Cannibal Dad: WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Mickle, 2013)

I’m publishing this blog on Sunday 6 September, which is fathers’ day in Australia and New Zealand, but hardly anywhere else (e.g. it’s June in the US, UK, Canada, China, etc). Well, turns out there are several fathers’ days, which is fair, because there are several different kinds of father.

The father in this movie is a keen family man, and also a cannibal. The patriarchal symbolic order of this family is: the father catches them, the mother (or daughter) slaughters and cooks them.

If the prey weren’t human, some might consider that “normal”.

This time last year (on father’s day down under) I blogged about a Mexican film translated to the same as this one: We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay). Now, we all know that American remakes of “foreign” (i.e. non-American) films can be disastrous (remember Godzilla?) and, to be fair, Jim Mickle, the director, did not like the idea of remaking the excellent Mexican version just so American audiences did not have to read subtitles. But he and co-screenwriter Nick Damici came up with a new angle. In the Mexican film, the father dies, causing family conflict over the role of cannibal patriarch; in this one, it’s the mother that dies, and the children must decide whether to follow the tradition and authority of their father, or follow their own paths.

Frank Parker (Bill Sage) is left widowed when his wife starts shaking and bleeding from the mouth, then collapses, falls into a ditch and drowns. She has just finished shopping at the general store where, through the pouring rain, a butcher carries a dead pig from a truck marked “Fleischman’s” (German for meat man) – the pig’s corpse is cut up and the flesh is minced.

What they’re doing to the pig would usually be considered unremarkable, except that, knowing this is a cannibal movie, we expect the same thing will happen to humans somewhere around the end of Act I.

This is an ultra-religious, white family in the rainy Catskills, and everything they do is avowed to be God’s idea. The daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner from Ozark) explain to their little brother that he can’t have his cereal, because the family is fasting.

Fasting is usually followed by a ceremonial feast, which this family calls “Lamb Day”.

It is a family tradition passed down from 1781 – we get a flashback via a family journal which is handed to Iris – it was started by their ancestor Alyce Parker (Odeya Rush from Goosebumps) when her father fed them their uncle in one of those pioneering cannibalism events with which American history is so replete (think the Jamestown “starving time” several decades earlier, or the Donner Party several decades later). The Parker descendants have been cannibals ever since.

Their religious tradition requires eating human flesh on special occasions; while the wider community’s ritual anthropocentric carnivorous sacrifice requires the (far more regular) consumption of other mammals, such as the pig being carried through the store.

Eating meat requires the “deanimalisation” of the chosen victim, often by dividing the carcass up into named components like “spare ribs” or “rump”. The Parkers work the same way. Like a cooking show, we witness them “process” the carcass, then cook and consume the flesh; only worth filming because we know (or willingly suspend our disbelief) that this is human meat.

Rene Girard says we maintain social amity by the sacrifice of a surrogate victim, a symbolic consumption of our violent impulses – we eat an outsider instead of warring with each other. For most people, it’s a non-human animal; for the Parkers, it’s whoever is unlucky enough to get a flat tyre near their property. In stark contrast, the Parker’s neighbour Marge (Kelly McGillis from Witness) is vegetarian, and her offers of help to the family are variously accepted or brutally rebuffed, depending on whether it’s Lamb Day. Marge gets a hint that cannibalism, extreme carnivorism, runs in the family when she steps in to nurse the sick little brother. Has he inherited the family hunger?

Cannibalism movies often cling to the Wendigo hypothesis – that there is a metaphysical force that drives the eaters, once having tried human flesh, to crave ever increasing amounts of it – to need it for their very survival. A classic of this genre is Antonia Bird’s film Ravenous. In the original Mexican version of this film, the family believe they need their cannibal ceremony to survive. It’s the same in this version, with the father convinced that when he gets shaky and his mouth bleeds, this means God is telling him it’s time for Lamb Day.

But there’s a modern twist. The town’s (apparently only) doctor (Michael Parks) performs an autopsy on the mother, which reveals that her ailments were more closely related to the disease kuru, which killed hundreds of Fore people in Papua New Guinea and was believed to have been caused by eating the brains and spinal columns of dead relatives in funerary rites.

Then the doc’s dog finds a human bone washed downstream by the floods, and he begins to suspect what happened to his own missing daughter.

Kuru is a prion disease, similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow disease”), and is often quoted as a reason why we shouldn’t eat people, in case they have abnormal prion proteins, although that argument is no more convincing than the one against eating cows in case they have BSE (safest option for avoiding spongiform encephalopathy is: go vegan). At any rate, this family have been engaging in cannibalism for some 240 years, believing they are doing God’s will, and hey, who invented kuru anyway?

