Cannibalism with Danish: “The Green Butchers” (Jensen, 2003)

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Anders Thomas Jensen directed this Danish black comedy, which is only really listed early in this blog because it stars – yep, that really is him – Mads Mikkelsen, better known to readers of this blog, I daresay, as Hannibal Lecter in the television series Hannibal (2013-15).

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Svend (Mads Mikkelsen) and Bjarne (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) work in a butcher shop, but are browbeaten by their mean boss, “Sausage” Holger (Ole Thestrup), who says Bjarne’s pate tastes like jockstrap, and even disparages Svend’s marinade (believe it or not, this becomes an important plot point). Holger opens the film with a great summary of animal agriculture:

“I’ve always been fascinated by sausages. It’s almost mythological to kill an animal and then mock it by sticking it in its own intestine. Can you imagine anything worse than being stuck up your own ass?”

They can’t stand this rude dude, so they start their own butcher shop (slagtermester). Bjarne has problems: he smokes twenty joints a day and kills animals so he can collect their skeletons. But it turns out he is the saner of the two partners.

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Their grand opening attracts a total of zero customers. Next morning, Svend does not have a good day: he breaks up with his fiancé and then discovers that he has inadvertently locked the electrician in the meat freezer all night. What to do with a frozen electrician? Holger appears, demanding fillets for the Rotary dinner, and Svend panics.

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Next day, the guests from the Rotary dinner are queueing up outside the shop – they all loved the fillets. Business is booming and, as Svend says, we had to get rid of him, one way or another. The electrician becomes “Svend’s chicky-wickies”. Then the real estate agent turns up, wanting a tour of the premises. So it goes.

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It’s an accidental Sweeney Todd. They meant no harm, and are just being rewarded for bumbling incompetence. And isn’t that the way the world really operates? The Peter Principle!

Then the local pastor reveals that he didn’t like the Rotary dinner. It reminded him of his wife. The wife he had to eat after a plane crash on their honeymoon. Yes, it’s not just Danish Hannibal, it’s also Alive!

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Mads Mikkelsen is very good in the role of the nervous, sweating, irritable Svend, although it’s hard to reconcile this farcical character, and his extraordinary haircut, with the cool, sophisticated and brilliant Dr Hannibal Lecter, let alone Le Chifre in Casino Royale or even Kaecilius in Dr Strange.

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By the end of the film, we are asked questions of perception: what is appetite? What is “meat”? Is the secret in the sauce? Is that a wig?

The promoters had no idea what to do with this film. Check out some of the posters – hard to tell that they are for the same thing!

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It’s a quirky comedy, pleasant enough and inoffensive, unless you are offended by either butchers or cannibalism. If you are equally offended by both, then perhaps it has done its job well.

 

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Ensemble cannibalism: “Eat the Rich” (Richardson, 1987)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is reported to have told the Paris Commune during the French Revolution that:

“When the people have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”

It caught on, some 200 years later, and became the title of a number of songs from such revolutionary outfits as Aerosmith, Motörhead and State of Mind.

Rousseau could have added “and when the people have nothing to watch, they will watch cannibalism comedies”. Lucky he didn’t though, because not many people watched this particular lemon.

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Eat the Rich is a black comedy featuring the cast members of the popular television series The Comic Strip Presents…. (Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, Jennifer Saunders and Alexei Sayle), plus a whole lot of big name cameos. Among the cameos are two really great bass guitarists: Paul McCartney and Bill Wyman!

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Enough trivia – time to get to the serious business of comedy. The film is set in a restaurant named ‘Bastards’ where Alex (Al Pellay), is a waiter, trying to put up with the contempt and disgust of the upper-class clientele, who order dishes like “sliced baby koala, poached in its mother’s milk”. Alex is fired for being rude and turns to a life of crime and revolution. The denouement comes when Alex and his friends return to Bastards and start killing and cooking the customers, renaming the establishment “Eat the Rich”.

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This is the police
This is the police. Lay down your knives and forks!

