Cannibal Romcom: FRESH (Mimi Cave 2022)

If you’ve heard about this new movie, you’ll know it’s a sort of cannibal romcom.

Perhaps the first romcom was Adam and Eve – she was created from his rib, as “an help meet” (Genesis 2:18-21) because he was incapable of looking after Eden on his own. And he was, you know, horny. Ever since, relationships have been tricky – they’re about status, property rights and, above all, appetites. Feudal lords sealed alliances by betrothing their children, often marrying their small child off to a complete stranger. For most of human history, women were property, owned by their fathers until ownership was transferred to their husbands. What happened to them after that was up to the appetites of the man. It often still is.

Modern dating has in many ways returned to the realm of the unknown betrothal. Pictures appear on a phone screen and are assessed in an instant. If a candidate is deemed possibly sponge-worthy, a meeting is arranged and may lead to casual sex, long-term commitment or, in unfortunate cases, cannibalism.

What do we know about the person on the dating scene? Each click, each drink, is a contract, the person being (inter)viewed is already objectified by the algorithm that has decided he or she may be suitable. Relationships are chosen in the same way (and often with less forethought) as an Uber-eats meal. The app reduces us to our basics – appearance, tastes – we’re just meat.

This movie, Fresh, the first film by director Mimi Cave and writer Lauryn Kahn (good interview here but beware of spoilers) and produced by Adam McKay (Don’t Look Up), takes the metaphor to its logical conclusion. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones from Normal People), finds herself dating boors who feel entitled to comment on her appearance, are interested exclusively in themselves, and abuse her if she dares to refuse sex. As a woman, her body is their entitlement.

Noa meets Steve (Sebastian Stan from Winter Soldier), not on her dating site, which has been a huge disappointment to her, but in a supermarket. Steve seems charming, clever, and doesn’t press her for sex. When he draws back from sex on their first date, the first time a man has done that in her experience (maybe in history) she asks him if he wants something to drink or eat, and he says “no, just you”. He ruins her enjoyment of her spare ribs by saying “I don’t eat animals.” He means non-human animals, but it’s a common piece of lazy language; he eats humans, and humans are of course animals.

Noa agrees to a weekend getaway with Steve after only a few dates. Bad idea. This starts as a romcom but ends up covered in blood and body parts. Images of other animals waiting to be eaten reinforce the point.

Steve wants to know whom Noa has told. Who knows she is going away with him?

Steve drugs Noa (another common dating strategy) and only then do the credits start, some 33 minutes into the film, as she collapses to the floor.

Steve imprisons her, finally revealing his plan: to keep her alive and slowly sell her meat to his wealthy cannibal clients, keeping the rest of her alive and “fresh” (thus the film title) as long as possible.

Sounds grim? Sure, but also darkly funny. Steve is witty and charming apart from the, you know, kidnapping and cannibalism, and Noa is smart and tough, as she has to be in this dog-eat-dog, or man-eat-woman, world. She has to woo her abuser, as so many women do, in order to escape, even if that means eating human flesh, even perhaps her own.

This is a smart and gripping cannibal film from – wait for it – Disney! Produced by Searchlight, the studio of Nomadland and The Shape of Water, it premiered at Sundance in January this year and was released on Disney+ in the UK but Hulu in the US. It certainly is a long way from Mickey Mouse and Snow White. Yet, like them, it has a moral of sorts. As one reviewer put it:

You will want to become a vegetarian after watching “Fresh.”

Another reviewer (beware of spoilers in this link) wrote:

I don’t know about you, but I, for one, am never eating meat again.

Noa is the protagonist, and the main plot involves her predicament and her attempts to escape (no spoilers!) But Steve is a fascinating character in that he really likes Noa, feels a little bit bad about what he does, but likes the money more. Does that remind us of the farmers who claim to “love” their animals, even as they fatten them up for the abattoir? How many stories have we heard of country kids who befriend a baby lamb or calf or piglet and weep when dad appears with a cleaver, only to get over it and become killers themselves. Steve is the same, but his “livestock” are young women. He likes them, but it’s a business – he packages up their meat, their hair, even their underwear for those who want them. His cold room is full of chilled meat, carefully labelled with the names of the women it came from.

Steve’s wife, who knows exactly what he does, asks him “how was work?” He replies that he is very busy with the “new product”.

He can’t afford to care. Nor can his wife, who is missing a leg. She is a “product” whom he adopted. She knows the answer to the header of my blog “what’s it like to be edible?

