“I’m just gonna make you my zombie”: DAHMER: MONSTER – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Murphy and Brennan, Netflix, 2022)

This new docudrama (I can’t believe that’s a word) is quite a big deal in the highly respected academic discipline of Cannibal Studies. While many people think of Hannibal Lecter when the subject of cannibalism arises, in terms of contemporary culture (and therefore putting aside the Donner Party for now), Jeffrey Dahmer, known as the “Milwaukee Cannibal”, is a crucial figure, not least because he really existed, we know a lot about him, and we have a good understanding of what he did. Dahmer typifies the modern cannibal in that he seems so unremarkable; we have seen, and perhaps remarked at, his cool demeanour and the fact that he seemed like just an ordinary, everyday boy next door.

There have been a few Dahmer movies and documentaries, including some interesting interviews with the man himself, arranged in jail, before a fellow prisoner caved his head in with a metal bar. This new one has a pedigree though. First of all because it is presented by Ian Brennan (Glee, Scream Queens, The Politician) and  Ryan Murphy, who signed a $300 million deal with Netflix in 2018 and who brought us such enormous and terrifying hits as Glee, Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story and American Horror Stories.

Monster – the Jeffrey Dahmer Story runs over ten episodes, released concurrently on September 21, 2022. The length alone (almost nine hours) makes it more comprehensive and immersive than the other treatments. It is also different to most serial killer / cannibal documentaries and films in that it is presented not from Dahmer’s point of view, but from that of those around him – the victims, but also the family and the neighbours (who had to put up with the appalling stench of death that always emanated from his rooms or apartments).

“We had one rule going into this from Ryan, that it would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view.”

The first episode drops us into the main event – Dahmer in his Milwaukee apartment, trolling gay bars and offering young men and boys money to come home with him for a photo session, where he drugs them and attempts to turn them into love zombies by drilling holes in their skulls and pouring acid into their brains. When this doesn’t work, he has sex with their corpses, and harvests their meat.

One man escapes and flags down the police, who arrest Dahmer. The series then turns back to his childhood, his parents’ messy divorce, and the isolation which left him free to hatch his murderous plots. Later, we meet some of his victims, and his neighbour Glenda Cleveland who repeatedly tried to notify the police and FBI of what she heard, saw and smelled, but was comprehensively ignored and even threatened for her interventions.

“What do you do in there? The smell, power tools going all hours of the night, I hear screaming coming from your apartment.”

Dahmer, threatened with eviction due to her complaints, offers her a sandwich, saying “I used to be a butcher. I made that just for you.” Glenda refuses to eat it, and we know why – it looks like a chicken sandwich (and probably is).

But our willing suspension of disbelief declares it human meat, which is not kosher in any religious tradition. He tells Glenda to “eat it!”

Most of this documentary is very true to the facts as we know them, but in any re-enactment, there will be gaps to fill in or characters that need to be heard, without filling the cast list with an unmanageable number of people to remember. So the sandwich was apparently a fact, but was not given to Glenda but to another neighbour, Pamela Bass, who thought he was a generous if shy young man, and admitted that she ended up eating it.

Glenda, played superbly by Niecy Nash (from Scream Queens and Claws), is a strong woman caught in one of those nightmares where you know there is horror, but no one will believe you.

She demands to know what is in the sandwich.

“It’s just meat… It’s like a, uh, pulled pork.”

This is a regular theme of cannibal texts: they remind us that humans are animals, and our flesh and organs are made of meat. It’s a popular meme on animal rights social media sites. This one shows the real Dahmer, in case you’ve forgotten what he looked like.

Dahmer was looking for love, but he was not willing to risk losing it, so he tried to conscript his victims as undead zombies or as corpses, skeletons, or just happy meals. He showed affection – he is seen lying with his corpses, holding their hands, preserving their body parts. He loved them in much the same way that farmers often claim to love their cattle, sheep, pigs, etc, just before putting them on the abattoir trucks.

Dahmer is played brilliantly by Evan Peters (American Horror Story, X-Men, Mare of Easttown), who looks a lot like Dahmer, but with a touch of the young Malcolm McDowell – imagine Clockwork Orange but with cannibalism. If you want to know what Dahmer might have looked like forty years after his arrest, check out McDowell in Antiviral.

Jeffrey Dahmer murdered and dismembered seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991, thirteen years during which the police had no clue about his serial murder spree and, some might say, didn’t care much, since most of the victims were people of colour. And this is the heart of this rendition of Dahmer’s story – he was protected by the racism and incompetence of the American justice system. Here was a clean-cut white man, and people of colour disappear without trace all the time, apparently, so the police did not bother him, while the judges treated him as just a naughty boy.  Glenda’s frantic calls were met with apathy or rudeness.

He kept getting away with everything – one of the most extraordinary moments is shown in flashback in episode 2. On May 27, 1991, Glenda Cleveland called the police to Dahmer’s apartment after her daughter, Sandra Smith, and her niece, Nicole Childress, found a bleeding, naked and incoherent boy on the street who was running from Dahmer. Dahmer appeared, white and polite, and told the police that the boy was his 19 years old boyfriend.

He said the boy was drunk and they had been in an argument, and so the cops helped him take the boy back to his apartment, had a quick look around, made homophobic remarks about AIDS, and left the boy there.

The boy was bleeding from a hole drilled in his skull. After the police left, he was dead within the hour. It was later discovered that the boy was 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, Dahmer’s 13th victim. Incredibly, Dahmer was actually on parole for an earlier arrest for the molestation of another child, who was one of Konerak’s older brothers.

When Cleveland spotted Konerak’s photo in a missing person alert in the newspaper days later, she realised he was the young boy Dahmer had claimed was his boyfriend. She contacted the police and the FBI yet again, but they didn’t even return her call. Five of Dahmer’s seventeen murders, including that of Konerak, were carried out after Cleveland began contacting police. All but three of Dahmer’s victims were non-white.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a leader in the Civil Rights movement since the time of MLK, got involved in the case despite the urgings of some of his supporters, who didn’t think the movement should be linked to “a gay serial killer who eats people”. But as he says:

“I realised it was not just a gruesome horror show. It’s a metaphor for all the social ills that plague our nation. Bad policing, underserved communities, the low value we assign to our young Black and brown men, especially if they happen to be gay.”

