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The Politics of Cannibal Families

Can one be said to have a "favorite cannibal movie"? I fear that, were you to run that poll right now, most respondents would pick some form of zombie movie. I'm not only (personally) tired of zombie movies but, I believe there's a significant difference between the subtext of a zombie movie and the subtext of a cannibal movie.

Zombies are mindless consumers. In the context of horror, they eat flesh without worry about if it's right or wrong because they are no longer human and don't know what right and wrong are. They are essentially animals, functioning on instinct. It shouldn't take much to figure out the critique of capitalism virtually built into that model. 

Cannibals are transgressive humans who refuse to obey our culturally accepted standards of appropriate behavior. In the context of horror, they eat flesh knowing it's socially wrong, but they just don't care. They may use their cannibalism to menace and control those they are going to consume. In social studies, it's theorized that cannibalistic tribes may have eaten their enemies in order to imbue themselves with their enemies' power or knowledge. It may also be a way of asserting their dominance over those other tribes: "we won't just take you over and enslave you, we will literally make you a part of us."

While the former can be momentarily upsetting and possibly teach us a lesson about not letting ourselves get swept away by pointless shopping, eating, and mass consumption - the latter reaches us on a deeper, more real level. Zombies, actual rotting flesh roaming the Earth, aren't real and will never pose any kind of real threat. Cannibals are a real thing. They have existed in other cultures around the world and could, at any moment, crop up in our very own back yard.

This is why killers like Jeffrey Dahmer shake us down to our vulnerable bones; here's a guy - who looks like any other guy - living amongst regular folks - secretly eating his victims.

The fact that "one of us" could behave like "one of them" makes us doubt our selves, our sanity, and our faith in one another. If the things we hold dear and true above all else aren't actually true and aren't dear to everyone - society as we know it could literally crumble at any second.

Were you to ask me if I have a favorite cannibal movie, I'd tell you it's hard for me to pick just one. For this post, I've pulled together a short list of the ones I like best - plus one that left me utterly disappointed.

Hilarious Satire With A Dash Of The Horrific

I remember watching Parents when I was a kid. It's a surrealist nightmare clothed in suburban normalcy. Later in life, I would come to recognize this absurd mixture as David Lynch's signature and fully appreciate this unsung masterpiece that truly wished it was one of Lynch's creations.

The gist: a typical 1950's suburban family seems terrifyingly sinister through the eyes of a 10 year old boy. He becomes convinced that his parents are cannibals and his mounting paranoia culminates in his guidance counselor becoming yet another meal. Life in New England can be so tough.

Parents does an amazing job of creating doubt for the majority of the movie. Michael (Bryan Madorsky) is so sure that something is wrong with his parents, but most of the things he perceives as "scary" can easily be explained away by adults. It's difficult to know if his parents really are cannibals or if Michael is just an imaginative child.

Were the movie not so strongly satirical, it would strike hard at that "the killers are among us" nerve. As it stands, it's more of a haunting childhood memory of a nightmare we once had than an actual threat to our normalcy.

One of the most amazing pieces of the movie is that Randy Quaid is hilariously committed to his role. One might even say that he spends most of the movie chewing the scenery.

If you've never seen this gem, I urge you to track it down. It's one of the blackest comedies around and well worth a watch.

You can watch the trailer here.

Jump ahead a decade and we come to my next favorite. Still satirical, but with significantly more graphic gore (for that little extra kick to the gut).

On the surface (in the trailers and the plot descriptions) Ravenous is a horror movie. A solider from the Mexican-American war finds himself exiled to a remote, mountain-top outpost with a misfit gang of folks. Winter kicks in, cabin fever strikes, and a stranger with a taste for human flesh set in motion the camp's destruction.

Central to the plot of Ravenous is Native American mythology surrounding a creature known as the Wendigo. The Wendigo is a demon that lives in the cold and feeds on human flesh. If a human resorts to cannibalism, they can become a Wendigo. This most commonly happened during times of immense hardship (like long winters).

In this way, we can read Ravenous as a traditional spiritual tale, warning us that transgressions, even made in desperate times, cannot be permitted and will still be punished by some kind of terrible fate for your immortal soul. There is also the whiff of an idea that cannibalism is a "disease" that can be spread from one gluttonous, power-hungry person to another. Who knew Indians and Catholics had so much in common.

Ravenous is (or course) also a commentary on the despicable nature of war, the unfair treatment of conscientious soldiers who may be hesitant to perform their "duty", and perhaps even speaks to our culturally poor decision to kill off as many Native Americans as we possibly could.

There's more to Ravenous than meets the eye though. It is a great horror movie that sort of pokes fun at the war movie genre. It's also a hilarious black comedy with both Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones not just chewing but devouring the scenery in the calm, unruffled face of straight man Guy Pearce. Were Guy Pearce to be any less serious, the movie might actually not seem as absurdist and might just tip completely over the line to become a joke. There is something about his completely straight performance along side Carlyle and Jones that just creates this perfect farce.

