Cannibalism as eating disorder: FEED ME (2022)

So, the buzz for this movie is ‘Ted Lasso goes cannibal’. By that, they don’t imply we will need to sit through any football matches, but that there is going to be a lot of American “can-do” ardour, conflicting with British reticence and melancholy. Also some dark humour, and a whole lot of gore, which some may find objectionable. Consider yourselves warned.

Feed Me is directed by Adam Leader and Richard Oakes (Hosts). XYZ Films released the horror-comedy on October 27 2022 on digital and on demand platforms. Feed Me follows Jed (Christopher Mulvin) whose life is shattered when his wife Olivia (Samantha Loxley) suddenly dies, leaving him feeling guilty. The blurb says:

“Spiralling into an abyss of depression, he finds himself in a bar with a deranged cannibal, Lionel Flack (Neal Ward) who convinces him he can redeem himself through the glorious act of allowing himself to be slowly eaten to death.”

Suicide, usually unassisted, is sadly common in modern society, and besides making the relatives wretched, it is also an enormous inconvenience to the police, medics and trauma-cleaners who have to deal with it. So why not benefit someone – the local cannibal who promises a painless death that will not require housekeeping, because he will eat the resulting mess? Jed moves in with Lionel, whose tiny house is filthy and full of body parts. But Jed is ready, eager to die, and Lionel is tremblingly eager to eat him.

Cannibalism, particularly vorarephilia (the erotic desire to consume or be consumed by another) can be seen as a type of eating disorder, particularly in cases where there are other foods readily available, but if that is the case, so can any form of carnivory. The film starts and finishes with such reflections – Jed’s wife is a beautiful young woman who is convinced she is fat and ugly, and eventually dies from the effects of bulimia – she starves herself and vomits out whatever nourishment she does eat, until her body closes down.

As Jed explains it, her mental illness meant that she “was eaten from the inside out.” Lionel’s solution is that, if Jed is determined to kill himself, he should do it from the outside in.

Lionel quotes some fake anthropology – a tribe called the Yiurkun who, he says, live in perpetual happiness,

His offer (and there is a written contract involved) is to eat Jed, quickly and painlessly, so he can join his beloved. Why not, Jed thinks, since Olivia has effectively (in his dreams) eaten his heart?

Lionel starts small – local anaesthetic, one finger chopped off with secateurs and carefully cooked, the wound cauterised with a hot clothes iron. “How do you feel?” Lionel asks.

But of course you can’t eat a whole person one finger at a time, and it’s not long before Lionel is removing limbs, but now without anaesthetic, because he gets mad at Jed.

Lionel says he has heard that

“some cultures believe that torturing the animal alive improves the taste and quality of the meat.”

This is not an invention of the director – it’s well known that dogs and cats and other animals are often beaten or burnt or at least made to watch the death of other animals, to make the terror and agony generate adrenalin, which is supposed to add flavour. Astonishingly, Hillary Clinton was accused of doing the same to small children. Other politicians have had the same accusations hurled at them. While these are almost certainly nonsense, it is true that almost every one of the seventy billion land animals humans eat each year will go through extremely painful ordeals, and all of the trillions of sea creatures. Jed is just one more animal in agony.

When the neighbour calls police about all the screaming going on, Lionel invites them in and feeds them some of his “mild veal”.

The enjoyment of food depends largely on what we believe about it. The actor playing the cop is probably in fact eating a piece of veal. His character, the cop, believes he is indeed eating veal. The audience, us, suspends disbelief so we can imagine that he is actually eating part of Jed’s leg. This turns the meal from gourmet to horror – a simple change of species, entirely within our imagination. The title, FEED ME, challenges the assumption that food will be prepared and served with our preconceptions catered for – it will be tasty and uncontroversial. In this society, eating a baby cow who wanted to live is praiseworthy; eating a man who wants to die is horrific.

The title reminded me of a foodie show called “Somebody Feed Phil” which sees writer and producer Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond) travelling around the world eating huge dishes of food while adding no weight to his irritatingly slim frame. In a recent episode, Phil lands in Madrid and apologises to a suckling (newborn) pig –

“you’re very cute, but I’m going to eat you.”