The old profiling stereotypes no longer work, in fact never did. Dahmer was a serial killer who was ignored by the law for thirteen years, because he was white and male. In the Soviet Union at the same time, Andrei Chikatilo was killing and eating parts of over fifty women and children, ignored by the police force, because serial killing was considered impossible in the “workers’ paradise”. But those profiles still endure: a Black man on the street is instantly suspected of criminal intent, a white man, even Jeffrey Dahmer, is largely untouchable. In that sense, society dehumanises the poor, the coloured, the disabled, just as effectively as Dahmer did to his prey.

As the philosopher Michel Foucault observed, the world outside was a scary place filled with monsters up to the seventeeth century, and those monsters were thought to be probably criminals. But in modern times, the criminal is considered likely to be a monster. Ancient monsters were recognisable – usually grotesque and often hybrids of humans and other animals. But the contemporary monster looks, speaks and eats pretty much like the rest of us. Like Jeffrey Dahmer – the boy next door.

Marcus Mumford and Steven Spielberg: CANNIBAL (2022)

Does Steven Spielberg make music videos? Well, not usually. But he whipped out his phone for this recording of a new single from Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons) – his first solo venture, and the first song from his soon to be released (September 16) album called (Self-Titled). The album is produced by Blake Mills and featuring Brandie Carlile, Phoebe Bridgers, Clairo and Monica Martin.

Fans of Mumford & Sons have been perturbed to hear about Marcus’ solo album, wondering if it denotes the end of a great band, particularly considering that founding member Winston Marshall left the band in 2021 after calling controversial journalist Andy Ngo’s book Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy “brave”. But Marcus has confirmed that the band will not be disbanding and he will not be leaving, saying his solo album has the “full blessing and permission of the band”, who wrote on Instagram that:

“We are excited about the next chapter of Mumford & Sons, we’re working on what that looks like, but for now we hope you can enjoy this person, our friend, being a human being.”

Anyhow, the first song we have seen from the album is called CANNIBAL (the clip is at the top of this blog) which is lucky, as otherwise I would have had no excuse to crap on about it on this cannibalism blog. Marcus stated on his Instagram account that he had faced and danced with “demons” for a long time during COVID-19 isolation, and wrote “Cannibal” in January 21.

Rolling Stone wrote that the video was shot on July 3 in a high school gym in New York. Steven Spielberg “directed his first music video, in one shot, on his phone”.

Abby Jones on the Consequence website describes the song:

“Cannibal is a somber, rootsy tune that feels a bit like a pared-down version of Mumford & Sons’ arena-sized folk rock — that is, until around the three-minute mark, when the song transforms from an acoustic ballad into a rousing barnburner.”

The song is about the cannibalistic nature of relationships. The one described in the song appears to be complicated and toxic, arousing love and hate. For example,

I can still taste you and it kills me
That there’s still some sick part of it that thrills me
That my own body keeps betraying me
There is such power that it may destroy me, but it compels me

Camille Paglia in her controversial book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson describes the sparagmos rite of the Dionysian cult in which the body of a god, or the animal (human or other) representing it, was torn apart and eaten raw, otherwise known as omophagy. Rending the body of the god and spreading the parts acted to inseminate the earth, so was an act of love, and Paglia suggests that oral sex retains a suggestion of omophagy – raw cannibalism.

What is this connection between love and cannibalism? Hannibal Lecter of course has an answer, pointing out (in the episode where everyone is sleeping with everyone) that

“farmers who hand-raise lambs can love them and still send them to slaughter.”

Metaphoric cannibalism, particularly in terms of affectionate or sexual imagery, is a vast topic that cannot be adequately covered here. Suffice it to quote Italo Calvino in his book Under the Jaguar Sun perfectly summed up what he called “universal cannibalism”:

“…our teeth began to move slowly, with equal rhythm, and our eyes stared into each other’s with the intensity of serpents’ — serpents concentrated in the ecstasy of swallowing each other in turn, as we were aware, in our turn, of being swallowed by the serpent that digests us all, assimilated ceaselessly in the process of ingestion and digestion, in the universal cannibalism that leaves its imprint on every amorous relationship.”

CANNIBALcould be about the challenge of living and continuing to love someone during interminable COVID isolation. But at least one review suggests it is about childhood trauma and abuse, and posts a trigger warning. If that is one of your triggers, approach with caution. Such truths are hard, sometimes impossible to talk about: “when I began to tell, it became thе hardest thing I ever said out loud. Thе words got locked in my throat.”

I can still taste you, and I hate it
That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it
You took the first slice of me and you ate it raw
Ripped it in with your teeth and your lips like a cannibal
You fucking animal!

Sigmund Freud wrote that the two original prohibitions of humankind are incest and cannibalism, and it sounds a lot like Marcus Mumford has definitively linked them in this piece. The song finishes with a cry of pain: “Help me know how to begin again!”

CANNIBALISM NEWS January 2022 – German killer who had ‘cannibalism fantasies’ jailed for life

‘Cannibal teacher’ hid his victim’s penis to avoid being outed

A man dubbed by the press a ‘cannibal teacher’ has been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The judge said the murder was carried out as part of his “cannibalism fantasies”. The 42-year-old, identified only as Stefan R, was also convicted of disturbing the peace of the dead, after a trial that opened in August 2021 and concluded this week.

German prosecutors described evidence of cannibalism in the killing of 44-year-old high-voltage technician, Stefan Trogisch, on 6 September 2020.

Stefan R. allegedly ate parts of his lover after sex, and subsequently concealed somehow the victim’s penis, so he wouldn’t be “outed” as gay. German police arrested the 41-year-old maths and chemistry teacher in November 2020 on suspicion of “sado-cannibalism for sexual gratification” after they found human bones stripped completely of flesh in a Berlin suburb. Under German law, the man’s surname cannot be revealed, yet there are pictures of him everywhere, so I’m guessing this is not a serious privacy issue.

A Berlin prosecutor’s office spokesperson said

“The suspect had an interest in cannibalism. He searched online for the topic.”

Well, hello! So do I, and maybe you, dear reader. I also look up COVID and cricket, but that doesn’t mean I caught one or played the other. Maybe he was writing a PhD thesis?

