Entrepreneurial cannibalism: “Eating Raoul” (Bartel, 1982)

Eating RaoulEating Raoul has become a cult classic since its release in 1982. It was directed by Paul Bartel, who also plays the role of Paul Bland, a use of nominative irony, since he and his wife Mary (played by the wonderful Mary Woronov who starred in Warhol and Corman films) are a bland and horribly normal couple. They live in a block of apartments and eke out an existence working at unsatisfying jobs, while dreaming of somehow opening their own restaurant.

The film starts with a shot of the iconic Hollywood sign and a voice-over, of the type that was popular in film newsreels, describing the contrasts in that town between rich and poor, and tells us that “sex hunger is reflected in every aspect of daily life”.

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“The barrier between food and sex has totally dissolved.”

This contrast then goes to the microcosm of the life of Paul and Mary. They are prudes; they sleep in separate beds and disapprove of sex, except for “a little hugging and kissing”. But there are almost constant “swinger” parties in an adjoining apartment: as if to exacerbate their financial woes, rich and decadent swingers share their lift and their corridors. When one of the swingers tries to rape Mary, Paul kills him with the cast iron frypan, finds $600 in the guy’s wallet, and thus begins a career of hilarious and profitable murders of “rich perverts”, whom they lure with ads offering kinky sex.

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But that doesn’t make it a cannibal film, suitable for this blog. That comes later, when their locksmith, Raoul, enters the scene, ready to make money from the bodies and the victims’ cars.

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But when Raoul himself has to be disposed of, and there is nothing to serve the real estate agent who is going to secure the purchase of their dream restaurant… Well, as Hannibal said in Silence of the Lambs:

“Haven’t you had company coming and no time to shop? You have to make do with what’s in the fridge, Clarice.”

Cannibalism is all about power and appetite, and so Eating Raoul is a perfect allegory for Western (and particularly Hollywood) society. Everyone is either exploiting or fucking everyone else, and why should Paul and Mary Bland be any different? Cannibalism – it’s the ultimate American Dream.

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The full film is currently available on Youtube:

 

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The future is cannibal: “The Time Machine” (Pal, 1960)

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HG Wells wrote his ground-breaking novella The Time Machine in 1895, and George Pal’s movie of it, made in 1960, kept to that timeline, with of course a detour some 800,000 years into the future. The film was fairly sensational at the time of its release and won an Oscar for best special effects for the time-lapse images, particularly the disintegrating corpse (we’ll get to it). It took some liberties with several aspects of the story for the purpose of fitting a lot of science and a lot of fiction into under 100 minutes of film, but was generally true to the social commentary of the book, particularly the division of humanity into the effete intellectuals and the menacing workers. To this, the Director, George Pal, added a sixties flavour that was quite prescient for a work made in the first year of that decade, particularly a strong antiwar theme, including a horror of nuclear conflagration and resulting environmental devastation, which occupied a large part of the public imagination in the Cold War years.

Why is the Time Traveller interested in time travel?

“I don’t much care for the time I was born into. It seems people aren’t dying fast enough these days. They call upon science to invent new, more efficient weapons to depopulate the earth.”

Freud said that the two most profound taboos are incest and cannibalism, and he traced their origins, as linked events, to Darwin’s primal hordes and the murder and consumption of the father who was monopolising the women. Anyway, fast forward (very fast) to the year 802701 and incest seems to have had a revival (insofar as everyone looks the same) while cannibalism, somehow, is still frowned upon. Or rather it has gone underground.

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The Time Traveller meets the humans of the future, the Eloi, who look like a bunch of beautiful but listless hippies, even though hippies did not exist for a few years after the film was made. A separate race of humans known as Morlocks live underground, shunning the daylight and any kind of fire. In their deep caverns, they have dark, satanic mills and chop up the Eloi, who are clothed and fed by the industrious Morlocks and then “harvested” at maturity. This is why there are no old Eloi, although there don’t seem to be any babies either, which makes the sustainability of the cannibal diet a little tricky.

