Monday, June 1, 2009

Cannibals: Hypnotic and Nasty

If I had but one film to pick to sum up all the things that typify Italian exploitation films, I would be hard pressed to pick one better than Joe D'Amato's Anthropophagous. Dario Argento's Suspiria and Mario Bava's Blood & Black Lace would be close runners up, but Anthropophagous has it all really; a killer with pretty thin motivation for his deeds that we only learn at the very end, some ludicrous electronic music, some truly picturesque gore effects, one tiny bit of marquee value, a mystery that takes the whole film to unravel, a cast that thins arbitrarily, and a lot of American influences rendered powerless in the connotation. In fact the only thing it's missing is gratuitous sex (there's nudity, to be sure, but its not designed to arouse in that way). It isn't a traditional cannibal film (no jungle, no natives, no fortune seekers), but it is called Anthropophagous, after all, and that is reason enough to include it in this here retrospective.

by Joe D’Amato
Two lovers walk through a quaint greek fishing village on their way to the beach. The girl goes for a swim (tellingly, we get a Jaws-style POV shot from beneath her) while her beau listens to music on some amusingly huge headphones. While swimming she finds something in an abandoned old rowboat that causes her to scream in terror; that something finds and kills her in the water and then does away with her boyfriend with a meat cleaver. Sounds more like a slasher film, doesn't it? Well, its genre-bending is part of what really makes this such an interesting little movie.

The next thing we see is a group of vacationing tourists who are headed for that very same island. The group (Andy, Daniel, Arnold, Carol, Stephis and pregnant Maggie) meets Julie (played by this films only recognizable name Tisa Farrow. She's Mia's sister and that's as close to famous as people got in these films unless you were a faded character actor like Mel Ferrer or Arthur Kennedy) who used to live on the island and who in exchange for a ride on their boat will show them the sights. There's a bit of character development, but none of it matters. You heard me! If these people weren't all or mostly going to get killed, this film would never have been made. Right when they get to the island Maggie hurts her ankle and agrees to stay behind with Stephis on the boat while the others check in. Separation is always a good idea in an Italian film. No sooner have they been culled that someone comes aboard, cuts off Stephis' head and puts it in a bucket for Maggie to find. The boat will have drifted away by the the time the others come back.

The reason for their return is that the only people left on the island are handful of corpses. Julie's friends are not there, in fact the only sign of life is a spooky older woman who never stays put long enough for the gang to ask her what happened. They agree that, with the boat out of reach and no one left to ask, to stay at the empty house that Julie was due to visit. They find the house's sole inhabitant, Rita, the blind daughter of the couple who owns the place, hiding out in the basement with a knife, covered in blood. She's in shock and when pressed she says "He" is all that's left. I think we all know where this is going. "He" shows up a little later (after Carol throws a hissy-fit and runs out of the house with Julie, Arnold and Andy on her heels) and takes a bite out of Danny's throat. The gang returns to the house in time to save Rita from any more harm and agree that they'll go looking for Carol in the morning.
Their travels take them to a big hill-side manse. That spooky older woman sees them approaching and hangs herself in the staircase for everyone to see. Carol and Julie find a diary with telling news inside: it talks about a family going missing just before the news of the two dead kids from the prologue. Before they can get to the bottom of things, Andy spies the boat out the window. It looks close enough to swim to, and so further separation occurs. Arnold and Andy (who really love jogging around the island) run after the boat, but Arnold is sidetracked when he sees one of Maggie's high heels and decides to investigate the spooky catacombs that run under the island. So, everybody's alone and defenseless and there's a cannibal killer on the loose capable of exterminating the population of a small fishing village, how do you think this is going to end?