No one knows whether the victim, the other Stefan, had an interest in cannibalism, but we know that the two men were communicating on a gay dating website called Planet Romeo, according to a report in Der Spiegel. Stefan R. called himself “Spieltrieb1976” (roughly translated as “instinct to play”) and Stefan T. (now deceased) was “Dosenöffner79” (tin opener). Stefan R. also used the handle “Masterbutcher79” which prosecutors claimed was a reference to Armin Meiwes, who was dubbed the “Master Butcher of Rotenberg.”

The bones of Trogisch were found a couple of months after the murder, and showed signs of bite marks, although having been out in a field for a couple of months, it’s hard to say what species of animal had been biting them. A police officer told the newspaper Bild:

“Based on the bones found, which were completely stripped of flesh, and further evidence, we strongly suspect that Stefan T was the victim of a cannibal.”

Sniffer dogs led police to the apartment of the suspect, where they discovered knives, a medical bone saw, and a large freezer. Investigators also discovered 25kg of sodium hydroxide, a reagent that can be used to dissolve bodily tissue. It can also be used to make soap, which the accused claimed he bought it for. Traces of blood were discovered in the hallway of the suspect’s flat. The defendant had previously erected a sex swing in the living room and had a sign on the window ledge that read: “Instructions for emasculating and slaughtering a person.” He reportedly searched terms associated with cannibalism on the dark web such as “long pig” and “fatten and slaughter people” before Trogisch arrived at his residence. According to German newspaper Bild, he had also previously searched whether or not a person could survive after having their penis cut off.

Stefan R. told the court that Trogisch had died in his sleep on the sofa after a (presumably vigorous) sexual tryst. He claimed that Trogisch had consumed a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, and that he tried to revive him, but did not call emergency services “because it would have come out that I am homosexual”, according to Bild.

He said he decided to dispose of the body, and opted to separate Trogisch’s genitals “since my DNA could still have possibly been present due to the oral sex I performed”. But hours after the death, he logged back into the human slaughter forum where he proudly told a man from the city of Bremen: “I have it [the penis] now!”

In the sensitive style that we have come to expect from British news media, The Sun wrote

“the victim’s manhood has not yet been found.”

Judge Schertz said that, in 30 years as a judge, “nothing like this has come across my desk before”. He added that the defendant’s version of events was “unbelievable from start to finish”, noting the “very careful separation of testicles and penis” as evidence of a cannibalistic ritual.

The trial began in August 8 2021 and heard an autopsy report which revealed that the cause of death was a fatal loss of blood from the pelvic area due to a severed artery. This would seem to indicate that Trogisch bled to death after his penis was chopped off. The autopsy also ruled out the defendant’s claim that the victim was affected by alcohol or drugs, causing his death.

It’s a sensitive subject in Germany, where cannibalism was not uncommon between the world wars and was made into the subject of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece – “M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER” one of my favourite cannibalism movies. More recently, Armin Meiwes in 2001 met Bernd Jürgen Brandes on a site called Cannibal Café, and after a romantic interlude, agreed to Brandes’ request to kill him and eat him. The first act of the killing (all captured on video) was Meiwes cutting off Brandes’ penis, which he then cooked and the two men attempted to eat, very unsuccessfully. Meiwes subsequently killed Brandes and ate an estimated 45-65 pounds of flesh (20-30kg) from him.  Meiwes is still in jail, and Brandes is still in Meiwes (well, only in spirit, unless he has a very slow digestive tract). Unlike Brandes, there is no evidence that Trogisch had “consented” to his killing.

Then in 2013, Detlev Guenzel, a German police forensic specialist (you couldn’t make this stuff up), chopped up a man he met on a cannibalism fetish website and buried the pieces in the garden, taking a picture of himself standing next to a skeleton and holding an axe, wearing nothing but socks and sandals. There is little evidence to show that Guenzel ate any of the victim, although the victim’s penis and one testicle were not found in the flowerbed where the other pieces of the puzzle were unearthed.

There is probably another thesis to be written on the proportion of cannibalism reports that involve queer sexuality. Meiwes, of course, and Jeffrey Dahmer, who collected young men and killed them to keep them close. The film The Silence of the Lambs was heavily criticised when it was released for showing the serial killer Jame Gumb (“Buffalo Bill”) as a transsexual, although the plot was all about how he wasn’t authentically trans, and was killing women because he was rejected for gender reassignment surgery, and so was making himself a woman suit out of the skin of his victims. The film’s cannibal, Hannibal Lecter, was not gay in that series of films and books (he fancied the hell out of Clarice Starling), although Krendler, the nasty dude from the Justice Department in the book Hannibal, said he “figured he [Hannibal] was a homosexual” because, you know, he had good taste in food and wine and music – “artsy-fartsy stuff”. Krendler’s brain is later eaten by Hannibal and Clarice, so we have no reason to take him too seriously. But there was certainly plenty of homoerotic interaction in the twenty-first century reboot of Hannibal on TV, particularly when Hannibal is holding Will tenderly while cutting him up.

Is this tendency to depict cannibals as queer a reflection on the traumas experienced by gay youths and where they may lead behaviourally, or simply a noxious reaction against the lifting of restrictions on gay couples? Someone will write a paper on that one day. They probably already have.

The other issue raised by this case if of course the persistent theme (Meiwes and Guenzel again) of the chopping off and consumption of the male penis. Stefan R. discussed on one forum whether it was possible to survive a genital amputation – saying that some people desired it in order to feel like women, or else take masochistic pleasure in it. Prosecutors argued that Stefan R. had cut off the victim’s genitals with the intention of eating them, and the judge agreed, but it could not be established whether he had carried out that plan.

Freud had a lot to say about this! When little boys discover that their mothers or sisters have no penis, they assume the women were castrated, and as a result fear their own castration by their father (whom they suspect of the act). This is supposed to be the basis of the repression that eats away at the male mind and drives us to our various deviant behaviours.

Subsequent psychological studies as well as feminist analyses have demolished much of Freud’s speculative theories, but there is one thing we still don’t know – where is Stefan Trogisch’s penis?

The presiding judge, Matthias Schertz, told Stefan R. “What you did was inhuman”. But another German, Friedrich Nietzsche, might have called it “Human, all too human”.

“Egoism is not evil, for the idea of one’s “neighbour” (the word has a Christian origin and does not reflect the truth) is very weak in us; and we feel toward him almost as free and irresponsible as toward plants and stones. That the other suffers must be learned; and it can never be learned completely.”

