THE CANNIBAL CLUB – O Clube dos Canibais (Guto Parente, 2018)

This is a movie about privilege – the rich literally eating the poor. It may be a metaphor, but it is particularly apposite to current Brazilian politics, where the destruction of the Amazon is threatening to kill and consume us all. But is there a nation, even a community, where someone is not eating someone else, if not literally then practically? The film was made in 2018, before President Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in and gave the green light for the burning of the Amazon rainforest. But the cannibalism of this club is not just political – it is about the consumption of the poor by those who own the wealth. It would have made the same points whatever the results of the election.

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Otavio (Tavinho Teixeira) and Gilda (Ana Luiza Rois) have a hobby – Gilda seduces members of their staff and Otavio watches from a distance then kills the worker with an axe as they both climax. They then prepare the meat for their dinner.

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A bit over a year ago, this blog looked at the film “Eat the Rich”, in which the workers fought back against their effete bosses. Pure fantasy of course; in reality, the rich eat the poor: they swallow their surplus labour, they squeeze rent from them, they sell them their shoddy products paid for by lending them money at ruinous rates, and they send their children off to war. Why not go the next step and literally cook them for dinner?

The rich also hang out together with other rich people, and despise the poor. Everything decadent is considered better and more desirable.

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The club in the title is an elite group of privileged and powerful men – women are not invited. For their pre-dinner entertainment, they sit and watch two performers have sex, during which they are beaten to death and subsequently served at the black-tie dinner.

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Their chairman is the influential politician Borges (Pedro Domingues) who rails against the depravity of those who threaten the traditional morality of Brazil, whom he describes as “poors, delinquents, pederasts and filthy scum”. That makes is awkward when Borges is seen by Gilda as he is being buggered by a servant.

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This puts Otavio and Gilda in peril – they have a secret that Borges will happily kill to conceal. But can they kill Borges first? In the funniest line of the movie, Otavio objects to Gilda’s murderous plan:

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Because to the rich, killing and eating the servants is no more murder than beheading a chicken. So they plan to get the new caretaker, Jonas (Zé Maria) to do the dirty work, then they will go through their ritual: Jonas will have sex with Gilda, then at the climax, Otavio will kill him with an axe.

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Of course, these things never go as smoothly as the conspirators wish.

It’s pretty slapstick cannibalism, which is a shame, because it’s a Brazilian film, and that should make it a bit more interesting – Brazil was the source of so many of the stories of cannibalism that early explorers brought back to shock the gentle folk of Europe and secure funds for journeys of colonialism and genocide. The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, in his book Cannibal Metaphysics (2014), sought to ‘decolonise’ anthropology by challenging the increasingly familiar view that these stories were mere fictions of colonialism. Rather than deny the existence of cannibalism, which would simply reclassify the Amerindian peoples as ‘like us’, de Castro examines the details of Tupinamba cannibalism, which was ‘a very elaborate system for the capture, execution, and ceremonial consumption of their enemies’. This alternative view of Amerindian culture rejects the automatic assumption of the repugnance of cannibalism – instead, it owns the history or mythology. This could have been a far more interesting film if the cannibalism had been owned by all sides and interpreted as a unique identity, rather than just being a rather crude metaphor of class struggle.

The film got 57% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is not bad, but not good. The reviewer from Variety said

“A diverting, stylish, but ultimately rather trite satire whose social critique and grand guignol aspects never quite come to a full boil.”

By the way – check out the Cannibal Club in Los Angeles.

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No, I haven’t been there. I understand they do not have a vegetarian option.

Also, it’s a fake website. Sorry.

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The First and Last Hannibal movie: HANNIBAL RISING (Webber, 2007)

Well, it’s the first Hannibal movie, because it starts with him as a child, and it’s chronologically the last one released. Unless #BryanFuller makes a movie, instead of Season 4 of the TV show. Or Sir Anthony Hopkins comes back as an octogenarian Hannibal, with his wife (Clarice – Jodie Foster or Julianne Moore would both be fine) running the meat business. Martha De Laurentiis @neoprod – I have a script treatment ready!