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But wait, are the Morlocks cannibals? To be a cannibal, you really need to eat the flesh of someone of your own species, and it seems unlikely that the Eloi and Morlocks are even related, having evolved into different niches centuries earlier. The Time Traveller, known only as George, is shown some “rings” (a form of data disks which require no energy except for a quick twirl with finger and thumb) which reveal that a 326 year war destroyed the environment, causing the human race to retreat underground. Some remained in the infernal depths as white-eyed demons, preying on the innocent, while those who got the subterranean homesick blues eventually returned to the surface when it cooled down. There they continued to be fed and clothed by the Morlocks, but when the factory whistle goes, they march glassy-eyed into the factory – as raw materials.

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The Morlocks are dressed in baggy skin and flabby paunches and have bulging eyes and long, shaggy white hair. In fact, they look more like decrepit twenty-first century boomer hippies than the Eloi ever did. They are also no match for George who has his fists and his matches. There is also a love interest – Weena, (Yvette Mimieux), an Eloi girl whom George saves from drowning, since the Eloi can’t really see the problem if she does. He accuses her of being a child, then hopes to take her home with him on the Time Machine, a nice precursor to Lolita, which was filmed two years later. In 1895, in contrast, George has only male friends, and his off-sider is the Scotsman David Filby, played by Alan Young, who went on to be the side-kick of a horse in Mister Ed for many years.

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All right, there are some very silly things in this movie, and leading the list is the fact that the Eloi all speak perfect twentieth century English. Considering we can barely understand Chaucerian English from 600 years ago, it seems a bit odd to be able to converse with the locals straight off the boat, as it were, some 801,000 years into the future. In the book, the TT has to learn the Eloi language, but there’s no time for such nonsense in a 90 minute movie, unless it’s a European art-house film. Then there is the time machine stopping in 1966, just in time for nuclear war to break out, giving the film only six years before proving itself wrong.

There is a Robinson Crusoe feel to this film – although the planet seems quite heavily populated by young pretty hippies and old decrepit cannibal hippies, George is the only civilised patriarchal figure there, shouting at the Eloi and setting fire to the Morlocks as he sees fit. His first encounter with the Morlocks involves seeing – yep, a footprint. Lots of footprints, showing where the Morlocks have absconded with the time machine. We know the year; we don’t know whether it’s  Friday though.

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Anyway, George gets down and dirty into the underground, beats up some Morlocks, and sets the place on fire. He also fires up the Eloi who reclaim their power and beat up a few Morlocks too. Their totally vegan diet apparently has not left them, as George rudely claimed, “living vegetables”. His judgement of the Morlocks though is more severe: they had:

“… degenerated into the lowest form of human life: cannibalism!”

He gets his machine back and flees into the future, after killing a Morlock, who decomposes in time lapse mode, a scene that was quite the talk of the audience at the time.

But really, George. They have a system that works. His plan appears to be to return to 802701, impose regime change, and “free” the Eloi from the mouths of the Morlocks to build a new world. But of course the Eloi have no idea how to grow their food or make their clothes. With George as absolute monarch, they may learn. Or might they splinter into cliques, as humans always do, and soon go back to eating and wearing each other?

Filby, back in 1900, realises that George wouldn’t go off to build a civilisation without a plan. He figures out that he has gone back to the future and has taken just three books with him. Which books? No one knows.

Which books, Filby asks with a twinkle, would you have taken?

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Maybe Janice Poon’s cookbook?

 

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Meat the neighbours: “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (Hooper, 1974)

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The Texas chain saw massacre was named by Total Film as number one of the fifty greatest horror movies of all time. It spawned a number of sequels and prequels, but none as ground-breaking as the original, which was remastered in 2004 in 4K, making it that much more graphic. Time said that it set “a new standard for slasher films”. The concept of a vulnerable woman being terrorised by a monster was hardly new, and some critics suggested that the director, Tobe Hooper, may even have seen the Australian ‘slasher’ film Night of fear, so similar were the psychopaths. Night of fear was banned as too violent, and Texas chain saw, although less gory, was also banned in many countries, and was not available for showing in Australia for almost ten years after production. Night of fear moved from the knife or razor favoured in ‘slasher’ films to an axe; Texas chain saw escalated the weaponry even further with a large and very noisy chain saw. The chain saw is wielded by a particularly striking villain named Leatherface, so called due to his predilection for wearing a mask made of human skin.

