Having old friends for dinner – YELLOWJACKETS (episode 1, 2021)

This new Showtime series (this first episode aired November 14 2021) crosses many genres. There’s the whole Mean Girls range of stories about the angst of going through puberty and surviving high school, where everyone else seems desperate to drag you down in order to lift themselves up. There’s the Lost genre of survival stories that started with Robinson Crusoe (first published in 1719) and its bastard child, Gilligan’s Island. There’s psychological thrillers and murder mysteries with a twist like Psycho. And, of course, there is cannibalism, the subject of this humble blog. Yellowjackets is all the above, with an ensemble cast.

Yellowjackets jumps between eras, with the main characters portrayed by teenage (or close) actors in 1996, and adult actors as them 25 years later – now. The pilot episode shows a terrified girl running barefoot through the snow before she plunges into a bear pit. Then we’re back in grungy 1996, surrounded by teenage angst and jealousy, following the girls in a champion New Jersey soccer team called the “Yellowjackets” as they prepare to fly from New Jersey to Seattle for a championship match. A yellowjacket is a predatory wasp who attends picnics and can get very antisocial very quickly. It’s a nice metaphor.

The plane crashes in a frozen Canadian wilderness; it’s one of those stories where our pretensions of human supremacy are stripped away by the fragility of our technology and the awesome and indifferent might of nature. Right away, we are thinking Alive, the story of the Uruguayan footballers who crashed in the Andes in 1972 and survived on the flesh of their dead teammates. The action moves back and forth from the pre-crash period to the present, as the survivors interact and relive their guilt and PTSD, which have been festering for 25 years. There is a deep, dark secret which is not fully revealed in the first episode (although it’s mentioned prominently in every review). We see that girl falling into the trap and being impaled on stakes, her bloody body being dragged through the snow then strung from a tree and sliced open.

We see her meat being cooked and served to a group of girls in animal furs and full savage garb, including the horned headdress that is the symbol of primitive cannibals in so many movies.

Later episodes will show that the girls didn’t sit about and discuss divinity like the Uruguayan footballers in Alive. We viewers are in on the secret – they split into warring, cannibalistic tribes and survived on human flesh, but not necessarily already dead bodies like Alive. These girls go hunting girls. And like many cannibal narratives, including most of the “evidence” presented by missionaries and explorers to demonstrate the savage nature of the people they were invading, the evidence is often more to do with the detritus left from the feast than the feast itself.

This is Alive meets Lord of the Flies, but with girls. Although the movies of Lord of the Flies did not offer any explicit cannibalism, Golding’s book made it pretty clear that the other boys intended to do to Ralph what they did to the pig they captured, i.e. a barbecue. This post-war (well justified) pessimism about the way our thin veneer of civilisation can so easily be stripped from us was the origin of both the misanthropic 1960s view of society and, later, reality TV; and the two are profoundly related.

Lord of the Flies showed us that boys will be boys (AKA vicious cannibals). Mean Girls showed us the hidden savagery in teenage girls. Yellowjackets puts these together and shows girls as cannibals, which makes it that much more sensational. We’ve seen cannibal girls in films like, well, Cannibal Girls, where the cannibalism derives from supernatural sources, and The Lure, which shows us the dangers of hooking up with human/fish hybrids, but this may be different, unless the producers decide to introduce some sort of entities driving the cannibal mayhem (please don’t). So far, Yellowjackets seems to be much more interesting than just another Wendigo story; it’s what Freud (in The Future of an Illusion) warned about when he spoke of the “instinctual wishes” for cannibalism, incest and murder that live in each of us, and are “born afresh with every child.” We are barely capable of civilised interactions in high school, so how are we going to relate to each other in a disaster? We are animals who deny our animality, and we normally consume each other in such polite, socially acceptable ways. Until we don’t.

The series was created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson (Narcos and Dispatches from Elsewhere), who were inspired to do the show when they saw the scorn social media keyboard warriors poured on the idea of a female Lord of the Flies. In a New York Times interview, Lyle recalls an on-line comment she read that inspired her to conceive Yellowjackets:

One man’s comment read, “What are they going to do? Collaborate to death?”
Lyle recalled what she immediately thought in response: “You were never a teenage girl, sir.”

The first episode is directed by Karyn Kusama, who seems to specialise in movies about female rage, including the wonderful Jennifer’s Body.

With 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this is one to watch, and maybe keep watching.

