Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema examined cannibal movies. Here is a look the movies discussed on the show as well as a few additional titles. Warning: Some of the videos below are NSFW.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, a subgenre of cannibal films came to dominate the exploitation horror movie market especially in Italy. Of these, the most well-known and the most infamous is Cannibal Holocaust. The second half of this film plays like what is now known as a “found footage” picture but in 1980 the format was entirely new. Because the audience didn’t quite know what to make of what they were watching and because the film’s distributors played up the illusion of authenticity, prints of Cannibal Holocaust were seized by Italian authorities on the belief that it was a snuff film. Although murder charges were dismissed, director Ruggero Deodato found himself in trouble over animal cruelty as Cannibal Holocaust contains several unstimulated sequences of the actors killing real animals. Whatever one thinks about this footage, it should be noted that historically violence against animals was quite frequent in the motion picture industry, from exploitation movies to Hollywood productions. Due to the scenes of violence against animals, as well as a barrage of other savage imagery, Cannibal Holocaust was censored the world over and is believed to be among the most widely banned films in cinema history.
Cannibal Ferox [aka Let Them Die Slowly] (1981)
Released amid the Italian cannibal phase of the 1970s and 80s, Cannibal Ferox was one of the nastier entries in the subgenre. The film came after Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust and the film duplicates a lot of the elements as that film including actor Robert Kerman and unstimulated scenes of violence against real animals, although Cannibal Ferox did not suffer the same kind of legal persecution as Cannibal Holocaust nor does it exhibit that film’s complexity and intelligence.
Bar none, the most popular cannibal in the history of cinema is Doctor Hannibal Lecter, immortalized on screen by actor Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. However, Hopkins was not the first actor to play Lecter. That honor goes to Brian Cox who played the character in 1986’s Manhunter, an adaptation of the novel Red Dragon. Although that film wasn’t successful at the time it is now held in high regard. The Silence of the Lambs reintroduced the character and was later followed by Hannibal and another adaptation of Red Dragon, all featuring Anthony Hopkins in the Lecter role. This was followed by a prequel, Hannibal Rising, which featured Gaspard Ulliel in the title role and more recently an eponymous television series featuring Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Lecter.
Excepting the adventures of Hannibal Lecter, cannibalism is generally regarded as a feature of supposedly “low culture” stories. But anthropophagy figures into everything from the myths of ancient Greece to mainstream Hollywood movies. The enduring applicability of cannibalism is evidenced by William Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, which was adapted into the 1999 film Titus, directed by Julie Taymor. This film was a bold adaptation, mixing ancient and modern design, and it has a gleefully insane performance by Anthony Hopkins in the title role. According to Taymor, the adaptation was an attempt to connect the violence of the ancient world with the violence of the present day. Although Titus is an uneven movie—some would say a train wreck—it is also the kind of picture that you can’t stop watching.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Following his filmmaking debut with 1972’s Last House on the Left but preceding his mainstream success with 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, writer and director Wes Craven released The Hills Have Eyes in 1977 and it remains among the filmmaker’s best movies. Inspired by the tales of the Sawney Bean family, The Hills Have Eyes tells the story of a middle class family whose motor home breaks down in the middle of the desert and they find themselves under siege by a group of cannibals. As in most of Craven’s best efforts, The Hills Have Eyes mixes savage violence with intelligent storytelling and this film is extremely well made. A remake was released in 2006 and although it does not eclipse the original version it was much better than a lot of the other remakes released around the same time.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
The People Under the Stairs was one of Wes Craven’s strangest films as it tells the story of a young black boy who breaks into the home of a white suburban couple only to find the residents are cannibals who keep children locked up under the floorboards. The movie is more than a little weird and ultimately uneven but it also has tremendous energy and an overt economic subtext that plays very well today.
Blood Feast (1963)
Herschell Gordon Lewis was one of the great exploitation filmmakers and one of his earliest and most successful features was 1963’s Blood Feast. In this film a caterer kills and mutilates women with the goal of preparing a sacrifice to the Egyptian goddess Ishtar. The movie was more gory than scary but in 1963 gore was not seen very frequently if at all on the silver screen and Lewis went pretty far with some of the imagery, even by today’s standards. But the real talent of Herschell Gordon Lewis was not in making movies but in selling them. He realized that a good marketing campaign could make a terrible movie profitable and marketing notices for Blood Feast warned that it should not be viewed by those with a weak heart. Audiences who took up the dare were given vomit bags at screenings and Lewis and company actively secured an injunction against their own movie from a Florida court just to say it was banned.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of the ultimate midnight movies. In it, a newly engaged couple is stranded at the house of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his companions. The movie is made up of musical numbers chock with allusions to the science fiction movies of classic Hollywood like Bride of Frankenstein and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the course of the story, Dr. Frank-N-Furter kills a delivery boy and feeds him to his guests.
