Tag Archives: Cannibalism

CAPSULE: RAVENOUS (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Antonia Bird

FEATURING: , Robert Carlyle, , David Arquette

PLOT: During the Mexican-American war, a cowardly officer is exiled to a backwater fort in California; a survivor from a doomed group of settlers appears and leads the fort’s complement to a grisly fate.

Ravenous (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With fine direction and A-list talent, Antonia Bird’s unlikely horror-comedy shows the positive effect a big budget can have on the splatter genre—but does not reach the necessary heights of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The tone for Hollywood’s foray into the realm of splatterhouse begins with Nietzsche’s quote, “He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” followed immediately by a timeless quote from anonymous: “eat me.” An 1847 American flag flies in the opening shot, and soon we see a group of officers and troops sitting down to a celebratory dinner of very, very raw steak. Captain Boyd, recently promoted, stares at the meat and quickly runs from the table to vomit. Why is this soldier so adversely affected by the sight of blood?

After the opening credits, set over a journey montage jauntily scored by Michael Nyman, we see his new home and new comrades. Deep in the Sierra Nevadas is a shack of an army fort, populated by the military’s cast-offs. Jeffrey Jones plays the affable commander of the troupe, Colonel Hart; David Arquette plays the lowest ranking character as one of history’s earliest comic stoners. Literally stumbling into the mix of soldier eccentrics is Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who brings about the film’s main action when he relates his tale of desperation and cannibalism in a cave a few days march from the dilapidated fort.

What follows both makes the movie so wonderfully strange and, no doubt, made its box office takings so meager. (An investment of twelve million dollars from the studio resulted in box office totals of not quite two million). There is another journey, from the fort to the cave, again put to a jaunty soundtrack, and there is a horrible revelation that contradicts Colqhoun’s account. In a scene reminiscent of the opening nightmare in Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, the soldierly Private Reich discovers too many bodies, one of many grindhouse nods. A scuffle ensues and Captain Boyd flees the monstrous Colqhoun, eventually being forced to make a tough decision.

Between the set up and the payoff, we learn a number of things about the nature of cannibalism, the evils of man, and the nature of American Exceptionalism. Carlyle’s Manifest Destiny speech is one for (from?) the history books: “…this country is seeking to be whole. Stretching out its arms and consuming all it can.” The movie does not wear its metaphor lightly, but its message about the, shall we say, ravenous nature of America’s territorial appetites is the only element in the film that can be taken remotely seriously.

The rest of the film’s tone is dictated by the mandates of one of the more difficult genres to tackle, that of the “horror/comedy.” When splicing chuckles and jolts, it takes a deft hand to make sure the mix is right, much like finding balance in a stew. Ravenous‘ stew has all the right elements in correct proportion: its universe is presented by actors who take their roles very seriously, with only Carlyle’s character being larger than life—sensibly so, for reasons explained by the film’s mythology. David Arquette stands out, taking a bizarre turn away from his previous teen drama/comedy fare to play an Idiot archetype. Jeremy Davies’ turn as the chaplain is a wonderful interpretation of a socially withdrawn priest who borders on autistic. Guy Pearce’s Boyd is strangely relatable as the protagonist, and Jeffrey Jones’ Colonel Hart is believable as a father figure who is key to the main character’s transformation. All these men are thrown into a mix of violent hilarity, and the characters come out both intact and convincing.

So is this movie is “weird”? The story is bizarre, but the narrative is very easy to follow. The gore and cheek go hand in hand, which is pleasing, but fairly conventional. Running through the background of the whole thing on screen is the mischievous Michael Nyman, providing one of the most refreshing and situationally ironic scores to be found in most anything released in the theaters. However, it adds more to the sense of “fun” than a sense of “weird.”

With all this in mind, the fact that this movie was made is far weirder a thing than any specific element of the movie. It may be best looked upon as a mainstream foray into the realm of the strange, and it is a very deep trek therein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ravenous is unlike anything else, and even if it’s not to my own specific taste, I have great respect for its unrepentant weirdness.”–Mike McGranaghan, “The Aisle Seat”

182. SPIDER BABY (1967)

“In pinning its narrative to a weird family’s desperation to keep its own shadow from touching the outside world, Spider Baby anticipated a score of disparate works… Regardless of what may have inspired it or what subsequent films it may have influenced, Spider Baby remains very much its own animal. Set as it is off to one side of the real world, there’s a timelessness to the film, whose freshness remained sealed in during its decades languishing in obscurity.”–Richard Harland Smith

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn, , Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker

PLOT: Merrye Sydrome is a “rare degenerative disorder,” the result of generational incest, which causes mental regression back to a primordial state and… cannibalism! The three Merrye children  are the last of the Merrye line, cared for by their genteel chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney). Together they live relatively peacefully in a dilapidated Gothic mansion, until distant relatives and a sleazy lawyer arrive.