As Hannibal would say – “typhoid and swans – it all comes from the same place”.

The father’s day feast at the end of the movie is spectacular, and the girls drive off with the diary from 1781, unaware of the kuru diagnosis, and presumably still believing in the necessity to obey God’s will and eat people occasionally. Honestly, it wouldn’t be the stupidest thing that’s ever been blamed on the deity.

Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie 86% fresh, with most critics liking it, and a couple of them really detesting it. The London Evening Standard asked:

“Who can resist a good cannibal movie?”

Well, my gentle readers, clearly not us. And this is a good one.

A complete listing of Hannibal blogs can be viewed here:
https://thecannibalguy.com/2020/07/08/hannibal-film-and-tv-blogs/

Rage and appetite: SKIN AND BONES S1E08 of “Fear Itself” (Larry Fessenden, 2008)

Fear Itself was an American horror/suspense anthology television series shot in Canada. It began airing on June 5, 2008.

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Look, it’s a TV video nasty, but the cast is great, and it features a Wendigo, a figure made famous in Hannibal and the movie Ravenous.

The Wendigo (sometimes called Wetigo) is a figure from North American Algonquin folklore. He is a mythical figure – giant, fierce and cannibalistic. He gathers strength from feeding on human flesh, but the flesh makes him grow larger, and so his appetite can never be satisfied. He is sometimes protective, and sometimes a figure of revenge (Cartman may have been taken over by a Wendigo in last week’s blog!) In this story, the Wendigo is “the spirit of the lonely places” and is all about revenge. The Wendigo gets inside people who are weak, hungry, and filled with rage.

We know what’s going to happen. So does the token wise old Native American, Eddie Bear (Gordon Tootoosis) who knows all about Wendigos, as did Joseph Runningfox in Ravenous. Of course, no one is interested in metaphysical explanations from those who might understand the land, so it just escalates from there.

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“Don’t matter what you call it. It’s a madness, it’s fierce, it’s a hunger that can’t be satisfied. It’s an anger that can’t be settled. It’s the Wendigo!”

Grady (Doug Jones from Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy II and Star Trek Discovery) has a ranch but knows nothing about living off the land. His brother Rowdy (John Pyper-Ferguson) is running the ranch, and is clearly making out with his wife Elena (Molly Hagan). There are two children (Cole Heppell and Brett Dier, who you might recognise as Michael from Jane the Virgin).

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The kids challenge Rowdy with the usual line “You’re not our father!” so of course we know he must be. The Wendigo has taken over Grady while he was on a hunting trip (with Chuck and Billy who have, you know, disappeared: down the hatch) and when Grady stumbles back to the ranch, he is skinny, covered in frostbite, and remarkably creepy. And hungry. So hungry, he could eat a horse (and does).

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But he certainly doesn’t want Elena’s soup. When she feels his forehead, he licks her arm, and mutters, “tastes good!” Soon he is feeling fine. And still hungry. Soon it’s Rowdy’s turn to be the family meal. He makes Elena cut up and cook and then eat his brother. OK, he’s possessed by a Wendigo, but it’s still cannibalism in my book.

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CUT IT UP AND COOK IT! …it’s just meat.

Director Larry Fessenden had made an earlier Wendigo movie called, well, Wendigo, which got a respectable 60% on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you want to know what happens in this one (and you can really sort of guess), you can watch the whole episode on Youtube.

It’s worth watching, if only for Doug Jones’ performance as the Wendigo.

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“I could feel a rage growing up inside me. A rage that would not let me die!”

Sounds like an allegory of twenty-first century politics.

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“It was… intimate” HANNIBAL Season 2 Episode 10 “Naka-Choko” (Fuller, 2014)

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Intimate is the word for this episode. And hey, this is a cannibal blog, so all the sex going on might seem a bit out of scope, but stick with me, it makes sense. It’s all sex and death today. Sigmund Freud would have loved this episode.

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Everything Hannibal does has a purpose – a plan or, as Will would say, a “design”. He is always a dozen steps ahead of the chess game he is playing with Jack Crawford, which explains the huge punch-up that’s going to happen (we saw some of it at the start of episode 1 of this season).

What motivates Hannibal is what motivates us all. When we pad out to the fridge in the middle of the night, or he abducts a rude person on a dark road, we are concerned with two things: appetite and power. We are hungry, and we have the power to open a packet of instant noodles. Hannibal is hungry, and has the power to kill and cook people. Just a matter of opportunity, and belief. This hunger and lust for power is motivated, Hannibal believes (and I’m not going to argue with him, because that would be rude), by death.

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According to anthropologist Ernest Becker, most of us are motivated by a fear of death, and fill our time with convoluted ways to distract us from thinking about it.