Filmed in documentary style, on release it made a half-hearted attempt to appear to be a true story, whereas in fact it was based on the exploits of Ed Gein, a serial killer, but not a known cannibal, who was also the inspiration of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as well as Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. It was filmed on a tight budget against expectations it might never be cleared for exhibition. The respected critic Roger Ebert summed it up as “a grisly little item…I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.” Such exploitative movies are profitable if made at the right price point, and Ebert grudgingly allows that the techniques and special effects are far better than the genre demands. He particularly liked the rapid montages of the survivor Sally screaming, with extreme close-ups of her bulging eyeballs, expressing all the foam flecked terror of any animal who realises she is about to be slaughtered.

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Gimme a close-up!

Leatherface lives in a family of ‘others’ who terrorise, slaughter and eat passers-by. They are ‘white trash’, but made trash by the process of industrialisation of agriculture: the abattoir in which the whole family worked has automated or closed, leaving them to use their expertise on a different species. The protagonists are a group of young hipsters, driving their Kombi through Texas to check on the grave of the grandfather of Sally and Franklin, following reports (shown in graphic footage during the credits) of graves being desecrated and robbed (an Ed Gein speciality). The pseudo-documentary style introduction tells us that “an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare”, one that seems to be a thinly veiled exposition of the nightmare faced by the Woodstock generation as they moved from the summer of love into the fall of Vietnam, drugs, the Manson murders and Nixon’s Silent Majority. Hooper spoke of his inspiration coming from the “beginning of the end of the subculture”, while one critic wrote that Hooper opened the way for horror to become a “vehicle for articulating twentieth-century pessimism”. It is revealing that this film about social decline was crafted in the period between Nixon’s landslide re-election and his resignation.

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Leatherface

Besides the disabled Franklin, the other four beautiful people are entirely two-dimensional, laughing at the quaint locals, reading horoscopes and heading off into unimagined horrors when looking for a non-existent swimming hole. Franklin does most of the talking, more so even than Sally, his sister, the only survivor, whose role is mostly to scream and run and scream more. Franklin reminisces about their grandfather (whose grave they are checking) and the abattoir where he used to sell his cattle. His speech is accompanied by images of cows waiting to be slaughtered or drooling, near death, as he describes the killing process – a sledgehammer: “it usually wouldn’t kill them on the first lick”. The cows queue for death as the young people drive past, on the way to their own identical slaughter. They pick up a hitchhiker who tells them his brother and grandfather work at the slaughterhouse. “My family’s always been in meat,” he tells them, an esoteric reference to their own imminent fate, which only the viewers appreciate.

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The family

The family turn out to be very mentally troubled: the wild-eyed hitchhiker is the brother of Leatherface who occasionally puts down the chain saw and dons an apron to take a feminine role in the house of slaughter. Leatherface is actually humanised under his mask: grunting, sweating and showing us his deformed teeth he was as human as on-screen killers got in the days before Dexter and Hannibal. Another relative, the gas-station owner, appears normal and presents a disturbing picture of the schizophrenic nature of modern society: his station has no gas, he sells barbecued meat of a suspect origin, and he constantly offers Sally comfort as he recaptures her, gags her and beats her, all the time assuring her everything will be all right. I couldn’t help thinking of the protestations of farmers who insist that they care deeply about their animals, as they pack them onto trucks for the gruelling journey to a terrifying death.

The film’s final thirty minutes consist of Sally being chased, mostly with a chain saw, with occasional respites where she is captured and tormented before again leaping from windows. Hitchcock famously said that the chase is the “final expression” of the medium of film and ‘slasher’ movies thrive on them. Yet the film’s setting is deliberately confused: instead of the normative divide of country providing meat to the city, here the city kids are providing meat to the rural rejects. As the kids are slaughtered, we hear the sounds of pigs grunting, see a captive chicken awaiting her fate, in a room filled with the bones and skins of several species, particularly H. sapiens. The cannibals’ method of slaughter, the sledgehammer, the meat hook, the freezer, is the same as the way cattle and pigs are treated at an abattoir.

