronenberg (The Fly, The Dead Zone, A History of Violence, etc), sometimes known as “the King of Venereal Horror” or “the Baron of Blood”. Quite a legacy to live up to, but Brandon Cronenberg does it brilliantly in this work, which features cannibalism among its panoply of abjection. The imagery is stunning – bleak scenes in monochromes, then a flash of crimson – blood or lipstick. Needles sticking in arms and gums, lumps of meat grown from celebrities and sold to customers desperate for a touch and a taste of their favourite star.

The protagonist of the film is Syd (Caleb Landry Jones from Get Out, Nitram etc), an employee of the Lucas Clinic. Syd sells customers the dream of being close to their favourite celebrity. What does the avid fan do after already seeing all the movies, reading the magazines, collecting the images? In this world, they pay to get the same diseases as the celeb. Syd knows how to sell, he talks a fan into a dose of herpes simplex, collected by his employer from the superstar Hannah Geist, whom he describes as “more than human”. She had the pus-filled blisters on the right of her mouth, so you really want to be infected on the left, because

Syd is a trusted employee of Lucas (where the archivist is played by Lara Jean Chorostecki, who played Freddie Lounds in Hannibal!), but he is ambitious, hoping to sell the virus that is killing Hannah on the black market. He takes some of her blood (Lucas Clinic has exclusive rights to Hannah’s diseases) and infects himself, then waits, taking his temperature, doing things with cotton probes that we all now understand.

He is hoping to sell the new virus through the specialist butcher Arvid (Joe Pingue), whose business Astral Bodies does a thriving trade in celebrity cell steaks – edible flesh grown from the cells of celebrities.

Syd tells Arvid “I don’t understand how this is not considered cannibalism”. Arvid is more philosophical. What does it mean to be human, he asks – is the human “found in its materials” or is it something more religious, as the law currently tends to assume – a soul perhaps?

“But we’ll see what happens when we go from growing celebrity cell steaks to growing complete celebrity bodies.”

When Hannah’s death is announced, Syd’s diseased blood is suddenly in demand – those who have already eaten Hannah now want to either watch him die the way she did, or buy the virus and die along with her. Syd has to escape the virus coursing through his body, and the various business types who want it.

Anything related to a celeb is valuable. Lucas Clinic is even planning to sell ringworms from Hannah’s dog. Or if you don’t want a disease, you can get a skin graft from your favourite celebs, as Hannah’s doctor, Dr Abendroth (played by the magnificent Malcolm McDowell) shows Syd.

What does it mean to “go viral”? This humble blog has gone viral (a very mild, non-toxic one) in that it is viewed thousands of times a month, presumably because wonderful readers like you share it (please?) on social media, or perhaps (socially distanced) word of mouth. But a celebrity who goes viral has his or her impact measured not in the thousands of views but in the millions. Celebrity becomes the message in itself; as the head of Lucas Clinic says, when asked if the current crop of celebs deserve to have the levels of mania surrounding them,

“Anyone who’s famous deserves to be famous. It’s more like a collaboration that we choose to take part in. Celebrities are not people. They’re group hallucinations.”

Hannah’s doctor Abendroth is more metaphysical, musing that

“there is a power, something in the thrall of the collective eye, that can be consumed and appropriated.”

Certainly we devour our celebrities, with the paparazzi as the hunters and the rest of us sitting with a magazine or a tablet and consuming them – think of Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and many, many more. Unlike most of us mere mortals, the celeb who has gone viral remains consumable after death, perhaps more so. So it is with Hannah.

The marketing of Hannah’s “afterlife” expresses the vulnerability of humans, the paragon of animals, to a virus, a type of genetic code so tiny that we are not even agreed on calling them “alive”.

“From the perspective of the virus, the human being is irrelevant. What matters is the system that allows it to function. Skin cells, nerve cells, the right home for the right disease.”

But no spoilers – go get this one out and watch it (if you’re not the squeamish type) – it is well worth it.

We long for connection. Cronenberg mentioned a moment of inspiration:

“A friend of mine said he was watching Jimmy Kimmell one night and Sarah Michelle Gellar was on the show. She said she was sick and if she sneezed she’d infect the whole audience, and everyone just started cheering.” 

The philosopher Blaise Pascal said that there was, in every human, an “infinite abyss [which] can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object”. He suggested that this infinite and immutable object should be God. Humans are big on eating gods – Dionysus was torn apart and reborn by means of his mother eating his heart, which made her pregnant. Christians eat the Eucharist – the body and blood of Jesus, according to John 6:55-66

“For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.”