While the story of our killer makes some sense, a lot of this movie doesn't make any sense. There's a reveal in the killer's house, for example, where Julie finds a bunch of corpses in the parlour. That doesn't really fit in anywhere, even if its cool. Also, he sneaks up on her and Carol about 8 seconds after he's supposed to be in the catacombs with Maggie and Arnold. Logic, or rather massive gaps in the logic, is really its own thing in Italian horror films like this. There's a killer who eats people, and you'll have to take Joe's word that everything he's got planned for you is crucial and you're just gonna have to let the rest of it slide. This isn't Alien or Rosemary's Baby; its really grim and sleazy. When I first saw it, I knew it was bad (that's why I bought it. Yeah, I own it, what of it? I know I have a problem! Like you're so perfect! GET OFF MY BACK!!!) but the one thing I hadn't counted on was its hypnotic quality. The characters and the killer drift in and out of the scenes they're in, and when they die it sort of jolts everything into a weird light. It helps that the film takes place in enormous, empty locales, much of it in partial or total darkness. The killer himself seems other than human, which does help his spookiness, but once you learn how he got to be so evil, it both adds and subtracts from his power. It basically brings everything back to earth, where laws and facts and stuff apply. It also makes the ending fairly preposterous if really memorable. And I'll also say that the final chase from the hidden parlour to the tall tower was really excellent. It's almost like Joe D'Amato's attempt at a mystery story a la Ten Little Indians. It's a little like an aimless Giallo with no stakes other than the six or seven lives on screen.
The difficulty some people have pinning the film down adds to its mystique, which is really most of what this film has going for it. If it didn't sort of lull you into a dream-like state it could hardly succeed; I guess George Eastman's portrayal of the villain also helps; to quote Return of the Living Dead, "he's one spooky motherfucker". Joe D'Amato knows his shortcomings and knows what he can actually deliver, even if he doesn't always stick to what he knows best. That's why to a lot of people Anthropophagous will always be the movie that's host to a few of its more memorable gore effects - to tell you would be to spoil the bodycount for you if you ever plan on seeing it, which, let's be honest is the reason to see it. But be warned, if you're not a seasoned veteran of Italian horror films, the scene in the catacombs may make you gag. Funny that Joe was really hit or miss considering how good he could be at certain things. Take for example the sequel to this film which I have to admit was a pretty big letdown after I'd spent roughly three years tracking down (especially with as memorable a title as this).

by Joe D’Amato
A greek orthodox priest is somewhere in Middle America chasing after a character who probably had the same name he did in Anthropophagous or was at least supposed to resemble him - either way, he's played by George Eastman again, even if he lacks the killer make-up from the first film. This time our body pool is much smaller. Instead of a group of tourists, Nikos, that's our monster's name, preys upon the four inhabitants of a wealthy household. He climbs their fence in trying to escape from the priest who's hot on his heels and in the process gores himself and passes out on their front stoop. When they take him to the hospital, the exposition begins. The man was part of an experiment that has somehow enhanced the regenerative property of his blood and skin - he heels faster. That doesn't make him unstoppable, but its a big enough problem that the priest has followed him from Greece to stop him; the police only decide to hear him out when Nikos breaks out of the hospital, killing his nurse on the way. Meanwhile our monster goes back to the one place he knows there are bound to be folks to kill, the same house he collapsed in front of this morning. There are only four people to murder (children Willie and paraplegic Katya, babysitter Emily, and the old nameless nurse who watches after Katya), which should give him adequate time to think up imaginative ways of murdering them.

Absurd is not as absurd as I was promised it would be. I read a review of the film on the now defunct website 42nd Street Freak. It sounded queerer than the film I watched which was a weirdly static loveletter to American movies. Why do we spend so much time with the detective played by Charles Borromel who keeps on complaining about shit he hasn't explained. He goes on long tirades about being stuck with a rookie. What rookie? Have we met him? Why is that important? In the end, it couldn't matter less because he has less to do with catching the monster than the priest whose last minute arrival really only serves to delay the climax by about a minute and a half. Tom Atkins would have been much better suited to the role. And we're never told why of all places to go to kill people, Nikos walks halfway across town to get at these particular four people - he only saw half of them when he first arrives. Then there's the very American shit with the football. When the priest is stopped by a police man, the first thing the cop does is talk about the game. We spend no less than twenty minutes watching Willie and Katya's parents at a party watching said game. WHO FUCKING CARES!?!?! Joe was clearly trying to make a normal American movie and assumed that in American films, people watched football ads much as they do in real life. Sorry, no. If I made a movie about Italians and just filmed people drinking wine, eating and speaking low, that wouldn't be terribly exciting, would it? I get what he was trying to do, and he's absolutely right about Americans and their stupid sports fetish, but, I don't care about Wasps watching the 'game'. I got enough of that when I dated the daughter of a pharmaceuticals executive; in fact, minus the paraplegic, if you had sent a half-zombie George Eastman to her house on Superbowl Sunday, the results would probably have been the same.
So, D'Amato's direction is mostly pretty reigned in (considering this is the same man who directed Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, I don't think it's asking too much to have a little crazy in my horror film) and though Eastman does an ok job, the film is painfully average and at times way too boring. The cannibalism is gone, as is any real mystery - once the priest has explained why we need be afraid of the villain, it all of a sudden doesn't seem like that big a deal. Absurd is really only nominally a sequel to Anthropophagous and consequently it lacks all its power, unless you were in the mood to see an Italian film brimming with Americana. The gore is plentiful but the film is slow; unless you're on a quest to see all the video nasties, you could sleep well not having seen this.

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