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Pam learns how the professionals do it

Is the film a disguised polemic against farming and slaughtering animals? The reviewer Forrest Wickman called it “forehead-slappingly obvious” in his review “The Ultimate Pro-Vegetarian Film Is the Last Movie You’d Expect”. So much so that PETA listed it in its “top 10 movies that make you go meatless”. Hooper said in an interview that he gave up meat while making the film: “the heart of the film was about meat; it’s about the chain of life and killing sentient beings”. He also claimed that Guillermo Del Toro, no shrinking violet himself in abject film-making, gave up meat after seeing it.

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Sally and friends

Nothing is as it should be in this film, nor was it in Nixon’s and Hooper’s America, circa 1974. It is filmed in bright Texan sunshine rather than horror’s normal Gothic gloom, the psychopathic Leatherface is cooking in an apron when Sally is carried in, Sally’s terror at the dinner table is accompanied with the noises of non-diegetic pigs, the normal filmic heroes (young white males) are butchered without any defence offered, and what were they all eating when they stopped the Kombi at the gas station and bought barbecue? Who among us, Hooper seems to ask, is not a cannibal?

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Is cannibalism sexy? “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death” (Lawton, 1989)

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is a 1989 film which was the directorial debut of J. F. Lawton, who also authored Pretty Woman and Under Siege. He released this one under a pseudonym, J. D. Athens, and at first glance you have to agree with his decision.

The film drips with a sometimes forced irony, inspiring one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes to call it “One of the best bad movies I’ve ever seen”. Here is some typical dialogue:

Margo Hunt: “They’re an ancient commune of feminists, so radical, so militant, so left of center they… they eat their men.”
Bunny: “Oh, that. Well, if I like a guy, I usually start at…”
Margo Hunt: “They don’t eat their men like that, Bunny.”

Or this one:

There aren’t any modern feminists who advocate cannibalism- at least not since the sixties.

The “jungle of death” is southern California, where a group of radical feminists have occupied the avocado plantations and kill and eat their men, as well as several companies of US troops who try to eliminate them. The film is rich in intertextual references: the protagonists enter the jungle in pursuit of Dr Kurtz, a professor of feminist studies who has become emperor of the cannibal women, a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (set in the Congo) and the movie version of it Apocalypse Now (set in Vietnam), in which Brando plays the deranged Colonel Kurtz, who famously dies with the words “the horror, the horror!” on his lips. The Dr Kurtz in this film similarly meets her end, but her “horror” refers to having had to defend feminism on the David Letterman Late Show.

Intertextual humour depends on the reader being familiar with the sometimes cryptic references. Apocalypse Now is pretty well known, but some of the other references are either too obvious to be funny or else too obscure to score a laugh. The film opens with the kind of “male gaze” scene expected in an exploitation pic: semi-naked warrior women bathing in a stream while a couple of randy male explorers look on, but the scene concludes with both the men tracked down and slaughtered for the cannibals’ next meal. The main character, Margo Hunt, is played by Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy model, who does not drop her clothes at any point; her ditzy assistant, who wants to change her major from Home Economics to Feminist Studies, is named “Bunny”, another reference to the Playboy world. The bumbling comic relief and token male chauvinist is played by Bill Maher of the television show Real Time, a show which goes out of its way to skewer such prehistoric thinking.  He dresses like Indiana Jones and even wields a bull whip, rather less expertly. Topics from Margaret Mead to Disneyland all get a brief reference, and there is little time to wonder what they are about before the next gag is upon us. Some of the references are double barrelled: when Bunny is told that the women eat their men, she asks “boiled or roasted”, a reference both to the many Home Economics jokes, but also to Levi-Strauss’s musings on the different ways cannibals would cook their relatives or their enemies.

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Bill Maher as Jim. That isn’t a spa.