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This is the Hannibal film everyone loves to hate. We are treated to a sweet young Hannibal (Aaran Thomas) having to watch his beloved little sister Mischa being eaten by Nazi collaborators and deserters, and then discovering that he himself unwittingly joined the feast.

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From this, we deduce, came his hunger for human flesh. Like the desperate young crash survivors carving meat from the corpses of their dead teammates in Alive, his subsequent actions may not be acceptable, but become at least partially understandable. Psychopathy founded in trauma.

Hannibal of course would have hated this – remember that he told Clarice in Silence of the Lambs

“You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviourism… Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?”

Or as the 21st century Hannibal said:

when it comes to nature versus nurture I choose neither. We are built from a DNA blueprint and born into a world of scenario and circumstance we don’t control.

There are two streams of thought on the subject of evil: one, from Rousseau to Arendt, is adamant that morality requires an explanation for evil, while an alternative stream from Voltaire to Jean Améry, insists that it be left unaccountable. Clarice Starling and Dino De Laurentiis would seem to favour the side of Rousseau, while Harris and Hannibal, and many critics of the film, seem more aligned with Voltaire. Harris apparently faced the awful choice of accepting large sums of money to divulge the origin story, or else see it betrayed by another writer.

The opening image of a film, they tell you in film studies, sets the mood and the theme. This one opens with a spider-web.

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People are afraid of spiders, for reasons that I have never quite understood. Beware, this one seems to be saying, and we hear childish Hannibal in the background, telling Mischa to run and hide! But it’s just a game. Until the Nazis appear, with their Hiwis, or Lithuanian collaborators, led by the irredeemably despicable Grutas (Rhys Ifans), bandits who are all too willing to assist the SS, for their own profit.

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Hannibal’s parents are killed, and the Hiwis take over the lodge, desperate for food, and finding none.

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Except for the children.

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We do not witness the cannibal acts then, but in nightmare flashbacks eight years later. Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is now a teenager, still mute from PTSD, in an orphanage which uses the former Lecter Castle. He is accused of not honouring “the human pecking order”

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Yes, he hates discourtesy. He won’t swallow bullying. Yet.

He escapes the orphanage, crosses Lithuania, Poland, East Germany (hops over the Wall, easy as anything) and arrives in his uncle’s home in Paris. Uncle is dead, and he moves in with his beautiful young Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li, who is Chinese, but, ah well). Will there be romance as she helps him recover his voice?

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She teaches him about the Samurai code, in front of the armour of her ancestors, strangely evocative of a later Hannibal.

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She teaches him the art of fighting. And the treatment of enemies.

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A butcher in the marketplace insults Murasaki, and Hannibal is enraged. The butcher (a Nazi collaborator) becomes Hannibal’s first kill, and then his first human meat, after the chef explains the delights of eating cheeks.

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Hannibal presents Murasaki with the butcher’s head. When she objects that he did not need to do that for her, he replies

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Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to Hannibal. Ah, so young, and already eating the rude. And already seeing cannibalism everywhere – looking at a fresco of Abraham on the mount, about to sacrifice his son, he asks

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So much about older Hannibal is revealed – the police inspector (Dominic West from The Wire) gives him a lie detector test – but he responds to nothing.

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Hannibal is also brilliant – the youngest student ever admitted into medical school. But he is still obsessed with Mischa and the men who took her from him. He can draw their faces from memory, but cannot remember their names. A dose of sodium thiopental, truth serum, with the Goldberg Variations (another Silence of the Lambs reference) playing in the background, gives him his mental break. Or maybe breaks something in him, depending on your propensity for behaviourism. He remembers that there was a bag of dog-tags left in the lodge, returns to the Soviet Union (no problem crossing the Iron Curtain for Hannibal apparently) and finds all the names. And Mischa’s teddy bear, and her bones. And one of the Hiwis, whom he dispatches, much as Will later dreams of dispatching Hannibal.

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He licks the blood off his glove, with some gusto, and prepares the cheeks for a fresh-air feast.

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Hannibal spends the rest of the movie tracking down the rest of the gang, who are now into respectable industries like human trafficking and drowning ortolans for lunch.