You can watch the trailer here:

Economic Dips Turn The Poor Into "Monsters"

The next two movies have significantly stronger social commentary and a more serious tone. This could be because both were made in the 1970's, an era of filmmaking that was immensely concerned with making a statement about the current social-political climate, dressed as something else that audiences would more readily embrace.

We'll go chronologically here and start with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM).

The short version: Five teens travel to Texas to visit an old family home thought to be abandoned. Turns out, some chainsaw wielding cannibals have moved in.

There are the surface scares: characters and situations that would be disturbing or unnerving under any circumstances. Grave robbers, creepy hitchhikers, chainsaw wielding maniacs, abandoned houses, and becoming stranded in a strange place with no resources and no hope for escape. These scares are immediate, obvious, and easily conquered: exhumed bodies reburied, creepy hitchhikers left back on the side of the road, and so on.

Below that surface lies more primal fears - things that are truly terrifying - things that threaten our understanding of humanity and can’t easily be resolved or rationalized: subverted family structures, a rejection of bourgeois consumer culture, unclear sexuality, and so on.

Ultimately, we’re most horrified by how the cannibal family of TCM refuses to conform to socially acceptable standards and behaviors. They are “the other”: humans who have set themselves so far apart of humanity that we can only see them as monsters. From living in a family unit with no females, in a home decorated with animal remains, to killing and eating humans, they constantly challenge, threaten, and blatantly ignore the “norm.”

We're not just asked to hate and fear them because they have strayed from what we accept as normal. They are clearly presented as poor, white-trash, red-neck, hillbillies. If Ravenous furthers the mythos of the Wendigo, TCM tells us that same myth, adapted to the Southern US. When desperate economic times force us to eat our fellow man, we become inhuman monsters in doing so.

This makes us ask, "How could this happen?" We're asked to look at our own, middle-class selves, and wonder what we could have done to prevent these people from falling so far through the cracks that they must make the desperate choice to eat other people to survive. How have we, as a society, failed so significantly that there are people among us who don't have the means or opportunity to support themselves within the system.

You can watch the trailer here and feel like a terrible capitalist who has no concern for the millions below the poverty line:

That brings us to The Hills Have Eyes, which pits your typical, middle class, American family against a savage band of desert-dwelling cannibals in a fight to the death. Many of the class concerns that TCM raises are seen here, as well.

What's interesting is how Wes Craven manages to take that path (society fails the lower class - the lower class become cannibalistic monsters - these monster strike back at the upper class) and extends it one more notch (the upper class retaliate, becoming monsters themselves). If TCM showed us cause and effect, The Hills Have Eyes show us it's actually an endless cycle.

While neither TCM nor The Hills Have Eyes are intentionally funny, their age is showing and they have become inadvertently hilarious. The acting in both is stilted and completely unbelievable. The relationship between the two younger siblings in The Hills Have Eyes is so creepily and accidentally incestuous that it keeps you from being able to relate to them - and therefore to care about them. The mother is comically "out of touch" and most horror fans will find themselves literally rooting for her death just so she'll shut her whiny mouth.

You can watch the trailer here:

A Great Horror Movie A Taboo Subject Doesn't Necessarily Make

Before its release, I was excitedly waiting to see We Are What We Are (2013). All signs hinted at a prolific, cannibalistic, mountain-dwelling family.

All I really knew was the gist: A rural family has a dark secret that is brought to light in the wake of a natural disaster.

If We Are What We Are feels a bit rapey based on the poster (and the trailer), it's a red herring. Before we openly know that the movie's "big secret" is cannibalism, we're pointed towards incest as the evil at the heart of this family.

The type of cannibals we've got in We Are What We Are are religious types - a more literal interpretation of Jesus' "eat of my flesh" routine with a touch of the more tribal hope to appease the higher power in which you believe by "sacrificing" your enemies.

The subtextual message of this movie has everything to do with how tradition (and religion) can become bad things when they continue, unchanged and unquestioned, for multiple generations.

Unfortunately, the pacing was slow and the premise unbelievable. There were absolutely no likable characters and the performances were weak. No one seemed truly committed to their roles, except maybe the younger daughter (Julia Garner). I was impressed enough with her that I also watched the movie where she's Amish and thinks music made her pregnant (Electrick Children), but found that one equally as boring and pointless as this movie.

The lead, Bill Sage, who plays the cannibalistic father, is like a poor man's version of Josh Brolin. Because of that, I kept waiting for him to turn in a No Country For Old Men level performance, which he never did.

The movie also lacked any truly gruesome effects so it missed every possible mark for a successful horror movie: no terror. No horror. No gross-out.

All in all, the movie left me bored and disappointed, looking for another movie to watch. If you're looking for some flesh-eating entertainment, skip this one.

You an watch the trailer here:


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