Most cannibals, like carnivores everywhere, do not usually have their victim’s permission, and usually do not apologise either, although they may feel some cognitive dissonance, knowing that their meal required the suffering and slaughter of the animal whose flesh is involved. Phil didn’t kill the new-born baby pig, but did apologise for eating him. Jeffrey Dahmer killed seventeen men and boys and also didn’t apologise (until it was far too late). The closest parallel to the plot of this film (the trailer above states it was “inspired by true events”) is the true case of Armin Meiwes, who advertised for a man who wished to be killed and eaten, had dinner and sex with the only genuine respondent, and then killed and ate him. He felt there was no apology needed, since Jorgen Brandes had wanted, indeed demanded, to be eaten. So it is with Lionel, who offers to kill and eat Jed, and then slowly and gradually makes good on his promise.

Neal Ward plays Lionel as an over the top, twitchy, verbose American con-man, the kind of man we like to think serial killers and cannibals look like, because that would make them easy to spot. Yet the essence of the real modern cannibal is his (or sometimes her) completely normal and unremarkable appearance – they walk among their peers, unknown and unidentified until their arrest (if they are ever found). Neighbours, for example, praised Meiwes as a nice young man who would mow the lawn for them. Issei Sagawa was so small and apparently innocuous that the young woman he killed and ate had been happy to come to his apartment to read poetry together.

The tagline for this movie is

“You are who you eat…”

The concept is interesting – if you are who/what you eat, do you want to eat pigs or chickens or sheep, all of whom are used, quite unjustly, as common insults (for gluttons, cowards or mindless followers). If you are what you eat, Lionel tells us, you should eat humans.

The anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote in his book Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture that, while humans are clearly not obligate carnivores, “our species-given physiology and digestive processes predispose us to learn to prefer animal foods”. This presents a problem for him, since “strictly speaking, human flesh itself contains the highest-quality protein that one can eat”. Lionel’s pathology stems from his calculating, impeccable logic.

The film is a fascinating study of love, loss, despair, friendship, loneliness and appetite. The gore is perhaps a bit over the top, but no longer unusual in modern films. The acting, despite what other reviewers have said, is great and the story compelling. Neal Ward plays Lionel as both a monster and a clown, a hard role to portray, but he is, in the end, seeking the same as all of us – self-acceptance, love, a validation of his humanity, and a good meal.

Butchering vegans: SOME LIKE IT RARE – Barbaque (Eboué, 2021)

The French are sticklers for correct grammar. Bien sûr! Grammar, and particularly syntax, are importants! For example, there is a tendency in animal rights literature for people to declare: “I am vegan.” Simply untrue – you are made of meat, comrade, red meat to be precise, as this film sets out to demonstrate, and at some length.

The correct syntax is “I am A vegan”, that is, a person who tries to avoid eating the flesh of, or otherwise exploiting, any animal. This is usually for ethical reasons to do with the undoubted suffering caused by the modern industrial animal businesses, but sometimes for health reasons (e.g. Bill Clinton) or the environment, because the animal industries cause massive amounts of greenhouse emissions, use absurd amounts of land and water, and are the main cause of deforestation, particularly in the Amazon.

But none of these arguments are likely to persuade the protagonists of this quirky French comedy Barbaque released, for those of us outside of France, under the title Some Like it Rare. Husband-and-wife Vincent (Fabrice Éboué who also wrote and directed the film) and Sophie (Marina Foïs, who managed to make three other movies in that same year) are running a failing butcher shop called Pascal Boucherie, assailed by vegan activists who throw blood (I guess red paint) around their store in protest at their bloody business.

When they see the man who threw the paint riding his bike on the road (of course he rides a bike – this is satire), they stop their van suddenly and reverse, unintentionally (perhaps) causing him to crash into their vehicle and die.

