Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Movies: Something's off.

Offspring, the 2009 Andrew van den Houten straight-to-vid cannibal thriller adapted from Jack Ketchum's novel of the same name, is not a very good movie.

For reasons to banal to go into here, Offspring is a sequel to movie that never got made. For reasons to banal to go into here, Off Season, Ketchum's infamously violent 1981 debut novel about a group of Maine timesharers besieged by a pack of atavistic cannibals, is not going to see an adaptation any time soon. On the theory that any atavistic cannibalism was better than no atavistic cannibalism, van den Houten and the dudes at Ghost House though they'd just skip over Off Season and jump straight into an adaptation of Ketchum's 1991 follow-up, the reheated Offspring. A bad idea, as it turns out.

The slender pleasures Offspring had to offer came almost entirely from the few new wrinkles it gave its barebones, all-business predecessor. Off Season was essentially a bloody siege of a book - the sort of relentless plot engine that ran off the gore of its brutally abused characters. And I mean that in a good way. Offspring had almost exactly the same plot, but spent a little more time with its characters - notably the cannibal clan who gained more emotional and, in a sub-Clan of the Cave Bear way, intellectual interiority. Though, ostensibly, Offspring could be read as a stand alone, it lacked force or interest without the business in the first book. Loyal to fault to its source materials, Offspring inherits this weakness. It further compounds the problem by assuming you're already familiar with book source books. The result: Watching Offspring, you get the sense that you've walked into something already half over.

The plot is simple enough - couple in house gets guests, cannibal attack, police to the rescue - that you understand immediately what you've missed. But why you should care is never addressed. Characters whose story arcs depend on us understanding they survived the horrors of the first film come off as exposition mouthpieces. For example, we have a sheriff whose life was wrecked by his first encounter with the cannibal tribe. His decision to help the new sheriff track down the cannibals should carry some dramatic weight. But, without any emotional connection to the backstory, we're pretty indifferent to his fate.

An emotionally thin story need not sink a horror flick. Like many a horror fan, I'm perfectly willing to swap gravitas for thrills if the filmmaker can deliver on the latter. Unfortunately, the weak plot is highlighted by middling acting, tepid shocks, and slightly better than amateur cinematography and effects. The filmmakers are rigorous enough to break a few taboos - their willingness to put infant characters in harm's way and leave them there is refreshing - but it is ultimately not enough to save the project.

The cannibals got me thinking though: Cannibals get a bad wrap in the movies.

Because they're not so much cannibals as metaphors for the hypothetical blood-stained war of all against all that humanity would suffer without civilizing influences or, in your more cynical fare, we suffer without admitting it because of our thin veneer of civilization, they do not resemble members of cannibal culture so much as they resemble walking manifestations of the id. They act like mildly less excitable versions of the infected from 28 Days Later. Think of the cannibals in the jewel of cannibal exploiters, 1980's Cannibal Holocaust. They get so frenzied with their hunger for human flesh, when they off somebody, they all stop to gather around and tear into the raw body. This despite the fact that we've already established in the film that they cook meat.

In contrast, in the few cultures that ever regularly practiced it, it was a highly ritualized affair that usually involved extended and rigorously systematic procedures. Take, for example, Jean de Léry's description of cannibal Brazilians.

In 1556, a young Frenchman named Jean de Léry took part in a Protestant mission to establish a Protestant religious "homeland" in the New World, one that would be safe from incessant faith wars that regularly shook 16th Century Europe. When his band reached Brazil, he found that the explorer who had preceded them had gone all Heart of Darkness on them: Instead of preparing for colonists, he had set up a surreal and violent dictatorship over the Europeans and native Brazilians unlucky enough to find themselves in his tiny rogue kingdom. De Léry and most of the other second wave colonists formed a splinter group and set off to form their own colony.