It reminded me of an interview with a slaughterhouse worker in Gail Eisnitz’s extraordinary book Slaughterhouse about the workers who kill for a living and the animals who we choose to eat, the ones that are least aggressive, the gentle and friendly species:

If you work in that stick pit for any period of time, you develop an attitude that lets you kill things but doesn’t let you care…. You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them – beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.

This is not a dystopia, it is our world, now, a world in which the rich can buy anything they want including the labour, homes and bodies of others. Steve describes them as the “one percent of the one percent” – they want what no one else can have.

And it’s women they want to eat, because it’s all about ownership and power.

Think of Jeffrey Epstein who supplied underage girls to the rich and powerful. Gary Heidnik started a church which made him a lot of money and then, like Steve in this film, kidnapped, tortured, and raped six women, killing two of them and allegedly feeding the survivors with the flesh of one of the dead. Patrick Bateman was a (fictional) cannibal in the book (if not the film) of American Psycho, consuming human brains because there were absolutely no limits to his appetites.

Is there really anything to stop the “one percent of the one percent” paying to satisfy their cannibalistic appetites? If they are tired of beef and lamb, what meat is next? Millions of people disappear each year, and many are never found. Could some of them be ending up on the plates of the rich?

What Steve does to the lonely women he kidnaps is shocking. But so is what we pay minimum wage workers to do to other species. As Hannibal said, “It’s only cannibalism if we’re equals”. Eating other mammals such as Bos taurus, Ovis aries or Sus domesticus is only one thin red species line away from eating Homo sapiens.

Fresh is currently showing 81% fresh (has to really) on Rotten Tomatoes.

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.”

Christmas slasher: “THE 12 DEATHS OF CHRISTMAS (MOTHER KRAMPUS)” James Klass, 2017

In case you are breathing a sigh of relief that Christmas has been and gone, here’s the latest news – it goes for twelve days, and involves a lot of odd things like lords leaping and pear trees containing medium sized birds. This film covers the twelve days, but omits French hens and turtle doves, etc, in favour of lots of blood and gore.

“Bah! Humbug” always seems like a pretty good response to the confected cheer of Christmas, particularly to those who do not, for various reasons, celebrate the event or conform to the voracious consumerism that accompanies it. If you are one of the many who is over the Christmas rom-coms and tear-jerkers, you may have already come across the German Christmas demon Krampus, who appeared in a 2015 movie from Michael Dougherty, involving goblins, killer toys, malicious snowmen and a jack-in-the-box that eats a child whole, although he has been punishing naughty children for a lot longer than that, and may date back to pre-Christian folklore.

The cannibal movie reviewed today, though, was originally called The 12 Deaths of Christmas and features a different villain – a Christmas witch named Frau Perchta who, according to legend, steals a child each of the twelve nights of Christmas. The witch is also said to slit open the bellies of disobedient children (not dissimilar to the threats of cannibalism which Andre Chikatilo’s mother used to keep him in line). The film’s name was changed to Mother Krampus for the American audience, many of whom have adopted Krampus as a sort of anti-Santa. Frau Perchta does not have nearly the same fan base.

The Santa Claus dogma is of course about socialisation – children are told that a large stranger will sneak into their houses at night and reward them if they are “good”. What if they are not good? Who will sneak into their house then, and what mayhem will ensue? Krampus was one answer, Frau Perchta another. Then there was Santa’s assistant, Père Fouettard who, like the Australian Prime Minister, hands out lumps of coal to children who are not deemed to have been good, and sometimes whips them too (the name Père Fouettard translates as “Father Whipper”. Following Santa around appears to have been his punishment for engaging in a bit of entrepreneurial cannibalism, in which he and his wife drugged three children, slit their throats, cut them into pieces, and stewed them in a barrel, to be sold as Christmas hams. The taste, allegedly, is almost identical.

But today’s film is not just about stealing the bad children, and perhaps killing them, no, it’s all about the punishment of the wicked being extended to the following generations – a popular theme in the Bible (check out Deuteronomy 5:9 for some unfair shit). Perchta is coming for the children of adults who wronged her.

One of these children, and the protagonist of what passes for the plot, is Amy (Faye Goodwin – Mandy the Doll). Her mum is Vanessa (Claire-Maria Fox of Suicide Club and Bride of Scarecrow), and Vanessa’s dad – Amy’s grandpa – (Tony Manders, from The Young Cannibals) lives outside the village, near a scary forest in Belgrave (the UK one), and asks her to drive him, on Christmas no less (no Ubers I guess) to the Church, where a bunch of locals want to discuss the focal local issue – lots of village children are disappearing. There we finally get to hear the legend of the witch:

“Frau Perchta was a witch, who over Christmas stole the souls of children.”