What to do with the corpse? They can’t call the police, because Vincent has already reported the damage done to his store by the dead vegan activist, and it would be assumed to be a revenge murder. But alors, they run a butcher shop, so they have all the tools to dispose of the evidence. Sophie is watching true crime documentaries on TV (aren’t we all?) and tells Vincent to chop the body up and dump the pieces in the garbage. Vincent starts chopping, watched by his dog, who eagerly gobbles up a piece of the vegan that falls onto the floor. Vincent gives the dog an ear, then realises – hey, humans are made of meat!

Chopping up bodies is easy for a butcher, but then Sophie, thinking he has already thrown out the body parts, puts the meat on the shelves. Turns out the flesh of vegans is delicious (grain fed?) and there is a rush of customers seeking what Vincent decides to call “Iranian pork”. With enthusiastic customers in the store, Vincent does not stop Sophie tasting it. Afterwards, she asks

“Vegan” says Vincent.

It’s the perfect crime, the evidence is not just eaten but, as Sophie says, “shat out” afterwards. There are lots of cannibalism jokes, such as the local policeman promising to catch the vegans who attacked the store,

It’s not exactly a new idea. Mads Mikkelsen had the same problem and the same solution (after accidentally locking their electrician in the meat freezer) in the Danish movie The Green Butchers, together with a haircut that would have shocked the normally unshockable fans who loved him in Hannibal. And let us not forget the many variants of the Sweeney Todd story which saw the “demon barber of Fleet St” feeding meat pies filled with his hairdressing clients to the grateful populace of nineteenth century London, as well as a classic of kinky Hollywood cannibalism, Eating Raoul. Butchering people for meat has appeared in several other movies including the much-underrated film The Butchers and the animal revenge movie The Farm.

At first glance, this is a satire on veganism, but then there are all the references to how delicious their flesh tastes.

The only really dislikeable character in the film is their extremely carnivorous and insufferable friend who owns a chain of butcher shops and makes a fortune selling inferior and tainted cuts of meat. He is racist, sexist, and talks only about money. When Vincent has a scuffle with him and bites his ear off, he says “you taste disgusting – you should eat more veg.” Eating meat, Vincent has discovered, makes you taste bad. Maybe that’s why we don’t eat lions.

Vincent and Sophie discuss the logistics of their new business, in the same way other meat and dairy executives talk about the “growing” and “finishing” of the victim animals, as production units. They could farm vegans, they say, and she could milk them. Vincent points out that the best meat comes from castrated steers, he wants to find

There are references to Hitler being a vegetarian (it’s not true) and still being a butcher. Sophie tells how the rabbit she loves when she was little was turned into a stew by her father, and

“although I loved Thumper more than anything in the world, I loved him more as stew.”

They then proceed to kill a plump vegan who they’ve tied up in a bathtub. Most of the film’s action is slapstick hunting sequences as Vincent and Sophie stalk and kill vegans for their shop, interspersed with discussions about hunting a black woman, from which Vincent recoils, until Sophie tells him

They both spot a plump young boy, but Vincent draws the line at killing children, with Sophie complaining

It’s easy to see it as a commentary on the commercial meat corporations, which kill most animals when they are still little more than juveniles or (for veal) babies, and exploit female animals twice – for the production of their young (and sometimes their milk) and then for their flesh when they are worn out – what Carol Adams calls “feminized protein”. All Sophie wants to do (or wants Vincent to do) is apply the same methods to human meat.

The film currently has an unbeatable 100% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with The Guardian critic Cath Clarke saying:

“Some Like It Rare is a tasty treat for herbivores and carnivores alike, and it honestly doesn’t feel like an anti-vegan film.”

Martin Unsworth in the Starburst magazine said:

Some Like it Rare is a non-meat eater’s idea of extreme horror, and if you’re upset by the sight of meat being prepared, you should avoid it at all costs.”

Yes, but that’s not really true. I know plenty of meat-eaters who scrupulously avoid knowing the source of their main course. That’s why animals are butchered in remote slaughterhouses with high walls and maximum security, by anonymous, minimum-wage workers. On the other hand, it is the vegans who climb those high walls and take videos (YouTube is full of them). So while they don’t like what’s going on, the “extreme horror” is probably more applicable to those who are assailed with the cognitive dissonance of knowing they support corporations that do what Vincent and Sophie do, albeit to other species (as far as we know).