During the period in de Léry's life, as an exiled exile, that he got to make extensive observations of the Tupinamba Indians. The Tupinamba were cannibals. However, far from the savage, ravenous creatures that populate horror films, the Tupinamba were meticulous about their cannibalism. First, the Tupinamba got to know their food. The cannibalism process of the Tupinamba took an entire year to complete. It started when they took a prisoner of war (de Léry observed that the Tupinamba seemed to be in a constant state of low-grade warfare with their neighbors on all sides). Victims of the Tupinamba were then married into the tribe. They got a wife and a house and were accepted as part of the tribe for a year's time. During that period of time, the victim lived in a sort of gilded cage, enjoying a life of relative ease and leisure. Many even had children with there Tupinamba wives.

At the end of a year, a group of Tupinamba men would come to the house of the soon-to-be meal, rouse him, and take him on a sort of final tour of the town. During this final tour, the victim would meet each person in the tribe and make boasts of how, in the battle, he had killed the so-and-so the Tupinamba. It was ritualized smack talk.

The victim was then killed, carefully butchered into different cuts of meat, and slow cooked on an open grill pit that - in one folk etyomology - gives us the word for barbeque. After the victim was well-cooked, the remains were shared among the entire village. In the event that the victim had sired a child, the new widow could choose to either add cook the infant with its father or, if she so desired, could wait a year and eat it then.

Now I'm not holding up the Tupinamba as paragons of moral virtue or suggesting that their form of cannibalism wasn't creepy. (Honestly though, the idea that you can get a trial period as a parent before deciding whether or not you should keep the baby seems immanently reasonable - but I would suggest expanding the notion so that you get food-or-kin checks at 1, 2, 5, 10, and 16.) Rather, I suggesting that if one lived in a cannibal culture - if you grew up with cannibalism as an accepted practice - it seems unlikely to me that you would practice it as films depict it.

If you were doing it for food (which, outside of emergency situations, was rarely the primary motive of cannibal cultures - they ate people along side an otherwise full and complete diet), then you would organize your hunts to maximize the catch and develop a distribution method so that non-hunting members of your society benefited from the hunt. This means organized, strategic hunting. This means the processing of food, including prep for storage. This means no stopping in the middle of a hunt to willy-nilly tear into some sucker anthropologist. If it was ritualistic or religious in nature - a considerable more common motivation: the Tupinamba did it to ensure their superiority over their enemies on a physical and spiritual level - than it becomes more ceremonial. Either way, the sort of savage explosion of primal rage wouldn't be a factor. You don't have to work yourself into a berserker in order to violate the ultimate taboo because it isn't, from your vantage point, a taboo. To do so would be like you, dear reader, having to whip yourself in rabid and barely controllable frenzy in order to order a hamburger or go to Christmas mass (or whatever event your particular flavor of faith or freethinking leads you to).

The cannibals of Offspring occupy that middle area between the savage native model in Cannibal Holocaust and the more workman-like crazy cannibals of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the various incarnations of The Hills Have Eyes. They tend to forget themselves in the heat of the moment: After surrounding the house, cutting the phone lines (curiously, these cannibals know enough to cut phone lines, but they themselves tend to never use anything beyond Year Zero grade tech), and creating a diversion, their hunting strategy becomes scream a lot and run around like madmen. One even goes all Canny Holo and stops in the middle of the attack for a quick nosh. On the other hand, they also are selective about the parts they take, have a long term plan for community growth through semi-selective kidnapping, and cook and prepare whatever doesn't get ate up in the thick of battle.

So, given that, I'm going to have to say that, while Offspring has many flaws, the cannibal community should perhaps view it as a step in the right direction and a hopeful sign that, someday, Hollywood will see fit to depict them in a less dehumanizing light.

While we're still on the subject of Offspring, I think it is time to admit that Sam Raimi has done more harm than good to the horror genre. I'll be the first to credit his contributions with Evil Dead; but since then his horror contributions have been a remake of his own film, a slapstick flick in horror dressing, and a perfectly fair PG-13 greatest-hits sampler or his previous flicks. Now, add to that the damage his Ghost House production company is doing. Aside from this dog, GH is also responsible for the Boogeyman and Grudge franchises, knock-off crappola like Last House in the Woods, unfunny horror comedies like Dance of the Dead, and numerous other straight to DVD stinkers. With the exception of Drag Me to Hell, and that's a pretty weak exception, the label's distinctive skull logo is pretty much the kiss of death. It wasn't but a few months ago that Raimi's "triumphant" return to horror was the big story of the year and a sign to many that we were, indeed, in horror's golden age. But with friends like these . . .