Hannibal, and increasingly Will, are fascinated by it. Hannibal is a psychiatrist, so he is very familiar with Freud’s “death drive”. Freud had always assumed that humans are driven by the “pleasure principle” – we like things that make us feel good. Sure, but later, in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, he suggested another drive which, he felt, explained why we revisit unpleasant and traumatic memories, both in dreams and often in our compulsive behaviours. This is the death drive, which is in a way more primal, since life itself comes from the inanimate, and must perforce return there. While the sex-drive pressures us toward extending or prolonging life, the ego-drive pressures us toward death. Death, then, becomes a driving force in our unconscious.

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Will has seen this death drive from the start of the story, was repelled by it, then started to recognise it as personified in Hannibal. Will pictures death as the stag-man, or as @BryanFuller calls him, the Wendigo. The Wendigo is a figure from North American Algonquin folklore. He is a giant cannibal figure, who gathers strength from feeding on human flesh, but the flesh makes him grow larger, and so his appetite can never be satisfied.

The Wendigo bite will infect the victim and turn him into a Wendigo too. Just what Hannibal is hoping to do to Will.

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For much of this season, and at the start of this episode when Will kills the cave-bear dude, he has fantasised the Wendigo – when he pummels the guy, he visualises beating Hannibal.

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When Will cracks the guy’s neck, we see him twisting the Wendigo’s antlers. He is trying, symbolically, to kill both the Wendigo that is Hannibal, and the Wendigo growing inside him.

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Violence brings intimacy for Hannibal and Will. Will points out that they are now even – both have sent someone to try to kill the other. Hannibal tenderly bandages Will’s torn knuckles, raw from the beating he gave – whoever he thinks he was beating. Hannibal mutters:

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Will replies:

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They are not just even now, they are almost equal. Will has tasted blood, he seems to be becoming what Hannibal wants him to become. His vision at the crime scene is not his usual recreation of the crime (since he did it) but, instead, the dead guy telling him: “this is my becoming”

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Will replies:

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There seems to be, finally, a genuine love developing between Hannibal and Will – a Nietzschean love. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

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

They have been enemies. Now they are ready to be friends, to feel love.

But Bryan Fuller doesn’t let us off that easy. Nothing is ever that straight forward in Hannibal. We suddenly get lots of sex, but it’s not our Übermensch lovers – it’s decidedly heterosexual, and Will and Hannibal are each shown in bed with, respectively, Margot and Alana, who will end up in a lesbian relationship with each other (sorry if that was a spoiler). There’s even an ironic view of Hannibal and Alana doing the pottery scene from Ghost, but with a theremin instead of a wheel.

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The sex is long and graphic, there is lots of groaning and sweating and some ecstatic expressions, but it is all exploitation.

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Hannibal is using Alana as his alibi for his nightly outings, as we will see. Margot Verger wants a male heir so she can kill her brother and still get her inheritance (an idea nurtured by her psychiatrist – one Doctor Lecter).

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Hannibal and Will morph in and out of each other, and at one stage both are in bed with Alana. And, never far away, is the wendigo.

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And we finally get to know Margot’s brother, Mason Verger, who, unlike the 1999 book and 2001 movie of Hannibal, has a face (at the moment). Mason is heir to a hog empire, and is busy breeding a pig that is willing to eat living humans.

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He intimidates Margot with these pigs (not hard as he has had her clothes filled with meat to tempt the porkers). He invites Hannibal, who is not easily intimidated, and knows as much about pigs as Mason:

“A resourceful feeder and an opportunistic omnivore”

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We find out something else too, something which becomes central to the attempts in the later books and movies to find a causality to Hannibal. They discuss Margot, and Mason asks if Hannibal has a sister.

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Mason is impressed with the visit, and Hannibal goes home with a new client and a suckling pig, which he serves to Alana and Will.

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He got the pig, he tells them, from a friend. “A friend of yours. Not a friend of the pig’s” Will comments snarkily. Hannibal’s reply is a veiled threat:

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A fascinating discussion of Will and Hannibal’s relationship follows, complicated by the fact that Alana and Hannibal are both psychiatrists and can’t leave their work at the office. Alana points out that “it’s hard to know where you are with each other.” Will replies that “We know where we are with each other. Shouldn’t that be enough?” Hannibal summarises this triangle as he gazes into his wine glass:

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We’re back to interpreting Hannibal as Satanic. Not my preferred reading, but Fuller hands out no obvious explanations in a plot that is up there with Greek Tragedy.

Anyway. Enough of the sex and exploitation and dead baby pigs. It’s time for the blood bond of the Übermenschen. Hannibal has heard about the Will Graham interviews, and waits, wearing his killing suit, for Freddie Lounds to come home to a nice surprise.