Cannibal! The Musical (1993)
Before Matt Stone and Trey Parker found mainstream success with the South Park television series, they collaborated on a musical adaptation of the story of Alfred Packer, a notorious prospector who restored to cannibalism when his company became stranded in the Rocky Mountains in the winter of 1874. Despite the very meager resources that these filmmakers had at their disposal, Cannibal! The Musical is a very ambitious production. The picture was originally filmed as a student project, and that is quite obvious in the film’s production values, but it was picked up by Troma Entertainment and developed a cult following when South Park became a hit television show. Cannibal! The Musical is also interesting as a precursor to some of Stone and Parker’s later work, especially the film Team America: World Police and the stage show The Book of Mormon.
Set in the 1840s, Ravenous tells a story of cannibalism at a remote US Army frontier outpost. This film was unique from other cannibal stories in that it included a supernatural element in which people who engaged in cannibalism took on regenerative qualities, miraculously healing from serious injuries. The film is frequently bizarre, part action movie and part horror picture, and mixes bloody violence with comic relief. The strange tenor of the movie has made it appealing to a cult audience.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Sweeney Todd was an adaptation of the popular stage musical, which itself was adapted from folk tales. The title character is a barber who has gone insane and teams with a deranged baker. He kills his customers and she uses their bodies as the key ingredient in meat pies. The 2007 film was directed by Tim Burton and although it features many of Burton’s regular collaborators it was overall a very different movie for the filmmaker. Burton’s films have usually had a gothic and macabre tone but there was also an innocence about Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and even Batman. By contrast Sweeney Todd had none of that innocence and was a much grislier affair than Burton’s other films.
I Drink Your Blood and I Eat Your Skin (1970)
In the early 1970s there were a lot of films about murderous hippies following the Manson Family murders. I Drink Your Blood and I Eat Your Skin reflects this, as a band of hippies terrorize a small town. In retaliation, a local boy feeds them meat pies infected with rabies, turning the hippies into homicidal maniacs. The film is a notable precursor to 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in 1974 and tells the story of a group of young people traveling through rural Texas who are picked off by a family of cannibals. The major character associated with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding simpleton who wears a mask of human flesh. The character was loosely based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein and in subsequent sequels and remakes Leatherface would become the common element of the franchise. Director Tobe Hooper had initially hoped that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would get a PG rating and so he staged a lot of the violence in such a way that most of the bloodletting is only implied. But the movie is so intense and has such an oppressive tone that it not only earned an R-rating but was also banned outright in several countries. The critical response to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was tepid at the time but it is now regarded as one of the great American horror films.
Soylent Green (1973)
Directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Tora Tora Tora) and starring Charlton Heston, this highly influential and often imitated science fiction film takes place in a dystopian future in which the public depends on a mysterious foodstuff. When a detective discovers the secret ingredient he is pursued by industry and government agents.
We’re Going to Eat You (1981)
We’re Going to Eat You is a very strange combination of a lot of different genres. Originating from Hong Kong, this film tells the story of a secret agent who discovers a village of cannibals. The movie combines gory violence with comedy and martial arts, giving the movie an offbeat tone. We’re Going to Eat You takes an additionally strange turn as the movie uses cannibalism as a political metaphor. Director Hark Tsui has described We’re Going to Eat You as an anti-Communist film; the distribution of meat among the cannibals was a stand in for redistribution of wealth.
Parents is a creepy but thoughtful movie. Set in 1950s suburbia, a boy begins to suspect that his parents are cannibals. Rather than the campy exercise its premise suggests, Parents is full of nightmarish imagery that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The picture is very re-watchable because there is so much in it that merits deeper exploration.
The ’Burbs (1989)
Director Joe Dante was known for effectively mixing horror and comedy in movies like Piranha and Gremlins and among his most successful films was The ’Burbs. In this dark comedy, the residents of a quiet suburban neighborhood begin to suspect that their new neighbors are cannibals and they go to increasingly absurd lengths to prove it. The film is a very entertaining mystery, as it plays coy over whether the new family are really murderers or if it is all a delusion of the bored suburbanite mind. It also has a stellar cast including Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, and Corey Feldman.