Anonymous said...

I recently saw Offspring and did not have the same problems in following the story that you seemed to have. I believe the only character that had a backstory was the ex-sheriff. Every other character was set up fairly well...a lot more than I usually see in horror films. I've seen so many horror films on dvd that look like they were shot in someones back yard, Offspring is no where near that level. The attack on the house and sportscar were very intense. I also really loved the cave scenes. Then again, I saw it on Blu-ray, so maybe there is a difference in quality from what you saw.

I also found on a Jack Ketchum site the reason for doing the sequel first. The film rights for Off Season were sold to a company that is still trying to find the money to make the movie, so the only project available by Ketchum to shoot was Offspring. It was completely out of Ghosthouse and the filmmaker's hands.

CRwM said...


I'm glad you dug it. Though I think I didn't make my point clear. Following the story isn't a problem. In fact, the story - as I state - is pretty straightforward stuff and even folks who haven't read the books won't be lost.

My contention is that, without the material of the original, there's a sort fo "so what" cloud that hangs over the whole thing. This is especially damaging when characters with ties to the last story meet, but the drama of the encounter would only be clear to people who had read the first book.

For example, the new sheriff and couple of the leader of the cannibal clan also have ties to the first story. The new sheriff insomuch as the disaster at the end of the last story got him his current position and the cannibal clan leader in that she recognizes the old sheriff. Though, and this speaks to my point, there would be no reason to note these events unless you had read the first book because the Offspring doesn't pack either of these encounters with the impact they could have.

Certainly the realization by the cannibal leader that she and her clan are being once again hunted by the man who nearly wiped them off the face of the Earth years ago should be a bigger deal than this film makes it.

As for it being out of Ghosthouse and the filmmakers hands, choosing to help produce the film is very much in their hands. They could have said, "Eh, he sequel before the original? No thanks. Good luck though."

By the same token, a less slavishly loyal adaptation could have solved this problem. Imagine a flick in which the new sheriff was the key figure. Then learning the backstory and its importance would have become explicit elements of the plot. Viewers, new to property and old, could get caught up to speed and background relationships could be established in a natural way. The filmmakers could have chosen to do that. That option was open. And if it wasn't, they could have walked away.

Every movie is the result of choices, right? They never just appear, unaccountably, with nobody but dumb luck behind them.

Shon Richards said...

I agree with you on the bad rep of cannibals. There seems to be a weird perception that all cannibals have to be savage madmen type that holds the genre back.

Having said that, Torchwood, which is a hit or miss series, had a wonderful cannibal episode where a nice civilized town fucked up the Torchwood team with their casual evil. They were so organized and ruthless that it created a nice horrifying effect.

Also, Richard Laymon's 'The Woods Are Dark' is an over the top look into a cannibal society hiding in the woods that might interest you.

wiec? said...

that Brazilian cannibal stuff in the middle there was fascinating stuff.

CRwM said...


Thanks for the heads up.

I must admit that I most likely won't check up on Torchwood because I've become a total media slut these days - I'm media commitmentphobic and if I can't hit it and quit in a day or two, I don't pick it up. I don't know when I developed this odd form of ADD, but the idea of committing to a new television series fills we with dread.

I think I'm getting dumber as I get older too, but I don't know if these phenomena are connected.

I will, however, try to track down the Lyman book. I see it is out of print, sadly. May take some searchin'.

CRwM said...


The source of the info is de Léry's A History of a Voyage to Brazil, one of the first extended descriptions of the new world by a European author. I almost blogged about it a year or so ago when I read it, but it slipped off the docket. This movie reminded me of it, so I'm glad we got to discuss it.

Rabid Fox said...

If I ever come across this DVD, I'll have to check it out. It does seem odd that the film would adapt the follow-up novel, but I listened to a podcast interview with Ketchum recently and he pitched it enthusiastically. Couldn't help but want to see it after listening to the guy.