We live vicariously, by eating our gods. But in our culture, the celebrity is god. The viral, consumable, more-than-human celebrity.

“This thirst is consuming me”: CRONOS (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)

Cronos is the first feature film of Guillermo del Toro, better known for his later mind-bending fantasies Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Del Toro was originally chosen by Peter Jackson to direct The Hobbit trilogy, but couldn’t do it, due to extended delays. So he’s a top tier director, an auteur, as the French say. He was only 29 when he made Cronos, yet it has been hailed as one of the greatest horror films and one of the best Spanish language films, and has a rating of 91% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. Empire Magazine called it a “unique, terrifying mini-masterpiece.”

At this point I need to admit that it is less a cannibal film than a vampire one. Now I have nothing against vampires, some of my best friends are vampires (probably), but a cannibal should really be alive rather than undead, IMHO. This one is so good, though, that I’m giving it a run on the cannibal blog. Apologies to the cannibal purists.

There is also a link to #cannibalism, because the undertaker (yes, even immortals sometimes need undertakers) is Tito (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in a prequel role for the great cannibal movie We Are What We Are, in which he was the coroner who found a finger in the dad’s stomach. You’d have to watch it – it’s worth it.

Anyway. Gothic movies usually start off a few centuries in the past, because old magic is just – better. This one has a 14th century alchemist inventing a device which looks like a Faberge egg with claws. The device sticks its claws into whomever happens to pick it up and an insect inside (species yet to be determined) injects something (IDK – vitamin C? Testosterone?) which makes the person immortal. Centuries later – in the present – an earthquake reveals the dead alchemist. Well, he was immortal, but the earthquake caused a stake to pierce his heart, which is not ideal if you’re a vampire (or anyone else really). The egg is in a statue of an archangel, which is the first of a string of religious symbols (hey, it’s Spanish, OK?)

The statue ends up with antique dealer, Jesús Gris (played by the wonderful Federico Luppi who was one of Guillermo del Toro ‘s favourite actors and was also in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth). Gris and his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) extract the egg, wind it up and it plunges its stingers into him.

There’s some blood and pain, sure, but he finds he is getting younger, and heals much faster. You laugh a little, you cry a little, but then there’s another problem – he develops a longing for human blood.

There’s also a dying businessman (Claudio Brook, The Exterminating Angel and several other films of Luis Bunuel) who really wants the Cronos Device. His American nephew (Ron Perlman, Hellboy and Sons of Anarchy) is brought in to seek out the device by any means necessary (some of which are quite nasty). He puts up with his uncle, because he is named in the will, but wait, if uncle is immortal…

What would you do to defeat death, to live forever?

As Roger Ebert observed, there are some real religious issues explored here – the battle of good and evil, love (for Gris’ wife and granddaughter) being more powerful than greed, and particularly the unshakeable belief in divine afterlife. What happens to that hope if you never die? And what if that extended life requires eating flesh and drinking blood? Would you risk hell to avoid going to heaven? When little Aurora cuts her hand, Jesus has to decide if his thirst is really worth drinking his granddaughter’s blood.

Of course, that assumes that drinking blood is somehow essentially evil. Tell that to a mosquito.

Jesus Gris is, like any good vampire, likely to start smoking ominously if he finds himself in the sunshine. But can his goodness overcome the vamp issues? Well he dies and comes back to life, reborn in a glowing white skin, he takes many savage beatings, saying that he can handle the pain, then he smashes the egg, declaring

Jesus Gris – translates to English as “the Grey Jesus”. He is the suffering servant, who died and came back to life. There is a lot of that in Spanish films, but this one has an added twist:

Yes, he wants blood. Could that be a backhander to the Church? Religion can motivate good deeds, or suck the blood of the devotees. The Eucharist is all about transubstantiation – the wine and wafer are believed (by some) to be literally the blood and body of Christ. Hannibal is full of it, particularly the resurrection of Mason Verger and his attempt to eat Hannibal. It’s the eternal paradox.

Cronos won the grand prize in the Critics’ Week at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and nine Mexican Academy Awards, including best picture and director. It has an enviable 91% “fresh” on the Rotten Tomatoes website. The Criterion Blu-ray edition is available at Amazon. The soundtrack is superb, by the acclaimed Mexican composer Javier Álvarez. Highly recommended.

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NEXT WEEK: One of the most controversial cannibal films of all time: Joe D’Amato’s Antropophagus.