“…we are all potential cannibals”: SERIAL KILLERS: THE REAL LIFE HANNIBAL LECTERS (Sean Buckley, 2001)

This is an American documentary about serial killers, but specialising in those who ate parts of some of their victims. I guess that makes it inevitable that they will throw the name Hannibal Lecter in there, even though the similarities are not immediately apparent.

There are a lot of documentaries about cannibals, some mostly interested in sensationalism, and others seeking some sort of journalistic accuracy. This is one of the better ones, with a good selection of experts commenting on the various cases.

Cannibals, and particularly cannibal serial killers, are a real problem for the media. The difficulty comes from the scepticism that journalists need to cultivate in interpreting a world of stories that are stranger than fiction, or sometimes are fiction disguised as fact, or just fiction that people want to believe. Cannibal books and films fall into the horror genre and are usually lumped together with vampires, zombies, ghouls and other strange monsters out of their creators’ nightmares. So cannibals are a problem.

Cannibals are real. Many cannibals have had their activities thoroughly documented, some are even willing to be interviewed. Jeffrey Dahmer gave a range of interviews in which he spoke openly of the way he lured young men and boys to his apartment in Milwaukee and drugged them, then drilled holes into their heads and injected acid, hoping to create compliant zombie lovers, or else strangled and ate them. Dahmer was killed by a fellow prisoner after serving only a tiny fraction of his sentence of 937 years imprisonment.

But others are still alive – Armin Meiwes is in prison in Germany for eating a willing victim whom he met on the Internet and has willingly given interviews revealing his deepest passions, and he even gets out on day release from time to time. Another documentary reviewed on this site a couple of years ago compared him to, yep, Hannibal Lecter.

Issei Sagawa was arrested in Paris for killing a Sorbonne classmate whose body he lusted after and then eating parts of her, but was not sent to prison as he was declared insane. When the asylum sent him back to Japan, he was released (the French didn’t send any evidence with him), and lives in Tokyo where he has made porn movies, written for cooking magazines, and yes, done interviews for unnerved journalists. There are at least three documentaries on him, which we will get to – eventually.

Documentaries like this one love to compare real-life cannibals, or the much wider field of serial killers, with the fictional character, Hannibal Lecter, “Hannibal the Cannibal”. The problem here is that the serial killers in this doco (or any that weren’t) are not very much like Hannibal. Actual modern cannibals are usually categorised as banal, normal-looking folks who under the polite surface are depraved psychopaths, while Hannibal is civilised, educated, rational, brilliant and independently wealthy. He is a highly respected psychiatrist (until his arrest) and remains a likeable protagonist to many readers and viewers, despite his penchant for murder and guiltless consumption of human flesh. He even introduces his own ethical guidelines: he prefers to eat rude people: the “free range rude” to quote another Hannibal epigram.

Much of the commentary in this documentary is by Jack Levin, a Criminologist with a rather distracting moustache, or perhaps a pet mouse that lives on his upper lip. He sums up the modern cannibal serial killer:

 “Many Americans when they think of a serial killer will think of a glassy-eyed lunatic, a monster, someone who acts that way, someone who looks that way. And yet the typical serial killer is extraordinarily ordinary. He’s a white, middle-aged man who has an insatiable appetite for power, control and dominance.”

The standard serial killer appears very ordinary indeed. According to the doco, 90% of serial killers are white males. Many serial killers, we are told, experienced a difficult childhood, abused emotionally, physically or sexually. Hannibal of course saw his sister eaten, and probably innocently joined in the meal, so I guess you might call that a difficult childhood. But of course many people have difficult childhoods (less difficult than Hannibal’s, one hopes) without becoming cannibals or serial killers. Many of these so-called “real life Hannibal Lecters” featured in this program were not even cannibals, such as John Wayne Gacy, who murdered at least 33 young men and boys, but did not eat them, and was not even vaguely similar to Hannibal in appearance, MO, or dining habits. Same with Ted Bundy, who also gets a segment. These killers killed because they enjoyed it – as an act of dominance. Serial killers, Levin tells us, get “high” on sadism and torture. Hannibal, on the other hand, just killed his victims the way a farmer might choose a chicken for dinner – slaughter the tastiest, fattest one, or else the one who has been annoying him.

 “There is much discussion as to whether cannibalism is an inherent characteristic in all human beings, our animal impulses, or whether cannibalism stems only from the minds of mad beasts such as some of the most prolific serial killers.” Richard Morgan, narrator.

Eventually, we get to the cannibals. First up is Andrei Chikatilo, the Russian cannibal who sexually assaulted, murdered, and mutilated at least fifty-two women and children between 1978 and 1990. Chikatilo, we are told, liked to cook and eat the nipples and testicles of his victims, but would never admit to eating the uterus – far too abject for his psychosis. Sigmund Freud and Julia Kristeva would find that fascinating.

 We look in some detail at Albert Fish, the “Gray Man” who tortured and killed probably fifteen children around the US at the beginning of the twentieth century. He mostly specialised in the children of the poor and people of colour, but was eventually caught because he ate a little white girl, causing the police to take the cases seriously at last.

A large section of the documentary is dedicated to Jeffrey Dahmer, perhaps the most famous of the modern real-life cannibals. Dahmer was not a sadist, disliking violence and suffering, so he did not really fit the description used in the doco, and was certainly no Hannibal.

The other experts wax lyrical about cannibals, such as author and psychiatrist Harold Schechter, who speculates that

Anthropological evidence seems to suggest that cannibalism was a kind of activity that our pre-human ancestors indulged in with a certain regularity, so I think there is probably some sort of innate impulse towards that kind of activity… serial killers act out very archaic, primitive impulses that clearly still exist on some very very deep level.”

Well, that’s definitely not Hannibal, the Renaissance man, who carefully considers each action and dispassionately stays several steps ahead of his pursuers. Jack Levin again:

“Any serial killer who cannibalises victims has broken one of the most pervasive and profound taboos in all of society. Psychologically, this means the killer has achieved the opposite of what he had hoped… in terms of ego, in terms of self-image, he has got to feel worse about himself.”

That certainly is not Hannibal!

But there are some interesting observations in this documentary if we set aside the obvious problems with the comparisons with Hannibal. Zombie flesh-eaters were first popularised in Night of the Living Dead which came out in 1968, what the documentary calls “the most murderous decade” – the 1960s, followed a few years later by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. People flocked to the cinema to see people being eaten because two Kennedys and MLK were assassinated and the brutal, unending Vietnam war was filling the television screens? Maybe so.

