Meat is meat! THE BUTCHERS (Paulmichel Mielche, 1973)

Since at least the time of Sweeney Todd, the barber who killed his customers and turned them into pies in the early 19th century, enterprising business people have been selling human meat to their customers. In Soylent Green, the US government does a roaring trade in it, and demonstrates sustainable recycling, well before it became fashionable. It’s a trope that is enduringly popular, because it offers metaphors for the fears people hold about their own society. Who among us has not suspected we have been exploited, chewed up and spat out at some time? Except for those doing the chewing up of course. 

The movie was originally called Maxie, but that must have been a bit subtle, as it was renamed for marketing purposes to The Butchers or sometimes Murderer’s Keep. The lead character is a young girl named Maxie (K.T. Baumann) – a difficult role as Maxie is a deaf mute who witnesses the local butcher chopping up dead people for his shop, and is kidnapped by his assistant to ensure her “silence”. They’re afraid she is going to learn to talk. It’s complicated (not really). Baumann expresses what most actors get to say by using her face, movements and sounds, and she is very impressive.

The butchers are Smedke (Vic Tayback from Bullitt as well as bit parts in almost every TV show ever made) and his half-witted assistant Finn, played with gusto by Robert Walden (Lou Grant and lots of other shows). The problem is that, as horror movie villains, they are neither scary nor villainous. Except for their business practices, they are quite sympathetic characters. The gore we usually associate (expect?) with cannibal movies is mainly the result of Finn, the apprentice butcher, screwing up the slaughter of some unfortunate hens. We see that in gory detail, as if the director wants us to question whether it’s worse to eat a living, breathing animal fighting for her life, or a dead body who can feel nothing. The scene reminded me of the gratuitous animal cruelty in Cannibal Holocaust and other Italian cannibal movies, which were supposedly added to make the audience think the violence and cannibalism were real. No such pretence here – they just kill chickens. Life is cheap.

Smedke is buying human corpses, wrapped in brown paper, from a shipping yard (no further explanation is offered) and happily chopping them up for customers who don’t want to pay the prices he charges for the regular cuts. His refrain is:

“Meat is meat! And a man has to make a living.”

A refrain that is lost in this film, but was used to great effect a few years later (“meat is meat and a man’s gotta eat!”) by the ever-cheerful Rory Calhoun in Motel Hell. Smedke is an entrepreneur in Nixon’s America, which is careering toward neo-liberalism, Reagan and “greed is good”. Although he doesn’t get to expand on his philosophy, it seems clear that a dead body is worthless buried, so it might as well be bought and sold.

The interesting aspect of the ‘plot’ is that Maxie cannot tell anyone what she has seen (basically a human foot sticking out of the brown paper) and has no social skills since her father has kept her at home rather than risk her humiliation at school. Yet she can take an ethical position – she tosses out all the meat in her father’s fridge, choosing vegetarianism.

This barely ranks as a B movie, and while I have reviewed a few films on this blog that got a fat zero on Rotten Tomatoes, this might be the first that did not even get onto the site at all. Check this less than glowing review:

“Miekhe… ends up creating the cinematic equivalent of a staph infection, an oblique mess that just spreads and oozes across the screen like fissures on an untreated leg gash. By the end, you aren’t hoping for closure so much as a conclusion – ANY conclusion – just to get us out of this asylum as anti-horror film… And yet, for all its baffling movie machinations, its lack of gory goodness and substantially less than successful storytelling, The Butchers is still a fascinating film experience.”

Indeed, it has a certain fascination if you can navigate through the paper-thin plot – it is a glimpse of small-town America in 1970 as it moves from the optimism of the sixties to the rapacity of the seventies. The cast are mostly great, particularly Baumann and Walden. Talia Coppola, (aka Talia Shire, the sister of Francis Ford Coppola) is shown as a star on the credits, although she has a minor role in the film. She played Connie Corleone in the Godfather series, and Adrian Pennino in the Rocky films, and was nominated for an Oscar in both roles. She is a bit wasted here.

The music is quirky, sometimes totally inappropriate and never boring or obvious like so many horror films. And sometimes it’s just fun to watch a film that no one has heard of, and probably no one ever will. And it asks the key question of cannibal studies: why do people find the killing and eating of some animals unremarkable and others repulsive?

Feminism and cannibalism: SHE NEVER DIED (Audrey Cummings, 2019)

Last year (it seems so long ago), I reviewed the excellent Jason Krawczyk movie HE NEVER DIED with Henry Rollins playing Jack, an immortal cannibal. There were high hopes for a sequel, but they kept getting cancelled. In the meantime, a “retelling” was made by Canadian director Audrey Cummings (Darken), and this has come to be called a “sister sequel”, which is a novel term meaning a sequel, or a reboot, but with a female lead and feminist themes. Sounds contrived, but with Krawczyk writing the screenplay, Cummings in command and an outstanding performance by Olunike Adeliyi (Saw 3D, Chaos Walking) as the immortal cannibal, well, it’s a corker!

