Recently I saw Stuart Gordon’s play Taste, which was inspired by a real life incidence of cannibalism.
“It is amazing to me that there is so much about cannibalism in the papers these days,” Gordon told me after the performance, “and when we first announced that we were going to do this the response to it was bigger than any play or movie I’ve ever done. It went through the roof. I felt like we were hitting a nerve here.”
Gordon loves cooking shows so naturally he would be drawn to a play about people who eat each other. What excited Gordon about doing a play involving cannibalism was the “the idea of having a cooking show where you actually smell the cooking. That’s the thing the theater can do that movies can’t do is really engage the senses.”
The play, written by Ben Brand, was a brilliant mix of subtlety and sensationalism. All this made me think about cannibal films.
Cannibal films – in which people mindlessly slaughter and eat others or where carnage soaks the screen – are a dime a dozen. But films in which great care is taken with both the filmmaking and the preparation of human flesh for consumption are more rare. Since the French are renowned for food I will turn to them to help make this distinction clear. I would define the typical cannibal film as something suited for a gourmand, a ravenous and greedy eater, prone to excess, but not too discriminating in what he eats. But the gourmet cannibal film is for a connoisseur, a person with a discerning palate and who prefers items that are exotic or of high quality.
So forget about the bloody excesses of Cannibal Holocaust or Texas Chainsaw Massacre and treat your palate to these elegant gourmet cannibal films. (NOTE: Some descriptions contain spoilers.)
1. The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
Peter Greenaway’s delectable art house favorite serves up the perfect example of the gourmet cannibal film. Shot, superbly crafted, and stunningly acted, this film explores the extremes of human jealousy, cruelty, and revenge. Albert is a brutal crime boss who also owns a swanky restaurant with an artisan chef named Richard. Albert’s wife Georgina (played the the scrumptious Helen Mirren) grows bored with her brutish spouse and strikes up an affair with a kind bookseller. The cook covers for the lovers who sometimes conduct their covert affair in the restaurant bathroom as Albert consumes a meal. But Albert eventually catches on and murders his wife’s lover. Georgina comes to Richard and tells him, ‘He’s dead. They stuffed him with pages torn from his favorite book. Could you cook him?’ And so begins her revenge. Richard prepares the man’s corpse like a work of art and Georgina presents it to her husband, ‘Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy, and you know where it’s been.’ Georgina concludes the film with the line: “Cannibal.” This is a four-star gourmet cannibal film.
2. Delicatessen (1991)
Here’s another art house film that tackles cannibalism in an unexpected manner. French directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro deliver an exquisitely crafted film about a post-apocalyptic world where food is scarce and cannibalism is rampant. The film takes place almost exclusively inside an apartment building where an enterprising butcher comes up with a clever plan to keep the tenants well stocked with meat. He keeps hiring handymen for the building and when the time is right, he butchers them and sells them as meat. His latest handyman is an unemployed clown and a vegetarian. The butcher’s daughter falls in love with him and enlists the aid of the Troglodytes, an under-the-ground vegetarian group that tries to save people from the cannibals. Jeunet and Caro are not interested in making a horror film or in showing gore. Their film is a delicious black comedy that’s surprisingly full of whimsy despite the flesh eating.
3. Parents (1989)
Another black comedy on the subject of cannibalism is Bob Balaban’s Parents. Young Michael lives in a model ’50s suburban neighborhood with his parents (the perfectly cast Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt). Everything seems perfectly Ozzie and Harriet on the surface but Michael is haunted by nightmares and an uneasy concern over where his cheerful parents get their meat. Imagine Ward Cleaver cooking flesh burgers on the grill and June serving them to the neighbors and you’ll get an idea of the perversely funny incongruity of the film. Balaban puts a glossy Technicolor surface on his disturbingly funny tale of suburban cannibals.
4. Silence of the Lambs (1991) / Hannibal (2001)
The horror gets kicked up as well as the gourmet food preparation in a pair of films featuring Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. In Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins has a memorable scene where he tells Jodie Foster’s FBI agent, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” In the sequel Hannibal, we get to see Hopkins’ serial killer/gourmet cannibal prepare Ray Liotta’s brain for consumption. The nasty chef’s trick is that he slices off gray matter while the man is still alive and conscious. Hopkins makes these films a gourmet treat.
5. The Green Butchers (2003)
The Danish film The Green Butchers returns us to a lighter tone and in an odd bit of irony stars Mads Mikkelsen (who now plays Hannibal on NBC’s TV series). The Green Butchers of the title are Svend and Bjarne, who decide to open their own shop to get away from their obnoxious boss Holger. Of course Holger comes by to mock them when no customers show up. But on a whim, their old boss orders some meat for a dinner party. In the meantime, Svend accidentally locks an electrician in the meat locker when he’s fixing the light and is in desperate need of disposing of the body. One thing leads to another and Svend ends up marinating the electrician’s leg and giving the meat to Holger for his party. The next day there’s a line around shop with people demanding “Svend’s chicky-wickies” (his euphemism for the human flesh marinated in his special sauce). Another charming and tastefully delivered tale on cannibalism.
6. We Are What We Are (2013)
Cannibalism becomes a kind of religious ritual in Jim Mickle’s superb remake of the Mexican cannibal horror film Somos lo que hay. Mickle’s film gives us a reclusive family headed by patriarch Frank Parker (Bill Sage). He runs his family with fierce sense of conviction to his ancestral traditions. The film begins as his daughters are forced to assume some horrific family customs. The spin Mickle gives this tale of modern day cannibalism is to endow it with a religious, Puritan spin. He doesn’t shy away from gore but unlike the typical cannibal film he finds unexpected beauty in the brutality.
7. Titus (1999)
There is really just one brief reference to cannibalism in Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus but it’s so vivid and horrific yet elegantly executed that it merits inclusion here. This is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays full of senseless violence and cruelty. At one point Titus (Anthony Hopkins once again serving human flesh) finally secures an opportunity to exact revenge on his bitter enemy Tamora. His choice of vengeance is particularly cruel and clever. He kills her sons and serves them to her in a pie.
8. The Untold Story (1993)
This Category III (equivalent of the MPAA X or NC-17 rating) Hong Kong film, like Stuart Gordon’s play, finds its inspiration in real life. It’s based on a true crime that supposedly took place in 1985 in Macau. Anthony Wong plays a man who kills a family and takes over their restaurant. The restaurant specializes in “pork bao” or steamed pork buns and perhaps the film’s alternate title — Human Pork Buns — will make clear where the cannibalism comes into play. The film is gruesomely violent but the human flesh is prepared with care and served up to unsuspecting customers.
9. Sweeney Todd (2007)
Sweeney Todd also looks to a sensational true crime as the basis for its story. Sweeney Todd, aka The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, sounds more like the stuff of urban legends than reality. But evidence suggests that there really was a mad barber who used a straight razor to kill his customers and many of the victims’ bodies ended up as filling for meat pies. Tim Burton’s film, based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical, makes light of the horror as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter slit throats and serve meat pies to gullible patrons.
10. Eating Raoul (1982)
This indie black comedy from Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov has become a cult classic. Bartel and Woronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a couple who want to open their own restaurant. They happen upon a scheme to raise money when Paul accidentally kills a errant swinger who’s forcing himself on Mary. The man is loaded with cash so the Blands decide to start luring other swingers to their pad and offing them with the fry pan. This works pretty well until a sexy Latin con man named Raoul starts to horn in on their business. The title implies multiple meanings but I think you can guess how the film, with its wannabe restaurant owners, ends up. What makes this film such a gourmet item is the deadpan performances of Bartel and Woronov.