If you don’t mind subtitles (or are fluent in French) this is well worth a viewing. Let me know what you think the message is.

“FLESH EATING MOTHERS” (James Aviles Martin, 1989)

OK, I’m posting this on Mother’s Day, and a very happy occasion may it be for those who have a mother, particularly one who doesn’t routinely eat her children. But the film is also about a deadly virus, one which has been covered up by the authorities, so it’s not just schlock horror, but also somewhat prophetic.

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This has it all: cannibalism, domestic violence, murder, lots of blood, adultery and filicide – yes, the mothers eat everything in the fridge and then start on their kids. Early in the piece, one mother stuffs a whole sandwich in her mouth (possibly the most abject scene) then starts on her son, who is still, absurdly, wearing his baseball mitt.

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Her husband is a cop and manages to shoot her as she nominates him as main course, then he’s arrested, has to prove his innocence with the help of a scientist who is being stymied by official obstruction, and at this point there is a tendency to turn off and watch something else, particularly as the acting is so bad that one suspects it has to be deliberate.

This one literally is the best actor in the film:

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You get the idea. One mother makes her son special creamy mashed potatoes, which he eats as she describes the process of producing milk-fed veal. Is there a message here – a cream-fed kid who is about to be her dinner?

“Milk-fed baby cows…. The calf is taken from the mother and put in a small room, so small that he can’t move around, see, so that his muscles are real tender. And they don’t feed him anything but milk, so that he’s really soft by the time they kill him. And so he’s really delicate to eat.”

She pours him another glass of milk.

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“Mom’s on the rag again” he complains to his friend after he escapes, adding that he doesn’t blame her: “it’s all society’s fault”.

The kids work out what’s going on and unite in opposition, but not until plenty of makeup and fake blood has been added to this powerful stew of nonsense.

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“My mother ate my brother.”
“My mother too!”
“My mother ate my father.”
“She’s never done anything like this before!”

Look, it’s all very light-hearted, despite the R rating, and it’s a bit unfortunate that I decided to review it the week after one of the greatest cannibalism movies, Fritz Lang’s M. But there’s an important point here, for us keen Cannibal Studies scholars. So many cannibal films feature male cannibals, from Hans Beckert to Sweeney Todd to Hannibal Lecter. Yet as Barbara Creed told us in The Monstrous Feminine, published not long after this movie hit the big screen, mythical tales and modern horror films teem with female monsters. But the stereotype for cannibal films is the male cannibal and, often, the female victim. Where monsters are female, they often follow Freud’s odd designation of women as terrifying and abject because little boys are supposed to see their lack of a penis as proof their mothers were castrated. Thus, we get the dumb teenager saying “Mom’s on the rag again”. She is, even after trying to eat him, a victim in his eyes.

But Creed, and this film, argue that the female monster relates not to her lack but her centrality to reproduction and nurturing. Woman is the all-consuming womb, the witch, the vampire, the castrator rather than the castrated. We know we came out of her, and fear we may be reabsorbed. But hey, the scene of the battered wife eating the fist of her abusive husband fills us with a certain satisfaction.

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Of the more than 300 films involving cannibalism that I will be discussing in this blog (eventually), only a handful involve female protagonists or even female directors. When they do, they are often presented as comedy as (I presume) this film is; films such as Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death or Santa Clarita Diet. Even in those, though, as in the more serious offerings such as Raw or Jennifer’s Body, cannibalism is presented as a form of empowerment, never as a lack.

Here’s the virus under a microscope.

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The authorities knew about it, but kept it hidden, apparently because they thought it was a punishment for adultery. Plenty of Trump supporters who doubtlessly believe the same about COVID-19. Luckily, there’s a smart scientist with an instant vaccine.

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This is a very silly movie, but it’s refreshing to see some women do the flesh-eating for a change.

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Happy Mother’s Day!