“Anyone can eat human flesh” – SAWNEY, FLESH OF MAN (Ricky Wood, 2012)

It is often difficult to impossible to determine the truth of cannibal stories. Was there a Sweeney Todd? Did Ottis Toole eat up to 600 people in the US? How important to Jeffrey Dahmer was the cannibalism component of his murders? So it is for the older myths, such as that of Sawney Bean.

According to the mythology, Sawney was a Scotsman who, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, moved into a cave in Bennane Head on the west coast of Scotland with his wife “Black Agnes” Douglas. They had eight sons, six daughters, 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters, the grandchildren all being products of incest, since no outsider was found in the cave. Alive. Freud said that humanity’s “original” taboos were cannibalism and incest. Sawney won the daily double.

The Bean clan would ambush unwary travellers on the sparsely populated coast, but killing the victims and stealing their riches wasn’t enough to feed hungry, inbred mouths, because there were not a lot of pawn shops in the area, and eBay hadn’t been invented yet. Sawney’s revolutionary idea, a forerunner of modern serial cannibals, was take the bodies back to the cave and eat them, or preserve the flesh by pickling. The story goes that up to one thousand victims were so handled, making him, if real, the first and most prolific serial killer ever caught.

The reign of terror ended when a prospective victim escaped the Beans (although his wife did not) and alerted authorities. The king (possibly James VI) led a heavily armed party to capture the clan. Sawney and the men were condemned without trial and had their genitalia cut off and thrown into the fires, their hands and feet severed, and were left to bleed to death. After watching the men die, the women and children were tied to stakes and burned alive. By such methods is civilisation restored. Wes Craven based his film The Hills Have Eyes on the legend of Sawney Bean, it also makes a point about the vengeance of the civilised being as bad as the savage.

But, so the story goes, Sawney’s dying words were:

“It isn’t over, it will never be over.”

That’s where this film starts.

A descendant of the original Mr Bean now lives in Sawney’s cave, presented as the very image of a voracious mouth. The landscape here is a devourer, much like the peaks of the Andes, which looked like teeth in the movie Alive. Nature seeks to eat us up, from the bacteria and mosquito to the great white shark. We tend to see ourselves as outsiders to nature, at war with the natural world, but the cannibal reminds us that we are animals too, so he is, like nature, red in tooth and claw. Nature, like Sawney Bean, is indifferent to our pretensions of civilisation, merciless in killing and eating us (and this new Sawney likes a bit of rape too).

Lots of ultraviolence and growls and screams from Sawney’s hoodie-wearing kids.

Look, it’s a video nasty, which seeks to challenge the viewer with plenty of gore, shocks and carnage, and it succeeds to some extent. The plot has some annoying loose ends and is a bit thin, with sombre music announcing (as if we couldn’t guess) the forthcoming demise of anyone silly enough to wander around Scotland solo (which almost everyone in the film does at some stage). The acting is pretty great, particularly David Hayman, who has a ripsnorting and hilarious time as Sawney, spicing his cruelty with evil laughter. Like Sawney’s clan, the production seems to be a family affair, with direction by Ricky Wood, screenplay by his father Rick Wood and cinematography by his brother Ranald Wood. The cinematography is splendid, taking full advantage of the stunning scenery around Aberdeen and western Scotland.

The most scary image is Sawney’s mode of transport – a big, black British taxi. Those things terrified me when I was in London, and I can now see why. You get into one of those, and you might come out ready for Uber Eats.

Sawney also has a creature chained up at the back of the cave, and prepares tender morsels of brains, limbs, fingers and intestines, covered with “gravy” (fresh blood).

He hands the delicacy to his son, saying “give this to mother”. We eventually get to meet mother, and it doesn’t go well. How they made babies is hard to imagine. Maybe he slipped a roofie in her evening gore.

Sawney also tends to quote scripture and, like most who do that, picks the bits that suit him.

“Jesus said: unless you eat the flesh of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

The avenging hero is Hamish (Samuel Feeney), an investigative journalist with the requisite three-day stubble, an English accent and a Scottish capacity for alcohol. He goes to visit the Druid sacrificial site where the latest body was found, his girlfriend’s sister, or rather her head and someone else’s arms, all showing human tooth marks. He tells his recording device:

“Predatory killers often do far more than commit murder. Some have sexual desires, humiliation. They create gruesome rituals, as much for pleasure as for any other reason. This killer is not merely deranged, but evil.”

Well, maybe so, although the Bible-wielding Sawney would disagree. He feels that those he captures are fair game, prey for his hunters, and if he adds rape to cannibalism and murder, well, isn’t that pretty much what factory farms do, with their artificial insemination and culling?

No thriller would be complete without the bad guy spilling the beans to the hero, secure in the belief that he will soon be killing (and eating) the listener. Sawney tells the captive Hamish:

“You have to go back over 500 years and follow my bloodline. To the time when food was scarce, life was cheap, and only the ferocious survived.”

Then he’s back in the Bible, this time John 6:51.

“Any man who eats of this bread will have everlasting life on the bread that I give. This will be my flesh for the life of the world.”

And then verse 65:

My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”

Yes, a favourite verse among Cannibal Studies scholars, and one that Sawney takes literally. He tells Hamish, as a slaughterhouse worker or a supermarket shopper might tell a pig,

“You’re just food, you’re a gift from God, which is who we are… You see, anyone can eat human flesh, you just have to make sure you wash it and garnish it well to avoid disease. Now, I particularly like the thighs and the calves… I prefer the taste of women to men, and I never eat hands or feet or testicles.”