The film was a very thinly veiled satire on Thatcher’s England, but never really seemed likely to be a call to arms. Timeout London said:

“the back-alley production values and total lack of comic invention on display in this Thatcher-baiting misstep meant that any hopes of a Pythonesque run at the movies were knocked way back on their heels.”

It was a commercial flop, taking in only $200,000 in the US. This may have set cannibal humour back decades but, fortunately, we have just learnt that John Cleese is writing a cannibalism film! According to recent press releases, Cleese has revealed that:

“My greatest professional accomplishment will be a movie I’m writing now, a light comedy about cannibalism. It’s called Yummy.”

Hold The Sunset. Phil (John Cleese). Copyright: BBC.
Of course, that could be Cleese being too silly, too silly.

But it shows a certain zeitgeist – cannibal films are the flavour of this era of our culture. I wonder if it relates to our fears about the increasingly apparent hazards of a society and economic system based on ever more voracious appetite?

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If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
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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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Highway cannibalism: “The Road”, (Hillcoat, 2009)

Cormac McCarthy wrote his chilling book The Road in 2006 and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. I remember reading it at the time, and it was a very disturbing experience. Diving into the book was like one of those dreams where you walk out of the sunshine into a cold, dark and ominous environment. It left me both sorry and relieved to finish it. The sense of loss and wasted opportunity left a deep impression for weeks after reading it, maybe forever. The film captured some of this deep sense of menace and loss, but to a much lesser extent. Roger Ebert and many other reviewers praised the film, at the same time pointing out that it was not as powerful as the book. The Guardian reviewer summed the film up as intensifying the poignancy while deflecting the horror, and some of the more graphic examples of cannibalism are skipped in the film, particularly the finding of an infant’s corpse, all prepared for consumption by his desperate parents. But perhaps it’s an unfair comparison: experiencing a book through one’s own imagination is never really comparable to seeing the interpretation of the actors and director.

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So: what’s it about? Well, it’s post-apocalyptic. A great catastrophe has wiped out most life on earth, including most of the forests that we rely on for the very air that we breathe. The earth is dying; the voice-over tells us “No animals have survived, and all the crops are long gone”. We are never told what happened: there is a flash and there are two characters: man and boy. They are given no names beyond those.

“Cannibalism is the great fear”

The earth is stripped of life, the survivors of their names and their humanity. Armed gangs roam the highways, killing and eating anyone they can find. When the man shoots a member of a cannibal gang who encounters them on the road, he is left with only one bullet in his gun. It will be for the boy, if it should ever come to the point where the only choice is to kill him or let him be eaten. When they come across a big house, they find a number of people locked in the basement – kept for future meals. When the cannibals arrive, they hide in the bathroom, and the man gets the gun ready at the boy’s head.

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There is a lovely scene where they find a survivalist shelter and spend a few days eating as much as they want, and even bathing – feeling clean is an almost forgotten luxury. But there is a pervasive sense of dread, of a world spiralling down into total extinction. Viggo Mortensen from Lord of the Rings plays the nameless man, cold, dirty and desperate, Strider who will never become Aragorn. The mother is played by Charlize Theron in a lamentably brief appearance, and Robert Duvall makes an appearance as a nearly blind old fellow somehow surviving in a time with no hope. The man teaches the boy a stripped down deontological ethic – there are “good guys” and “bad guys”, and the good guys are “carrying the fire”. They also don’t eat people. It is a final grasp at a humanism which failed humanity and failed the planet.

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The impact of The Road comes from its feasibility. We know that we will probably not meet a psychopathic psychiatrist or even hairdresser, we don’t go to fly-over towns where the local abattoir workers have gone feral, we certainly don’t charter Uruguayan military planes to fly us across the Andes. But the threat of some sort of apocalypse confronts us from the front pages of the papers every day, in stories of natural disasters, nuclear wars, pandemics and environmental collapses. Human history is replete with examples of disasters followed by social collapse and cannibalism. The Road takes this scenario into our own time. We see the J-curves of human population matched by the same graph of species extinctions and carbon emissions, and we are forced to think – if the worse happens, what, or whom, will we eat?

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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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Revenge is (sweet) meat: “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (Burton, 2007)

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Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, made in 2007, seeks explanations, rationalisations and even justifications for the depicted crimes of murder, cannibalism and various pure food offences. This version of the 19th century pot-boiler is a star vehicle and also a musical, a most unlikely format for a ‘slasher’ film. It is an adaptation of the Sondheim stage musical, in which Todd is an honest man wronged by a corrupt power establishment: Judge Turpin (the late, great Alan Rickman) has falsely convicted him and transported him to the colonies so that he, the judge, can abduct Todd’s wife, Lucy. Todd meets Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who tells him Lucy was raped by Turpin and committed suicide, leaving their daughter a ward of the wicked judge, who now lusts for the young girl. In the twenty-first century, Sweeney Todd is not the entrepreneur that he was in earlier versions of the story, but the wronged anti-hero, and the forces of the law and government demonstrate the unregulated libidinism that previously characterised Todd. His plans to trap the judge thwarted, Todd wreaks revenge on all males (females being fortunate not to need barbers) with his cutthroat razors.

The abjection is constant, starting with the opening credits where we see streams of blood, mincemeat, pies going into ovens and more blood flowing into the sewer. The 2007 Todd is an artist: Depp’s portrayal is almost balletic in his use of the razor to slice each throat, and the viewer is treated each time to fountains of arterial blood. There is no polite avoidance of the cannibal question in this film: Todd and Lovett share a song where they speculate on the gastronomic features of different professions (she recommends priests). Todd puts this discussion in a social context:

“The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above! How gratifying for once to know, that those above will serve those down below!”

Despite this class-based comment, they agree to forgo the alterity that their working class roots would demand: “We’ll not discriminate great from small… we’ll serve anyone… and to anyone”. The reification of any adult male that comes into the shop arises not from Todd but from Lovett: he wishes only to waste everyone, to revenge himself on a society that has betrayed and (he believes) killed all those he held dear. She argues that this would be wasteful: “With the price of meat what it is, when you get it, if you get it; good, you got it!”

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Todd and Lovett never seem to eat their abject products; the pies being hugely financially successful they can, like the ruling class in Soylent Green, afford better fare. In fact, Lovett is presented as the psychopath in this version. She suggests the pie-making scheme despite her abjection at her rival’s use of local cats, and then, despite the young apprentice Toby’s clear devotion to her, locks him in the cellar with the corpses when he discovers the truth, and goes to fetch the murderous Todd. She is coldly rational like Hannibal Lecter, does no killing herself, and is in fact a perfect reflection of free trade capitalism, adding value to the raw materials that come her way. Todd is persuaded: the crunching sounds outside are “man devouring man my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?”

Todd almost kills his own daughter, who is disguised as a boy, finally kills the wicked Judge Turpin,  unknowingly kills his wife who is alive but insane, then throws Lovett into her own furnace when he discovers that she could have told him the truth. He once again kills for revenge, while Lovett dies not for her evil schemes but because she hoped to win his love. It is up to Toby, the innocent cannibal (he just loved Mrs Lovett’s pies), to slit Todd’s throat and thereby restore the social balance.

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Todd kills and dies because there are no legal recourses for injustice in Burton’s universe. Although he is a ruthless killer, the audience of the 2007 Todd is clearly invited to identify and sympathise with the anti-hero, much as we did the previous decade with Hannibal Lecter. Todd is a killer, but ordinary folks like us who jostle to get a table and eat one of Mrs Lovett’s delicious and very affordable pies are the real cannibals.

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Sweeney Todd received three Oscar nominations at the 80th Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role for Depp, Best Achievement in Costume Design, and Best Achievement in Art Direction, which it won.

