“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.

Six dead(ish) serial killers: THE BUTCHERS (Steven Judd, 2014)

If you could somehow bring a dead serial killer back to life, let me ask you this:

  1. What question would you ask him?
  2. Why the hell would you bring him back to life??

This movie was called The Butchers in some markets and Death Factory in others, but didn’t exactly set the world alight in either case. The “plot” (sic and sick) concerns a bunch of misfits reciting a spell that returns to life some of the more notorious recent serial killers, who are featured in a bizarre museum called The Death Factory: Albert Fish, John Wayne Gacy, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, and the Zodiac Killer. Wait – that doesn’t make sense? Well, enjoy the ride.

 Before the ride, though, a flashback – Simon (Damien Puckler – Grimm) is having a nightmare about when he was a little boy and killed his father with a golf club. First we get to sit through the father killing a neighbour and Simon’s mother, in grisly detail. Yeah, Simon has serious issues. So did I after watching a woman have her teeth knocked out.

He’s on a bus with his brother (who reads Dante’s Inferno, as you do) and a bunch of misfits representing various stereotypes of America, heading for the Grand Canyon, but the bus breaks down and so they hoof it the Death Factory.

Meanwhile, a lawyer from Africa comes to visit the Factory, gets a guided tour of the killers (for the sake of the audience rather than him I rather think) and sees the vials of blood collected from them (how the hell did they get blood from Jack the Ripper?) and then kills the owner.

He has a big antique book, which we just know is going to be full of magic spells. The Goth couple from the bus find it and recite the spell of resurrection (you know, just for fun), and all hell breaks loose. No, really, it’s all a Satanic plot. Say the words, and the drops of blood form columns of fire and the dead butchers are resurrected.

But keep your disbelief suspended – it gets worse. When they get killed, they return to dust and smoke and enter the one who killed them. Confused? So were the writers I fear.

Of course, no slasher film is complete without the impending victims arriving from a broken-down vehicle at a sinister and run-down gas station / diner.

But the interest in this script is not so much in the bus passengers but the six born again killers who stalk them. From the point of view of a cannibalism blog, we only really care about four of them (the cannibals) and there are some real plot problems here. For a start, Albert Fish was ostensibly a harmless old man, unless you were a young child (he used to kidnap children, flog them, murder them and eat them), but he was clearly not up to a fist fight, unless you were under eight years old. Here is the movie Fish, and the real one. Not a bad likeness, but a scary monster?

Jack the Ripper was never identified (nor was Zodiac come to that) so this one wears an old person mask and talks with an English accent. But we have a revelation when Jack takes off the mask! Yes, Jack the Ripper turns out to be a lesbian, who finds out what little girls are made of (with the help of a cut-throat razor). Well, glad they sorted out that mystery anyway. Any clues on who killed JFK while you’re there?

Ed Gein was technically not even a serial killer since he only killed a couple of people, preferring to source his body parts from gravesites, and he was also pretty decrepit, an unlikely partner for hand-to-hand combat. Not even trying for a likeness here – just a scary Fred Flinstone.

That leaves Jeffrey Dahmer who was certainly a serial killer, but his M.O. was to drug his victims then drill holes in their heads when they were unconscious, hoping thereby to keep them around as zombie boyfriends. So, Dahmer was a lover, not a fighter.

Dahmer does, however, have the best line in the movie; after biting one dude:

“33% of Caucasians are A positive… I prefer A negative.”

Another great line is when Simon and the bible thumping lady find a series of pentagrams and vials of serial killer blood (curiouser and curiouser). She has some expertise here, which turns out to be as useless as it sounds:

“I wrote a paper on the psychological dysfunction of fanatical religious behaviour. At Emory.”

But most of the dialog consists of people saying to other people “stay here, I’ll go check it out.” You just know that’s not going to end well. Several times (yawn).

This is a pretty awful movie, garnering a handsome 12% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you like gore, that is well done and you might enjoy it, if you can get past all the metaphysical nonsense of pentagrams and life force transfers. If, however, you are a student of cannibalism, you will be mystified by their portrayals of these murderers. Have these people never heard of Wikipedia?