Sawney would have been a hit as a judge on a cooking reality show.

Humans as livestock: THE FARM (Hans Stjernswärd, 2018)

What does it mean to be “treated like an animal”? We humans are, after all, animals, one species of the family Hominid, or great apes. So why should we not be treated like animals, or, if we are averse to abuse, why then do we treat non-human animals “like animals”? The ultimate act of treating humans “like animals” is the killing and eating or the human body, which of course is made of meat, and various other edible parts.

One of the classics of cannibal studies is the film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, made on a tight budget by Tobe Hooper in 1974, and remade and turned into multiple sequels since then. In these films, cannibals capture and slaughter tourists for their flesh. The Farm attempts to push the slaughter metaphor a whole lot further.

The cannibal who dwells among us has been a popular trope since Sweeney Todd the Barber starting cutting the throats of his customers over 200 years ago, carting their bodies to the pie shop of Mrs Lovett, who turned them into very popular pies. There have been multiple versions of this story, the latest being a musical with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Variations on this theme included Motel Hell and the Danish comedy Green Butcher, starring Mads Mikkelsen (21st century Hannibal Lecter) as you have never seen him before.

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It’s Mads, Captain, but not as we know it.

Early cannibal stories concentrated on ‘savages’ who ate us just because that’s what the imperialists told us that was what primitive peoples did. Sweeney and his ilk looked a lot like us, but happened to be less discriminating when it came to sourcing their meat. Slasher cannibals were a hybrid – a fusion of the foreign savage and the domestic entrepreneur – they were modern, civilised people who had sunk back into voracious savagery. Texas Chain Saw was a progenitor of the slasher films in which a bunch of urban trendies come up against a whole family of degenerate cannibals – people who have dropped (or been thrown) out of civil society and reverted to savagery and cannibalism. Stories about semi-human, savage cannibals waylaying travellers date back to at least Sawney Bean and his incestuous cannibal family in 16th century Scotland, or even further back to Homer’s Cyclops or the various monsters reported by Herodotus.

What slasher and savage cannibal movies had in common was that the cannibals were more of the hunter-gatherer type, setting traps or chasing potential prey, as our ancestors did for a couple of hundred thousand years before the agricultural revolution started, some ten thousand years ago. At that time, we started selectively breeding animals, confining them, controlling their lifecycles, harvesting their bodily secretions, and slaughtering them for meat at our convenience. This movie, The Farm, takes that social evolution into the world of cannibals. What if our backroad cannibals didn’t just chase down tourists, but farmed humans for their meat and their milk?

It’s an intriguing premise, which starts with the traditional horror preamble, a young couple, Nora (Nora Yessayan, who also did the casting) and Alec (Alec Gaylord) stopping for the night somewhere they should know better than to stop, much like Brad and Janet in Rocky Horror Show.

These films have a formula – the sassy, city folk, some of them in an unmarried relationship (and being judged and often punished for it).

The diner with food of an indeterminable origin, the gas station with the weird attendant.

The house or motel with some nasty surprises (e.g. bloodstained sheets), and (yes) the monster under the bed.

But The Farm goes off in another direction after that. The young couple are captured and put in cages.

They are gagged, and so they are voiceless, the way we consider farm animals to be, and treated ruthlessly by the farmers, who are mostly wearing animal masks.

Nora is tied with her legs apart and artificially inseminated, as happens to millions of cows every year.

Alec is confined, knocked on the head and taken off to where human meat is harvested. Somehow, he survives that and comes looking for Nora.

The farm is a catering company, cooking and selling the meat for festive events.

The captured human men are killed whenever fresh meat is needed, the women are fitted to suction machines and their milk is collected.

When they can no longer become pregnant, they are added to the butchery.

I guess we are (most of us) aware that cows, like all mammals, have to give birth before they produce milk. On this farm, as on dairy farms world-wide, the babies are waste products of milk production and are killed soon after they are born. That indifferent killing of the innocent is the most disturbing scene of the film.

Look, it’s BUSINESS. Just as billions of male chicks are minced alive at hatcheries because they can’t lay eggs, so dairy calves are killed if they can’t produce milk, and human babies dashed against the concrete floor in the milking sheds of The Farm. Of course, businesses of all sorts have production and quality problems, and have to deal with unhappy customers.

Nora and Alec escape and seek refuge in a church. How much sympathy would an escaped cow or sheep or pig get in a church? It does give us an understanding of the ideology of the Farm though, with it’s mural based on Matthew 19:14:

Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Farmed animals are often compared to children in that they are vulnerable, selectively bred to be dependent and of course are mostly slaughtered when still infant or barely adult. The Dean of St Paul’s, William Ralph Inge, wrote in “The Idea of Progress”,

“We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.”

Nora and Alec, at the start of the film, stopped at a café near the Farm, where they were watched as they uncaringly ate beef and bacon burgers. They were, without their knowledge, judged guilty of eating flesh, of cannibalism of their fellow mammals, and the “animals” are now harvesting their bodies in return.

Eric from scariesthings.com summarised:

“this is a tough watch for most audiences and is even a little rough for hardened horror fans”

The reviewers either loved or hated The Farm. Very few thought it was just OK; it was either slammed as stupid and badly made or lauded as a brilliant expose of modern animal agriculture, told in a looking-glass world where we are the animals. I tend to the second view, but I hope you will get the chance to decide for yourself. The film seems to be on Amazon Prime.

I won’t tell you the ending, but the poster kinda gives it away…