The very idea of a Jess Franco cannibal picture called to my mind a scene from Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter. In that superlative flick, Bob Mitchum's surreally hammy psycho preacher, Harry Powell, relates a quick summary of all Christian theology using his two prison tats: the words love and hate inked across the flesh covering his metacarpals. The short review of several thousand years of religious thought involves him intertwining his fingers and physically acting out the struggle between good and evil, flipping his fists and raising and lowering his hands to show the relative strength of each concept.
For this review, you can imagine me doing pretty much the same thing, only I've got cannibals written on one hand and Franco scrawled on the other. (Though the technical details of the execution of said tattoo elude me at the moment.)
Long time readers of this blog know that I break for two subgenres of fright flick: alligator/crocdile pictures always have my attention and you can always interest me in a cannibal flick. We won't dwell on the charms of crocogator stories here, but a quick rehash of what makes cannibal films so interesting to me might be in order. Mainly, there's something pleasingly simple about the motivations of the baddies in such flicks. Sometimes a filmmaker decides to slather an ideological gloss over the whole thing - á la Cannibal Holocaust - and use people eating as a critique, but these efforts are almost universally doomed to self-parody by the extreme nature of the act they evoke.
Even in Deodato's infamous flick, perhaps the most intellectually overworked example of the subgenre, the idea that our violent, neo-colonialist filmmakers are punished for their hypocritical "civilized" mentality requires two conceptual slight of hand trick. First, the filmmakers themselves aren't deluded about themselves or human nature: they've filmed man's inhumanity to man and make no bones about violence, created and represented, being their bread and butter. They're, in a sense, cannibals. Second, the "natives" that ultimately turn the crew into brunch are, even prior to the intrusion of the filmmakers, a pretty nasty bunch: we see them delivering death-by-rape punishments to their womenfolk and, oh yeah, they think people are food. When the documentary makers and flesh-eaters finally clash, it has all the moral aspects of a dogfight: man is wolf to man, regardless of the man. It seems clear that Deodato wants to invoke some cultural relativism here, but the practical result of that is to announce that only the film crew's actions can be judged and it relegates the moral character of the natives to some sort of black box, which then transforms them into a plot device rather than characters. His effort to critique the filmmakers' inhumanity requires using humans as props.
Far better to avoid trying to make a moral case for anthropophagy and just pit a bunch of suckers against people-eatin' people. Admittedly, this is probably no less dehumanizing and racist, but then you at least avoid making an ass of yourself by flaunting your intellectual and moral superiority as you commit the same foul.
Which brings us to Jess Franco's Cannibals - a.k.a. Mondo Cannibale, White Cannibal Queen, Eaters of Men, The Goddess of the Barbarians, The Cannibal God, Mondo Cannibale 3: The Blonde Goddess (the movie is at once the original and its own sequel - this represents Franco's greatest cinematic innovation), and, of course A Girl for the Cannibals. Franco, as unconcerned about the politics of cannibalism as his is about the elements of good filmmaking, avoids tangling his slender flick in the weeds of moralizing.
Cannibals opens on an ill-fated Amazon expedition. The expedition's leader, Dr. Taylor, and his family are attacked on their boat by the oldest, least fit, whitest cannibal tribe in the Amazon. Human meat, Franco seems to be telling us, is not lean. Mrs. Taylor is killed and eaten on the boat. Like all good Euro-cinema cannibals, this tribe often takes its meat raw and on-the-go, and they think nothing of pausing in the middle of a sneak attack to grab a little person tartar appetizer. Dr. Taylor and his young daughter are taken back to the village. There the good doctor loses his arm, but manages to escape. He leaves his daughter behind.
Flash forward - crippled and emotionally scarred (but not too emotionally scarred, he's working on a new love interest in the form of his nurse), Taylor approaches the wealthy Barbara Shelton and her weirdly fey older-man toy Fenton to back a rescue expedition. They agree, but on the condition that they can come along. Why? I'm not sure. See the Amazon, shoot some cannibals, maybe find the half-chewed remains of this dude's baby girl. It'll be a lark.
As good an idea as a pleasure jaunt into cannibal country is, it all goes so very unexpectedly wrong. Socialites and local guides fall before the arrows and dental work of the flabby foe. And, to top the whole thing off, the premise of the "rescue" is compromised when Taylor discovers that his daughter has gone native: she now the White Goddess of the tribe. We know to capitalize that as her proper title because the cannibals, whenever they mention her, break out of the painfully lame ooga-booga of their native tongue to say, in English, "White Goddess."
So, which fist wins?
Sadly, Franco is not a spice. The genre pleasures of the cannibal flick evaporate in the face of the limitless indifference of Franco's rigorous commitment half-assed filmmaking. Slackly paced, barely acted, peopled with the worst blackface tribe this side of a Dan Rice show, and hobbled by a laughably crappy script, the whole thing is a testament to the career of a man who famously claimed that he's never made a movie he liked. I hear you loud and clear, Jessie.
Really, the only thing worth pondering about the film is whether or not Jess Franco hated the idea of making a cannibal so much that he botched it on purpose. I don't propose the possibility to be flip. In an interview in the special features, Franco makes his contempt for the cannibal features his flick apes (perhaps satirizes poorly?) clear. He refers to them as "stupid," which appears to be Franco's go-to condemnation (for example, he expresses his contempt for Sabrina Siani by calling her the Queen of the Stupid People). He especially mocks them for their extended bouts of viscera eating and claims that the longer a flick lingers on such things, the stupider it becomes. Then why, we're then forced to ask, is Cannibals punctuated with repeated close-up, slow-mo scenes of Franco's un-natives gumming raw steak? In fact, these endless scene that are so extremely shot that they nearly become abstract cinema are the film's most distinctive visual feature. Franco made sure to pack his flick with what he states is the stupidest part of any cannibal flick. Is it a mistake? Or did he do it on purpose?