This blog was written in the week of the 2020 US election; the film is not a classic of the cannibal canon, but then, the title sounded somehow appropriate.
In fact, it’s quite a nice change to watch a gentle English comedy after so many gruesome and gory stories from the usually humourless world of modern cannibalism. This one is about primitive, savage cannibals on foreign shores, and racist Eurocentric accounts have always found them hilarious!
Ben Cutlet is played by Will Hay, an actor who usually portrayed some sort of windbag (most often a teacher) whose comic effects involved the deflating of his pretensions. Hay was an influence on many later comedians including Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper and Ronnie Barker. Cutlet spends his days in his sister’s pub entertaining the locals with tall tales of his exploits at sea as a bold ship’s captain, even though he has never been to sea, and has only ever captained a coal barge.
He is tricked into captaining the unseaworthy Rob Roy by a gang of criminals who want to scuttle the ship for the insurance money. With Hay’s regular troupe, Jerry (Moore Marriott) and Albert (Graham Moffatt), he manages to escape the clutches of the crew and drift off on a raft. Another popular cannibal story is the starving shipwrecked crew eating the cabin boy, as happened for example in 1884, when a small ship called the Mignonette hit a big storm and sank. The four crew members survived in a lifeboat for a couple of weeks on two tins of turnips and a turtle they managed to catch. When the cabin boy fell into a coma, probably from drinking too much salt water, they slit his throat, drank his blood and ate him. In a scene that I suppose was considered most humorous, Cutlet soon starts to see Albert as a pig.
They finally drift to a West Indian island full of stereotypical natives. These primitive savages are amazed at the ship’s radio and bow down to it as the god Voiceinbox, worshipfully carrying the sailors to their chief.
He speaks cannibalised English, and Cutlet asks where he learnt it?
“My father, him meet good missionary. Missionary, him good meat”.
Further dialogue is carried out in what the English imagine is native English:
“him belong me. Him taboo.”
Then the mutineers arrive and become the butt of cannibal puns.
Cutlet: “Well gentlemen, we meet again.” Chief: “Ah, good meat. Plenty meat!” Cutlet: “Voiceinbox seems very angry.” Chief” “Me hungry too!”
Although Cutlet has promised to have the mutineers hanged, he won’t let the chief eat them, and instead stows them in the hold for the trip back to England, where he is hailed as a hero.
In 1936, when this film was made, Windbags were ruling the world (has much changed?) White supremacists saw themselves at the apex of civilisation, contemptuously exploiting, invading and exterminating the ‘lesser’ peoples of the world, demonstrated in the way Cutlet tricks his cannibal chief.
That year in Europe, Hitler was invading the Rhineland, while Stalin was purging his generals and his comrades alike in a paranoid bloodbath. Mussolini was dreaming of a new Roman Empire and invading Ethiopia. Spain was about to sink into a vicious civil war, and in England, Edward VIII, who admired Hitler, was succeeding to the throne, only to abdicate months later. The world was about to enter a new round of the Hemoclysm of the twentieth century, an orgy of bloodletting that would kill an estimated 85 million people.
Last century, killing was routine, but cannibalism? Him taboo.
My paper in Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal has just been published.
A ‘horrid way of feeding’: Pervasive, aggressive, repulsive cannibalism
Cannibalism both fascinates and repels. The concept of the cannibal has changed and evolved, from the semi- or in-human anthropophagi of Classical texts to the ‘savage’ cannibals of colonial times, whose alleged aberrations served as a justification for invasion, conversion and extermination, to the contemporary cannibal driven often by psychosexual drives. Cannibal texts typically present the act as pervasive, aggressive and repulsive. If these parameters are admitted, alleged cannibals immediately fall outside normative European humanist morality. This paper examines cannibalism as a major delineator of the civilised human. Cannibals offer social scientists a handy milestone to confirm the constant improvement and progress of humanity. The idea that colonised peoples were not savage, degenerate cannibals threatens the concept of the ‘Great Chain of Being’, which was assumed to show an inexorable progress from plants to animals to humans, and upward toward the divine, led by enlightened Western civilisation. But cannibal mythology, factual or imaginary, offers an opportunity to re-evaluate the assumptions of human supremacism and see ourselves as edible, natural beings.