Dad admits to Vanessa that the peaceful villagers got together to kill an old woman 25 years ago (in 1992). We, the audience, know the background, through an endless voiceover accompanied by cards at the start of the movie. 12 kids disappeared over the 12 days of Christmas in 1921, and none were found, except for one girl whose mind was gone, and she could only scream “the witch! The witch!”

Then, in 1992, five more kids disappeared, their bodies were found in the forest, and the villagers believed, for reasons far from clear, that a nice old lady was the killer and was in fact Frau Perchta the witch, so they stabbed her and lynched her, as you do if the local constable is on leave, in a backward and primitive town like Belgrave, which apparently hosts the National Space Centre!

But as she died, she shouted a curse – that Frau Perchta would be back to wreak revenge on them, and their children. So, maybe she wasn’t quite so nice. Yeah, that’s about it for plot – we see (several times) the stringing up of the old woman, we see the risen witch. The witch kills lots of people in creative ways, including one who is cut up and made into a Christmas light show, another whose flesh is pressed into a cookie cutter to make Christmas peoplebread men, while another is trussed up like a Christmas turkey with an apple in her mouth and carved up, and her flesh cooked and fed to her boyfriend, who is Amy’s absentee dad. Then dad has his heart pulled out and eaten (not uncommon in cannibal stories – think Fresh Meat or even Hannibal).

The climax of a horror film (or any action movie) is usually the last ten minutes, in which the story is resolved and the bad guy defeated (until the sequel). This one goes on (and on and on) for about half an hour, presumably to ensure the film is considered a full-length feature, and it resolves nothing much, with a twist at the end that makes no sense at all. But lots of people get killed, and several have parts of them eaten, which is enough to get a mention in this blog, I guess. The plot is thin, the acting is often appalling, the continuity director in some parts seems to have been taken into the forest and eaten. But it’s presented as a low-budget slasher, and that’s what they are often like – they are not dramatic masterworks, but gruesome pantomimes. The idea of one child’s aunt walking him home through the dark forest at night when bodies are turning up everywhere is narratively absurd but, in a panto, we want to anticipate the villain, we want to guess what is going to happen, and yell at the actors to “look behind you!” And the gore, and the fright factors, are quite well done.

The moral of the story, if there is such a thing, is pronounced by a mysterious woman who turns out to be Amy’s grandma, not that it does her much good.

“Taking it into our own hands, playing God. That’s why all this is happening.”

Isn’t that exactly what humans do – play God? Nietzsche told us that God is dead, we killed him, so we have to become God. We play God in so many ways – the Christmas story in essence is about a Jewish family trying to escape one of the many psychopaths who have played God over the centuries. We play God when we nominate ourselves as above nature, more angel than animal, and proceed to destroy our own ecosystem. Who bears the suffering from such follies? The children, who are the ultimate examples of what Judith Butler calls “precarious life”. Like Frau Perchta, our vicious brutality usually comes back to haunt us, through the generations.

At the time of writing, the full movie (should you wish to bother) was available on YouTube.

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.

Skin in the Game: PETA’s URBAN OUTRAGED campaign, 2021

https://www.urbanoutraged.com/

This website purports to sell leather goods: shoes, belts, coats, etc., all made from human body parts. And like many websites in this competitive time, they offer free shipping!

The campaign is from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and started back in June with a poster from celebrity photographer Mike Ruiz, who has photographed Kim Kardashian, Ricky Martin, Katy Perry, and Paris Hilton, as well as being a judge at America’s Next Top Model and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

PETA’s press release stated that leather production isn’t just cruel, but also contributes to the climate crisis, releasing hazardous chemicals. The World Bank has also cited cattle ranching as one of the largest drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Farming, transporting and killing animals for meat and leather is responsible for a very large proportion of global greenhouse emissions.

Here’s the poster near Penn Station in New York.

On the Urban Outraged website, the items for “sale” reveal human faces, human teeth, and oozing blood. Each item is named after an individual who was “killed” for it and is “reviewed” by customers. (“I’m not really a boot person, but I’m glad Meg was, because these are the best boots I’ve ever worn.”). Users can even send a fake “gift card” to their friends’ emails using the form on the last page.

