Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cannibals: Solitary and Poor

I was all set to do a linear, chronological account of the cannibal movie genre but then some bad labeling forced me to make an error. Next on my list was supposed to be Eloy de la Iglesia's video nasty Cannibal Man because I was under the impression it came out in 74, two years after The Man From Deep River. Well it turns out 74 is most probably when it got international distribution and its real name, La Semana del Asesino or Week of the Killer was changed to its more gruesome handle. It was actually finished in 1971 and widely released the year after. Regardless it isn't a cannibal movie like you and I might know them, but in fact a stylish little film that predates 80s movies like Maniac in its depiction of a man driven to insanity by his solitary crimes.

Cannibal Man
by Eloy de la Iglesia

Marcos is a blue collar guy with 1970s good looks (chubby with sideburns) with a girlfriend and a job at a meat processing plant. He lives in a one-horse town; kids play in trashy barren fields, wild dogs roam the streets, there seems to be one place to eat, and there's almost nothing to do in the evenings. He takes his girlfriend, Paula, out one night and gets into a scrap with a cabbie when they won't stop making out in the back seat. When Marcos doesn't want to pay him for being dropped in the middle of nowhere the cabbie runs tries to stop him and gets a rock to his cranium for his troubles. When they read in the paper the next day that the man died of his injuries, Paula wants to go the police, Marcos is a little less certain about what to do. Paula tells him that he needs to go the police or she will. We already know how well he deals with being pressured into doing things he doesn't want to do, so just imagine how this goes over. He tells her he'll go first thing in the morning, kisses her, and then strangles the life out of her.

Things spiral out of control pretty fabulously in the coming days. First Marcos' brother Esteban comes over and he tries to confide in him, but comes to the same conclusion that Paula did; he doesn't live to see daylight. The next morning, Esteban's fiance Carmen comes over wondering why her man never came home, and wants to check the spare bedroom; she gets her throat cut. In a final bit of bad luck for our hero, Carmen's father comes over looking for her daughter. He just thinks that she and Esteban wanted to squeeze in some pre-marital sex and wants to chide them soundly. When he sees they're face down in bed for quite another reason, he gets about 8 seconds to take in his error before Marcos cuts him down with a cleaver.

Now before you start wondering whether this is just a collection of scenes where Marcos just kills every poor bastard who tries to see the back room, allow me to introduce the intrigue. First is Rosa, the daughter of the local cafe owner. When Marcos shows up one night sans girlfriend, Rosa invites him in for dinner and lays on the charm. Marcos is obviously distracted, but clearly sees that dating Rosa might bring him back to normality, but how's he going to get around to courting her with a stack of corpses in his bedroom. Next is Nestor, the creepy guy who we spend the majority of the film thinking is homeless. He starts hanging out with Marcos whenever he can find him alone, which is always after he starts murdering close family and friends. They spend more and more time together to the point where you might think that Nestor has a thing for Marcos; this is made pretty clear when he invites the burly murderer to go swimming in his building's pool in the middle of the night. When Marcos is at the end of his tether he agrees to go to Néstor's place to unwind where one last revelation brings about the film's shocking conclusion; I can't say I didn't see it coming, but the aftermath was genuinely surprising.

A movie where a blue collar guy defends his way into multiple murders and who flirts with a hip gay man? Not your average sleaze film, I think you'll admit. The reason the original title, Week of the Killer is a bit more fitting than Cannibal Man is because the cannibalism is pretty much just implied. Marcos brings some of his victims remains to the meat processing plant (looking genuinely nervous, I must say) and mixes it with the cattle. There's a really great scene where his new girlfriend, the waitress brings him some soup and tells him the meat came from his factory. His facial expression is priceless as he stares at the spoon full of meat soup halfway to his face. Marcos doesn't actually eat anything but Iglesia implies that the rest of the town has been eating people all day. That's a pretty grim little aside, don't you think? That the film is so unconcerned with its namesake is just one of many surprises to be found here.

I was bowled over enough by its subject matter before I had to reckon with the fact that Eloy de la Iglesia is actually a tremendous director. He's been called out for cribbing from other directors before (his Murder in a Blue World is one of the more glaring Clockwork Orange copies out there), but I found nothing more odious than a few well-used cribs. Eloy appears to be a big Hitchcock fan as there more than a few visual quotes; the scene with the binoculars in Néstor's apartment is riddled with them. Unlike Brian De Palma, Iglesia knows how to keep his influences in check. Long takes and voyeurism aside, his style is pretty remarkable. The film starts with a dimly lit scene where a cow is killed in the slaughter house where Marcos works. The cow being killed is real but it feels more cribbed from Georges Franju's Le Sang Des Bêtes than Mondo Cane. It's an incredibly well photographed scene of some pretty grizzly stuff and it's one of the best scenes in the film despite my not being able to watch it all the way through.

There's another bit where Marcos, after killing his final victim, wanders around the downtown area of the closest city while blistering psych music plays behind him. He seems completely at odds with the world and just drifts around in a daze, lost in his own delirium. In any other film, he'd be on drugs and there'd be probably be a series of cuts to an animal doing something weird. That's about when I finally realized how much I like this film, when I realized it was about a man with some terrible luck. This movie is a product of the time it was made in and occasionally seems like its going to go down the drug-addled route of films like Swamp of the Ravens or Blood Freak, but maintains its composure throughout. In fact it even shows the lifestyle of the dirt poor people who live in Marcos' town; it all feels real. Marcos wanders around as his apartment smells more and more like rotting meat; we even hear the sound of flies buzzing about. That'd be enough to drive anyone crazy. He buys perfume from a convenience store to try and cover the smelll; when he pours it on his hand he sniffs it deeply, pleased as all get out not to have to smell his girlfriend and his brother decomposing in the next room. The little things like that make this one authentic killer movie.
The fact that Cannibal Man wound up on the video nasties list isn't the least bit surprising, but my question is why specifically it got banned. It's easy to criticize it for its violence, especially considering how well executed a lot of it is. When Marcos kills his brother with a wrench, it was actually one of the more convincing effect shots I can remember seeing in any film of this vintage (in fact ten and twenty years later effects didn't get as convincing as they are here). More than likely the BBFC never saw this movie all the way through but I would love to know if they banned it because of the homoerotic tension between Marcos and Nestor. The night swimming scene, on top of being really well directed, is about as close to two men flirting with each other that I can remember seeing in a horror film so wrought with murder. It's almost like Iglesia was making a real film and just had Atlas International over his shoulder telling him they wanted more sex and more violence (Iglesia actually cuts one of the film's two sex scenes out entirely and lets us infer it from the editing). I feel like if he'd been making it outside of the studio system he might have fared better. There's some pretty insidious dubbing, but it can't erase the great directing. There was a great film somewhere in Cannibal Man, but it got lost when the producer's got their grubby hands on it. This should have been one of the best introspective killer movies of its time, and I feel like it would have been if it hadn't been so horribly maimed in post-production.

No comments: