Cannibal supermodels: THE NEON DEMON (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Marcellus (Hamlet Act I, scene iv) claimed that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, but it’s not their cannibal films or actors. The Neon Demon is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (currently in trouble with PETA for killing a pig for a TV series). Refn has made several movies (Pusher, Valhalla Rising, etc) starring Mads Mikkelsen, probably known best by the readers of this blog as Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps Svend in Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Green Butchers. This film does not have Mads in it, but it does have Elle Fanning as a sixteen-year-old model who, we just know, is going to be chewed up, swallowed and spat out by the Los Angeles fashion industry.

Books about screen-writing always stress the opening image – it sets the scene, establishes the atmosphere, tells the viewer what to expect. Well, this one sure does.

Jesse (Elle Fanning from The Great) dead on a couch, blood caked onto her throat and down her arm. A grim male gaze from a photographer. The killer? Police forensics?

No, he’s an amateur photographer doing audition shots for her, and is probably the only nice guy in the story, and we all know where nice guys finish. Anyway, Jesse is befriended, as she wipes off the fake blood, by a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone from The Hunger Games), who takes her to a party to meet the LA fashion scene.

The other models hate her for being young and pretty and not needing the constant plastic surgery to fix all the things the surgeon and our culture say is wrong with their bodies. In the bathroom, as you do, they discuss lipsticks, which they note are always named after either food or sex, and speculate on this new commodity, Jesse. Is she food or sex?

Either way, it’s about appetite. Think of an animal, any animal – a snail, a snake, a human. What is the animal thinking about? It’s almost certainly food or sex. This film combines the two. The men have the power – the celebrity photographer, the fashion designer, even the sleazy motel manager (played with black humour by Keanu Reeves) – Jesse is their fresh meat.

The young, hopeful girls have their looks, and a useful booster of narcissism, a taste for the neon demon of fame, which fuels their journey through the fashion jungle.

When they get “old” (over twenty apparently), they inject various toxins and go under the plastic surgeon’s knife to fix what they are convinced are their failings. But it’s never enough. Jesse sees visions which confirm her own beauty in her eyes:

Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, praying that one day they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.

But once used up, the women and girls are rejected, discarded, left to fight among themselves – to the death. Jesse is edible to them too, but not in the male way, more in the way that Elizabeth Báthoryis alleged to have bathed in the blood of virgins to keep her youth.

That’s a small taste of the real cannibalism in the film, which infiltrates the metaphoric cannibalism of the meat markets of advertising and fashion. There is an ancient tradition, from the earliest days of tribal ceremonies and the Wendigo to Richard Chase and Armin Meiwes, that eating the flesh or drinking the blood of a victim (preferably a young fit one) will transfer their strength and attractiveness to the eater. If you can keep them down of course.

An even older tradition talks of killing and eating the gods of the harvest, in order that they may be reborn and bring with them next year’s prosperity. The tradition survives in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist service. Jesse is a young and beautiful. She is, or thinks she is, a goddess. How can she not be eaten, in this film both metaphorically and literally?

There is no point in going on with the plot, it’s filled with rape, paedophilia, murder, masturbation, necrophilia, and of course cannibalism, but you really need to see it yourself, and anyway, the plot is not the point. Brian Tellerico, the reviewer from Rogerebert.com, summed this up:

It is a sensory experience, driven by the passion of its fearless filmmaker and a stunning central performance by Elle Fanning.

The director called the film an “adult fairy tale”:

“I woke up one morning a couple of years ago and was like, ‘Well, I was never born beautiful, but my wife is,’ and I wondered what it had been like going through life with that reality. I came up with the idea to do a horror film about beauty, not to criticize it or to attack it, but because beauty is a very complex subject. Everyone has an opinion about it.”

Everyone had an opinion about The Neon Demon too, with some of the audience at Cannes booing it and the rest giving it a standing ovation. You can make up your own mind – it’s an Amazon original, so you should be able to find it quite easily wherever you are in the world. It is a beautiful film, the acting is superb, the direction is assured and precise. The horror is not so much from the gore, as the scenes of young girls being treated as meat. But that is exactly the point.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke of what he called “carnivorous sacrifice”:

“The establishment of man’s privileged position requires the sacrifice and devouring of animals.”

The animals we sacrifice and devour are little more than infants – chickens for example are slaughtered at seven weeks of age. Pigs are killed at six months (less if they run into Refn, apparently). We no more eat old animals than photographers seek out old models. Remember Curtis’ line in Snow Piercer:

“I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.”

Or the words of John Jacques Rousseau:

The animals you eat are not those who devour others; you do not eat the carnivorous beasts, you take them as your pattern. You only hunger after sweet and gentle creatures who harm no one, which follow you, serve you, and are devoured by you as the reward of their service.

Cannibalism is no more or less than the sacrifice and devouring of animals – in this case, the Great Ape known as Homo sapiens. As voracious consumerism and greed extends its reach, to plunder the entire planet, the distinction between us and the other animals seems increasingly to evaporate.

“We’re NOT Maori cannibals”, FRESH MEAT (Danny Mulheron, 2012)

New Zealand has produced some world class directors; think of Jane Campion, or Peter Jackson. Not a lot of cannibal movies unfortunately, considering the country’s reputation – Jackson’s first feature film Bad Taste had a lot of humans being eaten but, unfortunately for this blog, the eaters were space aliens, so not technically cannibals. Jackson’s Braindead was closer, involving zombies. Can you be a cannibal if you are undead? We’ll have to consider that question some time, perhaps when we run out of movies about living cannibals (probably about the time we get to net zero).

But Danny Mulheron gets right into freshly killed, cooked (and sometimes raw) human body parts in this film. Like Jackson’s Bad Taste, Fresh Meat was Mulheron’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive inception.

The plot involves a family of Maoris, recently converted cannibals, being taken hostage by some bumbling criminals. Rina (Hanna Tevita) is home from her lesbian explorations at “St Agnes Boarding School for Young Maori Ladies” when a bunch of criminals break in to her home to hide from the police, having killed some prison guards to free their boss from a prison van.

But that’s Rina’s second shock of the day; the first was finding her parents’ new eating regime in the fridge.

Turns out her Dad (Temuera Morrison from Once Were Warriors and The Mandalorian)  is reviving an “eighteenth century post-colonial religion” – he has found the prophecies of Solomon Smith and become a “Solomonite”; he now believes that eating people (“taking their life-force”) will cause the family to flourish.

Yes, among the satire on Maori and Pakeha cultures, there is the odd dig at Christian transubstantiation.

Mum (Nicola Kawana) produces hugely popular cooking shows and books, she’s a Maori Nigella, into marinades, and she describes the meat she uses:

Rina is shocked that her brother (Kahn West) would agree to eat human flesh, until he tells her about the pork and rosemary pies that her family sent to her at school. It wasn’t a choice.

The subsequent bloody altercation with the criminals is set to fill the larder nicely. Dad tells the last living criminal, Gigi (Kate Elliott), who is hanging upside down ready for slaughter, that

“ritualistic cannibalism dates back to 1000BC to the Hun phase in Germany. The Bible itself refers to the siege of Samaria in which two women made a pact to eat their children. The Aztecs, the French, the Brits… Your ancestors probably did it. I know mine did.”

There is lots of Maori humour, and not all relating to cannibalism. Dad is an Associate Professor at the University, and blames white racism for his failure to be given tenure as full professor. When the cops knock at the door, he complains

Rina’s neighbour is a white boy who is in love with her. When he appears and is invited in (“we’ll have him for dinner” says Dad – yes, Hannibal lives), he points out that he is a vegetarian, but politely eats what turns out to be a human testicle, only getting suspicious when he spots something else on his plate.

Even when they have him tied up in the basement ready for slaughter, he politely tells them

Dad replies with the best line of the movie:

“Oh, we’re not Maori cannibals. We’re cannibals… that just happen to be Maori.”

But Dad has his own agenda: to become immortal:

“By eating the still-beating heart of my youngest son, I’m halfway towards immortality. But I still need to drink the blood of my virgin daughter.”

Doesn’t quite work out that way, Rina’s not a “virgin” after that scene in the shower with her girlfriend. Or does it?

What is it about virgins and blood sacrifices anyway? Are the rest of us not good enough to sanitise humanity’s sins with our polluted blood? We exploit the innocent and gentle ones, and then expect that, by slaughering them, we somehow clear our guilt at doing so. Remember the line from Leonard Cohen’s song Amen:

Tell me again
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb…

Anyway, the takeaway from this movie is that Maoris, traditionally accused of cannibalism, can be Maoris and cannibals without being “Maori Cannibals”. The two identities can be separated, even as they coexist. There are other families of cannibals who are not defined by their race; consider the Mexican film Somos lo que hay or its American adaptation We are what we are.

In cannibal studies, it is not unusual to be buttonholed by someone who has become aware of your field of interest and told with great solemnity “the Maori were cannibals, you know.” I tend to politely thank the informant for sharing a “fact” that almost everyone “knows”. But if I am feeling feisty, or have had a few drinks, I might invite them to unpack that statement – which Maori, whom did they eat, and what evidence are you presenting for this?

The British invaders of New Zealand were keen on declaring that the indigenous peoples, of wherever they went, were cannibals – it made their job of invading, enlightening and/or exterminating the inconvenient locals so much easier. But there is some evidence that much of the talk of Maori cannibalism was either misinterpretation or just slander – imperialists in the age of expansion tended to use words like “savage”, “barbarian” or “cannibal” pretty interchangeably – if you had dark skin and didn’t speak English, you were probably a cannibal, with no evidence required other than some hearsay from conquistadors or missionaries. But if an alien civilisation invaded Earth and found a copy of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a bookshelf, they might well assume that it was a history book, and that we were all cannibals.

Amazon.com: Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the  South Seas: 9780520243088: Obeyesekere, Gananath: Books

Ganath Obeyesekere’s excellent book on cannibalism in the South Seas makes clear that the oversimplification of Maori culture and mythology (and perhaps humour) probably led to often tragic misinterpretations of local customs. In fact, he says, it is likely that many Maori were convinced that the British were cannibals. And who could blame them? If those aliens mentioned above put down Grimm’s Fairy Tales and took a look inside our industrialised slaughter factories, where 135,000 farmed animals are killed every minute, they would assume we were far more bloodthirsty than they, or the Brothers Grimm, could have imagined. No wonder they don’t make contact.

It is interesting to consider the differing responses to cannibalism in the family of this film. Social Psychologist Melanie Joy calls the ideology surrounding and justifying the eating of meat, dairy and eggs “carnism” – a set of largely unconsidered beliefs in three beliefs that start with the letter N: that these products are “normal, natural and necessary“. We drink milk, eat meat, scramble eggs, based on the insouciant assumption that all these things are normal, necessary and natural (and, a fourth N, nice to taste). The family members reflect these views, but in relation to a different food source: Homo sapiens. Dad thinks eating humans is “necessary” in order to absorb the life force of the victims, and make himself immortal. Mother is a celebrated chef; for her, eating meat is “natural”, and where it comes from is not an issue, as long as it cooks well and tastes good. Rina’s brother finds the whole thing “normal” – his parents do it, and he wants to learn from them, and make them proud. Only Rina objects, although she was willing to eat the pies they sent her when she thought they were bits of a different animal. She’s like a vegan at a barbecue, heart-broken to see her family so unthinkingly accepting the death of animals, or at least, those that she can see and talk to.

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, 10th  Anniversary Edition - Kindle edition by Joy, Melanie, Harari, Yuval Noah.  Politics & Social Sciences Kindle eBooks @

If you don’t like gore and body parts (and violence and lesbian kissing) then you might want to skip this movie. But if you don’t mind all that, and like a rip-snorting plot, plenty of humour, a little suspense, and lots of intertextual winks to cultural foibles, some (perhaps unintentional) observations on the ideology of carnism, as well as some great acting and direction, then watch Fresh Meat. Recommended.

“This thirst is consuming me”: CRONOS (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)

Cronos is the first feature film of Guillermo del Toro, better known for his later mind-bending fantasies Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Del Toro was originally chosen by Peter Jackson to direct The Hobbit trilogy, but couldn’t do it, due to extended delays. So he’s a top tier director, an auteur, as the French say. He was only 29 when he made Cronos, yet it has been hailed as one of the greatest horror films and one of the best Spanish language films, and has a rating of 91% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. Empire Magazine called it a “unique, terrifying mini-masterpiece.”

