Good Enough to Eat: 5 of the Best Cannibal Movies
By Keri O’Shea
Ah, the internet. It’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t around, helping people to find that special someone whilst simultaneously making it possible to cut right to the chase. Don’t want to spend months of your life concealing your hang-ups and fuck-ups until you get to say what you want to say? Simply find the right website, and you can feel free to unleash your inner self. That’s what a certain gentleman called Armin Meiwes did, and he found just what he wanted…
Armin Meiwes, whose birthday it is today, may have become a vegetarian (!) since being sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for his actions, but his tastes weren’t always quite so pedestrian. Meiwes – an otherwise unassuming, well-respected citizen of the small town of Rotenberg in Germany – had a dream. That dream was to consume the flesh of a willing human being, and he found just such a person, through a site called The Cannibal Café. Hey, there really is a website for everything. He had placed an ad there looking for a ‘well-built 18 to 30 year old’ who would be willing to be eaten by him; Bernd Jürgen Brandes answered the call, and the rest, as they say, is penis-eating history.
The case generated global fascination and revulsion in equal measure, as it always does when it turns out that cannibalism isn’t necessarily something that happens ‘over there’, well away from the modern, safe, civilised parts of the world: in fact, rare as it might be, it’s always been with us, lurking at the fringes of our consciousness and occasionally making itself known to us. And, although there’s a fine pedigree of exploitation movies which deal with the topic from the point of view of Westerners abroad (and totally screwed), I’m really more interested in movies which play around with this surprisingly versatile topic a little more. Here is my pick of the movies which use cannibalism as a theme in a number of interesting ways, and not a cocky anthropologist film crew in sight. Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Herr Meiwes.
Meat Grinder (2009)
As Ben noted in his review of the Thai movie Meat Grinder, this is a film which suffered badly at the hands of a misguided marketing campaign: in representing it as a torture-fest, the real story at the heart of this slick, well-made movie was completely overlooked. Sure, Buss (played by the refreshingly ordinary Mai Charoenpura) perpetrates some horrors, but the real horror here is that Buss is living by the old adage, ‘I do unto others what has been done to me’. Her methods are bloody, yes. but as the well-paced film reveals the trauma which drives Buss to her actions, you cannot fail to empathise with her. A combination of necessity and personal trauma drives her on, and as such this is a powerful film which examines abuse and poverty rather than revelling in gore. Don’t be fooled by the cover art; it was chosen by an idiot.
Trouble Every Day (2001)
Is the appetite for sex all that far away from the appetite for flesh? The tagline for Trouble Every Day reads ‘I love you so much, I could eat you’; pull that platitude apart, and there’s something rather odd about conflating love with consumption. Well, director Claire Denis chooses to take it very literally in this blood-soaked, erotic take of science gone awry, warped libidos and damaged individuals. The absolute highlight of this movie is Beatrice Dalle as Coré; she is ‘sick’ with a disease relating to her husband’s research into the human libido. He literally boards her up in their apartment when he isn’t around to keep an eye on her, and why? Well, Coré’s sex drive now means she gets off on eating her partners in flagrante. You have to wait an hour for Dalle’s key scene here, but man, is it intense. I initially felt that this film would have benefited by greater use of Dalle, but actually, what we do get is so jaw-dropping that it’s more than enough.
Soylent Green (1973)
One of the best science fiction movies ever made, Soylent Green explores a future which is close enough and recognisable enough to fill us with unease. Soylent Green is an exploration of the horrors of overpopulation, and what might happen to people when they become expendable – a problem to be rationalised. The cannibalism in the movie is unwitting, a final insult to be heaped upon the citizens by the wealthy Soylent Corporation: the poor are condemned to consume one another. The movie contains one of the most stark, unsettling scenes every to be committed to celluloid: as Sol (Edward G. Robinson, shortly before his own death) signs himself up for voluntary euthanasia, the move between his last moments of happiness and the abrupt efficiency of the production line to which he now belongs is absolutely heart-rending.
Vanity takes people to some very dark places, but I’m not one of those people who automatically assume that a preoccupation with appearance means the person is necessarily stupid or shallow. There can be a lot at stake, or at least there can feel like there is – as is the case for Mrs. Lee (Miriam Yeung Chin Wah), a woman who, though still attractive, fears losing her looks because she fears losing her husband altogether. She is willing to try anything, and so when she finds out about a woman called Mei and her famous ‘rejuvenating’ dumplings with a special ingredient, she seeks them out. These things work; Mrs. Lee will find out why, and what follows is a plot often blackly comedic, but ultimately sad. The lives of the women portrayed here are desperate, and desperation breeds harmful behaviour. In the pursuit of eternal youth, we already know people will try just about anything.
Of course, the film gained an extra veneer of sinister plausibility when earlier this year, it transpired that Korean customs officials had seized a cargo of Chinese pills filled with powdered human foetuses…
The Mad Butcher (1971)
And speaking of sinister plausibility – ever heard of Fritz Haarmann? We come full circle back to Germany with the last film in my selection, and surely the makers of The Mad Butcher were knowingly referencing the cannibal killer Haarmann, who was thought to have disposed of some of his victims by selling them as ‘pork’ to unsuspecting neighbours. After a spell in an asylum, our main character Otto Lehman (Victor Buono) resumes his old trade as a butcher, but it doesn’t go so well. He accidentally kills his wife, Berta, during an argument, and – not knowing what to do with her – decides to turn her into sausages. Of course people start asking questions about her whereabouts…and they get the same treatment. It’s a film with many flaws, sure, but The Mad Butcher is fun primarily thanks to the enjoyable performance given by Buono, who manages to bring a strange kind of warmth to the role. If you ever thought it’d be impossible to like a man who’d just ground up the missus, well, look no further that The Mad Butcher. Although like Buss in Meat Grinder, he acts out of expediency, two films could not be more different in tone. If anything, The Mad Butcher turns cannibalism into a bit of a chore!