1) Cannibal Holocaust
If you really, I mean really buy into the idea that all art is protected speech, and nothing should be obscene, Cannibal Holocaust is what you should be prepared to live with. It isn’t quite the most repulsive movie I’ve ever seen – that dubious honor goes to Cannibal Ferox, a shallow ripoff intended to capitalize on CH’s “success” – but it’s by far the most disturbing. The reason, again, is that bad movies don’t have the capacity to be nearly as unpleasant as good ones… but now I’ve gone and implied that Cannibal Holocaust is good, a thought at which the mind somehow rebels. Let’s call it skillful instead. For although there are good horror movies, and bad horror movies, and movies that are so bad that they are good, Cannibal Holocaust is none of these. “Good” and “bad” don’t apply: the distinction we need to make here is between “good” and “evil.” If a movie can be evil Cannibal Holocaust is. And if it’s not evil, it is at the LEAST very, very wicked.
The story concerns a group of documentary filmmakers who go into the Amazon rainforest hoping to bring back footage of the elusive and dangerous Yanomamo tribe. They are never seen again. Months later, an NYU anthropology professor (played by former porn star Robert Kerman) enters the jungle in a vain attempt to rescue them. All he finds is the footage that they shot, and this footage becomes the second half of the film. The structure is rather ingenious, actually. As Kerman voyages through the jungle, he finds a trail of human wreckage that the ill-fated documentarians left in their wake. A series of mysteries are set up for us: how did their guide die? Where did this turtle shell come from? Why are the natives so hostile to Kerman’s group? And then, as we watch the pseudo-documentary footage, the mysteries are unraveled one by one. It turns out that the “documentarians” were not above staging their footage. When they wanted to show a group of relatively peaceful Yacumo fleeing from a Yanomamo raid, they simply burned the Yacumo village down. When they had trouble finding evidence of Yanomamo sexual travesties, they commited one of their own. And this in turn reflects on the other camera crew, the makers of Cannibal Holocaust itself (who after all are staging all of these “real” and “staged” atrocities), and on the enterprise of cinema in general. Like I said, it’s skillful.
But it’s also astonishingly vile. The most atrocious element (but hardly the only one) is the slaughter of actual animals for cinematic effect. There are six, according to Wikipedia (I didn’t count), and while most of these are clinical and efficient (a snake and a turtle are decapitated, a spider is stepped on), one small rodent is dies messily and in obvious pain. Revolting as it is to watch, it does kind of make you think. Let’s say I eat a hotdog once a week. That means I’m personally responsible for killing something like two pigs a year. And unless you’re a vegetarian, you have no problem with that. Now imagine instead that the pig was killed on film for a horror movie. That one death will serve to “entertain” a thousand people for a thousand years. Which of these should you really be concerned about, if you’re an animal rights activist? Nevertheless, there are laws against this sort of thing for a reason. If I could go back and unwatch these scenes, I would do it.
In order to qualify as illegally obscene under current US law, a film must be devoid of all redeeming social or artistic value. That’s not a charge that can be leveled at CH. The film is smart enough that it cannot simply be sneered at, and well crafted enough that every transgressive gesture registers for maximum effect. There is a social message, and every shot in the film conspires to drive this message home. It’s there in the camerawork, it’s there in the score, it’s in the acting, the editing, and the fractured narrative itself. This kind of organic unity is the sort of thing we’re taught to look for in the highest forms of art… but in the end, CH’s very skill becomes just another calculated affront. It taunts us with the knowledge that capable professionals were willing to pervert their craft to such ends.
And of course, even this reinforces the film’s message which is: that barbarism is not a characteristic of the savage, but rather of the “civilized” man.
Dear reader: do not watch Cannibal Holocaust. The film is repulsive, beyond repulsive. It is loathsome in its themes, in its tone, in its subtext, in the specifics of the plot, and certainly in the images it displays. The film is clearly some kind of a triumph, but that does not mean it should be seen. I do not believe that that watching it is a moral act. Oh, it’s nothing so bad… perhaps the equivalent of finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk and quietly pocketing it. Nevertheless, it tarnishes the soul.
Coming up next: Horror movies that you don’t have to feel guilty about watching.