More importantly, how did they decide on these six as the world’s worst serial killers, and why were four of them (67%) best known for their cannibalistic behaviour? Our fear of death is notorious – watch a group of people flee from a loud noise like a flock of pigeons. The primal part of our brain, like that of the pigeon, takes over when survival seems to be at issue. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that our terror of death is the basic motivation of human behaviour.

But the enormous interest in cannibalism indicates that there is something even more terrifying than dying: being eaten. Dramatic headlines announce the victim of the latest shark or crocodile attack, while meanwhile hundreds die unremarked, in more mundane incidents taking place all around them. We build mausoleums or place immense marble slabs over our graves to keep out marauders, we pour chemicals into the veins of our corpses to preserve them from worms and bacteria. The worst terror, though, is incorporation into the body of another human. Theologians write learned pieces on God’s options for restoring the body on the day of judgement; if we have been absorbed into another body, to whom would the restored flesh belong? Ed Gein is included in the canon of cannibals not for the numbers he killed but because he used the body parts to make furniture and lampshades.

Cannibalism feeds our darkest fears – that we are not made in the image of God (however that is interpreted) but that we are edible animals, no different to the millions of other animals we slaughter every day: for their flesh like Dahmer and Fish, for their skins and bones like Gein, or just to see what’s inside, like Jack.

Family feeding frenzy: FRIGHTMARE (Pete Walker, 1974)

The British Daily Telegraph called this movie a “moral obscenity”, or perhaps that was their mission statement. The trailer (above) is a hoot, offering the warning

Of course, these ‘small segments’ which are the only ones they dare show are the most gruesome parts of the movie. If you’re coming for the gore, just watch the trailer. But Frightmare has a lot more to offer than just slasher-fare. It is a British film, which is pretty refreshing in itself, as the British tend not to make a lot of cannibal films, sadly. Among the best are Revenge of Frankenstein, and Death Line. The Brits like to analyse their cannibals, find behaviourist explanations of their eating preferences. This film is in that tradition, but with some nice variations.

The film was variously titled Frightmare, Cover Up and Once Upon a Frightmare. Released in 1974, it was directed by Pete Walker, who spent the 1970s battling the censors with a string of gory movies, which didn’t set the box offices alight, but eventually became cult classics, particularly this little cannibal thriller.

 The story starts with a shy young man (Andrew Sachs, best known as Manuel from Fawlty Towers!) asking to be allowed into a trailer-home, from whence we know he will not be departing.

He’s not from Barcelona…

Then we see a very cranky judge sentencing Edmund and Dorothy Yates to a mental institution; he had hoped to send them to the gallows, but unfortunately there was this medical report…

Seventeen years later, Dorothy (Sheila Keith from Ballet Shoes) and Edmund (Rupert Davies from The Spy Who Came in from The Cold) have been deemed officially cured, and live in an isolated farmhouse. Dorothy ate at least six people in 1957, while her husband was convicted as well, having faked insanity in order to remain with his wife, although in reality he had not been involved in her murders. But that’s all in the past, says Dorothy, who now is just a harmless old pensioner. Dorothy has taken up hobbies, including needlepoint, and the use of power tools.

In the current day (well, 1974) Dorothy is back to her old tricks. She lures lonely and friendless young people to her home, promising tea and tarot card reading, at which she is deadly accurate, as the session always finishes with the same tarot card.

Then there’s the kids – Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage, who seems relatively normal, and Debbie (Kim Butcher), Dorothy’s actual daughter, conceived shortly before Dorothy was committed to the asylum; Debbie has never met her parents. Debbie is only fifteen but rides with a violent bikie gang and has apparently inherited her mother’s appetite for human flesh. She initiates a fight in which her boyfriend and his gang beat to death a barman, who had refused to serve her because she was under-age. The bikie gang flees when witnesses arrive, but Debbie stays, and carries off the body. Jackie meanwhile is delivering packages every week to her step-mother. They bleed, and they turn out to be the brains of some unfortunate sentient animal. She buys them at the butcher (oh the horror!), pretending she has been hunting humans, as a good step-daughter would, but Mum is not fooled – she wants human brains. Probably likes the way they come pre-scrambled.