Levin tells us

Most people don’t see the difference between Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer. To the average person, there is no difference between fact and fantasy.

 Col. Robert K. Ressler, who founded the FBI Behavioural Sciences Unit (which makes him a real life Jack Crawford) points out that there are no serial killer psychiatrists, nor do serial killers normally become well integrated into the upper levels of society like Hannibal. So he’s not helping the Hannibal comparison at all. Nor is Levin, who points out that Dahmer was remorseful at his trial, and went out of his way to avoid inflicting pain, unlike most serial killers to whom the killing is a “footnote” to the main text – the torture of the victim. So Dahmer does not fit into the model of serial killer presented here, and he has nothing in common with Hannibal Lecter.

But author Richard Lourie, who wrote a book about Chikatilo, points out that we, the audience, really want to see the serial killer as a Nietzschean Übermensch (superman) – a brilliant criminal genius. He also tells us that Hannibal seems asexual, above the primal drives that motivate people like Chikatilo and Dahmer. Not entirely true of course, if you have read the end of the book Hannibal or read any of the Fannibals’ fan fiction which speculates on some juicy homoerotic episodes between him and Will.

But there is a point to all these rather painfully stretched comparisons between real serial killers and the fictional Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal, Leatherface, the Zombies, are all the inchoate faces of our nightmares, and horror stories are our way of understanding the terrors that fill the news sites. Hannibal is not typical of the real-life serial killer or cannibal, but remember that the apparently kindly old woman who wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel was hardly typical of the horrors of Europe at the time of famine and plague when the Grimms were writing their stories. Each is a facet of horror.

Schechter talks about the simplistic view that cannibalism is in itself “evil”. Which is actually worse, he asks, to torture and kill a person or to eat their flesh when they are dead, an act which can certainly do them no more harm? Indeed.

Levin sums up:

It could be argued that cannibalism as this ultimate form of aggression lurks within every one of us…. We have an aggressive part of ourselves, it’s part of basic human nature, and to that extent we are all potential cannibals.

A kind face, a deceptive smile, a gingerbread house or psychiatrist’s couch can sometimes be more terrifying than the sordid crime scenes left by Chikatilo, Dahmer and Fish. The seeming normality of Albert Fish, Andrei Chikatilo, Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter conceals something that we hide deep within our shadow selves.

The full documentary is available (at the time of writing) on YouTube.

What’s your favourite cannibal movie?

Of all the (sometimes) wonderful cannibal movies and shows I have reviewed in this blog, my personal favourite is still The Silence of the Lambs with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal the Cannibal. It was the first film I reviewed on this blog (does that mean I liked the others less each time? Not at all), and interestingly, it does not actually feature any cannibalism, although we hear a lot about it.

Fun fact!

So I was pretty chuffed to find that The Silence of the Lambs is the favourite horror movie of the State of Utah, according to the Horrornews.net website. They used information from Rotten Tomatoes and Google Trends, and partnered with Mindnet Analytics, to analyse how interest in horror movies varied in each US state and the District of Columbia (DC). The results are presented on their website:

Best Horror Movies: Which Does Each US State Love Most?

This survey covers all horror, whereas in this blog we concentrate on the cannibal, so please let us know your favourite cannibal film (or TV show, but if it’s a series, your favourite episode) either in the comments at the bottom of the page (after a few suggestions) or at cannibalstudies@gmail.com. I’ll let you know the results.

The Silence of Hannibal: CLARICE episode 1 (CBS 2021)

So first the bad news – due to contractual arrangements, Hannibal Lecter does not make an appearance in the new TV series called Clarice. He can’t – the DeLaurentiis company (which produced Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal as well as the movies Manhunter, Hannibal, Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising) has exclusive rights to the characters originating in the novels Red Dragon, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, and MGM have exclusive rights to The Silence of the Lambs, and own the movie too. Clarice Starling first appeared in Silence of the Lambs, so can be revisited in this series, while Hannibal and Will Graham originated in Red Dragon, so can come to life in Fuller’s brilliant series, but the three of them cannot ever meet. With intellectual property as hot as the characters that came from the Promethean mind of Thomas Harris, sharing it around among production companies is about as likely as two dogs with one bone.

The good news is that Clarice is a damn good show, and Rebecca Breeds, the Aussie actor with the West Virginia accent (it sounded good to me, although I’ve never been to WV) is just right in the role. In the pilot, she manages to convey a complex picture of a young woman who is smart, resourceful and tough, fighting for her place in a man’s world, while still haunted by untreated PTSD from her run-in with Buffalo Bill in the movie.

This is a sequel to Silence of the Lambs, and while there is no appearance from Hannibal (who, after all, was on the run after his gory escape in the movie), there are plenty of references to the film, particularly Buffalo Bill (Jame Gumb), the serial killer whom Clarice killed at the climax of the film.

A year after the events of the film, Clarice is waking up at night from nightmares full of violence and deaths-head moths.

She is attending mandatory psychiatric sessions, which she is not happy about, and tries to joke, argue and obfuscate her way out. The therapist says that is

“understandable, given that your last therapist was an inmate in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane,”

If you remember Silence of the Lambs, you will recall that the serial killer, Jame Gumb, had captured Catherine Martin, whose mother was a US Senator, and was about to skin her to make a “vest with tits” as Hannibal so elegantly put it. The mother, Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), is now Attorney General of the US, and determined that a new serial killer will not be running wild on her watch.

Ruth Martin drags Clarice out of the Quantico FBI HQ where she has been hiding and doing data entry, and attaches her to the new ViCAP (Violent Crime Apprehension Program) task force. She tells Clarice,

“You saved my little girl. You are a woman with a very public reputation for hunting monsters, Clarice.”

The pilot episode is largely procedural, as was Hannibal when Season one started. Someone is killing women and mutilating them. Is it a crazed serial killer? Well, he is biting them, so that qualifies him for this cannibalism blog, but Clarice notices something odd about the wounds. There’s no intimacy. No frenzy.

 “A true psychopath? We’d still be looking. But a true sociopath – they wouldn’t have left their faces.”

