Cannibal hunter: “CHILD 44” (Espinosa, 2015)

Most cannibal movies are about the cannibal, but Child 44 is almost entirely about the cannibal-hunter. He is a member of Stalin’s secret police, the MGB, the predecessor of the KGB, and the movie is set in the last days of the Stalinist terror. The perp is torturing and killing children and surgically removing their organs, so our hero wants to, like, stop him. There is an administrative problem though: in the Socialist Paradise of the USSR, there is no such thing as murder; it is a capitalist crime. So the first case is put down as a train accident. Then there are 43 more – thus the title.

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The film is based on the bestselling book by Tom Rob Smith, the first of a trilogy featuring former MGB Agent Leo Demidov. In the film, Leo is played by the English actor Tom Hardy, with a convincing mix of power and vulnerability that carries an otherwise rather overlong production. Leo is a war hero who planted the red flag on the Reichstag after the conquest of Berlin, and is now a senior investigator.

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One of his friends from the Berlin days, Alexei (Fares Fares), also a MGB officer, finds that his little boy has been brutally murdered, but Leo has to persuade him to accept the official explanation that he was hit by a train.

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The antagonist (not the killer, we barely see more than his legs or arms until half way through the film) is another veteran of Berlin named Vasili (Joel Kinnaman, who played the clean-cut Republican candidate running against Frank Underwood in House of Cards). He is a coward, liar, etc and manages to derail Leo’s career by accusing Leo’s wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) of being a spy. Stripped of his rank for refusing to denounce his (maybe) pregnant wife, Leo must start his investigation as a mere militiaman in a remote town. He is under the command of a General played by the brilliant Gary Oldman, who has portrayed everyone from Dracula to Beethoven, Sirius Black to George Smiley, Winston Churchill to Mason Verger (in Hannibal the movie).

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The General has two boys and is not pleased when another dead boy, with organs surgically removed, is found nearby. He arrests the man who found the body, not because he thinks he is the killer but because he is gay, and he assumes that a gay man must be responsible (also because homosexuality was a crime in the Soviet Union). But rounding up all the gay men in town doesn’t stop the killings. The killer is seen picking up a boy in a station, later making sweets (where would archetypal paedophiles be without bags of sweets) and still later abusing himself for being weak and prone to remorse.

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The film, as I said, is based on a book, which is based on the true story of Andrei Chikatilo, the “Rostov Ripper”, who was eventually convicted of 52 murders, although he confessed to more. Chikatilo was able to continue his killing spree from 1978 to 1995, due to a combination of general ineptitude, official denial of the concept of a Soviet serial killer, and luck (apparently his semen had a different grouping to his blood). He claimed that he had been told by his mother that his older brother had been kidnapped and cannibalised by starving neighbours when he was little. This may have been her way of trying to scare him into behaving, but he was born in Ukraine at the time of the Holodomor, when Stalin was busy starving millions of people to death as part of the process of Collectivisation, so could well have been true.  Chikatilo was a self-confessed cannibal, stating that he gained sexual satisfaction from torturing his victims, and would sometimes drink their blood and eat their nipples and tongues. The real Chikatilo was far more depraved than depicted in this movie. There is a list of his crimes at the criminal minds website.

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Andrei Chikatilo

This film has a lot going for it, particularly a first-rate cast, some good action scenes, and a lot of sets which capture the oppressive darkness of Stalinist Russia. But it has a lot of problems too. It’s over two hours and gets a bit tedious in parts, and the decision to have a bunch of English, Swedish, Lebanese, Polish and even Australian actors speak in English with heavy Russian accents to make it seem “authentic” was widely derided by critics. The Guardian critic called the film “an Iron Curtain version of ‘Allo ‘Allo”.

With a Rotten Tomato rating of only 26%, the film bombed at the box office, grossing just $13 million against its $50 million budget. It was banned in Russia, with the Minister of Culture accusing the film of making the Soviet Union look like Mordor. Outrageous of course. Stalin was far worse than Sauron.

And perhaps the worst thing? Just as the Soviets would not admit that there was a serial killer in their paradise, this film does not approach the fact that he was also a cannibal (although it refers briefly to the widespread cannibalism of the Ukrainian famine). It asks some important questions about social ethics and who is actually responsible for people like Chikatilo, the individual or the state and its terrorist organisations. But without people getting eaten, it’s just another very long murder mystery.vlcsnap-2018-11-30-18h59m44s130.jpg

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Creepy old cannibal dude – THE GRAY MAN (Flynn, 2007)

The movie starts at St. John’s Orphanage in Washington in 1882. A young Albert Fish and other children are being beaten, to drive out their sins.