Edmund tells his daughter that Dorothy has started up her old gustatory habits, and shows her a corpse in the back of his boss’ Rolls Royce to prove the point. If you have a chauffeur, you might want to dash outside now and check the boot (trunk) of your Roller. We’ll wait for you.

Jackie’s boyfriend is, conveniently, a psychiatrist, who searches out Dorothy’s case history. As a girl, the chief boffin says, she had a pet rabbit who, during the Great Depression, her family decided to kill for food. Traumatised by the consumption of her beloved family member (of the furry variety) she “twisted the horror of the situation into something pleasurable.” She started catching small animals and eating their brains, then started on larger ones, of the sapiens variety.

“It was the only case of cannibanthropy on record in this country. Pathological cannibalism. There were a couple of cases in the United States, almost unheard of anywhere else.”

Now we’re just getting silly, in a way that would embarrass Manuel and Basil. For a start, there is no such word, and if there were, it would just mean someone who cannibalises humans, which is somewhat redundant. Pathological cannibalism didn’t exist in 1974? In the country that birthed Jack the Ripper less than one hundred years earlier? Only fifteen years earlier, Tom Burns had killed, molested and eaten (more or less in that order) two little girls in the town of Barrow in Lancashire. But it’s an interesting observation that in less than fifty years ‘pathological cannibalism’ has gone from almost unknown to a regular headline for the yellow press.

Jackie confronts Debbie about her wild, wild ways, then tells the cops where to find the (partially chewed) body of the barman. Debbie and her boyfriend head to the country home to, you know, meet mum and dad. Find out a bit about the old folks.

It’s a touching reconciliation of mum and daughter, even when mum takes a pitchfork to the boyfriend.

Look, it might have been horrifying and gruesome in 1974, but maybe we’ve all become hardened by watching cannibal movies or the TV evening news. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a measly 55% but, to be fair, it is highly watchable and, being a British production, the character actors are superb, particularly Rupert Davies and Sheila Keith.

The daughters are also more than just the gorgeous young teens that seem to swarm in slasher films. There is conflict between the older Jackie who feels responsible for everyone, and the younger Debbie, who lives for kicks (and a bit of flesh). Jackie represents the delusional nature of modern social customs, which see humans as defined by being other-than-animal, and so she is happy to buy the brains of cows or sheep (socially acceptable) in order to fool her step-mother (socially awkward), but horrified to find the older woman preferring the real thing (socially unacceptable). I’m sure most cannibals (and zombies) would think she is delusional: a brain is a brain.

The fascinating part of the movie for me is the main antagonist, Dorothy, the (unfortunately rare) female cannibal. Cannibalism remains an extreme form of carnivorous virility, and women have not yet won equality in number of perps or number of victims, and they probably even earn less flesh than men. I liked that Debbie, who had never met her cannibalistic mother, was already eating bartenders, disproving the expert psychiatrists who had blundered in releasing Dorothy, and before that misinterpreted her cannibalism as an unfortunate response to the eating of her pet rabbit. Debbie adds nature into the mix, offering support for a kind of genetic cannibalism, almost a wendigo syndrome, something that runs in families, like the Finnish family in Bloody Hell, or the Parker family in the Catskills. Frightmare was released a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which of course became the quintessential family-cannibal movie.

Anyway, Dorothy is a superb villain, a mixture of Arsenic and Old Lace and Leonarda Cianciulli, who murdered three women to make soap and teacakes in wartime Italy. Sheila Keith portrays at one moment a frail old woman, broken by years in an asylum, and the next a cackling serial killer with an electric drill and a flaming poker, both of which she plunges into various victims. Her husband has the role of the weak, supportive spouse, he is Mrs Lovett to Dorothy’s Sweeney Todd. Simon Flynn on the Peter Cushing tribute website called her “the most memorable woman the horror genre has ever seen.” Amen to that.

You can get the movie at Amazon or you might find it on Youtube – currently the full movie is showing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJj_ir8vi2I