Lacey (Adeliyi) is an immortal cannibal like Jack. But Jack identifies as a human, Cain (from the Book of Genesis), cursed to walk the earth for killing his brother (a plot line used in the TV show Lucifer as well) and having a messy divorce and, to his surprise, a daughter. But Lacey’s provenance is not so clear, even at the end, when she tells us – no, actually, no spoilers. Watch it – it’s worth it.

Lacey kills people and eats them, particularly their fingers (which are very portable) and their long bones. She needs the bone marrow, she tells the cop, Godfrey (Peter MacNeill, whom you might have seen as Barry Goldwater in Mrs America). He replies that he eats marrow on toast,

She cannot tell a lie; she tells Godfrey that she killed one of the bad guys, because he was throwing a plastic bag over a woman’s head, and

But when the waiter comes, she says she doesn’t eat meat. Non-human meat, that is.

So she’s a vegetarian who eats bad humans, not an ovo-lacto vegetarian, but an anthropo-vegetarian?

The first person she kills is that guy who sends a chill down all our spines – the stalker who follows women down deserted streets and into dark alleys. He jumps on a young woman and Lacey, we are glad to see, jumps on him. And tears him to pieces.

The next victim is being streamed, playing Russian Roulette with a dog – if the bullet isn’t in the chamber when he aims at his own head, then he gets another shot at the dog, who has a roll of cash around his neck.

Being mean to dogs is not going to win friends in any movie I that I can recall. You may remember Mason Verger cutting lumps off his own face and feeding them to Will’s dogs in Hannibal 02:12, as Hannibal’s revenge for making a dog into a cannibal?

There’s a lot of cannibal studies issues to chew on (sorry) in this film. There’s the question of whether Lacey is human; of course it’s not a cannibalism movie if she is some alien entity, because the definition of cannibalism (usually) is eating someone of the same species. But this movie gives us the chance to interrogate that definition, particularly in that Lacey is open about her cannibalism from the start, but the bad guys are not. They are not interested in eating the flesh of their victims, but they are consumers.

A lot of the movie takes place in a giant, labyrinthine building with corridors and stairways leading to doors behind which screams are heard – this stuff is straight out of nightmares. The chief villains are Terrance (Noah Danby) and Meredith (Michelle Nolden). Terrence sells torture and snuff movies on the dark web, while Meredith runs a kidnapping and sex trafficking operation. They are also brother and sister, and seemingly more than that.

Foucault has a lot to say about the difference between monstrosity based on incest and that based on cannibalism. He believes that the aristocracy or ruling class are mostly incestuous monsters, while the people, the cannibals who rise up to eat the rich, are the popular monsters. This movie tends to support that paradigm; the very personable, incestuous siblings consume women (and a few men) as commodities for their businesses, while the angry superhero, Lacey, eats their henchmen. Who, we ask, are really the cannibals? Immortal cannibals do not exist (probably), but stalkers, rapists and traffickers do. Women, our mothers, sisters and daughters, do not feel safe walking the streets of the city. Who are the monsters?

Lacey’s third (and fourth) victims have a woman chained to a bed, ready to be shipped off into sexual slavery. The woman, Suzzie (Kiana Madeira), is freed and starts following Lacie around, crashes on her couch, and very nearly gets eaten – it’s a problematic friendship.

Suzzie is a victim, a self-harmer, but also a survivor. She is impressed by Lacey:

“I get taken advantage of most days. So to see a person, a woman, a woman like you twist those guys in half, is, uh…”

Lacey walks the earth hearing the screams and groans of the abused and tortured. She gets to tear a few of the abusers apart and eat them. They are always men, coke addicted men.

“Without a question, I can taste the difference. I’m also foggy in the morning.”

Suzzie wants to  know what Lacie is

Robot? Zombie? Vampire? You drink blood right?

Lacey says no to each option, and asks, the question we should all ask, “why do I have to be a thing?”

We get a hint of Lacey’s background when we glimpse the scars that don’t heal. Were those once wings?

When Lacey is captured by Terrance, Suzzie heads into the labyrinth, witnessing the horrors of live-streamed torture, sex trafficking, and a very fancy cocktail party.

Lacey is a pessimist, she sees no way out of humanity’s endless cycle of torture and killing and eating.

Suzzie tries to console her – the world is coming to an end after all, look at global warming etc, but Lacie won’t have it.

But, without giving away the ending, we see the arrival of the Four Bikies of the Apocalypse, and what looks to me very much like a sequel coming. Perhaps Lacey will meet Jack? Let us hope.

This movie has a coveted 100% FRESH on Rotten Tomatoes.