After the initial page, the website gets deadly serious and asks:

Why is it OK to raise sheep just to shear off their wool?
Why is it OK to kill a cow for leather?
Why aren’t you horrified by what’s already in your closet?

“While Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Free People (all owned by Urban Outfitters, Inc.) don’t actually kidnap, abuse, or kill humans or other animals for their products, they do sell skin and other animal-derived materials from farms and suppliers that exploit and kill animals.
Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for wool, cashmere, leather, down, mohair, silk, and alpaca fleece production. Sheep are often beaten, stomped on, and kicked in the wool industry. Goats exploited for cashmere scream out in pain and terror as workers tear out their hair with sharp metal combs. Later, their throats are slit in slaughterhouses and they’re left to die in agony. And cows are routinely beaten and electroshocked for leather at some of the largest suppliers

Many cannibal films featured in thecannibalguy depict not just the consumption of human flesh but the use of other body parts, particularly skin. Think of Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, wearing a mask made of human skin. Or Jame Gumb, “Buffalo Bill” from The Silence of the Lambs, making a woman suit because he is frustrated at being diagnosed as not a true transsexual. Both characters, as well as Norman Bates from Psycho, were based on the real-life “Butcher of Plainfield” Ed Gein, who did kill a couple of women but mostly sourced his body parts from gravesites, and produced a bewildering array of  chairs, waste-baskets, bedposts, bowls, corsets, masks, belts and lampshades from human skin and bones.

The use of human skin, including for binding books, is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy. Human skin used as a medium goes back into prehistory, and was reportedly popular among the Assyrians, who would flay their prisoners alive and display their hides. Perhaps the best known modern examples were the lampshades of Nazi concentration camp guards, but it was also not uncommon among slave owners, who felt that, since they owned the slave, they could use his or her body as they wished.

People have expressed shock and outrage at PETA’s new website, but that really was the point. Such atrocities against humans were carried out by people who saw nothing particularly wrong with what they were doing. The workers who skin cows and sheep, minks, snakes and crocodiles, dogs and cats and so many other animals are just, they say, doing their job. But that acceptance of appalling suffering for the sake of meat or clothing brings us closer to the possibility of adding one more species to the list of edible, flayable animals.

“It’s primitive as can be”: GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (1964-67)

A tweet making waves the other day from film director James Gunn reminded me of the many hours I wasted spent as a child watching the seemingly endless travails of the seven castaways on the TV series Gilligan’s Island. Being shipwrecked on a desert island with Mary Ann and Ginger did not seem such an ordeal to my pubescent mind, except every now and the group would be threatened by the arrival of – yep – CANNIBALS!

English professor Priscilla Walton observes that her first encounter with cannibals was also on her television, watching the enormously popular show. The series ran from 1964-67 over some 98 episodes plus occasional reunion movies.

Gilligan’s Island (GI) was a clever reboot of the first English language novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (even mentioning that story in the closing song).

“No phone, no lights, no motor car, not a single luxury. Like Robinson Crusoe, they’re primitive as can be.”

Unlike Defoe’s story, Gilligan (Bob Denver) was not a lone survivor of a shipwreck but the hapless “first mate” on a little cruise boat, The Minnow. Gilligan, his skipper (Alan Hale) and five tourists left a tropical port for a three-hour tour, and instead were marooned on an uncharted island, apparently interminably. Various commentators with too much time on their hands have suggested that the seven castaways represent the seven deadly sins (e.g. Ginger was lust and Mary Ann envy). I’m not going near that one, fascinating as it is, because this is a cannibal blog after all. And cannibalism is neither illegal, nor one of the seven deadly sins. It just misses out on all the gongs.

Robinson Crusoe worried ceaselessly about his lack of company, eventually adopting Friday, a local ‘savage’ whom he rescued from a tribe of cannibals. He also spent a lot of the book and some of the movies worried about what to eat, and nervous that Friday might eat him. Like those of us marooned on this planet rather than an island, major preoccupations are always fear and appetite. Appetite is all about food and sex. Fear is about being killed and perhaps eaten.

The obsessions of Gilligan and the other all-white islanders were the same. Of course, it was the sixties, so no sex could be shown except for the movie star, Ginger (Tina Louise) who used her flirty charms to inflame and coax the men into various (non-sexual) activities. But – what did the castaways eat? Well, it was an island, so presumably the would eat sea animals, as well as various plants (including some that grew from a box of radioactive seeds in one episode). There seemed to be a lot of coconut pies.

Then of course, like Crusoe, there were the natives who, like most depictions of indigenous peoples until fairly recently, were assumed to be primitive savages and so, ipso facto, cannibals. No evidence was presented, and no one was ever eaten. From the earliest days of the movie, and well before, indigenous peoples who were being dispossessed by European explorers were declared cannibals, with no evidence needed other than their lack of “civilisation.” Think of movies like Cannibal Holocaust and the various Italian movies of that period, or old classics like Windbag the Sailor, Be My King, or the early racist cartoons like Jungle Jitters.

Sheer Eurocentric racism of course, as I suppose was the choice of the Irish name “Gilligan” for the show’s clown, a boy/man who is usually responsible for thwarting their rescue through his clueless blunderings. The “natives” were invariably people of colour wearing grass skirts with bone piercings in ears, noses, etc and horns on their heads. This probably is the image that springs to mind even now when a cannibal scholar mentions cannibalism in polite company – primitive savages who threaten our safety and bodies if we fall into their clutches. Of course, as Walton points out, the island was the traditional home of the “natives” – it was Gilligan and the castaways who were the intruders, introducing baffling technology and probably a few new pandemics to the locals. There’s a comprehensive study of GI Natives on a Gilligan fandom page. Yes Virginia, there is a GI fandom site.

But the cannibal has moved on. From the outsider who was only sighted by explorers or conquistadors, the cannibal has firmly come home and, since the time of Jack the Ripper who boasted of eating the kidney of one of his victims, the vast majority of reports of cannibalism involve people in urban cities and communities eating their neighbours. Generally, they are dismissed as psychotic personalities who know not what they do. That discourse has become ever less convincing, with cannibals like Fritz Haarmann or Armin Meiwes or even Jeffrey Dahmer all seeming to know exactly what they were doing. The ultimate example of the civilised, enlightened, urbane cannibal is of course Hannibal Lecter, who simply sees eating inferior or rude humans as no worse than eating pigs or fish. Unlike the other examples, Hannibal is fictional, but perfectly represents the cultural trend toward the modern, domestic cannibal.

So, who would the cannibals have been in a re-booted Gilligan’s Island? There are clues. While the men seem largely asexual (Gilligan and the Skipper could perhaps be considered bunk-mates, while the Professor is married to science and Thurston Howell III to Lovey and therefore to asexual domesticity), the women are given standard feminine stereotypes of the virgin (Mary Ann), the whore (Ginger) and the symbolic mother (Lovey). Barbara Creed‘s “The Monstrous-Feminine” emphasises the importance of gender in the construction of female monsters, and so it is not totally surprising that when people turn their fantasies beyond the wholesome storyline of the series, it is the gentle, subservient Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) who becomes the knife-wielding cannibal.

The 2002 comic strip Cool Jerk (above) depicted Mary Ann, or maybe a look-alike, as a cannibal named Mary Annibal. The Silence of the Lambs had swept the Oscars in 1992, and the sequel, Hannibal, had come out in a blaze of publicity in 2001.

Cannibalism on a desert island (or in an inaccessible place like the Andes) is a long tradition, and a rich source of humour. Above is the cover of the Horror Society’s Summer 2015 issue. Can you spot the Cannibal Holocaust reference?

More recently, James Gunn, the director of Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad and many others (and a known provocateur with a wicked sense of humour) suggested that he and Charlie Kaufman had wanted to restart “Gilligan Kimishima” as a cannibal movie. He tweeted an image of his entry in a Twitter trend that asked people to “pitch a movie with two pictures, no captions.” He juxtaposed the GI tribe with Theodor de Bry’s 16th century engravings of the Tupinambá in Brazil, a series of engravings he based on the sensational accounts of Hans Staden and Jean de Léry, both of whom gave graphic descriptions of cannibalism (hey, it sells books).

Gunn went on to explain that this was a true story. He and Charlie Kaufman had pitched a movie version of Gilligan’s Island to Warner Bros. in which the starving castaways would kill and eat each other. Unfortunately, the creator of GI, Sherwood Schwartz (and later his estate) refused to let it go ahead.

Such a shame. Of course, most of the original GI actors are now dead (Dawn Wells sadly died from COVID-19 just before New Year), but with modern artificial intelligence and deepfake technology, who says we couldn’t have a cannibal feast on an avatar Gilligan’s Island? It would at least be white meat.

“…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.

“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.

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.

“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.