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But Will already has Freddie in his remote shed, where she has found bits of the cave-bear dude. Now it’s time for dinner. We finally get some cannibal talk! Will is apprentice cannibal, Hannibal the master chef. Will says

“I provide the ingredients. You tell me what we should do with them.”

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Now Hannibal gets the rules of the game. “Veal? Pork perhaps?”

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Hannibal offers to make a Peruvian dish called lomo saltado, and hands Will a sharp knife to cut up his meat, a definite gesture of trust, or maybe a tease. Now they are playing with the thin red line between pleasure and pain, eros and death drive.  As they eat, Hannibal analyses the meat: it has notes of citrus. It tastes “frightened”. Will asks “what does frightened taste like?”

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Look up “long pig” – it is widely used as a term for human meat, supposedly coined in the cannibal Pacific islands, and probably a mistranslation. Good enough for Hannibal, though, to know what Will is claiming. They are eating Freddie. Will is claiming he has swapped sides and is the cannibal’s apprentice. He reverses a speech Hannibal makes in Silence of the Lambs, where he chides Clarice for her insistence on trying to find what happened to make him the way he is.

“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviourism…. You’ve got everyone in moral dignity pants – nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?”

Will turns it around: he says “I’m not the product of anything”.

 

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Will has, he is claiming, given up good and evil, gone where the universe has taken him. And that is to Hannibal’s dinner table. They discuss the nature of evil – Will says it’s destructive. In that case Hannibal argues (again from the Silence of the Lambs) storms must be evil. And fire, and hail. Or what underwriters call “acts of God”.

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Not gods. Übermenschen.

 

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Contagious cannibalism: “Ravenous” (Bird, 1999)

Ravenous – this is the 1999 Antonia Bird film, not the recent Canadian Ravenous by Robin Aubert. Aubert’s movie is about zombies, and they also tend to eat people (or bits of them), but this one is about people eating people, a more pure form of cannibalism. Except that there is still a supernatural aspect to this: the cannibalism comes from the mythical wendigo, a creature or spirit from Algonquian folklore, who possesses humans and turns them into cannibals.

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The film draws inspiration from two of America’s favourite cannibalism stories: the ill-fated Donner Party and the story of Alferd Packer. At least, it involves pioneers, snow, hunger and, of course, cannibalism. Guy Pearce plays Lieutenant Boyd of the United States Army, who plays dead in battle as his unit is massacred by the Mexicans. His body, along with the other dead are put in a cart and hauled back to the Mexican headquarters.In a moment of bravery, Boyd seizes the chance to capture the Mexican HQ. His heroism earns him a Captain’s promotion but General Slauson (the last film role of John Spencer, who went on to play Leo McGarry on The West Wing) learns of his cowardice and posts Boyd into exile at Fort Spencer, a remote military outpost high in the Sierra Nevada.

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A stranger named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle from Trainspotting, Full Monty, etc) arrives and describes how his wagon train became lost in the mountains. A Colonel named Ives had appeared and led them on a circuitous route, resulting in the party getting trapped by snow. People were reduced to cannibalism, he tells them, to avoid starvation. Before the soldiers leave for the rescue, they are warned by their Native American scout, George, of the Wendigo myth: anyone who consumes the flesh of their enemies takes their strength but becomes a demon cursed by an insatiable hunger for more human flesh. They also become almost invincible: if wounded, a bite of human flesh is – well, very invigorating.

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Anthropologists love to divide their supposedly cannibalistic studies into endo- and exo-cannibals, i.e. those who eat their enemies and those who eat their friends. In both cases, they claim, the eater believes they will take on the courage, strength and virility of their meal. The wendigo has another advantage – the people he bites (as long as he doesn’t go overboard) will heal and become wendigos themselves. You’re never alone if you’re a wendigo cannibal.

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The curse of cannibal studies is that eventually the audience will want to know: how did the cannibal get that way? Explaining the psychological / social / starvation causes often reduces the mystique of the act and the eater – many critics were furious when Hannibal Lecter turned out to be a traumatised survivor of WWII, for example. But the wendigo is good value: there is no particular reason he/she/it chooses anyone, in fact a simple bite from a person already bitten is sufficient – there, explanation given, let’s move on to the gore. So, we’re kind of back to the modus operandi of the zombie (and vampire) – open the mouth and spread the love. But zombies usually restrict themselves to brains, vampires to blood. Cannibalism is so much more environmentally sustainable.

The late Roger Ebert gave the film a decent review, 3 stars out of 4, and said it was “the kind of movie where you savour the texture of the film-making, even when the story strays into shapeless gore.”

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