The ongoing antagonist in this is Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz from Walking Dead) who barely appeared in the film Silence of the Lambs, although he was an important opponent in the book, and became more important as he destroyed her career in the book and film Hannibal in revenge for her unwillingness to indulge his sexual appetites. In this series, he is a cranky old man, dubious of her talents (he thinks she just got lucky in pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and not willing to let her play hunches.

The FBI grunts play tricks on her, putting lotion on the handles of her desk drawers and telling her

Which of course were Gumb’s instructions to Catherine, using the impersonal pronoun ‘it’ to dehumanise her.

Clarice remembers what Hannibal taught her about the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, with a little prompting from her friend Ardelia (Devyn A. Tyler).

She works out that the wounds are “desperately random”, which is what Hannibal told her about the apparently random dumping of the bodies by Jame Gumb. She realises that the murderer is not a crazy serial killer but is cold, calculating and has a set of targets. The rest of the episode is about her tracking him down, while still haunted by her past. Meanwhile, Catherine Martin is frantic to talk to her; Catherine is now an anorexic recluse, because Gumb only took big girls, whose skin would fit on his frame (but at least she has Gumb’s dog Precious, who I always thought was a nod to Tolkein). Clarice suffers flashbacks and nightmares: Catherine in the oubliette, Jame Gumb sewing a garment of human hide.

The press are obsessed with Clarice, the National Tattler calling her (as in the movie), the “Bride of Frankenstein”.

Krendler wants her to toe the official line and tell the press that this is a crazy guy. But this is Clarice. She’s going to tell it like it is.

Now, I know a lot of Fannibals would have preferred a fourth season of Hannibal to a new series about Clarice (and have said so quite vociferously). But let us not forget what Clarice meant to Hannibal, or at least Hannibal in his twentieth century persona. She was one of the first to interview him successfully in his solitary cell. He found her fascinating and was, let us admit it, somewhat smitten with her, in the books and the films. Remember Hannibal’s words:

“I think it would be quite something to know you in private life.”

So let’s not disparage our opportunity to know her. In the movie Hannibal, he points out that he has travelled half way around the world to watch her run, and wonders why she won’t now let him run, then chops off his own hand rather than harm her.

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Unlike many male authors, Thomas Harris can write female protagonists as real, complex people, and he does it so well; not just Clarice Starling, but also the central characters of his first and most recent novels (both non-Hannibal stories) – Dahlia Iyad in Black Sunday (1975) and the eponymous protagonist of Cari Mora (2019).

Hollywood was not willing to countenance a romance between a law officer and (as they saw it) a psychopathic serial killer. But in the novel, the relationships are far more complex: Hannibal hopes Clarice might provide a position in the world for Mischa, his sister, who was eaten by Nazi collaborators during the war. Clarice suggests an alternative: Mischa can live through him, Hannibal, instead, and “she” and Clarice can be like sisters. Remembering Hannibal’s question to Senator Martin (in Silence of the Lambs), she asks if he was breastfed, and if he ever felt that Mischa had made him give up the breast when she was born. Well, he won’t have to give up this one: she offers him her breast, with a warm drop of Chateau d’Yquem suspended from the nipple. He sucks it, but not as a cannibal; as a child, or as a lover. Freud of course would wonder if there is actually a difference.

Unlike the film, in the book Hannibal and Clarice are presumed live happily ever after; the asylum guard Barney sees them at the Teatro Colon, the opera house in Buenos Aires. They are watching Tamerlane, an opera that starts with an Emperor in chains, and ends with a love duet.

This new series, Clarice, is what happens between Hannibal`s escape at the end of Silence of the Lambs and their renewed encounters in Hannibal. It’s important history, one which those of us who loved the books and movies need to explore, even if we loved the Hannibal TV series too.

Clarice is on CBS (where you can watch the first episode if you are in the USA or have a VPN) and streaming on Stan in Australia.

A complete listing of my Hannibal film and TV blogs is at https://thecannibalguy.com/2020/07/08/hannibal-film-and-tv-blogs/

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s CANNIBAL THE MUSICAL (Trey Parker, 1993)

Ever wondered what Trey Parker and Matt Stone did before South Park? Here’s a surprise – they went to college, where they wrote, directed, produced, co-scored and acted in a musical about cannibalism. This is it.

How’s your American history? It’s certainly never dull – full of wars, insurrections, and also a good deal of cannibalism – historical and contemporary. Probably the most famous incident is the Donner Party, a group of families who became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada over winter 1846-47, and famously turned to cannibalism to survive. Also up there in the mythology is the story of the famous typo, Alferd Packer, a prospector and self-proclaimed wilderness guide, who confessed to cannibalism during the harsh winter of 1874. Packer and five other men had attempted to travel across the San Juan Mountains of Colorado through the bitter winter snow, and Packer was the only one to arrive, some two months later, at the Los Pinós Indian Agency, near Saguache, Colorado. He first claimed the other men had abandoned him, then changed his story to tell of shared cannibalism of the men who had died of the cold, but was eventually charged with murder.

The real Alferd (Alfred) Packer

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, his name was probably Alfred, but according to some sources, he changed it to Alferd after a mix up with a tattoo. Don’t know if that’s true, but just think of Jame Gumb in Silence of the Lambs, who refused to correct his birth certificate by adding an S to his first name. The author of that book, the meticulous researcher Thomas Harris, may have been having a wink at Alferd with that one.

According to a book on Packer, the judge at his trial sentenced him to death, saying:

Stand up yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch and receive yir sintince. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’ be hanged by th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin’ ag’in reducin’ th’ Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.

Packer was not hanged, due to a legal technicality – he was sentenced under state law, but Colorado was not a state at the time of the cannibalism. Antonia Bird’s film Ravenous was also partly based on Packer.

That is pretty much the story that Trey Parker tells, using the names, dates and versions of the events that happened, and even in musical form, he tells it rather more accurately than an earlier biopic called The Legend of Alfred Packer (1980); also a lot more accurately than a later film called Devoured: The Legend of Alferd Packer (2005), which offered audiences the ghost of Alferd eating people in the modern day. Parker and Stone add lots of humour and gore and some very impressive and catchy songs, all written by, and mostly sung by, Trey Parker. Parker and Stone are masters of irony, and it is laid on thick, starting with the card at the beginning saying that the film was originally released in 1954 (some 15 years before Parker and Stone were born) but was eclipsed by the release of Oklahoma. The card goes on to claim that the violence has been edited out, and they follow this with a scene showing Packer killing the other members of his group by biting their necks and tearing off their arms.