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is neither as stupid as it sounds or as funny as it intends. But it is diverting and it’s fun to tease out the cultural references, and the lead actors are really very good at delivering their sometimes painful lines. Its commentary on cannibalism is actually quite perceptive: the cannibal women are all gorgeous and young and scantily clad, presentations which are usually intended for the consumption of a male audience. This binary is reversed as they seize their knives and proceed to butcher and consume the male gazers (not on screen – the film is careful not to lose its PG13 rating, although it got an R18 in New Zealand). There is usually a male hero and a female in need of saving; in this, the roles are totally reversed. Cannibalism is not presented as evil or deranged by definition, but rather as another variety of power struggle. To quote Dr Kurtz:

This is a war between men and women. Anything short of cannibalism is
just beating around the bush.

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The first cannibal film? “Doctor X” (Curtiz, 1932)

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The Dr X of the title is Doctor Xavier, a name used by Marvel some thirty years later for the leader of the mutants known as the X-Men. This Dr Xavier leads a different bunch of outcasts – unhinged scientists, one of whom, the police are pretty sure, is a serial killer and cannibal. There is much use of early psychoanalytical tropes including Xavier’s theory that “strong mental repressions phobias, hidden in the darkest corners of the subconscious mind can be brought to the surface and made to register through certain reactions of the heart.” This idea, which was to become the polygraph or “lie detector” machine, was popularised later in the decade by William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, who published a book called The lie detector test in 1938. Maybe it was just the zeitgeist.

Anyway, the film is populated by kooky scientists, as well as Doctor X’s daughter, played by Faye Wray the year before she rose to great heights in King Kong, and a lovably slapstick journalist, Lee Taylor, who is working on the story of the serial murderer known as the “Moon Killer”, so called because the murders always happen on the full moon, a device widely used in fiction (and fact) as there is a widespread belief that the full moon causes people to become “lunatics” – a theory employed to the full in this story. Taylor sneaks into the morgue disguised as a corpse (there is a lot of dark humour in the film, with Taylor conversing with various dead bodies and even skeletons). He hears Xavier telling the police that the latest victim’s deltoid muscle is missing: the police observe that it was torn out. Dr X corrects them: “Gentlemen, it wasn’t torn. This is cannibalism!” The police are then permitted to tour the research centre in which the dedicated crazies in their various labs offer crazy anecdotes: one gratuitously has a heart in a jar, which has been kept alive for three years by electrolysis, and another has spent years in Africa researching cannibalism. In each lab, the police are convinced they have found the killer, but the stories get worse – two of the scientists were shipwrecked off Tahiti in a boat with another man, and, although they claimed he had died and they had thrown him overboard, it was suspected that they had, in fact, eaten him.

Dr X believes that one of his scientists was, in the past driven by “dire necessity” into cannibalism. “The memory of that act was hammered like a nail into the mind of that man”. Although he could conceal his madness from others, perhaps even from himself, Dr X can use his radio sensitivity machine to reveal the truth. The police allow Dr X to run his own tests with his prototype lie detector, but of course nothing goes smoothly, and the apparent perp (according to the machine) turns up dead. Later, when they look closer at the body, they find that it has been… Well, they don’t want to put it into words, and certainly not while Faye Wray is around. The real killer is busy making synthetic flesh, but not to eat (he is apparently into natural, whole foods). He needs flesh from humans, originally supplied by willing savages, for his experiments in creating faux flesh. “What difference did it make if a few people had to die?” he asks – a question oft repeated by the patients who are being mentored by Dr Hannibal Lecter in the TV series Hannibal. Now he’ll be able to “make a crippled world whole again”, a novel take on eugenics – build new people instead of breeding them.

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Does that even count as cannibalism? Well, he is using human flesh, much as the medical cannibals of early modern Europe loved to do. He has learned his trade from cannibals, who, even in 1932, were assumed to make up the entire population of Africa. He has imported savagery from the Dark Continent to our peaceful, law-abiding shores, and isn’t that what we fear most?

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Having an old friend for dinner: “The silence of the lambs” (Demme, 1991)

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The silence of the lambs is, almost without exception, the film that people first mention when I talk to them about cannibalism. This is a little surprising as, although the male lead, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), is a cannibal, for most of the film he is incarcerated, and even on the loose he is not seen actually eating anyone (although he certainly discusses the idea with some gusto). In the sequel, Hannibal (Scott 2001), he is indeed shown serving human flesh – the brain of Clarice’s nemesis – to its owner. In a later prequel, Hannibal rising (Webber 2008), an attempt is made to trace Lecter’s psychopathy to childhood trauma: the cannibalism of his sister during the war, much to the displeasure of many of his fans, who complained of the loss of the nuance and the mystery.

The silence of the lambs has become something of a cinematic classic, while the sequels and prequels have largely faded from memory. Robert Butler in the Chicago Tribune credited the film with legitimising cannibalism in the movies, with its star cast and haul of all five major Academy Awards – best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and best adapted screenplay. Before this, Butler claimed, cannibalism was limited to exploitation films. No doubt directors from Luis Buñuel to Peter Greenaway might demur.

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The film is a psychological thriller with Hannibal Lecter, an evil genius, trading insights into the most private neuroses of trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling in exchange for his profiling of the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, whose very name seems to animalise him. Bill is killing and skinning women to make a woman suit. He is pure monster, closer to the gender-challenged Leatherface of Texas chain saw massacre than the urbane, sophisticated, civilised psychiatrist Lecter, who remains a mystery. Bill and Leatherface are in fact both based on the real-life murderer and grave robber Ed Gein (as was Norman Bates from Psycho), who was very keen on making things out of human bodies, although whether he was a cannibal is still uncertain (and he’s not telling).

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Lecter’s jailer, Dr Chilton, comes closest to attempting a diagnosis, saying “Oh, he’s a monster. A pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive”. Starling, asked by a young policeman if Lecter is a vampire, simply replies “they don’t have a name for what he is”. Maggie Kilgour, who wrote an excellent book on cannibalism as a “metaphor of incorporation”, wrote that Hannibal is defined by “rhyming logic” – anyone named “Hannibal” must end up a “cannibal”. That is good enough for the viewers – the man is considered pure evil, but deliciously, he is not a monster in the sense of Leatherface or even Sweeney Todd: we appreciate his style and wit, we even like him in contrast to the other psychopaths we meet in the film: Buffalo Bill, and Multiple Miggs, who ejaculates on Starling on her way out of the asylum, a dastardly act that the chivalrous Lecter abhors, and because of which he chooses to assist her. The psychological or legal weaponry of modern society is useless against his brilliance and primitive, raw power; Staring is sent to interview him like the lamb of the title being led to slaughter. Buffalo Bill has captured his latest victim, Catherine Martin, daughter of a powerful US Senator, and there are only days or hours before he kills and skins her to make his “woman suit”.

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The opening of the film finds Starling running in the woods, small and alone like Red Riding Hood, yet we soon find that she is on an FBI obstacle course in Quantico, running past the motto “hurt, agony, pain – love it”. Starling is not one of the screaming victims that we find in Texas chain saw massacre: Starling is still a victim, though, of patriarchy from her colleagues, mental probing from Lecter and stalking in the dark by Bill, but she is smart, well trained, strong and sassy, standing up to her boss when he uses the chauvinist card: she is the perfect example of the prey woman becoming the avenging hero.

‘Slasher’ films like Texas chain saw massacre routinely pit the redneck monster against the civilised hero. The silence of the lambs turns the ‘slasher’ order on its head: Lecter is the city sophisticate, Starling the West Virginia redneck – he skewers her with the observation “you’re not more than one generation from poor, white trash, are you Agent Starling?” Yet when she is splashed with his neighbour’s semen he tells her that “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me”. Lecter is a pastiche of classical monsters: Dracula’s hunger for blood (and exaggerated courtesy), Dr Frankenstein’s scientific insight, Dr Jekyll’s secret identity; his power to terrify is precisely his amiable, civilised charm: we would rather be scared of cannibals who wear leather masks and grunt than those who eat us with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Clarice Starling has to overcome not just the mind games of Lecter the monster, but also the political ineptitude of the men around her in order to blow away the psycho-sexual killer Buffalo Bill, who is not a cannibal, at least not in gustatory terms. Bill is a depraved cannibal in the sense that he incorporates human skin into his persona, but it is Lecter, the deprived cannibal in the asylum, who is the protagonist.