Still from Spider Baby (1967)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although made in 1964, Spider Baby was not released until late 1967, financial difficulties being the primary delay. Director Jack Hill relates that in his first meeting with potential distributors, his entire audience bolted for the exit door within twenty minutes of the screening.
  • Originally, the film was titled Cannibal Orgy: Or, The maddest Story Ever Told, but when picked up for distribution, producer David L. Hewitt changed it to Spider Baby. To add more confusion, it was given yet another title for the drive-in circuit: The Liver Eaters.
  • Jill Banner was only 17 in this, her film debut. Following Spider Baby, Banner she was moderately active in television and, shortly before her death, she was romantically involved with Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, her life and career were cut short when she was killed by a drunk driver in 1982.
  • Hill was so proud of Spider Baby, he planned a sequel, Vampire Orgy. However, the film’s numerous post-production struggles effectively ended those plans.
  • In 2004 Spider Baby was adapted into a successful stage musical, which still plays in large cities.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Veteran character actor Mantan Moreland has a brief field day spoofing his old “spooked black man in haunted surroundings” character as he gets invited to play in Jill Banner’s chilling version of “itsy bitsy spider.” The sight of the dead postman hanging out the window, a victim caught in Virginia’s web, inspires a arched eyebrow from Lon Chaney Jr., and from us.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The weirdness of Spider Baby is guaranteed right from the opening credits, with a hoarse Chaney singing: “This cannibal orgy is strange to behold/In the Maddest Story Ever Told!” He is not exaggerating.


Jack Hill discusses Spider Baby for “Trailers from Hell”

COMMENTS:  Attempting to describe Spider Baby, critics often compare it to the Little Shop of Horrors, “The Addams Family,” and Eraserhead. Continue reading 182. SPIDER BABY (1967)

SPIDER BABY, OR THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD (1968)

Spider Baby has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies. Comments are closed on this post; please see the official Certified Weird entry.

When a film opens up with a raspy-voiced  ardently singing the title song, it almost comes with a guarantee of a weird trip ahead. Spider Baby (1964) does not disappoint.

Some commentators have likened Spider Baby to Eraserhead (1977), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 ), or TV’s “the Addams Family,” while others have erroneously categorized it as “surreal.” If we have to give comparisons, we might find it to be the most idiosyncratic film in the “Old Dark House” genre (and yes, that includes Rocky Horror Picture Show). Still, even that is not adequate. Spider Baby is a maverick that defies all labels.

Writer/director ‘s credits include ‘s unfortunate Z-grade Mexican horror films House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Isle of the Snake People (1971), Alien Terror (1971); the women-in-prison jigglefests The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972); the Pam Grier blaxploitation vehicle Foxy Brown (1974); and Switchblade Sisters (1975-the title says it all). All of these are lucid examples of trash cinema; Spider Baby is a one-of-a-kind inbred sibling to the lot.

The casting of  Lon Chaney, Jr. is, for once, near ideal. 1930s horror icons Karloff and  each had an air of European mystery in their screen personas. 1940s horror second banana “sort of” horror icon Chaney, Jr was pure American white trash. When Universal tried to cast Chaney in the Karloff/Lugosi Euro mold, the results often ranged from laughable to cringe-inducing.

Chaney, Jr was, of course, unfavorably compared to his father and has received a lot of bad raps from critics past and present. Most of those raps are well deserved, but it was not his legendary father who proved to be the ultimate detriment to his career. It was Chaney Jr.’s role as Lennie in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939) that rendered an insurmountable yardstick performance. Chaney could never equal his Lennie, much in the same way that Lugosi could never live up to Dracula (1931).

Unfortunately, off-screen Chaney proved to be considerably more brutish than Steinbeck’s gentle giant, which helped seal his inevitable career failure. Other factors in his decline included alcoholism, drug abuse, typecasting, trying to live up to his father’s image, and (reportedly) self-loathing regarding his latent homosexuality.

Executives at Universal didn’t help. After the success of Man Made Monster (1941) and The Wolf Man (1941) Universal cast Chaney Jr. as their new horror star. Somehow the studio was oblivious to Chaney’s strengths and weaknesses. Astonishingly they cast the hulking, phlegmatic actor as a grand guignol romantic lead with a Clark Gable-like mustache in the Inner Sanctum films. Son of Dracula (1943) was an even worse case of miscasting with Chaney as the Transylvanian count who must have been living off an excessively high-calorie blood intake.

Few of Chaney’s 200 plus films are of merit, but he did have a handful of good character parts in films which knew how to use him. Spider Baby is among those, featuring his last performance of note. Chaney liked the script so much that he made an extra effort to lay off the sauce, much to Hill’s relief.

There is a touch of pathos in Chaney’s performance as the caretaker. He is close to  territory here, seeing this misfit ensemble not as inbred cannibal freaks, but as family. Spider Baby is a far better way to remember Chaney than his actual last performances: Al Adamson’s equally trashy but dreadful 1971 duo Female Bunch and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (both of which try hard to make Ed Wood look sophisticated).

