The Film: 'Cannibal Holocaust' (1980), Dir. Ruggero Deodato
Starring: Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen and Luca Barbareschi.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: I have a serious moral quandary with one of the more infamous aspects of this film. But we'll get to that momentarily. It also has something to do with me being a little behind on my Italian horror cinema, but that answer just makes me look lame.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: "It's an ugly film -- I haven't sat through all of it."
I expected my friend and fellow Cinematical writer John Gholson to be smiling when he said this, a way of him psyching me out because he knows I'm about to watch 'Cannibal Holocaust' for this column. But he didn't smile. He wasn't joking. John is my go-to horror enthusiast, the guy who I call up whenever I need an recommendation or opinion regarding the genre, and to see him so legitimately disgusted by this movie -- well, it left me uneasy.
And he's not the only one. Cinematical writer and editor Peter Hall left a comment under a previous column after I sent out a call for votes on what I should watch next: "Anything but 'Cannibal Holocaust.' "
Of course, so many people telling me that I shouldn't watch a movie will only result in my polar opposite reaction, so here we are. I'm going to watch it. I've committed to it. I can't turn back now. There's nothing you can do to stop me.
What do I know about 'Cannibal Holocaust'? I know it's a 1980s Italian horror movie. I know it involves a jungle expedition gone horribly wrong. I know it involves a handful of people meeting horrifying, gruesome ends (as they tend to do in Italian horror movies). I know it's at least partially a faux-documentary, making it the grandfather of "found footage" horror movies like 'The Blair Witch Project' and 'Paranormal Activity.' I know the director was famously taken to court and brought up on murder charges until he could produce the living actors and prove that all of the carnage in the film was faked.
Now that is fascinating. That anecdote is the reason I've decided to watch this film -- well, that and being able to tell people I've seen it, since it's reputation as one of the more upsetting horror movies of all time precedes it and I want to join the Super Duper Movie Club that's seen it, thank you very much.
However, I know one more thing -- I know that live animals were killed on the set of this movie, making it the poster-child for irresponsible, inhumane filmmaking. You wanted to know the "moral quandary" that's kept me from seeing it until now? There you go. This is just a case where my thirst for film exploration has overpowered my deeply held personal sensibilities.
Post-Viewing Reaction: I want to get one thing clear first -- I will never recommend that anyone actually watch 'Cannibal Holocaust.' Not in a "this movie is waaay too intense for you!" kind of way, but in a "this is one of the worst film watching experiences of my life" kind of way. It's not the gruesome violence that makes this film so uniquely unwatchable ... it's the sheer, pointless nihilism of it all, the feeling that we're watching ugliness for the sake of ugliness.
So, here's the big question: what separates 'Cannibal Holocaust' from a similarly nasty film like 'Martyrs,' which is one of my favorite horror movies of recent years? It's simple -- the violence in 'Martyrs,' as unsettling and stomach churning as it is, acts in service of a story and a cast of characters embodied by capable actors. The violence in 'Cannibal Holocaust' is in service of nothing; it's just gory nihilism for the sake of it. There is some suggestion of a satiric point to all of this, something about how we're complicit in this violence by choosing to watch it, but it's not enough (and Michael Haneke did it infinitely better with his punishing 'Funny Games'). The best horror films are either fun or they have something to say (and if they don't, they at least act as spectacular thrillers like the batsh*t insane cat-and-mouse nightmare 'Inside') and 'Cannibal Holocaust' refuses to be fun and if a message does exist, it's just weak sauce.
All of this before you get the animal violence, which is just as reprehensible as you'd imagine, particularly since all of it could be cut and the film's story would essentially remain the same. A little bit of research tells me that director Ruggero Deodato has since condemned these aspects of the film, but it doesn't make it any less reprehensible. The DVD's opening scroll can cite freedom of speech and quote Thomas Jefferson all it wants -- nothing is going to convince me that a filmmaker needs to harm a living breathing creature in service of any movie.
Now time for a Slight Tangent That Couldn't Be Organically Incorporated Into the Previous Paragraph: what separates the animal killings in 'Cannibal Holocaust' from the climax of 'Apocalypse Now,' which features footage of an ox being sacrificed? Well, one is a filmmaker turning a camera toward an actual ritual that was going to result in the animal being eaten by a tribe of people and the other is a filmmaker decapitating and shooting animals for the shock factor. I'll let you decide which is which.
And with that argument nipped in the bud, it's time to move on.
In case I didn't make it clear, I'm not a fan of 'Cannibal Holocaust.' You know, just in case you didn't catch that. However, the film is undeniably effective and often incredibly impressive. From a technical standpoint, many of the make-up effects that convinced the Italian government that Deodato had actually staged a jungle massacre hold up incredibly well, with a "how-the-hell-did-they-do-that?!" penis severing being the image that has forever lodged itself into my gray matter. I also admired the actual nuts and bolts of the story -- I as expecting the tale of a team of innocent documentarians being butchered in the jungle and instead got the tale of a team of vicious documentarians who torment and murder and rape a tribe of natives so they can gather exciting footage and eventually face the sharpened-to-a-fine-point face of cannibalistic South American retribution. So, points for originality.
The film's brutal effectiveness goes beyond the blood and guts. There is a troubling authenticity to the grainy, handheld faux doc footage (which is almost completely undone by horrible acting, but this is an Italian horror film, so that goes with the territory) and the film does an admirable job depicting the jungle as a place full of things that can and will kill and eat you. More than anything, the documentary aspects lend a grimy reality to the film that makes you feel like an accomplice to the acts on screen. It makes you feel dirty. I don't think a film has ever made me want to jump into a shower quite like this one.
If it was traditionally shot and lit, would it prove this upsetting? Would the gore sell as well? Unlikely. The found footage genre has been become commonplace these days, mainly because it's a cheap, effective way to craft a movie. It's what makes 'The Blair Witch Project' feel so unsettling and real. It's what lends human intimacy to an epic monster movie in 'Cloverfield.' It's what so effectively makes us feel like voyeurs in 'Paranormal Activity.' Well, 'Cannibal Holocaust' was here first and for that, it deserves a hat tip. And while I'm saying nice things, an additional tip of the hat to the film's score, which is surprisingly lovely.
Perhaps the very fact that I'm reacting so virulently to this film proves its worth. Does 'Cannibal Holocaust' exist simply to provoke a reaction, whether it be positive or negative? Is it similar to the infamously grotesque 'Salo,' which actually received the Criterion Collection treatment, in that it depicts scenes of horror that force us to come to grips with the evil of the world?
That's probably a debate for someone who wants to linger on 'Cannibal Holocaust.' This movie is a piece of sh*t.
Next Week's Column: As promised, the revenge thriller 'Death Wish' will be next week's entry. However, a new batch of shameful blind spots is ready for your mocking and your voting. I've tried to keep it eclectic -- westerns, indie milestones, an Italian art film, a cult classic, '80s icons, a creepy children film -- so the next few months of columns will have something for everyone. Peruse the selection and vote for what I should watch next in the comments below!
'On the Waterfront'
'Sex, Lies and Videotape'
'La Dolce Vita'
'High Plains Drifter'/'Pale Rider'/'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (Triple Feature)
'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'
'Return to Oz'
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'