The silence of the lambs trades in close-ups: Starling usually pensive, Bill leering and imagining a valid sexuality, Lecter directly threatening, staring, unblinking, in extreme close up, straight into the audience’s eyes. It is us that he is addressing, analysing, threatening. Under the menace is a keen humour, often rare in the genre. Besides Lecter’s pun about “having an old friend for dinner”, he also reflects on Starling’s offer that, in return for helping catch Bill, he will be allowed to use a beach (under SWAT surveillance of course) where there are terns. Terns – the word suggests to him that he and Starling should have “turns” at sharing information. Starling’s turn will not relate to the case, but to her life, her childhood traumas. Despite her boss’ instruction to tell him nothing personal – “you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head” – she describes her worst memory: the death of her father, a town marshal gunned down while on duty, and her subsequent life on an relative’s ranch, where she found the truth of animal agriculture, being awoken one night by the screaming of the spring lambs as they were slaughtered. She tried to free the lambs, took one and ran, but was caught and sent to an orphanage. Since then, Starling has been struggling with the contradictory messages given to children that harming animals is wrong, but eating them is fine. Lecter’s speculative diagnosis is that she believes that if she saves Catherine, the lambs will stop screaming in her dreams. She has made the lambs subjects, while Bill makes his victims objects. As Starling tears up under the intense and massively magnified gaze of Hannibal Lecter, she gives a glimpse into the abyss of what Carol Adams calls the “absent referent”, the process that objectifies animals (and women) who are the victims of violence.

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Starling’s lambs are not the only part of modern civilisation scrutinised and turned inside out by The silence of the lambs. The social order is very commonly defined in film by showing not examples of it but characters or events that transgress it. The strength of Lecter’s character is his ability not just to offend the social order but to be an extreme example of it: like modern America, he is educated, rational, even enlightened, yet, like modern society, there is an undercurrent of voracious appetite and extreme violence. Similarly, Starling transgresses social boundaries with her challenge to masculine power structures and her role as the rescuing hero rather than the hero-victim. Cary Wolfe believes that the most important discourse in this film is that of species. While cross-gender conflicts are examined through the minor character of Bill and to some extent Starling, and class issues in the clash of the civilised Lecter with the often inept and backward authority figures, at the heart of the film (reflected in its title) is the struggle of Starling to come to terms with the objectification of the innocents – the lambs of her childhood or the women Bill is skinning. Objectification is seen throughout: Bill speaks to Catherine in the third person: “it rubs the lotion on its skin; it does this whenever it’s told”; Lecter speaks of his victims by function: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”.

One critic went so far as to say that Hopkin’s brilliance in the role makes Lecter “the cannibal we all want to be”. Lecter does not resist humanist symbology, he takes it to its logical extreme: he orders rare lamb chops, (a reference to Starling’s trauma), in his cell before he slaughters his jailers and escapes, as if to say that he does not eat animals instead of humans: he eats animals, so why not eat humans? He represents consumerism taken to its logical conclusion. As Maggie Kilgour summarised, the film demonstrates the continuing power of primal appetites: “man-eating is a reality – it is civilisation that is the myth”.

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Divine cannibalism

This picture is “Saturn devouring his son” by Peter Paul Rubens, painted in 1636.

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The Greek myth tells of Chronos, who in Roman mythology became Saturn. He learned that one of his children would overthrow him, so he ate each one as they were born. His wife hid Zeus, who of course did eventually overthrow Chronos to become king of the gods, and she replaced him with a stone. This painting presumably represents one of the less stoned siblings.

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Almost 200 years later, in his Black Paintings, Francisco Goya shows the same divine cannibal god as nightmare and psychopath, and the victim as a bleeding, barely recognisable figure, neither human or god, but clearly animal in content. There is evidence that, in the original version, Goya gave Saturn a partially erect phallus, implying that cannibalism is, at least in the divine realm, apparently something of an aphrodisiac.

Good to know even gods can be cannibals.