As taboos go, cannibalism is, if not king, at least a member of the royal family. As a result, though there are no shortage of exploitation films featuring cannibals and cannibalism (Thanks, Italy!), they have for the most been part relegated to the grindhouse. But occasionally this most taboo of activities has crept in from the cult fringe and a bit closer to mainstream consciousness. To salute the recent release of We Are What We Are, Jim Mickle’s remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 film, Somos lo que hay, Paste presents a roundup of those films in which a little (or a lot of) anthropophagy managed to make its way onto the plate of the average filmgoer.
Any list of cannibalism-consciousness-raising films is bound to sport a few that are basically just exploitation films whose production values, cast and/or execution helped them break free of the straight-to-DVD constraints of later-day grindhouse to achieve a level of box office success (and with it, the implied mainstream splash). But before there were videos or DVDs, there was Tobe Hooper’s cult masterpiece. Sure, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a seminal event for the horror genre (both in general and with the slasher sub-genre in particular), but it also represented the movie-going audience’s most direct brush with cannibalism than any cauldron full of Italian-born exploitation flics. The original made $30 million (on a negligible budget), the 2003 remake turned $9.5 million into more than $100 million worldwide, and, to this day, Leatherface and family are the poster children for people-eatin’.
A remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 cult classic (itself inspired by the quasi-mythical tale of Sawney Bean), The Hills Have Eyes (2006) starred Ted Levine and Emilie de Raven, and more than quadrupled its $15 million budget in worldwide gross. Its featured family owes its hankering for human parts more to radiation-triggered mutation and, to be fair, desperation, than anything else. As for the depravity, well, they come by that honest.
While some films cleanly vault over the line between obscure exploitation film and successful genre effort, a few just barely make it past. Though Rob Schmidt’s film made hardly a scratch in its initial theatrical run (basically doubling its $12.6 million budget), it did get a decently wide release, and Eliza Dushku’s efforts to avoid becoming a meal proved profitable enough on DVD that the franchise’s next four installments just went straight there.
Directed by John McTiernan, adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel, Eaters of the Dead, and starring Antonio Banderas, The 13th Warrior features cannibalism as culture (sort of). The fierce Wendol tribe simply love them some human flesh. That’s not too surprising, given most of the original tale was itself a loose adaptation of Beowulf, but ultimately the film does little to advance anthropophagi awareness, proving such a bomb ($61 million worldwide from a $160 million budget) that it virtually disappeared into the crater it created.
After radiation and out-of-control incest, filmmakers would have you believe there’s no more common cause of movie cannibalism than apocalyptic dystopias. After all, when times get tough, the tough eat others who, if cooked right, are less tough. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1991 film doesn’t make this list because it made a ton of money—it was a little-seen art house release destined to become cocktail conversation fodder (one possible response to someone who professes a love for 2001’s Amélie). No, as a delivery vehicle of hominid-sourced foodstuffs and the people who prepare them, Delicatessen departs from the horror genre altogether. It turns out a spoonful of surrealistic black comedy does help the horrific practice go down.
Cannibalism is usually such an intimate affair. Not so in Soylent Green, a loose adaptation of Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, Make Room!, Make Room!, in which, well, you know:
Along with his famous call for cleaner, less groping ape hands, Charlton Heston’s delivery of Soylent Green’s signature line has proven one of his most lasting contributions to pop culture, as well as one of the great spoilers of film history.
It says volumes about the power of cannibalism as a taboo that most historical occurrences of it—even just rumors—can lead to countless iterations in literature and film that use the act to generate horror, or at the least, its irreverent cousin, the black comedy. Yet at least one time, an act of desperate devouring yields an inspirational story of survival. In its recounting of the efforts of an Uruguayan rugby team to survive their plane’s crash into the Andes mountains, Alive shows how the act can occupy that most primal nexus between life and death. Unlike so many films that make a viewer shudder at the thought, ‘What if that happened to me?’, Alive asks a question that is equally chilling: “What if my very survival depended on me eating someone else?”
Antonia Bird’s western-flavored horror film answers that most pressing of questions: What happens when chowing on one’s fellow man (and woman) is transformed from desperate act to proactive meal plan? In the case of Col. Ives (Robert Carlyle), it means the world is your buffet. For Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce), it means, “Ew … yuck … well, maybe just a bite.” Ravenous presents a version of the Wendigo myth in which a mouthful of Homo extratasty is good for what ails ya. Think of it as just like spinach for Popeye. (In this world, Wimpy burgers are made of actual Wimpy. And they are delicious.)
Looking at this list, one might view cannibalism as a barbaric pastime indulged in only by the sick (in one way or another), desperate or degenerate. Hannibal Lecter begs to differ. In 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Lector’s eating habits are merely referenced, a dependable way to make one of modern cinema’s most sinister villains even more terrifying. Ten years later, his discriminating cannibalistic palate is shown in action, as someone’s just desserts are just dessert for Lecter. And yeah, that’s pretty horrific, too.
Appearing in “The Hard Goodbye,” the Marv-centric episode of Robert Rodriquez and Frank Miller’s neo-noir treat, Elijah Wood’s Kevin is a truly terrifying creation. Preternaturally fast and unnervingly silent, Kevin lacks the urbane coating that makes a fellow flesh-o-phile like Hannibal Lector more anti-hero (and anthropophagic dabbler) than true monster. Like Lector, however, Kevin’s matter-of-fact parts partaking evokes that most primal of mammalian fears—being hunted as food by another intelligent creature. Yet to fall prey to Kevin doesn’t require a wrong turn or otherwise venturing into dangerous, uncivilized areas, nor is it possibly a deserved punishment—it merely requires being vulnerable.
It turns out there’s one other palatable way to present mankind munching to the general audience—sing about it! In the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, the titular Todd (Johnny Depp) and his somewhat scattered but perfectly pragmatical Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) join forces to exact revenge and make the tastiest little pies (respectively). With worldwide receipts tripling its $50 million budget, Sweeney Todd also may be the only film featuring rampant, if unintentional, cannibalism to be nominated for an Academy Award (three) and to win one (Best Art Direction). It also raises a question it shares with Soylent Green—is it really cannibalism if the consumers don’t know what they are consuming? (Yes.)
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) — The inability of Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor) to recall how her companion, Sebastian, died really eats at her.
Conan the Barbarian (1982) — Double, double, toil and trouble, cauldron boil and—holy crap that cauldron is full of body parts!
Parents (1989) — Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt play two 1950s parents who are totally cool with their son not eating his greens.
The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover (1989) & Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) — Sure, cannibalism just makes a brief cameo in the finales of each, but it does so in the tastiest way possible.
The Road (2009) — Viggo Mortensen’s Man tries to keep his son—his succulent, succulent son—alive in the End Times.
Cloud Atlas (2012) — In the midst all the multiple roles and different time periods, this much is true: Kona Chief (Hugh Grant) want to eat you!