The film moves between Packer’s trial (the bloody scene at the start is the prosecution lawyer re-enacting the alleged crime) and Packer’s description of the actual events, complete with dance routines and love songs to his horse, Liane.

The group who persuade Packer to be their guide are totally unprepared for the march from Utah to the Colorado gold fields over the snowbound Rockies, and are warned not to proceed into a big storm by a tribe of Indians, played by Japanese foreign exchange students, who speak Japanese, and even carry Samurai swords.

In a nice bit of cannibal intertextuality (Homer’s Odyssey), they try to kill a sheep belonging to a one-eyed cyclops (actually a Confederate soldier who lost his eye in the civil war). Early shades of South Park, as the cyclops squirts pus from his missing eye.

Sitting around the campfire, starving, they recall the story of the Donner party, and that gives them an idea. Yeah, they eat the guy who was an incurable optimist, who they shot for wanting to build a snowman. Look, it makes sense at the time. They even discuss not exactly the ethics of cannibalism, but at least the aesthetics – they won’t eat the dead guy’s butt, and Packer (Parker) is sick at what part Humphrey (Stone) chooses to eat.

There’s a ballet dream with Alfred dreaming of a reunion with Lianne (the horse), who has run away with a gang of trappers. Yeah, you’ll have to see it.

But the snow has them trapped, and they run out of food, and now the discussion is not which parts of a corpse to eat, but which member of the team should be sacrificed for the next meal. There is a hugely extravagant massacre, following which Packer waits out the winter, but now with plenty of meat, and then heads into town with his story of losing the rest of his party. That doesn’t wash, particularly when the well chewed bodies are found.

There’s a bar fight, pretty much de rigueur in Westerns, and Packer escapes to Wyoming, which he says is worse than being torn apart by the furious townspeople. Eventually he is arrested and brought back to Colorado. During his trial, there is a love interest, Polly (Toddy Walters), who interviews Packer through the bars of his cell in a scene that kept reminding me of Clarice Starling interviewing Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, which had swept the Oscars in 1992, the year before this was made. She becomes convinced of his innocence and – well, it’s complicated. But the film is well worth your 100 minutes, just to see what Parker and Stone could do with real people instead of simulated cut-outs.

The film had mixed reviews, with some of the reviewers not knowing what to make of it. The critic score on Rotten Tomatoes is only 65%, but the audience score is 82%. The critic from Empire said: “there’s an air of genial enthusiasm, tempered by sick humour, that is surprisingly engaging”.

The tagline for the film is:

“In the tradition of Friday the 13th Part 2… and Oklahoma… comes the first intelligent movie about cannibalism!”

Parker and Stone are not shy about their fascination with cannibalism, for example, check out the South Park episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die”, in which Cartman takes revenge on a boy by killing the boy’s parents, and cooking and feeding them to him.

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For a movie made by a couple of students at the University of Colorado, this is very impressive. It’s well made, the cast is great and the music is hard to get out of your head afterwards. I guess not so surprising, when we consider that four years later, in 1997, Parker and Stone launched South Park, which has been running ever since with over 300 episodes shown so far, and more seasons booked until at least 2022.

Modern geniuses.

“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?

Monstrous appetites: THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Just over 200 years ago, Mary Shelley, at the age of just eighteen, conceived the story of “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus” while sheltering with her lover (and later husband) the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the home of Lord Byron, the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Frankenstein is a brilliant but tortured scientist who creates a creature and brings it to life, whereupon it wreaks havoc, due to Frankenstein’s actions in first abandoning his creation, then reneging on his promise to create a wife for it. Shelley’s story perfectly summed up the fears of the Romantics: Science was capable of the improvement or even perfection of humanity, but if misused, could lead only to catastrophic consequences. She would have been fascinated by the modern versions of this paradox: global warming, weapons of mass destruction, and pandemics issuing from factory farms and slaughterhouses.

A century after his literary birth, Frankenstein and his monster were popularised by Hollywood (with the story considerably changed) in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), with Boris Karloff as the huge, shuffling, homicidal monster.

The British company Hammer Horror, the virtuosi of Gothic films, revived the story in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, their first colour horror movie, and the first gory slasher, with Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature. This week’s choice, Revenge of Frankenstein, was the first in a string of sequels, which made Hammer the pre-eminent horror studio, and Peter Cushing the master of cultured monstrosity.

The trailer to the movie (above) gives a succinct summary of the story so far: Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) was sentenced to the guillotine in 1860 for creating a version of a human, and was blamed for its murderous rampage, caused by the creature’s brain being damaged.

“It should have been perfect. I made it to be perfect. If the brain hadn’t been damaged, my work would have been hailed as the greatest scientific achievement of all time.”

He escapes the guillotine by substituting a priest whom he pays the executioner to decapitate instead of him, and relocates to Carlsbrück under a false name (Dr Stein). Here he treats the hypochondriac rich and the grimy poor, whose limbs and other parts he amputates for his continued research.

Another doctor recognises him and blackmails him into agreeing to work together, and they plan to transfer the brain of Stein’s hunchback assistant Karl (played by Oscar Quitak) into a “healthy” (i.e. not disabled) body (played by Michael Gwynn).

“Nobody. He isn’t born yet. But this time he is perfect… All I need is a brain, and then I can give it life.”

Karl is a hunchback, and can’t wait to get his brain removed and put into Frankenstein’s jigsaw of spare parts.

Is the hybrid human getting a brain transplant? Or is Karl getting a body transplant? There’s another character, Otto, a chimpanzee into whom Stein has already (unforgivably) transplanted the brain of an orang-utan. After the operation, however, Otto “ate his wife”.

Yes, brain transplants, followed by head trauma, lead to cannibalism – who knew? Karl, in his new body, escapes but is spotted and beaten up by a janitor, whom Karl (now brain-damaged) then kills and eats. The Otto syndrome has spread to Karl! His injured brain then, somehow, starts restoring his hunchback, and his withered arm and leg – he starts turning into Richard III. An eyewitness tells the police that Karl’s first victim was killed by “some sort of animal”. Karl is dehumanised – again, first as through his disability, then through his monstrous appetite, caused by the tinkering of Frankenstein and the violence of the janitor. As expected of a monster, Karl gets right into killing and eating people.