Joe D’Amato (real name Aristide Massaccesi) was nothing if not prolific, directing some 200 films from 1972-99. These covered a multitude of genres from westerns to war, comedy to fantasy, but he is best known for his horror, erotic and adult films. His first softcore movie was Emanuelle’s Revenge in 1975, followed by his work on five of the six “Black Emanuelle” movies starring Laura Gemser as a globe-trotting journalist who gets into all sorts of merry scrapes, usually involving violence, horror and rape. They were based around the French Emmanuelle movies, with one “m” removed from the title to avoid copyright problems.
D’Amato’s first Emanuelle movie, Emanuelle’s Revenge (1975), was with German actress Rosemarie Lindt as Emanuelle and George Eastman as Carlo, whose role as a murderous monster with a machete prefigured his later role in D’Amato’s Antropophagus (1980). Both these movies deserve a mention in this blog, since the first has Carlo fantasising about cannibalism while under the influence of LSD, while the second has a demented cannibal who actually eats his own intestines (all right, don’t believe me). We’ll get to them – maybe.
Emanuelle and the Cannibals was the fifth of the Black Emanuelle films; the fourth that D’Amato directed. The porn level is a great deal lower than the others in the series (Emanuelle in America for example had a naked woman masturbating a horse), but this had something better: cannibalism! Who needs horses?
The film starts with a claim to be a true story, which was the thing in those days.
Emanuelle is in an asylum in New York, in which women do crazy things (just like they do in Suddenly Last Summer, so it must be true). Mostly they just talk to themselves and carry dolls, and Emanuelle is “embedded” as they say – an investigative journalist from the Evening Post, cleverly disguised as a doll-carrying crazy. The boss doctor (a cameo by the Director) tells her she will cause a scandal if discovered, and his price if she wants to come back and do it all again will be double.
Meanwhile, one particular crazy is busy biting off and eating a nurse’s breast, which Emanuelle finds fascinating. The staff say she is a “complete savage” and she snarls and snaps at them, but is quickly tamed by Emanuelle, who introduces herself with some hand gestures (between the girl’s legs).
Emanuelle’s editor is fascinated by the story of the cannibal and even asks how the nurse is. Emanuelle answers “she asked for it. She’s well known for her homosexual inclinations.” Well, that’s OK then. Emanuelle has taken photos of the girl with her gown hoisted up, and after studying them extensively, they raise their eyes high enough to notice a huge tattoo “above her pubic region” (I’m not sure if the dialogue really is this bad or if it is the poor translation used for the dubbing). It’s an Aztec symbol – from the Tupinambas according to the newspaper’s resident nerd (do you remember when newspapers could afford to employ nerds?). The Tupinamba were everyone’s favourite Brazilian cannibals since Hans Staden was captured by them and claimed to have witnessed their cannibalistic rituals in the sixteenth century. Fortunately, the Portuguese came to save them from their sins, and through enslavement, assimilation, extermination and the introduction of Smallpox, managed to wipe them out completely.
But not in this movie. Emanuelle goes to the Natural History Museum to meet up with the “famous anthropologist” Mark Lester (Gabriele Tinti, who was Gemser’s real-life husband). He takes her to lunch, to his house to look at films of Tanzanian ritual cannibals cutting off heads, penises and what have you from a pair of adulterers, and then to bed. She takes him to the Amazon. Fair exchange.
Before leaving, the movie treats us to scenes of New York traffic and several gratuitous sex scenes including one with Emanuelle’s steady boyfriend, who seems to be able to make sweet sweet love while still wearing skin-tight jeans. And lots of close-ups of Gemser.
On the plane, they smoke (!) and discuss anthropology and history, appropriate since it’s a Pan Am flight.
Why are there still cannibals? asks Emanuelle. He tells her about political cannibalism like Idi Amin, or “tolerated” cannibalism like the Andes plane crash survivors. But in the Amazon, they live by their own rules, and may eat human flesh for ritual purposes, or because they are peckish. Lucky she brought along an anthropologist.