Along the way, there are interesting discussions of our topic – cannibalism. One of the gang tell Hannibal, as he is about to be killed:

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Survival cannibalism. Common in the days of sail, and in various famines. But the Inspector knows what happened, back in the USSR.

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Cannibalism happened on the Eastern Front, says the Inspector. This is not news to Hannibal. He is determined to find the gang leader, Grutas. The Inspector tells him (us) what a lovely guy Grutas is. He sawed off the head of the Rabbi at Kaunas.

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He walked away from his war crime trial because a witness got acid poured down her throat. So really, whatever Hannibal does, well, it’s OK with us. But the Inspector has decided Hannibal is insane.

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Murasaki tries to persuade him to give the gang up to the police. She can be quite persuasive.

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But Hannibal cannot make that promise. He has already promised Mischa – revenge.

At his first encounter with the villain, Grutas, he has an interesting outlook on cannibalism too.

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There you have it. Cannibalism is about love.

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Then the big reveal. Lady Murasaki is a captured by Grutas, Hannibal comes to the rescue and has Grutas at his mercy. Mercy is not a word Hannibal uses much, and when Murasaki asks him to stop, he says

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Grutas replies:

So did you. You ate her too. So why don’t you kill yourself? Pot Watcher fed her to you in a broth. You have to kill everyone who knows it, don’t you? You ate her, half conscious…

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Hannibal snaps, and carves M for Mischa on Grutas’ chest.

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Murasaki gives up, despite Hannibal’s protestations of love.

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Instead of following her, Hannibal stops for a quick snack on Grutas’ cheeks.

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Trivia time: Hannibal is not only a brilliant doctor, musician and cook, but he is also apparently ambidextrous. Check him out writing left-handed in this movie, whereas he is right-handed in all the others, and in the TV series.

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The film got a measly 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. Most criticism centres on the fact that it is not particularly scary, but that rather misses the point, IMHO. The question the film asks is: how do people overcome the social conditioning of their childhoods to become what they are – killers, cannibals, rapists, politicians? It may be genetic, as Hannibal tells Clarice: “nothing happened. I happened”. Or maybe the childhood itself offers a clue to how, as Clarice asked “you got that way”. The film offers a view of the latter – a gentle, loving little boy with, clearly, a brilliant mind, but so traumatised that he can think of nothing but revenge. His target – rude people and bullies. No one minds seeing them get their comeuppance. But you take a bite out of their cheeks, and suddenly everyone is convinced you’re a monster.

But here’s why I like this film:

  • The book and the screenplay are both written by the brilliant Thomas Harris, who of course created Hannibal. This is the only film in the series for which Harris wrote the screenplay
  • The Director is Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring)
  • There are two Hannibals in this movie (a 100% increase on all the other movies)! One at age eight, and the other a young man
  • It only takes Hannibal’s story up to his arrival in North America, leaving a nice narrative gap between that and his eventual capture and captivity by Will Graham in Red Dragon, which was perfectly filled by Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal (even if time shifted by a few decades)
  • It shows the humanity of Hannibal, his devotion to his sister, and his determination to hunt down her killers. If you don’t want your Hannibal to show humanity, then this can be a problem
  • It was a prequel. Every great character gets a prequel – Darth Vader, Indiana Jones, Vito Corleone, Mr Spock, Zorro, Batman – even Jesus has scored a few. Why not Hannibal?

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“I know that babies taste best”: SNOWPIERCER (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

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Verschlimmbesserung: a word I found in the Urban Dictionary. It means an attempted improvement, which just makes things worse.

How can we make the frightening prospects of global catastrophe due to climate change even worse? Well, apparently the best way is to come up with a half-arsed way of fixing it. In Snowpiercer, a corporation has come up with a substance, CW-7, which is sprayed into the atmosphere to deflect the sun’s rays and cool the planet. It succeeds brilliantly:

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The only humans left alive are on a train, the SNOWPIERCER, which dashes through the snow, circumnavigating the earth once a year. The grateful survivors form a happy band of brothers who work together to survive.

Just kidding!

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There is, as in all human society, a strict hierarchy of power and privilege. It’s the year 2031. The rich, including the train’s inventor Wilford (Ed Harris) live in luxury at the front of the train, the “scum” live at the back in squalor, beaten and tormented by armed soldiers and fed a mysterious protein bar made of what?

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There is revolution brewing though, led by Curtis (Chris Evans, in a far meatier role than Captain America ever offered him).

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There’s a lot to like in this movie – the plot is interesting, the action plentiful, the cast are stellar (including also John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang Ho, and Tilda Swinton, as well as Paul Lazar, who played a nerdy scientist in Silence of the Lambs) and the photography, particularly of the frozen world and the train, is superb.

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Bong Joon-ho is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Metacritic has ranked him one of the 25 best film directors of the 21st century, and he recently became the first Korean director to win the top prize at Cannes – the Palme d’Or, for his new film Parasite, which also explores class and social divisions. The film between Snowpiercer and Parasite was Okja, an animated piece that was also nominated for a Palme d’Or but was voted down, perhaps because it was released on Netflix. Okja crossed the anthropocentric line of privilege, featuring cruelty to a giant pig specially bred for human consumption (like so many animals today) and the horrors she faces in the slaughterhouse.

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Snowpiercer also explores some fascinating ethical issues to do with leadership, biopolitics, class privilege, revolution, violence, the Holocaust, our reliance on technology and yes, finally, cannibalism.

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Wilford explains to Curtis: “You’ve seen what people do without leadership.”

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Look, this is a pretty recent movie and got a woeful cinematic release, so you may still be planning to see it. Therefore, I won’t disclose the ending. But you need to know the cannibalism angle, because you are, after all, reading this blog on cannibal films and TV shows.

There are hints in the first half of the film, discussions about the number of arms people have, and then more food references as they march their prisoner Mason (Tilda Swinton), who previously lectured them on their place at the bottom of society, through the front cars. First they go through a greenhouse, then an aquarium, and we hear Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a tribute (one hopes) to Silence of the Lambs.  At the front of the aquarium, ecological balance is maintained by eating the fish twice a year as sushi. They sit down for this elite meal, but make their captive eat the protein bars that are the only food given to the “scum”.

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Curtis and his dwindling band of fighters go through a butchery, then a school, where the children are taught that tail-enders

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And that we, the pre-trainers,

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There are dentists, tailors, hairdressers, a fancy dining-car, an aquatic centre, a disco, a drug lounge – all the things that make up decadent, modern society.

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We are socially and culturally determined in large part by what we eat. The food is always better in first or business class. The higher classes eat beautifully prepared, gourmet tidbits. The lower classes, the starving and the deranged eat what they are given, or what they can hunt.

Just before the showdown, Curtis reveals what it was like when they first boarded the train: “A thousand people in an iron box. No food, no water.”

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“There was a woman. She was hiding with her baby. And some men with knives came. They killed her and they took her baby.”

Then an old man took the knife and cut off his own arm, offering them that as food, to save the baby. Then others started doing the same. Sacrificing to the cannibals to save the next generation. Then the rich started sending through protein bars. And we thought they were going to be the cannibals!

Things Curtis hates about himself:

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Well, there’s a lot more to the story, and a lot more to like, but you can find out by watching the movie. It’s worth it.

Here’s the trailer:

 

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“An act of dominance: HANNIBAL Season 2 Episode 6 “Futamono” (Fuller, 2014)

Why do cannibals eat people? This episode looks at that question, and demonstrates that they do it for the same reason that anyone eats anything. Appetite and power. Hunger and dominance. They want to, and they can. Isn’t that why people eat other animals?

Hannibal had a near death experience in the previous episode and, as this one starts, he is playing harpsichord. As he explains to Alana Bloom, who is also a psychiatrist and into this stuff:

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He is growing. Becoming, as he hopes Will is growing and becoming – becoming a killer and cannibal like him.

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Well, Will is already a cannibal – as he says to Jack Crawford:

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Look, people as a rule don’t like cannibals much. Will tells Jack that he (Will) has “contempt for the Ripper, contempt for what he does”. What does he do? Jack asks.  In a piece of dialogue straight out of the interview between Clarice and Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs, Will tells us:

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If Will was Hannibal, he’d quote Marcus Aurelius. But this is close enough. Jack points out that the killer harvests organs. That’s what he does, sure, but why? Why does he need to do it?

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Will is quick to point out that Hannibal is not like Hobbs, who honoured the animals (human and other) that he killed and ate. He uses the word “sounder” (a collective noun for hogs) deliberately.

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Well, Hannibal is certainly thinking gastronomically. He is cutting up and skewering the pieces of a heart – human, probably. Alana is helping him, analysing him, working on a definition of humanity as they prepare the heart:

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…and the things that make us human. Good and bad, love and ache.

Hannibal has not recovered from the murder attempt on himself.

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And when Hannibal goes shopping, it’s not random. He has a method. A list of rude people, and a wonderful, hand-written recipe card base.

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The latest victim has been grafted onto a tree in a carpark, his organs replaced with poisonous flowers. All except for his lungs.

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Jack realises why: This is a judgement.

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Jack wants to tell Hannibal about the latest case, but he won’t listen.

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How is he going to do that?

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Well, Will told Jack that if people were being killed, then Hannibal was planning a dinner party. Is this all still too subtle for Jack?

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But now, Will is not alone. Abel Gideon knows about Hannibal, and so does Chilton, who records all their conversations. Jack asks Chilton if he knows what he is accusing Hannibal of? Oh yes.

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Chilton is a believer, now that his life is at stake. He analyses Hannibal as psychopath:

Jack, he fits the profile. He is attracted to medical and psychological fields because they offer power over man. Cannibalism –

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Hannibal eats people because he wants to, and because he can. He shows his dominance, and he dispenses justice. The dude grafted into a tree had, Jack observes, “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” It had been an important nesting habitat for endangered songbirds.

Hannibal is picking victims for his dinner party. The recipes and victims are chosen and prepared carefully, to a Strauss “love song waltz”.

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Hannibal’s party is splendid, with liveried footmen serving the dishes he planned during the sequences above. Chilton and Jack watch the well-heeled, well-fed guests tuck in to the fare.

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Jack rudely takes a plate of delicacies home with him. Or back to the lab.

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But Hannibal is one step ahead – the food was made of animals other than humans – goose, pig, cow.

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But Hannibal has new dinner plans. He drugs Alana, who becomes his alibi as he goes to the asylum and kidnaps Abel Gideon, the man who attempted to steal his identity by claiming to be the Chesapeake Ripper.

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Gideon, now crippled by the asylum guards, will be both guest of honour and main course: Hannibal has amputated his “useless” leg and prepared it as Roti de cuisse: clay-roasted thigh with canoe-cut marrowbone.

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Gideon is a little unsure of the etiquette of the guest / meat.

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Then, there are more tributes to the earlier books/movies:

Silence of the Lambs

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And Hannibal Rising

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And Silence again – the girl in the pit.

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Hannibal has finished his composition. This was his design.

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Merely the ink from which flows my poem: HANNIBAL Season 2 Episode 3 “Hassun” (Fuller, 2014)

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Will is awaiting trial, and the FBI has offered a plea deal – but if he fights the case and loses, he’ll face the death penalty. The electric chair. We see him in that chair, smoke rising from his corpse, as the clock ticks – backwards. Like Vertov’s bull in Kino-Eye, he comes back to life. Then we see the executioner – it is Will himself, looking serious, and quite spiffy, in a suit.

He’s clearly anxious about the trial.

He buttons himself into a suit; so does Hannibal. They dress to the dalla sua pace aria from Don Giovanni. It is a song of anxiety – Donna Anna has asked her fiancé, Don Ottavio, to kill Don Giovanni in revenge. But all Ottavio can do is worry about her state of mind. Hannibal is feeling a bit guilty too perhaps, or is this his design? Anyway, he is creating a protégé from young Will, and doesn’t want electric chairs getting in his way.

Hannibal puts on cuff-links, while Will has hand-cuffs. Easy to confuse the two words.