Fritz Lang’s Cannibalism Masterpiece – “M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER”, (1931)

Fritz Lang considered this film to be his magnum opus. It regularly appears on lists of the best movies ever made, it was voted the best German film of all time by the Association of German Cinémathèques, and it is one of the few movies with 100% on the website Rotten Tomatoes. It set the standard by which police procedurals and serial killer stories would be judged for the next century. But is it a cannibal movie?

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The story starts with a group of small children standing in a circle, and a little girl, Elsie, is choosing who is eliminated from the game, using a song:

“Soon will come the man in black for you…”

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Ja, it’s a cannibal film. We don’t see anyone get eaten, but that is not unusual, particularly in the older films from the cannibal genre.

Elsie is heading home after school, bouncing her ball, past a poster seeking information about the murderer of eight children.

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A nice man, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre in his first major film role), compliments her colourful ball and offers to buy her a balloon. He is whistling Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. The music is best known for its use in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which is not actually a cannibal story, but does involve a lot of stuff about trolls eating people.

Soon we see the ball rolling away, the balloon floating off, briefly caught on telegraph wires.

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Like most modern cannibals since Jack The Ripper, the killer is indistinguishable from the rest of the public – just a normal guy (well, as normal as Peter Lorre could ever be).

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The panic over the ninth murder makes everyone a suspect, particularly after Beckert writes to the papers, boasting that he’ll keep on killing.

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The police raid the criminal underground every night, which is terrible for business.

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The bar owner complains to the police that even the hardest working prostitute…

“hides a mother inside… I know many hard crooks whose eyes mist up looking at the little children playing.”

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And so it goes. The coppers can’t catch him, so the underworld decides they will catch him, just so they can get back to business as usual.

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The police have their own theories of why they cannot catch him:

“He’s not a real crook! Maybe he’s somebody who shows the harmless look of a good citizen who wouldn’t kill a fly.”

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“If it wasn’t for this… apparent innocence of murderers, it would be unthinkable that a man like Grossmann* or Haarmann* could live for years next door to their neighbours, without raising any kind of suspicion”.

The police follow leads from the asylums; the crooks have other methods. Of course, everyone is a suspect, except – the beggars. The heads of the underworld offer them a reward to watch all the children of the city. Meanwhile, Beckert is watching little girls in shop window reflections.

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The “M” of the title is chalked onto his coat by one of the beggars, as he is taking away his next child.

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No more spoilers. Let us just say that the climax is a trial, in which Lang asks some hard questions about whether we are responsible for our actions, even when we cannot control our own minds.

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The moral of the story is presented by Elsie’s mother, sitting outside the court, who says:

“This will not bring our children back to life. People should take better care of their children!”

Indeed.

No mention is made of the precise fate of the victims in the movie – Lang leaves that up to our imagination, and some knowledge of German serial killers of that time. They disappeared without trace for some days and…

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*   Some critics and reviewers claim that M was based on serial killer Peter Kürten—the Vampire of Düsseldorf—whose murdered at least ten people including several children in the 1920s and achieving sexual climaxes from the killings, and from drinking the blood of some of the victims. He was also keen on writing to newspapers, as is depicted in the film. Kürten was beheaded in 1931 for his crimes, so would have been very much in the news at the time of the film’s creation.

Fritz Lang, however, in an interview in 1963 with film historian Gero Gandert, denied that M was based solely on Kürten

“At the time I decided to use the subject matter of M, there were many serial killers terrorizing Germany—Haarmann, Grossmann, Kürten, Denke”

The first two are actually mentioned in the film. Fritz Haarmann, known as the “Butcher of Hanover”, killed at least 24 boys and young men between 1918 and 1924, often by biting their throats, and then allegedly eating or selling the meat from their corpses as pork or horse-meat. Carl Großmann was arrested in 1921, a suspect in up to 100 murders of women and girls, whose flesh he was suspected of selling on the black market and from a hot-dog stand in Berlin during the Great War. Karl Denke killed and sold the flesh of dozens of homeless vagrants and travellers from 1903-1924.

The fact that Lang quoted those four serial killers as his models indicate that he certainly had cannibalism in mind when creating the role presented by Peter Lorre – the serial killer who cannot control his urges.

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M is highly recommended as a classic, not just of the cannibal genre, but of cinematic art.

The full movie is currently available (and with excellent quality) on Youtube: