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…

Innocent cannibalism: “SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET” (King, 1936)

One of the earliest films in the range of cannibal stories I have chosen to cover is George King’s 1936 version of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney is a modern myth, but is a descendant of the shadow archetype, those who destroy themselves in trying to destroy others, including Homer’s Cyclops, whose behaviour, Lacan would say, is governed by “unregulated libidinism”. This Todd is certainly so governed.

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The poster on the wall of the barber shop, where the story is told

The title role is played by the wonderfully named Tod Slaughter, who presents Todd as pure evil: socially respectable, yet greedy for money and lusting after the young heroine, Johanna. This is a far more straight forward explanation of cannibalism than the 21st century version where Depp is motivated by revenge at injustice (and insists on singing as well).

The plot is straightforward: Todd has a barber shop near the docks where he lures passers-by in for a shave, kills them and steals their valuables, the kind of simple but effective business plan that any bank would find beguiling.

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Todd’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, has a pie shop and profitably disposes of the bodies. Johanna is the daughter of a local merchant and Todd offers to go into partnership with him, planning to ruin him and blackmail him into approving marriage with his daughter. When the girl’s true love, Mark, returns with riches from the African colonies, (he also bravely fights off a tribe of savages, who are probably cannibals in terms of the colonial trope) he is robbed by Todd but saved from death by Mrs Lovett, who is jealous of Todd’s attention to Johanna. In an interesting instance of early (pre-‘slasher’) gender displacement, Johanna decides to save Mark by dressing as a boy, but is captured by Todd and, setting the gender roles back to basics, has to be rescued from the resulting fire (which consumes Todd) by Mark.

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Neither Todd nor Lovett are ever seen eating human flesh – all cannibalism is performed by the unwitting customers, alluded to when Mark’s comic relief friend and shipmate, Pearley, munches through a pie while speculating on what Todd does with the bodies. The word ‘cannibal’ is never uttered, and the only whiff of abjection is when the narrator, a modern day barber in Todd’s old shop recounting the story to a customer, reveals there is a pie shop next door, and watches in amazement as the man flees. This is textbook abjection: the smell of meat from some non-human mammal cooking next door has made the customer in contemporary London realise his own mortality.

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The class nature of nineteenth century England is illustrated by young Tobias, who is brought to Todd as an apprentice: Todd gets one guinea for each boy he takes from the parish. The Beadle warns Todd that this is the last boy he is getting: presumably he has killed, and Mrs Lovett has cooked, the previous seven.

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“You’ve brought me another apprentice. And a nice little boy, too!”

The boy prepares the victims by applying shaving cream, and is then sent off for a walk with a penny pie from next door, making the innocent lad the chief innocent cannibal. In fact, all the cannibalism is innocent and is carried out by the lower classes, represented by Pearley and Tobias, an apparent metaphor for the exploitation with which the working class was struggling in the 1930s when the film was made. Todd’s unconscionable slaughter of men (never women, except, almost, the disguised Johanna) for profit is pure objectification: he treats his fellow humans as commodities. No explanation is given, nor needed: Todd’s maniacal laughter is necessary and sufficient to make clear that he is a psychopath; in this, he is a mythic figure: the stuff of nightmares.

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Full movie (with some audio issues) is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W0YoxQkTjs

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