An Abridged History Of Cannibalism As Metaphor
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With the release of Julia Ducournau’s Raw, we’ve been reminded once again of just how effective genre film can be as a medium of exploring complex and heavy subjects. Taking a serious topic and portraying it through the genre film lens can bring the discussion to audiences who may not have been interested otherwise. Horror especially can, somewhat counterintuitively, make difficult subject matter more palatable. It allows us, via sometimes shocking exaggeration, to explore some of the very real, human horrors that exist in society at large in a comfortable environment.
Raw stands as one of the very best modern examples of an intelligent horror film using visceral, taboo subject matter as a commentary to speak on something much more earnest and relatable. You may not expect a film about cannibalism to have such genuinely affecting subtext. However, people eating people has been utilized as a touching metaphor with surprisingly high success rates. Here’s a scratch on the surface of some of our favorite cannibal films, and what the cannibalism may have actually represented in the film:
Dumplings (2004, Dir. Fruit Chan) - Fruit Chan’s brilliant Dumplings, originally released as a short in the anthology 3... Extremes and later released as a full feature, is one of the most quietly unsettling depictions of cannibalism in film. It follows an actress who, concerned about the effects of aging on her appearance and career, seeks the help of a back-alley doctor who promises an unconventional solution to preserve youth and beauty. This remedy comes in the form of dumplings made with the meat of aborted human fetuses. The concept is elevated here, largely by the context in which the story is framed. China remains a Communist government, and yet has become, within the last few decades, one of the largest free economies in the world. After the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, Hong Kong was declared a special economic zone and allowed to retain its capitalist structure. Despite the Communist government, the majority of people in China, when surveyed, express support for capitalism. Dumplings reads effortlessly as a commentary on the dangers of that capitalism. A successful celebrity, the wealthy elite, so desperate to cling to culturally reinforced beauty standards. A beauty that’s been given a price tag, both financial and moral. When a potential side-effect of capitalism at the highest order is the commoditization of everything that can possibly be sold, you will find exploited and broken people willing to pay any price.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Dir. Tobe Hooper) - The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a landmark in horror filmmaking. An early trailblazer in the slasher genre, it helped to solidify tropes that would become horror mainstays. It also introduced one of the most terrifying and iconic villains in horror history, Leatherface. Any film that carries such cultural significance and notoriety will invite viewers to probe for subtext, and surely countless interpretations of the material exist. The story of a group of countercultural city kids on a somewhat aimless road-trip encountering a family of rural, backwoods cannibals, cases could be made that the film is all allegorical of the war in Vietnam, or the scathing indictment of dangers inherent in an unchecked patriarchy. While these themes certainly resonate throughout, one of the simplest and most obvious reads is also the one tied most directly to the consumption of human flesh. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is, in part, about the treatment and preparation of meat in modern society. Early on, one of our cast of victims, Franklin, spends a while talking about how slaughterhouses kill and skin animals. Sally, our eventual final girl, chimes in “I like meat. Please change the subject!” Later in the film, the actions Franklin described are committed against our cast. Their foreheads are smashed with sledgehammers, they are hung from meat hooks, they are skinned, butchered, and eventually eaten. It’s a direct parallel that was so effective, Tobe Hooper gave up eating meat during filming, and Guillermo Del Toro spent a while as a vegetarian after seeing the film.
Ravenous (1999, Dir. Antonia Bird) - This criminally underrated horror satire presents enough subtext to merit a full article of its own. It seems to comment, in varying degrees, on the greed of Western expansion and Manifest Destiny, as well as the sacrifices people are willing to make to obtain power. But the most interesting thing the film manages is to subvert the viewer’s expectations of the story’s moral center. Your main character is, ostensibly, John Boyd. A soldier during the Mexican-American War, Boyd clearly doesn’t have the heart for a soldier’s life. He survives a mission by playing dead, hiding beneath a pile of his deceased comrades-in-arms, their blood dripping into his mouth. After that, he is meek, made uncomfortable or outright nauseous at the sight of blood. He speaks little in the first act, and is not a terribly endearing main character. Eventually, Boyd finds himself under the command of Colonel Ives, another man who has tasted human blood. Ives, however, is in stark contrast to Boyd. Ives was emboldened by his foray into cannibalism. He revels in the strength he gains from consuming flesh. Much of the film is spent with Ives trying to get Boyd to admit to his true nature. It’s true that Boyd did feel invigorated when he consumed human flesh and blood. He felt confident, brave. But he denies his nature, he considers it a deviance, taboo. As Ives attempts to seduce him to his lifestyle (“It’s lonely, being a cannibal”) it is difficult not to see him as the more sympathetic of the two. He is true to himself. He is free, and only wants Boyd to follow suit. Ives mentions the virility you gain from taking the flesh of another inside you, and it’s difficult not to glimpse even some homoerotic subtext. Ultimately, Ives is a man who owns the things that make him different. The inherent otherness of his passions and appetites cast him as an outsider. His lack of shame, the pride he takes in the things that make him different, gives him an undeniable strength.
We Are What We Are (2010, Dir. Jorge Michel Grau) - The story of a family of cannibals, whose way of life is steeped in esoteric traditions. When the father passes away, the burden of feeding the family falls to the three teenage children. This involves the two brothers attempting to kidnap or lure humans back to their home, in order to be prepared for “the ritual.” The mother becomes unhinged after the loss of her husband, and the children are anxious, doing their best to fill the deceased father’s shoes. Initially, the son appointed to become the new “leader” is reluctant. He is sensitive, frightened, unsure of himself. You can see his nature fighting his nurture, giving glimpses of the better person that might have been, had he been raised in a better environment. The adherence to these traditions is never explained. There’s no mention of what may happen if they fail to complete the ritual, or if they simply find another food source. The impression is given that it is simply scripture, handed down and indoctrinating each generation while they are too young to question. Alfredo lures a gay youth back to the house, as a potential victim. His brother Julian abducts a sex worker. They attempt to abduct a child from a gang of street kids, under a highway overpass. They prey on minorities, on oppressed classes, because this is what they learned from watching their father. Moreover, the police force at large seems disinterested in solving the murders and disappearances. After performing an autopsy, a mortician tells a detective “It’s shocking how many people eat other in this city.” In this slow-burn horror story, the evils are that of a conservative middle-class, with a strict adherence to rote tradition, and a city that allows the lower-class to be preyed upon and routinely exploited.
Raw (2016, Dir. Julia Ducournau) - Raw is the story of Justine, a somewhat sheltered vegetarian who is entering her first year at a veterinary college. As the result of a hazing ritual taken against new students, she is made to ingest meat. The taste seemingly rouses a craving inside of her that becomes insatiable. As her hunger grows, so too does her confidence. As time goes on, she no longer looks the role of the naive teacher’s pet. She undergoes a transformation, an awakening. Justine finds herself suddenly desirous of something she’s been told by her parents is forbidden, something she’s been told by culture at large is inherently wrong, something taboo. It is a film about a cannibal, yes, but it is a film about a young woman struggling to feel comfortable with her developing sexuality. The lines of the metaphor become perfectly blurred as the film goes on. Justine begins to own her sexuality, as well as her newfound carnivorous cravings, despite coming from a background and culture where her urges are vilified. Through this, the film ends up being immensely relatable, not just as a brilliant feminist tale of sexual awakening, but as a story for anyone who’s ever been made to feel an outcast for their wants or desires. Being able to evoke such emotion and sentimentalism from such an unexpected subject matter is a mark of masterful genre filmmaking.