Almost since Hollywood began making motion pictures, innocent people have been getting devoured in them. And yet only now do we have the first serious survey of how and why human beings get eaten alive on the big screen.
Halfway through last year's life-affirming. Southern Gothic, small-budget, female buddy film Fried Green Tomatoes, the impish Dixie Peach Mary Stuart Masterson hits upon the gastronomically suspect but matrimonially efficacious stratagem of concealing her best friend's wife-beating, Ku Klux Klan husband's carcass in a large vat of barbecue mix at her fine dining establishment, the last place the authorities would ever think of looking for it. The film, told largely in flashback, is set in rural Alabama in the '30s, at a time when the Klan was making life miserable for blacks and, to a lesser extent, Catholics and Jews, and when Klan-bears like Mr. Barbecue were also making life unbearable for their hapless WASP wives.
Be this as it may, there is nothing in the annals of 20th-century Alabamian written or oral history to suggest that wife-beating Klan members were routinely or, in fact, ever mixed in with piquant barbecue sauce and served for lunch in local eateries. This would seem to suggest that the characters in Fried Green Tomatoes got the idea of hiding the wife-beater's battered corpse in the barbecue sauce not from their own experience inside the movie, but from the screenwriter who wrote the original novel, who obviously did not get the idea from studying early 20th-century, rural Alabamian packing, jarring or cooking traditions. No, she probably got the idea from watching Eating Raoul, a 1982 small-budget, non-life-affirming black comedy in which the body of the eponymous Raoul is chopped into tiny strips and served at a formal dinner precisely because the cooks could think of no better place to hide the body.
I am not suggesting that the idea hiding the body in the barbecue sauce in Fried Green Tomatoes came directly or exclusively Eating Raoul. The screenwriter may have also been influenced by the popular '70s musical Sweeney Todd, or Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the1936 black-and-white film that inspired the play. Or she may have drawn her inspiration from Motel Hell, the 1980 black comedy in which Rory Calhoun plays a sort of sausage-packing Norman Bates. For that matter, the screenwriter may also have been influenced by Tenderness of the Wolves, the 1973 German film in which a homosexual vampire with an entrepreneurial bent first lures young men to his apartment in post-World War I Berlin, then seduces them, then excises huge chunks from their necks--effectively removing them from the gay, postwar German night-life scene forever--and then repackages their remains into tasty cutlets he sells to local merchants desperate for prime beef at a time of massive meat shortages.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it is reasonably safe to say that the cannibalism motif in Fried Green Tomatoes, which is set in rural Alabama in the '30s, almost certainly derives from a low-budget black comedy set in Los Angeles in the early '80s, or from a medium-budget '70s German, neoexpressionistic horror film set in Berlin in the '20s, or from an expensive 1936 black-and-white British film set in London in the 1880s, or from a very inexpensive slasher film set in the unidentified American boondocks in the late '70s. This is yet another example of the motion picture industry's amazing ability to cannibalize itself, even when making a film about cannibalism.
I'm glad we have a chance to have this little chat.
Almost since Hollywood began making motion pictures, innocent people have been getting devoured in them, but this is, to my knowledge, the first time that anyone has ever attempted to write a comprehensive essay about what the Germans call das essenfilm, what the French call le cinema bouffe, and what the Italians refer to as film mangiare: films in which people get eaten. Yet our goal here is not to discuss every movie in which people have been eaten--there are far, far too many to even contemplate such an undertaking--but to consider the various genres of movies in which people get eaten.
Thus, we will be looking at movies featuring cannibalism (Alive, Eating Raoul, Suddenly, Last Summer, Night of the Living Dead, Soylent Green, The Silence of the Lambs, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Fried Green Tomatoes), unexpected aquatic dining (Piranha, Leviathan, Thunderball, Orca, Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, Jaws the Revenge), reptilian buffet (Alligator, Live and Let Die), insects that manifest a penchant for human flesh (The Naked Jungle), man-munching mammals (Grizzly, Cujo), peckish rodents who develop a taste for Homo sapiens (Willard, Ben), as well as smorgasbord films in which humans are eaten, or at least gnawed on, by a wide variety of predators: humans, dogs, wolves, bears, piranha, Adrienne Barbeau (Quest for Fire, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death). Possibly, by looking carefully at films such as these we will all learn a little bit more about the world around us, and perhaps even a little bit more about ourselves. Though frankly, I kind of doubt it.
In discussing films in which people get eaten, it is important to distinguish between works in which:
1) People get eaten primarily for nutritional reasons
2) People get eaten primarily for legitimate ritualistic or religious reasons
3) People get eaten just for the hell of it.
It is also important to distinguish between films in which the eating of human flesh is a minor, incidental element (Fried Green Tomatoes) and films that are basically about human cuisine and not much else (Alive, Jaws, Piranha, Motel Hell, Soylent Green).
For example, The Last of the Mohicans includes a scene in which Magua, the sadistic faux Mohawk (he is secretly a Huron), rips the heart out of a British officer and is just about ready to jam it down his gullet when the camera meekly wanders off to see what the more refined Madeleine Stowe is up to at the time. The scene clearly establishes that Magua is a primeval brute, a feckless traitor, and at least a part-time cannibal, and thus not a guy to be messed with. But The Last of the Mohicans is not primarily a film about eating human flesh. The Last of the Mohicans is primarily a film about hacking, cleaving, hewing, flaying, impaling and roasting human flesh. It is vital that we make this distinction.
A far different sort of film is Jaws the Revenge (this time it's personal). Much like its predecessors, Jaws the Revenge is about a big fish that likes to eat people so it can become an even bigger fish. However, unlike The Last of the Mohicans, which also deals with such issues as love, grace under pressure, the inevitable cultural fallout from a head-on collision between a highly developed, market-driven European civilization and a Paleolithic, socialistic culture, and the indispensable role of a volunteer militia in a free society, Jaws the Revenge deals almost exclusively with a large shark that likes to eat people. It has, as it were, no subtext.
The same distinction can be made between Quest for Fire and Alive. Although both films are protein-oriented, in the sense that the people who get devoured in them do not get eaten for personal reasons, but because those who eat them can't find anything else to nibble on. Quest for Fire is basically a film about a valiant group of prehistoric men desperately seeking to master the element of fire in order to survive. The cannibalism stuff is just a sidelight. Otherwise, the film would have been called Quest for Chuck Steak.
Alive, on the other hand, is primarily, almost entirely, a film about enlightened cannibalism. In this life-affirming, medium-budget, South American Gothic buddy film, a group of young Uruguayan rugby players, having withstood an airplane crash, an avalanche and Vincent Spano, must eat one another in order to survive. Although the film deals in a tangential fashion with certain other themes--man's inhumanity to man, the need for a more cohesive relationship between Uruguayan and Chilean civil aviation authorities, the importance of always carrying extra radio batteries and large bars of chocolate on one's person during flights across desolate mountain ranges--the film is primarily about cannibalism, a subject foreshadowed early in the story when one of the characters breaks open a bottle of red wine, which, or course, is only served with red meat.