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The Prosecution argues that Will killed and ate Abigail as her father had planned to do. Her father killed girls and ate them, so then did Will. The crime, although it’s a murder trial, is clearly cannibalism.

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Jack is called as a witness and dumps on the FBI case, taking the blame for pushing Will too hard, and pleading the Hannah Arendt defence: Will had objected to the name “museum of evil minds” because

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Will’s Defence lawyer opens an envelope and another ear falls out.

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Hannibal’s diagnosis: there may be another killer. He has sent this ear to help you prove you are not guilty. He is an admirer. Will is incredulous – an admirer?

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Hannibal speculates that the killer wants to be seen. Why?

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In court, it’s not getting better though. Freddie tells how Abigail believed that, like her father

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Chilton gives damning evidence, and uses Clarice’s line about Hannibal from Silence of the Lambs:

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Hannibal takes Will a folder of crime scene photos from the latest murder – the court bailiff who was killed: found burned, mounted on stag’s head, Glasgow smile and ear lopped off. The team are calling it “Will Graham’s greatest hits”. Will does his pendulum thing (obviously feeling much better) and sees himself kill the dude, but without it being, you know, personal:

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But Will sees that this is a different killer:

“Cassie’s lungs were removed while she was still breathing. Georgia was burned alive. What I found of Abigail was cut off while her heart was beating.”

Hannibal admits he knew that, but wants Will to use this as a defence, even though it’s a lie.

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Hannibal gets on the stand, and takes the oath, but Will sees through him.

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Hannibal lies for Will, saying it’s the same killer. It’s love, or as the prosecutor says, “his personal beliefs and biases are driving his conclusions.”

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The judge tosses out the defence. Hannibal is pissed. Not in control.

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Bad idea, judge. He is found holding the scales of justice. His brain on one side of the scales, his heart on the other.

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But there will be a mistrial. Will has a reprieve. For now.

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Hell is in Hello: “MOTEL HELL” (Connor, 1980)

Lee Marvin “sang” these words in the musical Paint Your Wagon:

Do I know where Hell is? Hell is in hello…

Don’t know whether Director Kevin Connor got the idea from Lee Marvin, but he certainly borrowed from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with an actual chainsaw duel between two brothers featuring at the climax of the film. Texas, in its own low budget way, revolutionised the horror genre, introduced slashers, and let us in on the world of the neglected, socially isolated “flyover zone” cannibal.

It’s also a spoof on Psycho – the killer in the motel, the unsuspecting travellers. You might also call it a precursor of the film Delicatessen that was considered on this blog last week: once again there are rooms for rent, human meat for sale.

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The motel is actually called MOTEL HELLO but the “O” keeps flickering off, thus giving the sinister name, and the title of the film.

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Vincent (Rory Calhoun) is a neo-lib dream: an entrepreneur who relishes his freedom to do whatever he likes in the name of business. The hidden hand of the market is his, and that hand carries a shotgun, or sometimes a chainsaw. Vincent runs the motel, but in his spare time (of which he has plenty) he ambushes motorists and stores them until he slaughters them and sells their flesh in his butcher shop as FARMER VINCENT’S SMOKED MEATS.

Simpsons fans will know Rory Calhoun of course!

Farmer Vincent’s is a family business, and Vincent’s sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) is involved in the process, which involves burying the victims up to their necks in the garden and cutting their vocal chords so they can’t make a fuss, then feeding them up like hogs until they are fat and edible. But Vincent fancies one of the victims, Terry (Nina Axelrod) and asks Ida to help her heal from the accident he caused. His kid brother Bruce (Paul Linke) is the local sheriff, and is as clueless as we expect local sheriffs to be, but he soon develops a crush on Terry. But she develops a crush on Vincent, so we know that (murder and cannibalism aside) there’s going to be trouble.

In a scene that perfectly parodies slasher movies, two little girls sneak into the smoking room, and with the requisite spooky backing track, are terrified by the scenes of carnage they see there – a lot of dead pigs. Only pigs, we might chuckle but, for Vincent, pigs and people are just the same: dumb animals good for nothing except slaughter and smoking for profit.