Chaney is helped tremendously by his co-stars, which include  as a bald, deformed version of Carroll Bakker’s thumb-sucking Baby Doll (1956), Carol Ohmart as a well-worn, Z-grade Marilyn Monroe bitch of an aunt, and Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn as psychotic sisters.

Still from Spider Baby (1968)The Merrye family is dying out, due to inbreeding and a “rotting of the brain.” Bruno (Chaney) is the family chauffeur who acts as their guardian. While Bruno is taking Ralph (Haig, perfectly embodying his character) to the doctor, Elizabeth (Washburn) plays “itsy-bitsy spider” with the mailman (veteran African American character actor Mantan Moreland). Ralph crawls out of the limo like a serpentine chihuahua. Torment floods Bruno’s eyes upon seeing what is left of the unfortunate courier. Virginia (Banner), doing her best Baby Jane Hudson imitation, cannot wait “to tell.” “It’s not nice to hate,” Bruno reminds the family, but it turns out this was simply a case of killing the bad news messenger; the message being news that heir aunt Aunt Emily (Ohmart) will be arriving this very day to throw out the lot of them. Emily brings with her the goofy but amiable protagonist Peter (Quinn Redeker). There is even a slimy caricature of a lawyer who might pass for a cross between Adolf Hitler and ‘ father.

The Merrye house has a personality all its own, complete with rickety, ominous elevator shafts and a basement of dreaded family secrets. Alfred Taylor’s cinematography is an enormous asset, nearly masking the film’s meager budget. A perverted veggie “Last Supper” and a “don’t you dare do go there” consummation (which is, thankfully, subdued) are scenes that burn themselves into the memory.

Hill, for once not working on commission, conceived  his child as a labor of love, and his attitude infected cast and crew. As bizarre as the script and direction is, it is an inspired cast that sells it. Dismemberment, incest, cannibalism and the budding sexuality of serial killers are all carried out with inexplicable charm. Still, even with fine work by all, it is Chaney who is the twinkle in the eye of the film’s hurricane.

Definitely a contender for the List.

35. DELICATESSEN (1991)

“I have a lovely memory of my producer, Claudie Ossard, who came to see us in these sewers.  She’d come in Chanel suits and high heels.  It was surreal to see her among these Troglodists dripping in oil.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Karin Viard, Howard Vernon

PLOT:  In the near future, parts of French society have collapsed, most Parisian buildings

are burned out husks, and citizens have turned to a barter economy.  Among the many shortages experienced by city folk is a lack of fresh meat, but one butcher always seems to have enough flesh to trade for corn, or sex.  Answering an ad for a handyman, an ex-clown arrives at the bizarre boarding house run by the butcher and begins a chaste romance with his daughter—but is he there to do odd jobs, or does the butcher have something else in mind?

Still from Delicatessen (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • The first of two films co-directed by Jeunet and Caro.  The pair conceived the idea for The City of Lost Children (also on the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time) first, but it was too expensive to produce.  Delicatessen could be shot on a single sound stage, cheaply, so they produced this film first.
  • In the opening titles, Caro is credited with “direction artistique,” while Jeunet is responsible for “mise en scène.”
  • Jeunet, one of three co-writers on the film, says that the idea for the story came to him because he used to rent a room above a butcher’s shop and would be awoken by the sound of the butcher sharpening his cleaver every morning.  His fiancee would joke that the landlord was killing his tenants for meat in order to convince him to move to a new apartment.
  • Caro not only refused to participate a director’s commentary, saying that he didn’t believe in them, but also requested that footage of him not be used in the behind-the-scenes segments on the DVD.  In his commentary, Jeunet implies that Caro is too self-critical, dryly suggesting Caro thought the film a failure because a barely visible garden hose was unintentionally left in one shot.
  • Delicatessen was picked as the Best Film at the Tokyo International Film Festival.  At home in France it won four César’s, including Best First Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design, and Best Editing.
  • The original trailer for the American release simply contained the entire “bed-spring symphony” scene, with the movie’s title appearing at the end.
  • At the time of release some reputable American critics reported that the film was either co-produced or “presented by”  Terry Gilliam, although Gilliam’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits.  It seems likely the Monty Python alum, whose early films are tonally similar to Jeunet and Caro, played some part the American distribution.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Howard Vernon’s aquatic second floor apartment, covered in a few centimeters of algae-green water and inhabited by frogs and snails who climb over all the furniture, the record player, and even over the dozing actor.  In the corner is a giant pile of discarded escargot shells.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Wandering through Delicatessen is like taking a tour of a

Spanish trailer for Delicatessen

dilapidated French boarding house filled with insane tenants, most pleasantly eccentric, some downright creepy.  You peer inside each room and find something unique and discomfiting.  The film is filled with bizarre characters and absurd comic interludes, set in a decaying near-future universe that is artificially “off.”

COMMENTS:  Except for Marie-Laure Dougnac’s eyes, there is no blue in Delicatessen, Continue reading 35. DELICATESSEN (1991)