Cannibal movies have long existed at the fringes of Hollywood. So why are they suddenly the hottest ticket in arthouse horror?
Despite a deep and abiding love for the horror genre, I’ve never really had much of a stomach for gore. That pretty much rules out the vast majority of cannibal movies. Sure, there are a few that I love deeply – films like Antonia Bird’s western-tinged Ravenous or Boris Rodriguez’s criminally underrated Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal — but they tend to be hyphenates, movies that cross the boundaries between horror and other genres. Most of what I know about the cannibal film as a subgenre comes from Scott Weinberg’s excellent 2015 Playboy article Beginners Guide to Cannibal Movies. It tells me just enough to know these are movies I probably have no business ever seeing for myself.
And yet, my fascination with cannibal stories persists. In addition to the two movies named above, I also count movies like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and the Stone-Parker college musical Cannibal: The Musical as some of my favorite examples of the genre. A high school friend even tricked me into reading In the Heart of the Sea — a very good book, as you probably already know – by describing it as a historical account of maritime cannibalism with just a little bit of whale stuff. I mention all of this only to explain why the recent slate of film festivals has me thinking a lot about the rising popularity of the cannibal movie as a whole. Cannibals seem to be having a bit of a cinematic moment; it’s worth taking a few minutes to try and figure out why.
I’m hesitant to make too much of a handful of movies, but the number (and breadth) of cannibal movies in the last twelve months is certainly worth noting. Sure, there are always an abundance of video nasties – movies that layer on gore in the hope that nobody will notice their overall lack of quality – but I cannot remember another time with so many high-concept movies about people eating other people. Bone Tomahawk brought ’70s gore to the classical western. Neon Demon showed us that the fashion industry is more than just a dog-eat-dog world. Julia Ducornau’s Raw made headlines at the Toronto International Film Festival last month when paramedics were called in to look after sick audience members. Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch won a jury prize at the Venice Film Festival. Four very different films, each walking a fine line between horror and the arthouse crowd in very interesting ways.
So why cannibal movies, and why now? Unlike vampire or zombie movies – which draw a definite line between humanity and the monsters – cannibals are often presented as humanity corrupted. People who eat other people may do it because they are addicted to the taste of human flesh or because they believe their enemies are nothing more than food for the slaughter, but they do so with their humanity entirely intact. Filmmakers who want to make a thoughtful horror movie but are wary of being lost in the zombie shuffle can pivot slightly and feature cannibals instead; this allows them the same degree of shock value without falling prey to convention. A cannibal movie is a horror movie about people, and people are still infinitely more frightening than a bunch of extras with latex rotting flesh. In its most basic function, the cannibal movie might just be a neat bit of counter-programming from a handful of aspiring filmmakers.
But I don’t think it stops at just the horror. We live in a society constantly at odds over political correctness and social consciousness; what better way for a daring filmmaker to play with these notions than through the use of cannibalism? Simply put, cannibalism is the ultimate act of political incorrectness. To eat another human being – and to be conscious and rational while you do it – is to put your needs and desires above those of another in the most extreme way possible. As we argue over the value of trigger warnings and the power of words in our culture, this new generation of horror filmmakers are making movies about people whose desire to eat another human being is justification enough for doing so. Handled well, this can either put our own issues into perspective or remind us of why we try so hard to look out for others. It’s taking the tension between our base instincts and our need for socialization to its extreme – and very playful – conclusion.
It’s entirely possible that this is all just a bit of coincidence; this current wave of cannibal movies might turn out to be little more than a beautiful bit of cinematic serendipity. Still, with every wave of genre horror comes an attempt to identify the underpinning social anxieties that cause the themes to emerge from the ether. Did the housing crisis reinvigorate the haunted house movie? Are zombie movies a response to overpopulation? Are slasher movies preying on our fear of acts of terrorism? It’s fun to take a stab at whether the cannibal movie might be a bump in the road or something with some actual staying power. For my money, there are worse ways to talk about human nature than through movies about people eating people.