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Terry is pretty upset about losing her boyfriend (to whom she was not married, the religious Vincent notes), but he convinces her that being with them is “preordained”

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“Ah, the ways of the Lord are mysterious!”

Vincent’s methods of harvesting meat animals are not too particular: the local meat inspector who gets too nosy, a bus full of hippie musicians, even a pair of swingers whom he has lured with an ad – all get buried up their necks in the garden, unable to make any intelligible sound.

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He explains to Ida how important his various traps are, because “they give me a chance to be a free agent” and his work will remain special and important. Yep, Vincent is a classic neo-lib. As Ida pulls the latest victims out of the truck toward the holes he has dug, he tells her “plant ‘em!”. As they reflect on the strangeness of the hippies, they chant their motto:

It takes all kinds of critters
To make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!

As Vincent and Ida settle down to “plant” their critters and pull out the scalpels to cut their vocal chords, are they really behaving differently to the farmer who ties down a bull or hog to castrate him or to burn off his horns, or a sheep farmer who cuts hunks of skin off the backside of a lamb because it’s an easy way to avoid fly-strike (and saves money on insecticides)? They cleverly portray the hard work and care of farmers who really can see nothing wrong in the suffering they inflict for the sake of profit. He checks out one victim, smiling “not quite – tomorrow he’ll be ready to become famous.”

Terry asks how Vincent got started in the meat business and he tells her of the days when they couldn’t afford an icebox, and Granny would smoke anything she could catch – chickens, rabbits, frogs. One day, she asked Vincent to do something about an annoying dog who was barking, and that dog ended up smoked too. Did Granny know she was eating a dog, asks Terry, now repulsed, although she has just been enjoying Vincent’s smoked “ham”. Vincent replies:

Why Granny never put any distinctions on any of God’s creatures. She always used to say [Ida and Bruce join in the chant] MEAT’S MEAT, AND A MAN’S GOTTA EAT!

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Ida doesn’t like the wheezing and hissing noises the captives make as they try to talk without vocal chords. Vincent replies “They’re good animals! Not like taking care of chickens, or hogs.” Ida asks: “Vincent, do you think in the years to come people will appreciate us for what we’re doing here?” She goes on “Somebody’s gotta take a little responsibility for the planet!” Vincent and Ida are also ecologists, performing a valuable service by combating the scourge of human overpopulation.

The action is interspersed with the seemingly continuous telecast of a televangelist on the TV. Also with cannibal puns: as the swingers get ready for what they expect will be a wild evening (it will, but not quite as they hoped), Ida tells them “you look good enough to eat”. And the final credits roll to the Kregg Nance song “You’re eating out my heart and soul”.

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People certainly don’t like the idea of cannibalism, but they usually find it hard to articulate what is wrong with it, compared to eating other “critters”. For most, it is enough to say it is taboo, but that really begs the question. The genius of this film is that Vincent is not the usual psychotic serial killer type of cannibal. He is good humoured, kind, and has a strong sense of morality, seen in his choice of religious programs, as well as his shock when Terry comes on to him – he recoils, saying “we should be married first”.

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Well, they are going to get married, by none other than the local pastor, played by the legendary Wolfman Jack, a gravelly voiced DJ of the golden age of Rock.

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Ida drugs Terry, so that she and Vincent can go prepare the meat for the wedding feast. Vincent insists on offering his victims a humane death – he believes that “no animal should ever suffer any unnecessary pain”. Well, we nearly all believe that! Just a question of semantics – define ‘animal’. Define ‘pain’. And define ‘unnecessary’.

Anyway, Bruce is royally pissed off and starts looking for evidence against Vincent, and the “animals” start digging themselves out and staggering about in a scene reminiscent of just about every zombie movie.

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Terry finds out the truth, but it’s her version (what else could it be?) As far as Vincent is concerned, he is just preparing the wedding feast. He says:

Haven’t you ever cleaned a fish? There’s nothing cruel in what I’m doing here. I treat most of my stock better than farmers treat their animals. I don’t feed them chemicals or hormones. When you consider the way the world is today, there’s no question I’m doing a lot of them a big favour.

Terry ask him what right he has to play God. Vincent denies that is what he is doing.

