Saturday, May 2, 2009

Cannibals: Sappy and Family-Oriented

The last segment of Where I Draw The Line is, as the last of these things typically are, a segue. What, you ask, could be worse than the worst of horror cinema? Why cannibal films of course! Cannibal movies are by any standard pretty indefensible. You can’t say they were educational, because largely they make up all the things they pretend to know. You can’t say they were sensitive because by nobody's definition were they that. You can’t say they were good, because by and large they aren’t. In fact the worst of them are some of the very worst I’ve ever seen. But before I say anything else superlative, let’s just take it one step at a time. Let’s start, as they say, from the top.

The Man From Deep River
by Umberto Lenzi
A man named John Bradley is in Thailand on assignment taking photographs. Following a run-in with some local toughs, one of whom he kills, he flees for his life to the Burmese border. So deep into cover does he go that he winds up in the hands of a stone-age tribe. His time with them is grueling to say the least. First he is bound and isolated, a thing of curiosity to be played with. One of the few attractive (by western standards) native women decides she can use him, the tribe places him in her employ. He builds a house for her and does other menial work until one of the elders drops a bombshell on him. This older woman finds him in secret and speaks to him in English, something he hasn’t heard in weeks. She tells him how best to get the hell away from this place; nothing good can come of his remaining here so he’s got to leave, even if it means braving the cannibal tribe blocking his way to civilization. Following an escape attempt where Bradley kills the tribe’s toughest warrior, he is finally accepted, but only after they put him through a series of cruel initiation tests that you’re probably not going to be as shocked by as Italians were in 1972. After a few days being left out in the sun he’s top dog, that attractive native girl is his bride and they’re expecting a child.

That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Yeah, it was right around the time that Bradley’s kid is born that I started wondering where the hell this film was going. Ok, so those cannibals the old woman told us about, they come in and raid the place and its up to Bradley to defend the tribe and when its all over, he’s got to decide whether or not he wants to stay in his new home. It’s a pretty weak and flowery ending and therein lies the biggest problem with Umberto Lenzi. Lenzi is a man easily swayed into believing that something is a good idea; he frequently tells interviewers that the real reason he wanted to make this or that movie is because he was doing the public a service. Think back to Nightmare City and my point will become a little clearer. He says that that film is supposed to be some kind of backwards AIDS parable (which lets just be clear, wouldn’t be classified until a year after his film hit grindhouses) and so thinks we should not only forgive his movie’s mistakes, but treat it as much more than a quick cash-in by Dalachi and Lotus Films in the wake of Zombie and Dawn of the Dead (Dalachi went bust right after Nightmare City, so that should tell you something about its reception). Lenzi believes way too much in his movies, but not in ways that count. I don't mind a little pride in your work, but I hate back peddling in defense of greed. He put all this energy into making sure we sympathize with one tribe but doesn't differentiate enough between this tribe and another. In fact aside from eating people, the only difference is that one of them is ok with white people. That doesn't exactly make for a compelling view. In fact if watching Keep The River On Your Right taught me anything it's that cannibals don't really care who they hang out with, as long as you're not a rival tribe. They're just people that happen to have customs that don't follow any of the rules of western, Anglo-Saxon society. That's why Lenzi's treatment feels so tactless. He doesn't understand the tribes, he's just guessing and wrapping the non-cannibals in sappy westernized-humanity with a kind of one-eye-shut exoticism.

A movie that glorifies one tribe but condemns another (not to mention the Thai people Bradley flees from) is really not my idea of sensitivity. Apparently someone else thought so too because the first two times I tried to rent this movie, I found the disc had been snapped in half by the previous recipient. You can tell watching this movie that he really felt he was telling a profound story about natives and the simple nature of their existence; that they’re the ones we should envy. Well…I’m not exactly Steve Jobs, but I’m not a luddite either. I do think that somethings are genuinely done better than they are in stone age tribes (like having the choice to not butcher animals everytime you want to eat something for one). And that’s the other thing, we have to take Lenzi’s word that the way he’s showing it is the way things are; that an outsider like John Bradley would be given exactly the kind of treatment he gets were he to wander into the wrong part of Burma. Personally, I’d want to see some research before I went parroting the things depicted in this film at parties. This goes doubly when you consider the murky waters this movie emerged from.
Remember Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopeti, the xenophobic dipshits behind Goodbye, Uncle Tom? The real reason The Man From Deep River got made is because of a film that gruesome twosome made in 1964 called Mondo Cane. That film was little more than a Faces of Death-esque collection of third world civilizations killing animals and walking around naked (and these two morons had the gall to wonder why people thought they were racists). Anyway, a whole bunch of similar films came out in the wake of Mondo Cane’s…well I hesitate to call it success because it was really as monumental a failure for the human race as could be imagined (these movies were something like the cinematic equivalent of Minstrel Shows in their intent), but they had legions of imitators. A little down the line you have Cannibal films like Deep River that blend cinematic interpretations of the rituals of natives (almost always including constant nudity and sex) and the real slaughter of animals. As far as those two things are concerned, they’re fairly reigned in, but they’re here. Stay tuned because they get a lot worse as the years tick by.

So combine Lenzi’s utterly naïve commitment to his story and a producer asking for more animals and tits and you get a pretty uneven kind of film. Ultimately it was Lenzi’s moralizing that won out because the strongest impression I get of this film is that it’s like a melodrama set in cannibal territory. The cannibals make exactly two appearance in the entire film, so this didn’t have much of a shot being remembered as the grindhouse masterpiece its banishment from video stores under the Video Nasties scare implies that it is. It’s really nothing special where gore or sex are concerned, which made it a fairly easy watch considering I’d just come from seeing Cannibal Holocaust when I first saw this film. It has moments of genuine emotion and sincere development on Lenzi’s part, like he really wanted to make a sweet movie, hence the enormous pitstop in marital bliss town. We spend more time with Bradley getting married and having one of the most “See how wholesome and pure this is” sex scenes in movie history than we do with gutmunchers. Lenzi went way out of his way to make sure that we saw what a pure-of-heart story he was telling like his life depended on the audience feeling good when the movie was over. It’s a cannibal film, not a Douglas Sirk film. If you wanted to make melodrama, why didn’t you? No one was stopping you. What, was nobody making romantic movies in Italy in 1970s? That’s what kills me about Umberto Lenzi, he goes on the record to make sure we all knew what a serious artist he was but all of his movies were just commissioned and basically interchangeable; if there was quality in his movies it was in the script, not his direction. These movies could have gone to anyone (and as we’ll see when we look at Jungle Holocaust, they frequently did). He wasn’t anything special, yet he always gets up in arms making sure that we see how poignant his sleaze films were, like that stupid scene in Nightmare City where the leads take a break from being chased by zombies to have a frank discussion over coffee about the ups and downs of nuclear fission. If they’d paid Lenzi to make porn, he’d have done it. He’s no different than Luigi Batzella or Sergio Martino, he just beat everyone to the cannibal punch purely by chance and now lords it over everyone like he fucking discovered cold fusion. You don’t get to brag when your biggest claim to fame is Make Them Die Slowly, ok? That’s how it works. You have the right to make terrible movies but you don’t get to, in hindsight, talk about how they were really more than sleaze films. Because, let's be clear, they weren’t. You don’t see Enzo Castellari or Giulio Questi begging to be taken seriously; that’s Quentin Tarentino’s job, not yours. You had your chance when you were MAKING THE FUCKING MOVIE!

Historical significance: break-out role for Me Me Lai, the pretty young cannibal who would go on to play that role twice more. Start of one of cinema’s most grim bastard genres. It’s an ok film, but at what cost?

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