But Karl’s violence is not really the point. Earlier movies had a shuffling, terrifying monster to amaze the audience but, in this one, it is pretty clear that the monster is not Karl, in either of his bodies, but it is the handsome, brilliant Doctor Frankenstein, a forerunner of the serial-killer Renaissance man, Doctor Hannibal Lecter. While Karl’s brain, twisted by insertion in a “perfect” body after a life living with societal rejection and shame at his disability, drives him to kill and eat human flesh, the good doctor deliberately and calculatedly ‘consumes’ the limbs, organs and other parts of the poor who fill his clinic, in order to satiate his scientific curiosity. Organ transplants save lives, but if taken from unwitten donors, how are they different to gustatory cannibalism? Like Hannibal, Victor Frankenstein is the real cannibal in this story.

It’s an interesting and at times engrossing film; the dramatic music by composer Leonard Salzedo  is annoying, but Peter Cushing and the rest of the cast are great and, in 1958, it might possibly have seemed as scary as the hype made out. The film has 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Empire Magazine calling it an:

“Expertly executed example of a golden time in British cinema – one to savour.”

Of course. All cannibal movies should be savoured, as long as they are properly prepared.

Scentless cannibalism: “PERFUME, The Story of a Murderer” (Tom Tykwer, 2006)

Making a movie of a hugely successful book is always fraught – if it is faithful to the book, it is criticised as too derivative and unoriginal, if it diverges, it is damned for breaking the spell by adding new and extraneous material.

The 2006 film of Perfume sticks pretty closely to Patrick Süskind’s novel of the same name, (originally written in German) which has sold over twenty million copies in 49 languages. There is also a German Netflix TV series of Perfume released in 2018. I haven’t checked that out yet, but it sounds very postmodern (the protagonists have read Süskind’s book!)

This 2006 film features a stellar cast, who do a pretty great job with it. Hard to go wrong with Dustin Hoffman and the sadly missed Alan Rickman, and you will also recognise Ben Wishaw as the main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. It is directed by Tom Twyker, and who can forget his Run Lola Run? Since Grenouille doesn’t say much, we have a narrator, and who can fault the pipes of the late, great John Hurt – you may remember him giving birth through his chest in Alien.

The lead character, Grenouille (Ben Wishaw), is a kind of supervillain, whose superpower is, wait for it, his nose. Grenouille is born in eighteenth century France in the worst circumstances – his mother drops him in the muck under her fish stall, assuming he will be stillborn like all her previous births. But he survives, and turns out to have the most sensitive nose ever – he can identify any smell, good or bad. He is raised in an orphanage and sold to a tanner, who eventually takes him to town, where he discovers the ‘scent of a woman’ (not to be confused with Al Pacino’s rather better behaved but still slightly creepy obsession). Young women are all too often the victims in modern movies, but usually they are desired for sex or (in cannibal movies) for nutrition. These young women just smell good. Grenouille is obsessed with capturing that scent, and thus their beauty.

One of the great teachers of Cannibal Studies is a certain Doctor Hannibal Lecter, seen sniffing Will Graham in the episode Coquilles. He taught us, among other things, that

“Taste and smell are the oldest senses, and closest to the centre of the mind. Parts that precede pity and morality.”

Well, a whole lot of cannibal movies concern the taste of humans (short summary: we taste somewhere between wild boar and veal). But smell, that primal sense that so many animals rely on, is usually neglected. Not so in this movie. If cannibalism is the consumption of another member of one’s own kind, then it can involve the devouring of any part, and that includes their odour.

Grenouille sniffs people, a bit like Hannibal, but with a different appetite. He terrifies a young woman by sniffing her, then unintentionally smothers her as he tries to silence her screams. He is horrified to find that her scent disappears as her body cools, and he becomes obsessed with the craving to recreate that smell. He decides that his life mission is to learn how to preserve scent,

He persuades a creator of perfumes, Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), to teach him the trade, in return for creating perfumes that make Baldini rich and famous.

But Grenouille cannot distil the essence of a person (or a cat in a particularly objectionable scene). For that, he needs to go to the perfume capital, Grasse, and learn their art of enfleurage. Baldini has told him that a great perfume has twelve different components, and a thirteenth scent that must be exquisite. On the way to Grasse he sees a young woman, Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood) who he realises must become his thirteenth scent.

Her father Antoine (Alan Rickman) disagrees. He guesses the murderer’s motive.

Of course, killing the other twelve girls for the first twelve scents throws the town into panic, and in a startling recreation of 2020’s COVID-19 headlines, the town is closed down and the economy devastated as the murderer (he is variously described as a plague, a madman, an angel and a demon) is sought.

There’s a chase, Antoine leaves a false trail, but hey, you can’t hide from Supernose. He’s out to create Love Potion No. 9.

The film received mixed reviews (59%) on Rotten Tomatoes. The doyen of film critics, Roger Ebert, wrote

“This is a dark, dark, dark film, focused on an obsession so complete and lonely it shuts out all other human experience. You may not savor it, but you will not stop watching it, in horror and fascination.”

But his long-term co-host on Ebert & Roeper, Richard Roeper, said “Hated this movie. Hated it.

Look, I try to avoid spoilers, but I will mention that absorbing the scent of beautiful women is not the only kind of cannibalism in this movie. The ending has some of the more traditional kind but, to me, this would still have been a cannibal movie if he had only incorporated scents. Cannibalism is about voracious appetite, but not necessarily for food. We never see Grenouille eat or drink – scent seems to be all he needs, like the Astomi peoples who, according to Pliny, had no mouths and lived on odours. Furthermore, Grenouille has no scent of his own, this makes him an outsider, an alien, and explains why he seems invisible to others and can sneak past guard-dogs (who would understand, with Grenouille, the importance of smell). The modern cannibal, from Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, is typically invisible, unidentifiable, blending in with the crowd. Grenouille, though, is appalled to find that he has no identity to others in the only way that matters to him – through smell. He seeks to steal that identity from his victims, and incorporate the essence of their beauty into himself. The scent he creates is distilled beauty, with a menacing power – it can command love, leading to a mass orgy at what was supposed to be an execution.

Absence is one thing, surfeit another, but both can be lethal.

Incorporating the other, be it through eating, smelling, farming, enslaving or invading, is cannibalism.