I’m just helping out. There’s too many people in the world and not enough food. This takes care of both problems at the same time.

And that’s Vincent’s truth. And there is some truth in it.

The climax is the two brothers battling it out with chainsaws (a Texas Chain Saw reference) while Vincent wears a pig’s head on his head, which would not help his visual acuity much, but takes us to all sorts of interesting tropes, such as Animal Farm. The shock ending: as Vincent dies, he admits to his whole life being a lie, to being the biggest hypocrite of them all. Why?

My meat. I used – preservatives!

The film received a respectable 70% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The reviews range from “a rather well-executed dark comedy” to “tasteless, gruesomely awkward and moronic.” I liked it because it ticked all the boxes in my quest to understand cannibalism’s undermining of anthropocentrism. And Rory Calhoun is terrific – or as Montgomery Burns would say:

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Innocent cannibalism: “SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET” (King, 1936)

One of the earliest films in the range of cannibal stories I have chosen to cover is George King’s 1936 version of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney is a modern myth, but is a descendant of the shadow archetype, those who destroy themselves in trying to destroy others, including Homer’s Cyclops, whose behaviour, Lacan would say, is governed by “unregulated libidinism”. This Todd is certainly so governed.

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The poster on the wall of the barber shop, where the story is told

The title role is played by the wonderfully named Tod Slaughter, who presents Todd as pure evil: socially respectable, yet greedy for money and lusting after the young heroine, Johanna. This is a far more straight forward explanation of cannibalism than the 21st century version where Depp is motivated by revenge at injustice (and insists on singing as well).

The plot is straightforward: Todd has a barber shop near the docks where he lures passers-by in for a shave, kills them and steals their valuables, the kind of simple but effective business plan that any bank would find beguiling.

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Todd’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, has a pie shop and profitably disposes of the bodies. Johanna is the daughter of a local merchant and Todd offers to go into partnership with him, planning to ruin him and blackmail him into approving marriage with his daughter. When the girl’s true love, Mark, returns with riches from the African colonies, (he also bravely fights off a tribe of savages, who are probably cannibals in terms of the colonial trope) he is robbed by Todd but saved from death by Mrs Lovett, who is jealous of Todd’s attention to Johanna. In an interesting instance of early (pre-‘slasher’) gender displacement, Johanna decides to save Mark by dressing as a boy, but is captured by Todd and, setting the gender roles back to basics, has to be rescued from the resulting fire (which consumes Todd) by Mark.

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Neither Todd nor Lovett are ever seen eating human flesh – all cannibalism is performed by the unwitting customers, alluded to when Mark’s comic relief friend and shipmate, Pearley, munches through a pie while speculating on what Todd does with the bodies. The word ‘cannibal’ is never uttered, and the only whiff of abjection is when the narrator, a modern day barber in Todd’s old shop recounting the story to a customer, reveals there is a pie shop next door, and watches in amazement as the man flees. This is textbook abjection: the smell of meat from some non-human mammal cooking next door has made the customer in contemporary London realise his own mortality.

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The class nature of nineteenth century England is illustrated by young Tobias, who is brought to Todd as an apprentice: Todd gets one guinea for each boy he takes from the parish. The Beadle warns Todd that this is the last boy he is getting: presumably he has killed, and Mrs Lovett has cooked, the previous seven.

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“You’ve brought me another apprentice. And a nice little boy, too!”

The boy prepares the victims by applying shaving cream, and is then sent off for a walk with a penny pie from next door, making the innocent lad the chief innocent cannibal. In fact, all the cannibalism is innocent and is carried out by the lower classes, represented by Pearley and Tobias, an apparent metaphor for the exploitation with which the working class was struggling in the 1930s when the film was made. Todd’s unconscionable slaughter of men (never women, except, almost, the disguised Johanna) for profit is pure objectification: he treats his fellow humans as commodities. No explanation is given, nor needed: Todd’s maniacal laughter is necessary and sufficient to make clear that he is a psychopath; in this, he is a mythic figure: the stuff of nightmares.

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Full movie (with some audio issues) is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W0YoxQkTjs

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