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No law against cannibalism – “Rake” Season 1 Episode 1 (ABC, 2010)

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Rake was a television series which first aired on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission for those of you in other parts of the world) in 2010. It ran for four seasons, which is pretty impressive, although Australian series are generally much shorter than those from the US – each season was only eight episodes, making 32 episodes in total, not much longer than season 3 of Lucifer (24 episodes).

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Richard Roxburgh is superb as Cleaver Greene, a brilliant Sydney barrister who is always in trouble due to his predilection for the good life. A Sydney Morning Herald reviewer said of the show “Cleaver Greene is a magnificent comic creation, but you wouldn’t want him staying in your place too long.” Incidentally, the Americans had a go at making a version of it with Greg Kinnear as the “rake” but, without the laconic Aussie humour, it only lasted one season (of 13 episodes mind you).

Season 1 Episode 1 starts with a bang – the guest star is the superb Hugo Weaving (Elrond for Tolkien fans) who is a prominent economist with a habit that gets him into trouble: he is a cannibal. Turns out that he advertised for someone who wanted to be eaten (I’m not making this up – there are enough people out there who like this idea that the psychologists have coined a word, vorarephilia, which the enthusiasts have shortened to “vore”).

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Like all truly unbelievable plots, this one is based on a true story. Armin Meiwes, a German computer technician, advertised on a fetish website called The Cannibal Café (not to be confused with the popular Vancouver restaurant) for “a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”. He actually received a heap of replies, but the only one that seemed sincere was Jürgen Brandes. The two met in 2001, Brandes took a lot of sleeping pills and half a bottle of schnapps, and they collaboratively sliced off Brandes’ penis and tried, unsuccessfully, to eat it with salt, pepper, wine, and garlic (it ended up in the dog’s bowl. Hope the dog was OK – garlic can be poison for them). Brandes went off to die in the bath while Meiwes read a Star Trek novel (well, he showed some good taste there) and, when he found Brandes still alive hours later, killed him and proceeded to eat quite a lot of him over the coming weeks and months.

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Meiwes and Brandes

Rake doesn’t have that sort of time to waste (or presumably any Star Trek novels) so they simplified the plot – the defendant’s meal-ticket makes a video of himself taking a lethal dose of drugs, and he is definitely dead when Hugo’s character chops him up to fridge-sized portions. Where life and art meet is that in Germany, and in New South Wales, and pretty much everywhere else in the world, there is no actual law against cannibalism. Meiwes was charged with manslaughter as he had killed Brandes (at his request – a kind of assisted suicide), and was sentenced to eight years. Due to the ensuing publicity, a retrial was ordered and he was convicted of murder, on the grounds that he had talked Brandes into letting him kill him, for his own sexual pleasure.

In Rake, there is no such complication. The dude was dead at dinner time, and the case only becomes a murder trial because there is a State election coming up and the government needs to appear tough on cannibals. However, it is clear that there is no evidence for murder – you cannot really murder dead people. Hugo looks forward to his release, but as Cleaver points out “you ate someone. You’re never going home”.

Cannibalism is seen as so abject, so vile, that there is no chance of the cannibal going home, even when he clearly is not a murderer, and is guilty at worst of defiling a corpse. Yet why is it so? Eating a cow or sheep or pig who clearly wants to live (watch any one of thousands of Youtube abattoir clips) is fine, but eating a person who wanted, longed, to be eaten is grounds for being locked up for life.

“What could be more natural than wanting to consume human flesh? It combines our two most primal instincts into one single act…. you go that one tiny step further and we’re considered vampires, monsters that should be consigned into eternal darkness. It’s the worst sort of hypocrisy.”

Incidentally, Armin Meiwes is still in jail, this time under a life sentence. He now claims to be a vegetarian, and runs the local prison chapter of the Greens Party. I guess eating someone can make you think twice about eating meat.

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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.

Leatherface2
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.

TCSM Slaughter family old friend for dinner
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.

meathook
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.

TCSM Sally old friend for dinner
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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