Monday, April 28, 2014

Seen It: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

A fan of both spaghetti westerns and horror it was probably only a matter of time before the unrated Cannibal Holocaust found its way into by DVD player. Unfortunately, as Cher once hoped, I, too, wish I could turn back time. After having my nineteen year old son beg out of a viewing this with his [juvenile] old man after seeing the trailer ("I don't think this is my thing, Dad.") his apprehension proved to be justified. Watching what I knew was intended to be shocking, I had a variety of feelings, most of which ultimately led to regret.

Directed by Ruggero Deodato, from a screenplay by Gianfranco Clerici, Cannibal Holocaust  features a collection of incredibly unlikable protagonists played by actors who were rightly never heard from again. While unfortunate for the careers of the actors involved, their anonymity thereafter actually contributes to the movie's faux-reality set-up: they (or the characters they play) are, after-all, presumed "dead."

The most appropriate movie poster
I could find online.
As summarized by Wikipedia, Cannibal Holocaust "tells the story of a missing documentary film crew who had gone to the Amazon to film cannibal tribes. A rescue mission, led by the New York University anthropologist Harold Monroe, recovers the film crew's lost cans of film, which an American television station wishes to broadcast." What Monroe views on those recovered reels prompts him to question not just the perceived heroic nature of the film crew, but also the scruples of the broadcast company which seeks to profit from the footage.

The gore so prominently featured in most of the advertising associated with the movie serves to cement the antagonistic and base qualities of those same characters who are initially presented to we, the viewer, as it's "heroes." The fate of the documentary crew is clear from the onset (and the DVD cover art): they will be eaten by cannibals and it will be graphic. What is not clear until the end is that [SPOILER] their grisly fate is more of a comeuppance for their base and degrading behavior toward the environment and peoples they come across while tramping through the "Green Inferno" [END SPOILER] than the result of random fate.  In the pervasive not-too-subtle irony on display here, they fall victim to the same natives who's death and loss they hope will bring them the fame they intend their footage to gain them.

Some other points of interest include:
  • The inclusion of real animal cruelty. Real live animals from the jungle are slaughtered on film in a manner that can be a little disconcerting. That is not an animatronic turtle being dismembered and eaten by the would be documentarians. The charge of animal cruelty was just one of the reasons Cannibal Holocaust  has had a long (proud?) history of being banned. On the DVD I watched there was a "Cruelty-Free" version of the film for viewing in addition to the original edit.
  • Never have the Eighties (the movie was originally released in 1980) had such a late-Sixties/ early-Seventies vibe to it. The hairstyles, attitudes, visual hues and music on display have an anachronistic quality. This does however add to the time-capsule tone of the movie. The most memorable line in the movie is when the lone female--in the midst of chaos and mayhem--breaks the fourth wall to her cameraman and suggests "You know if this were New York, I'd probably be shopping right now!" Odd? Yes, but the line's possible comedic delivery loses all humor when taken in the context of the worst part of the movie.
  • With a title like Cannibal Holocaust one would reasonably expect the gore and violence to be rough. Surprisingly, though, by far the most offensive part of the movie is not the phony, staged cannibal-feasting scenes or even the real examples of animal cruelty, but rather the truly ugly treatment of women. While I am certain some college student can (and I'd bet dollars-to-donuts many have) write a dissertation on the symbolic nature of the treatment (the most chilling and degrading acts against women all stem from the behavior of the three idiotic Anglo male filmmakers) it plays as unnecessary. While I can stomach stupid, fake horror, the acts perpetrated against the female characters in Cannibal Holocaust are in shockingly bad-taste, even for a grindhouse flick. 
So is Cannibal Holocaust worth seeking out? As an entertainment it falls very flat. As a time-capsule consideration of late-Seventies shock film--or even as an exercise in how Italians viewed American culture--there is some small value to be had, most of which would be better left to hipsters and college students. The likelihood of my ever watching this again (a personal indicator of a movie's appeal for me) is nil, and I am both pleased and grateful that my son had the good sense to walk away from the Cannibal Holocaust experience when given the opportunity.

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