Happy Halloween everybody! I hope you are enjoying tonight and I hope you enjoy this review. It’s as gruesome as befits this glorious holiday.
I’ve watched almost every kind of horror film imaginable over the years. I’ve seen body horror, psychological horror, Lovecraftian horror, comedic horror, slasher movies, ‘torture porn,’ cinéma vérité, J-horror, American horror, Italian horror and I still feel like a dabbler, especially compared to other horror fans; just as there is always someone smarter, faster, and stronger than you, there’s always a bigger fanboy/fangirl than you; it’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, horror is subject to Sturgeon’s law, just as any other genre, and 90% of it is crap, which means that 90% isn’t scary. I’ve watched a lot of bad horror films, not always on purpose. If there’s any gift I’ve been blessed with, it’s patience for and an appreciation of bad movies. Therefore, when I say a movie horrified me, it’s probably an indication that I’ve stumbled onto something from the top tier of horror films. It’s something to pay attention to. Yet, I’m reluctant to call Cannibal Holocaust a good movie, perhaps because it horrifies me more than anything I’ve seen thus far. I am by no means wet behind the ears when it comes to horror and consequently I’ve become somewhat desensitized to onscreen violence, but Cannibal Holocaust goes beyond what I’m used to seeing in terms of violence, not because it’s the most graphic, though it is quite graphic, but because the whole presentation of the film is uncomfortably raw and realistic. It comes from a genre of realistic film called cinéma vérité by film scholars, applied both to documentaries and movies presenting fiction as fact in a realistic manner, often mimicking a documentary. It’s also an example of found footage, a genre of film that deals with purportedly real footage found after the death of the filmmaker, and is related to mondo films, an Italian genre of sensationalistic pseudo-documentaries that mixed real situations with staged ones. Even though I’ve seen plenty of horror films and plenty of found footage films, my favorites being Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead, Cannibal Holocaust is the most horrifying because it comes closest to being real, because some of it is real.
Cannibal Holocaust tells two stories, the story of a group of filmmakers who go into the Amazon, the “Green Inferno” as they call it, to film a documentary and the story of an anthropologist, Harold Monroe, who goes to the Amazon to try and find the missing group. The first half of the film focuses on Harold traveling through the Amazon, trying to find the group of young filmmakers. He meets different tribes, particularly the Yacumo and Yanamamo, and witnesses some of their barbaric rites, including the murder of a woman for adultery and, of course, cannibalism. When Harold finds the skeletal remains of the documentarians cobbled together into a grim totem, he negotiates with the Yanamamo tribe for their film reels, trying to preserve what they had died for. However, Harold is sickened by the footage he’s found once he’s had a chance to view it in America. The second half of the movie shows the unedited footage taken by the film crew. We see the crew kill animals, terrorize natives, rape a native woman, and ultimately get butchered for their transgressions; we ultimately learn that the documentary crew is staging and instigating most of the violence they’re documenting. The executives of a television station want to show the footage, but change their minds after Harold shows them the last and most brutal part of the footage including the scene where the men of the crew rape a native woman and they are butchered by the natives. The executives order than the film reels be burned and the story ends with Harold asking himself, “I wonder who the real cannibals are?”
I don’t recommend you see Cannibal Holocaust. I know that some of you will watch this movie because I said you shouldn’t see it, but the only people who have any business watching it are film historians and fans of brutal exploitation cinema; if you don’t know what an exploitation film is, then you’re not ready for this. It has a few redeeming qualities, insofar as it’s a horror film, but Cannibal Holocaust is not what I’d call enjoyable or entertaining. I bought the film after hearing about it in Fangoria Magazine. This is only the second time I’ve seen the film since I bought it, which wouldn’t mean much given the size of my DVD collection, but my first experience with it was unpleasant enough that I specifically avoided the film. I’d caution you to avoid the film too.
The reason I’m making such a big deal of Cannibal Holocaust is that some of the simulated violence hits too close to home and some of the violence is real. In particular, I’m thinking of the rape and the slaughtered animals. Simulated rape makes me awfully uncomfortable, because rape is basically just torture of a sexual nature and I’m not fond of torture in film; it’s not scary, but it puts me in a state of visceral discomfort. I watched the original The Last House on the Left to get a sense of what the remake might be like and I just avoided the remake entirely after seeing the original. The only consolation I have after watching that scene in Cannibal Holocaust is knowing that the Amazonian natives recruited for the film were actually treated with due respect and the natives really were acting; I saw behind-the-scenes footage of Yanamamo tribe members smiling as a special effects artist painted them with blood, so it’s clear they were enjoying the production. The animal deaths, however, are completely real. They kill a coatimundi, a turtle, a monkey, a snake, a tarantula, and a pig. The most disturbing scene to me is arguably the one where they kill the turtle. They lop off its head, crack the shell and open it, and pull out its entrails all while the limbs continue to flail and the head continues to bite. Although all the animals were ultimately given as food to the local tribesmen, to me, this crosses a line. I’ve hunted and fished before, seen deer dressed and fish filleted, but I’m pretty removed from the living food that I eat and seeing animals killed on film is really distressing. It’s one thing to kill for food and yet another to kill for the sake of entertainment, or at least what’s meant to be entertainment. Clearly violent movies haven’t inured me to real violence, because I still find those scenes horrifying.
Is there anything redeeming about this film? Yes and no. What I described above is the reason why we have laws against animal cruelty, so no. Yes, because those real scenes of animals dying interpolated with simulated deaths and practical effects blurs the line between the real and fake, making the film convincing enough to draw you in, disgust and horrify you; the woman impaled on a stake was a great effect. Coupled with a musical score that highlights the scenes of violence either with surreal electronic music or jarringly soft, romantic music and one would find it hard to fault the execution of the film; it’s an effective horror film, questionable as its methods are. There is one thing that I like about the film, a theme that I’m always drawn to, and that’s the barbarism of the supposedly civilized. The documentary crew is remarkably cruel and callous, so much so that I felt they deserved their grisly demise, even as I was horrified by it. The fact that the film crew is essentially making a mondo film and that one of the television executives comments about how audiences only want sensational films that “rape the senses,” Cannibal Holocaust is a not-so-subtle jab at both mondo filmmakers and the viewing public. I like these elements of the film, but it’s clear when watching the movie and listening to the director that Cannibal Holocaust isn’t meant to be a commentary on humanity’s violent tendencies or how violent, sensational films appeal to those tendencies. It’s just an extreme, violent film.
I can’t say that I regretted watching Cannibal Holocaust, because it has it’s merits, but they’re not enough to recommend the film and not enough to make me want to watch again anytime soon. Watching Cannibal Holocaust is a unique experience, but I won’t be rewatching it anytime soon and I don’t want to see anything like it. I’m going to watch something tamer this Halloween night. Now where did I put my copy of Saw…