“The mothers were empty… cored” – THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (Colm McCarthy, 2016)

In an alternative present, or perhaps near future, humanity has been decimated by a fungal disease that turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries“.

At an army base in rural England, a small group of infected children are being studied by biologist Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, fatally attractive once more), who considers them less than human, or at least dispensable in her search for a vaccine. A sacrifice for the good of humanity, which is on the brink of extinction.

Despite being “hungries”, compelled by their infected brains to tear any uninfected human apart for food, these children think rationally and feel human emotions. But only one person, their teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), considers them human.

One girl, Melanie (a brilliant performance by thirteen-year-old Sennia Nanua), is inquisitive, imaginative and excels in the classroom to which the children are wheeled each morning, strapped to their chairs to stop them eating the guards and teacher. Through the peephole of her stone cell, Caldwell gives Melanie riddles and even asks her to consider the Quantum Mechanics paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, in which a cat in a sealed box could be either alive or dead, or both, depending on a random state of subatomic particles controlling a potentially lethal radioactive charge. The hungries, strapped to their wheelchairs, polite until they smell flesh, are neither human nor subhuman, or perhaps, like the cat, alive and dead at the same time. Melanie is in a box (or a stone cell) and may be alive or dead, depending on the science; human or inhuman, depending on the politics. Like all of us, her life is in a state of quantum superposition, controlled by random forces over which we have no control. Ask anyone in an ER ward.

The children are kept in cells and only taken out by heavily armed soldiers. Their food is live worms.

Melanie is precociously brilliant and loves her teacher Miss Justineau.

When the base is invaded by hungries, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell and some heavily armed soldiers, some of whom she needs to eat to save Justineau. This causes her human side some ethical issues.

The group agree to take Melanie with them, believing that Caldwell will be cutting her up for a vaccine, but she is forced to wear a mask, like Hannibal Lecter as they try to find a fortified settlement in a world filled with hungries.

Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a respectable 86% although most of the reviewers saw it as a superior entry in the zombie tradition. It’s actually not a zombie movie, although there are very large numbers of rotting people standing around, ready to chase anyone that moves too fast or talks too loud.

But the hungries are not corpses who have risen from the dead like Night of the Living Dead; they are infected by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is a real fungus discovered by Wallace in 1859 (the dude who came up with the idea of natural selection at the same time as Darwin). The fungus, which normally affects insects, has in this story mutated to take over the brains of living humans, making them into hungries. Spores from the fungus, or a bite from a hungry, can turn a person into one in a few seconds. If you recall the virus that took over the UK in 28 Days Later and filled the victims with uncontrollable rage, this is an infection (albeit fungal) that fills its victims with voracious appetite. The hungries stand around like rotting statues, unresponsive to anything but the taste, sound, smell or movement of living animals, including humans. Is there a metaphor here for the way we drift through life, only mobilised, often by smart marketing, into sudden bouts of voracious hunger? The hungries are “free” of all the cares and duties of being human – they are only alive when they smell fresh flesh. They live what Kundera calls an “idyllic” existence of constant repetition. Melanie is equally free in her cell – to strap herself into her chair, learn her lessons, and eat her worms at night. Once she is freed, there are all sorts of decisions to be made – practical and ethical ones.

Although the fungus is not a virus like COVID-19, it does eventually kill the hungries to feed on their bodies, in order to grow its fruit body and create spoors.

Caldwell explains that the child hungries, including Melanie, were discovered in a maternity hospital.

“The mothers were there too. They were… empty. Cored. From the inside.”

The embryos were infected through the placenta, and

Melanie and the other children at the base were captured soon after birth and socialised (except for the, you know, growling and biting), but other child hungries have gone feral, and live in urban tribes that hunt and can communicate only in grunts and snarls. Melanie has to establish her authority over them by employing their own violent methods.

The movie (and book on which it is based by Mike Carey, who simultaneously wrote the screenplay) is a bildungsroman, the story of Melanie’s coming of age. Incarcerated since birth, Melanie has a burning desire to understand what she is, how she got that way, and control her own future.

The interviewer on rogerebert.com said:

“There’s a visceral, emotional impact to the horror and action of “The Girl with All the Gifts” that resonates because the characters and the world they live in feels real to us.”

We all live in that world, where infections run wild, the authorities are at a loss for solutions, and superspreaders and conspiracy theorists are hungries. This is an intelligent and gripping thriller that asks questions about the nature and ethics of sacrifice. While we are sacrificing front line workers to save oldies (like me) from COVID, what can we say about the sacrifice of the innocent like Melanie?

The favourite word of 2020 was “unprecedented” as an unknown and widely unforeseen virus disrupted all aspects of normal life. Derrida uses the term “arrivant” – an “Other”, an absolute newcomer about whom we know nothing, and who may take monstrous form. Melanie and the hungries, like SARS-CoV-2, are arrivants.

The big question Melanie asks the scientist and the teacher is: what if the arrivants, the child hungries who are symbiotes with the fungus, are a superior race of human? We eat animals we consider lesser beings – why shouldn’t they do the same?

Amusing the mouth – HANNIBAL Season 1 Episode 2 (Fuller, 2013)

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The episodes in the series Hannibal are named after courses in fine dining. The first season is based on French recipes – the first episode was the Apéritif – like any good pilot episode, it got us in the mood, intrigued us, gave us an appetite and got us just a bit drunk, so that we could enjoy the courses to come. Episode 2 is the amuse-bouche – literally “amusing the mouth”. It is a small hors d’œuvre which both prepares the guest for the meal and offers a pointer into what the chef has planned for the repast.

This episode is full of tasty teasers for the series to come. Unlike Will Graham and Jack Crawford, most of us viewers know that Hannibal is a cannibal – with a potential rhyme like that, how could he resist? To them, he is a distinguished and brilliant psychiatrist who, they hope, can keep Will sane enough to solve their murder mysteries, but Hannibal has his own plans for Will, and we even get just a small hint of Hannibal’s mysterious past, what drives him. We, the Hannibal aficionados from the books and/or films, are aware of the fate of his sister Mischa when they were both little – she was eaten by Nazi deserters. Hannibal may have unknowingly participated in some of the broth. But this is a later Hannibal, a Gen X Hannibal, who has not lived through a war, but has still lost and maybe eaten a sister, apparently. So, although he is not the kind of personality who lives in the past or wallows in regrets, he tells Will

“I feel a staggering amount of obligation. I feel responsibility. I’ve fantasised about scenarios where my actions may have led to a different fate for Abigail Hobbs.”

He’s referring to what happened to her in episode 1, but also to what he has planned for her later in the season. Hannibal, like a good chess player, works out his moves far in advance of the play.

We also get a lot of amusement, amuse-bouche, in that the jokes are about cannibalism. These early episodes are more episodic than later in the series – they are almost self-contained. There is a central crazy, and Hannibal and Will work together and apart to their own ends: Will to catch the perp, Hannibal to “blood” Will, give him a taste for killing. This particular perp is burying his victims as feed for his mushrooms – he loves the way mushrooms network and know who is coming. They seem in fact rather more aware of what’s going on than most of the characters, except Hannibal and perhaps Freddie Lounds.

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Freddie Lounds, tabloid journalist, is looking for a scoop and hopes to trick Hannibal, who is the ultimate trickster, and unlikely to fall for such shallow pranks. We fall for it, though, when Hannibal finds her recording device, tells her off, and speculates on her punishment.

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Next scene we see Hannibal entertaining Jack, serving loin with a cumberland sauce of red fruits. Jack asks about the cut of meat (and so do we). “Pork”, says Hannibal, offering us the double entendre (or amuse-bouche) of the night:

Is the pork long pig? Well, maybe, but it turns out it isn’t Freddie – she’ll be back.

Will is now more willingly accepting Hannibal’s psychological analyses. They discuss, doctor to patient, the key concepts of the series: killing, appetite, and power. Will admits to enjoying killing Garrett Jacob Hobbs (which happened in episode 1).

They have broken the taboo. Shooting bad guys is something we watch on TV from a very young age, act out on the playground, but no one is supposed to admit to enjoying it. Enjoying it is unmentionable, but Hannibal won’t leave it alone there. Why do we enjoy killing? And this is the crux of Hannibal’s philosophy and his power: God loves to kill, and we are made in his image. Maybe.

Hannibal may or may not believe in some sort of God – I tend to think he agrees with Nietzsche that God is dead – but he certainly believes in power. Power to satisfy his hunger, without bothering about conventional morality.

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That is the journey on which he will take Will for the next 37 episodes (and, dare we hope, Season 4 to come?)

 

NEXT WEEK: ELI ROTH’S GREEN INFERNO

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Dead people’s fingers? Really? No.

The film blogs arrive on Sunday morning (eastern Australian time) but occasionally another possible cannibal connection arrives which is too good to miss. Take a look:

Dead peoples fingers

Yep, not dead fingers at all. It’s a fungus, that happens to look like grey fingers with nails. It’s Xylaria polymorpha, commonly known as dead man’s fingers, a saprobic fungus.

So what’s it doing on a cannibal blog? Only this: it reminded me of the scene from the TV series Hannibal called “Amuse-Bouche“. People are being buried, alive, to feed fungi.

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I guess you’d call that: life imitates art?

One of the best shows on television, and I will get to it soon on this blog.

 

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