At this point I need to admit that it is less a cannibal film than a vampire one. Now I have nothing against vampires, some of my best friends are vampires (probably), but a cannibal should really be alive rather than undead, IMHO. This one is so good, though, that I’m giving it a run on the cannibal blog. Apologies to the cannibal purists.

There is also a link to #cannibalism, because the undertaker (yes, even immortals sometimes need undertakers) is Tito (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in a prequel role for the great cannibal movie We Are What We Are, in which he was the coroner who found a finger in the dad’s stomach. You’d have to watch it – it’s worth it.

Anyway. Gothic movies usually start off a few centuries in the past, because old magic is just – better. This one has a 14th century alchemist inventing a device which looks like a Faberge egg with claws. The device sticks its claws into whomever happens to pick it up and an insect inside (species yet to be determined) injects something (IDK – vitamin C? Testosterone?) which makes the person immortal. Centuries later – in the present – an earthquake reveals the dead alchemist. Well, he was immortal, but the earthquake caused a stake to pierce his heart, which is not ideal if you’re a vampire (or anyone else really). The egg is in a statue of an archangel, which is the first of a string of religious symbols (hey, it’s Spanish, OK?)

The statue ends up with antique dealer, Jesús Gris (played by the wonderful Federico Luppi who was one of Guillermo del Toro ‘s favourite actors and was also in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth). Gris and his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) extract the egg, wind it up and it plunges its stingers into him.

There’s some blood and pain, sure, but he finds he is getting younger, and heals much faster. You laugh a little, you cry a little, but then there’s another problem – he develops a longing for human blood.

There’s also a dying businessman (Claudio Brook, The Exterminating Angel and several other films of Luis Bunuel) who really wants the Cronos Device. His American nephew (Ron Perlman, Hellboy and Sons of Anarchy) is brought in to seek out the device by any means necessary (some of which are quite nasty). He puts up with his uncle, because he is named in the will, but wait, if uncle is immortal…

What would you do to defeat death, to live forever?

As Roger Ebert observed, there are some real religious issues explored here – the battle of good and evil, love (for Gris’ wife and granddaughter) being more powerful than greed, and particularly the unshakeable belief in divine afterlife. What happens to that hope if you never die? And what if that extended life requires eating flesh and drinking blood? Would you risk hell to avoid going to heaven? When little Aurora cuts her hand, Jesus has to decide if his thirst is really worth drinking his granddaughter’s blood.

Of course, that assumes that drinking blood is somehow essentially evil. Tell that to a mosquito.

Jesus Gris is, like any good vampire, likely to start smoking ominously if he finds himself in the sunshine. But can his goodness overcome the vamp issues? Well he dies and comes back to life, reborn in a glowing white skin, he takes many savage beatings, saying that he can handle the pain, then he smashes the egg, declaring

Jesus Gris – translates to English as “the Grey Jesus”. He is the suffering servant, who died and came back to life. There is a lot of that in Spanish films, but this one has an added twist:

Yes, he wants blood. Could that be a backhander to the Church? Religion can motivate good deeds, or suck the blood of the devotees. The Eucharist is all about transubstantiation – the wine and wafer are believed (by some) to be literally the blood and body of Christ. Hannibal is full of it, particularly the resurrection of Mason Verger and his attempt to eat Hannibal. It’s the eternal paradox.

Cronos won the grand prize in the Critics’ Week at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and nine Mexican Academy Awards, including best picture and director. It has an enviable 91% “fresh” on the Rotten Tomatoes website. The Criterion Blu-ray edition is available at Amazon. The soundtrack is superb, by the acclaimed Mexican composer Javier Álvarez. Highly recommended.

This post may contain affiliate links. That means that I may earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you buy something through my site. This helps me run my website and produce the articles that I hope you find interesting.

NEXT WEEK: One of the most controversial cannibal films of all time: Joe D’Amato’s Antropophagus.

Remembrance of Things Past: HANNIBAL Season 3 Episode 4: “Aperitivo”.

There was a “Hannibal” in Proust: Comte Hannibal de Bréauté-Consalvi in The Guermantes Way. Now there is some Proust in Hannibal – everything in this episode is à la recherche du temps perdu – “Remembrance of Things Past” or, more accurately, “In Search of Lost Time”.