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Fast forward to Albert Fish (Patrick Bauchau) as an adult. He remembers, in a voiceover, a horse that some older boys at the orphanage set on fire; how the horse galloped off, trying to get away from the fire, but of course taking the fire with him. Fish compares himself to that horse.

“The fire chases you, and catches you, and then it’s in your blood. After that, it’s the fire that has control, not the man.
Blame the fire of passion for what Albert H. Fish has done.”

Scott Flynn’s debut film is not just a very well made and pretty creepy thriller / horror movie, it is an accurate retelling of the story of Albert H. Fish, who killed several children in the 1920s, and ate parts of their bodies.

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Albert Fish (Patrick Bauchau) with his grand-daughter. He hands her back to his daughter saying “I’m no good with little ones”. Truer words were never spoken.

Fish never got over the beatings at the orphanage, and is seen in the film whipping himself with a belt, interspersed with images of himself in the orphanage, watched by a pale boy – his younger self. That’s not the least of it: an X-ray found dozens of needles he had inserted into his groin for further punishment. In a sense, he punished himself in advance for sins he felt he was driven to commit.

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The film is structured around a film noir-style narration by Detective Will King (Jack Conley), of the NY Missing Persons Bureau.

Fish kills a boy scout, who is found by the other scouts hanging from a tree, his calf removed.

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Then comes the famous case: Fish sees a newspaper ad from a young man, Edward Budd (Eric Parker), who is looking for work, but when he visits the Budd family home, he is smitten by young Grace (Lexi Ainsworth), Edward’s ten year old sister, whom he stares at throughout the interview. No one seems to find this creepy, and when Fish comes back to pick up Edward and his friend, he suggests that Grace accompany him to his niece’s birthday party at Columbus and 135th – when he returns her, he says, he’ll pick up the boys. The mother (Jillian Armenante) has qualms, as well she might, but the father urges her to let Grace go. So, they have lunch. The father says “Let’s eat – I’m starved.” Fish replies: “Me too.” But it’s not for what the Budd’s are putting on their table.

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Of course, there is no party, no niece, no such street as 135th Street, and no return for Grace. When they get off the train, Grace dives back into the carriage to retrieve a package Fish has forgotten. She thinks it’s a present for the niece; it’s actually a bone saw that he bought earlier. Grace is picking flowers when Fish calls her into the creepy old house, purportedly to hide for the surprise party; the door slams shut. Fade to next scene. Fish is eating raw meat.

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Detective King searches for Grace Budd for six years, despite the department closing the case and the public forgetting about young Grace. Fish hasn’t forgotten though, and when he finds a stationery package in his room while chasing a cockroach, he writes to Grace’s mother, a break which finally allows Will to track down and arrest Fish. In the letter, Fish describes the crime in graphic detail, but modestly added that Grace had died a virgin – I guess he thought Mrs Budd would find that comforting. The movie gradually has Fish read the parts of the letter regarding the killing, chopping up and eating of Grace, although it omits the earlier section which told of his friend who returned from China in 1894, where:

“all children under 12 were sold to the Butchers to be cut up and sold for food… A boy or girls behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price”

The letter is quoted in full, with its dodgy grammar, in Wikipedia.

Fish said that this story had given him the idea:

“He told me so often how good human flesh was I made up my mind to taste it.”

In the trial, a psychiatrist with a suitably Germanic accent testifies that Fish told him that:

“What I did must have been right, or an angel would have stopped me, just as the angel stopped Abraham in the Bible.”

Genesis 22 has a lot to answer for.

Fish is found guilty, despite the psychiatrist’s evidence of his insanity, and put to death in the electric chair. The pale boy follows him down the corridor to the execution room.

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The real Albert Fish
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The real Grace Budd

The true number of Fish’s victims will never be known. He claimed to have “had children in every state” but whether he was referring to rape, murder or cannibalism, or just bragging, cannot be established. Fish was finally caught because he killed and ate Grace Budd, a white girl: he admitted that he mostly chose children who were mentally handicapped or African-American as his victims, explaining that he assumed the police would not look too hard for them. The fact that it took six years to catch him, and that this film does not even mention them, would seem to prove him right.

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The DVD cover shows Albert and Grace heading for the deserted house where she will be killed and eaten. The tag line is interesting: “a real life Hannibal Lecter”. Pretty sure Hannibal would eat alive anyone who compared him to Albert Fish.

The full movie is not easy to find. There is a copy on Youtube, but it is not great quality.

 

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