Sunday, November 19, 2006
Movies: People who need people (for foodstuffs) are the luckiest people in the world.
Cannibal Holocaust is something of jewel in the grindhouse crown. In a subgenre that takes pride in its ability to upset the cinematic sensibilities of the common Joe and Jane, Cannibal Holocaust holds a special place as one of those films that, in the words of the re-release trailer, "goes all the way."
After seeing it for the first time, I have to say that Cannibal Holocaust is one of those odd films that, at once, is both so much less than the rep that proceeds it and fully worthy of its reputation of as grade-A mind-fuck.
The plot (which is an acknowledged inspiration of the love/hate horror landmark The Blair Witch Project) features a professor from NYU who goes into the Amazon jungle in search of four American documentary makers who disappeared after they entered the jungle to film what they presume to be the last cannibal tribes in existence. He finds the footage of the first documentary crew and we learn that they pulled a Heart of Darkness trip, going insanely violent against the natives of the jungle before encountering, fighting, losing to, and feeding the cannibals they hoped to film.
The structure of the film is more complex than this plot summary suggests. Through a combination of flashbacks, faux documentary style footage, and standard narrative filmmaking, we jump back and forth between the various parts of the story. The film begins with a few minutes of the first expedition. Then we get the full story of the second expedition. Then, through a series of screenings of the first expedition's footage, we fill in the details of the first expedition. It is an effective narrative structure and works to build suspense even though the viewer knows before the end of first 30 minutes that first expedition didn't survive.
On many levels, Cannibal Holocaust is better than any movie with the title Cannibal Holocaust has the right to be. Filmed on location in New York and the Amazon, the sets are often breathtaking and, on multiple occasions, invest the exploitation proceedings with a strange and powerful beauty that exceeded what I'm certain were the filmmaker's intentions. Not that director Deodato can't set up a haunting shot. Even when he's not serving up gore by the truckload, Deodato wrings as much detail as possible out of his shots. One scene, for example, features two members of the first expedition engaging in some rough sex while the members of a native tribe they have previously attacked and terrorized watch silently in the distant background. The image is so stagey and its meaning so strange that tableaux of sex, domination, and sorrow sticks in the mind despite the lack of bloodshed. However, for the most part, Deodato's film sensibilities are overwhelmed by the power of his locations.
Deodato should also get some credit for the inclusion of some wonderful character moments. He captures excellent character moments: a wicked grin here, a worried look there. There's a surprising amount of subtle work in this film considering the number of times we're also treated to images of the characters vomiting.
For violence junkies and gorehounds, there's plenty to see. Characters are raped to death, torn apart, devoured, and otherwise discomforted. I didn't keep track of a body count, but those who enjoy having their senses assaulted are in for good time. This does, however, bring up the animal killings that the film is infamous for. In three scenes, Deodato filled the details of his actors killing animals. Deodato brought his same of love of detail to these scenes, so we're not talking about off-screen killings either. In the first incident, a small swamp rat of some sort is stabbed in the throat multiple times and then gutted. In the second, a large sea turtle is beheaded, dismembered and cracked open. Finally, a small monkey has its face chopped off and is bled (in the audio commentary, we're told by the director that the monkey's mate died shortly thereafter of what Deodato claims was a broken heart). These scenes, showing authentic death, ultimately undercut the special effects violence that appears throughout the movie. Ethical considerations aside for a moment, the rawness of these scenes emphasizes the falseness of the rest of the film. In the way the jungle trumped the filmmakers' skills, real violence trumped the filmmakers' moral imaginations. As a viewer, you'll care more about these three animals than you do about any of the human characters, and that, more than anything else, takes what might have been a film that transcended its grindhouse origins and reveals is tasteless, heartless, and exploitative core.
There's plenty more to discuss about the film: Vietnam conflict imagery, a sub-plot criticizing colonial exploitation, internal critiques of sensationalist media (believe it or not, the film actual includes a heavy handed critique of shock-for-shock's-sake entertainment), and more. The problem is that the levels of violence, the ruthlessness of the filmmakers' vision, and the raw nature of the real blood and guts spilled to make the viewer squirm all dwarf those considerations. Deodato has made a movie that is little more than a showcase for horrific violence and he did it so well that his attempts to stack ideological concerns on top – most often in the form of a sanctimonious speech by one of the leads – seems laughable. The violence mocks the philosophy.
Cannibal Holocaust is an exhausting, frustrating, and unsatisfying film. Its few grace notes hint at greatness, but are these moments ultimately drown in a sea of meaningless, exploitative, and genuinely brutal gore. Even its eagerness to shock works against it, as it often feels less like the work of a harsh but clear-eyed nihilist and more like the work of a hack who, when in doubt, simply pours fake blood everywhere. Though it must get some credit for representing something like the Platonic expression of the grindhouse aesthetic, its pleasures are narrow and, finally, shoddy. But that isn't the worst thing about the film. The most frustrating thing about the film is the teasing hints that it could have been better. Instead of being a monument to the gross-out MO of the exploitation crowd, it could have been the Apocalypse Now of horror cinema.
For fans of exploitation cinema, I recommend Cannibal Holocaust as the sort of logical conclusion of the genre's most common themes. For anybody else, the film is involving, but ultimately in a sort of disappointing and un-fun way. Using the famed Drums of Sri Lanka Movie Rating System, I give this flick a middling Hand Rabana, bumping it up to Bench Rabana to recognize its infamous and historic status.