Hannibal, let’s be clear, gets into people’s heads (including those of his loyal Fannibals). That of course is his job as a psychiatrist, but he takes it well beyond work hours, getting into the heads of everyone with whom he deals, including Miriam Lass, who was his captive for a long time, and shot Frederick Chilton, because Hannibal was in her head.

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It’s episode 4, and we are finally finding out what happened to all the people knifed, shot and pushed out of windows (or made to eat their own faces) in the previous season. Those still alive have it in for him, are hunting him in their own ways. Mason Verger, whose fortune is based on breeding and killing pigs, wants to catch Hannibal and feed him to those pigs. He has offered a reward of one million dollars for his capture. Chilton, less one eye and half his teeth from Miriam’s bullet, just says “Happy hunting!” Verger’s words about Hannibal are taken from the Bible, the Book of Job, where Satan tells God he has been “going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it”. He is relating Hannibal to a supernatural being: Satan. But also to an edible being: a pig. This can’t end well.

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We know Will was cut up good in his last dance with Hannibal, but we get a new perspective in the next scene after the credits – we are inside Will’s body cavity, in the coil of guts, looking at the stomach skin as it is punctured by Hannibal’s linoleum knife. Waking up in the hospital, he is visited not by Abigail, as he had hoped and imagined in episode 2, but Chilton, who wants help catching Hannibal, who would be a prize specimen for his “hospital” for the criminally insane.

Will spurns Chilton’s offer of compassion and friendship, which leads to one of Chilton’s best lines of the show:

The optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds;

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Will is still imagining scenarios – in the next scene, he and Hannibal are plunging knives into Jack Crawford in a scene that could only have been inspired by Julius Caesar.

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But Will finally didn’t go with Hannibal, and Jack’s not dead – he’s tracking to Will’s boatshed to seek Will’s help, just as he did at the beginning of Red Dragon, where the whole saga started. Will admits that he warned Hannibal, wanted him to run, because “he was my friend”,

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Alana is still alive too, despite being pushed out of a first storey window. She wakes up full of rods that hold her together. The doctors have told her that a lot of marrow got into her bloodstream from her multiple broken bones, so she should expect to think differently. And she does.

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She goes to see Mason Verger, who tells her he has found religion, been saved by the risen Jesus or, as he familiarly calls him “the Riz”. As a believer, he says he has forgiven Hannibal. Alana is not so convinced.

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Jack remembers his apparent death at Hannibal’s hands, but has somehow recovered. His health, not his career – he has been forced to retire from the FBI. The culture has found a new nightmare to slap its clammy flab and ruin its sleep.

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He also remembers waking up in hospital, lying next to Bella, his wife, who is continuing to die without him as it turns out. He takes her home, sits with her, holds her while her heart stops and her brain dies. He dresses for church and visualises their wedding, but it’s a funeral, she is in a casket, and there is a splendid bouquet from – who else – Hannibal. The card contains a John Donne poem and finishes “I’m so sorry about Bella, Jack”. Fighting to the death does not, apparently, reduce the respect or affection Hannibal feels for his opponents.

Everyone, everyone alive that is, wants to find Hannibal, and most of them want to kill him. What does Will want, as he embarks on a sustainable sailing voyage to Europe to find Hannibal? We don’t know. Mason Verger is talking transubstantiation – his face has been (somewhat) restored by extensive surgery, now he wants to transubstantiate Hannibal. In most ceremonies

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He is planning a more elaborate ceremony. He tells his major-domo nurse Cordell

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Alana is helping, telling Verger that Hannibal will be traceable because, wherever he goes, he will be ordering the very best wine, truffles, etc. She tells him “You’re preparing the theatre of Hannibal’s death. I’m just doing my part to get him to the stage.”

It sounds like they are all conspiring against poor Hannibal. But remember what Alana told Jack when they thought they were outsmarting him – Hannibal is always in charge of the narrative. Whatever the others are doing, he wants them to be doing. Or as Bedelia said, he is drawing them to him. Nietzsche wrote:

“In your friend, you should possess your best enemy. Your heart should feel closest to him when you oppose him.”

While everyone else is remembering things past, or searching for lost time, Hannibal is making friends.