They interview the dude who found the cannibal girl, and he says he has lived among the Amazonian tribes for 25 years and only come across two cases of cannibalism, which were quickly hushed up by the government. He has a daughter, Isabelle (Mónica Zanchi) who has grown up since she last saw Lester and lusts after him, and she spies on Lester and Emanuelle as they go through the same motions, and the same soundtrack, as the New York sex scenes, while Isabelle masturbates outside. Now that’s the sort of thing that you’d expect to cause a lot more problems than extinct cannibals.
Isabelle is taking supplies to a Missionary down the river who knows all there is to know about the “savages” as they call them, and a Nun and two Indians are going with them (definitely redshirts). The Nun tells them that superstition is still strong in the jungle, and there are still witch-doctors curing people with herbs! Oh, the horror. She does admit that the herbs work, so much so that the mission has appropriated (sorry, adopted) many of the concoctions.
There is a totally superfluous scene where Emanuelle and Isabelle are in the river washing each other (mostly concentrating on each other’s breasts, which I guess must get grimy on the river) and being watched by a chimp, who smokes their cigarettes and tries on their sunglasses. Of the three actors in the scene, the chimp seems to be portrayed as the most intelligent. They meet up with some adventurers, Donald and Maggie, who tell them that the Mission was attacked by savages and everyone massacred. Donald saves Emanuelle from a snake, and she asks him what he is doing in the jungle.
“Hunting. Hunting is my life. I’ve sacrificed a lot to satisfy my craving for – hunting…. The satisfaction of catching it. And to kill! … you have to share risks with the animals. Man too can be hunted.”
And what’s Maggie doing there? Well, she’s doing the African cook, Salvador. And no one seems to wonder what the hell he’s doing there in the middle of the Amazon basin. Donald catches them hard at it in the jungle, but it doesn’t become much of a thing, because they have their own agenda – searching for a crashed plane full of diamonds. When the others decide to go back, they find one of the redshirts cut up, cannibal style, and their boats missing.
They try to head back down the river on foot, but on the way find a Bible, and Father Morales from the Mission to which they had been heading.
So, we all know what happens next. This is a cannibal film after all. The Nun disappears and – well, we know from the very start of the movie which part of the body is the favourite of these particular cannibals. They also like intestines. And we get to see it all happen.
The expeditionaries find the Nun (or some of her), and it just gets worse from there. Donald and Maggie find the plane and the diamonds, pause for a celebratory quickie, and are attacked by the cannibals. Donald forgets to duck and the savages take Maggie, and the diamonds. Our few remaining heroes find the village and the villagers, who are about to sacrifice Maggie to the Goddess of Fertility. We know this because we have an anthropologist along. After that, they put a wire around Donald’s midriff, and have a tug of war.
Isabelle is drugged and naked, but they want to sacrifice a pregnant girl to the river gods, and she’s not pregnant – yet. Cue a rather morose gang rape, led by the Shaman, where the rapists all seem bashful – doing it in front of a crowd I guess?
When everybody has had a turn at poor Isabelle, Emanuelle comes up with an idea – she paints the tattoo found on the crazy girl onto her stomach and appears to the superstitious locals as their Goddess of the river. They hand over Isabelle and the two women dive into the river hand in hand, much to the rage of the hoodwinked cannibals, who pursue them in canoes. Luckily, Emanuelle is willing to do anything for a story, even shoot people, but she’s a bit sorry about the white people (and servants) they lost on the way, even remembering the names of the redshirts. But Mark sums it up, with typical anthropological moral relativity:
“Don’t take it badly, Emanuelle. It’s nobody’s fault.”
And nor, apparently, is cannibalism. Or colonialism. Or killing natives for following their rituals. Or making really bad movies.
Rottentomatoes.com has not bothered to gather the reviews of critics, but the viewers’ score is a miserable 26%, with a “Super Reviewer” pointing out that “The acting may be appalling, but it’s difficult to tell for sure because this is dubbed — badly.”
The Allmovie site summed it up:
“excruciating tedium punctuated by occasional kinky sex in the first half of the film and cheap, gag-inducing special effects in the second…
Too gory for softcore fans and too dull for gorehounds, this is basically a film with no target audience whatsoever.”
Perhaps the Director was making a subtle point with this scene where they are planning to eat some innocent creature from the jungle:
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