Tag Archives: Cannibalism

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

FEATURING: Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn

PLOT: A brain surgeon examines the case of Catherine, a young woman who has been in a terrible state ever since the death of her poet cousin, inquiring into a mysterious incident in Europe.

Still from suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

COMMENTS: By the time Suddenly, Last Summer hit Broadway as part of a double-bill of one-act plays, was well-established as the pre-eminent voice – alongside Arthur Miller – of the American theater. With two Pulitzers, a pair of Oscar nominations, and at least three certifiable classics in his oeuvre, he was nearing the end of that imperial phase where almost anything he wrote could be staged and then adapted to the screen. The mere presence of his name on the bill was a commercial guarantee… even if his subject was a manipulative gay man whose indiscretions cause a group of feral youths to assault and eat him.

This is where “weird” comes into the discussion. You could easily place this alongside Williams’ most familiar works – the smothering maternal figure of The Glass Menagerie, the mental instability of A Streetcar Named Desire, the web of familial lies of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – without a moment’s hesitation. The acting is juicily overwrought, the battle between the tight lips of Southern propriety and the sweaty brows of unexpressed emotions is pitched high. It’s just another Southern Gothic drama, until you get to Elizabeth Taylor’s climactic monologue and she finally tells everyone just what happened to her cousin Sebastian. That irrevocably alters everything that has come before.

In some respects, Suddenly, Last Summer could only have happened at the precise moment it did. Homosexuality was still an unmentionable curse (the filmmakers only got it through the Production Code by emphasizing that Sebastian pays for his sins with his life), and neither it nor any other transgressions – the Venable women procuring young boys to feed Sebastian’s sexual appetites, the cannibalism – are called out explicitly. But Williams and screenwriter Gore Vidal clearly felt empowered to pull the curtain back on these immoralities. The whole saying-without-saying approach would be nigh unthinkable a decade later. This was the precise moment where such subjects could be talked about, but only if they were talked around.

Talking is all there is left, and Suddenly, Last Summer indulges in it. Vidal does little to open up Williams’ play for the screen, with most of its running time spent in either Catherine’s hospital room or Violet’s decadent New Orleans mansion and elaborate garden. Whenever the movie feels stagebound, the actors chomp on the scenery; Taylor knows she’s got a scrumptious part, with monologues that are by turns defiant and distraught. Hepburn, meanwhile, delights in deploying a mannered cruelty, from her wonderfully theatrical entrance descending in an elevator right up until the moment Taylor shatters her illusions of her beloved son. (Clift, in their presence, is unavoidably vacant. He is reduced to establishing exposition). Yet it’s in the moments when the story leaves the soundstages and pulls away from acting showcases that it starts to go to some truly strange places. Catherine’s forays into the depths of the mental asylum need no words as she comes face-to-face with souls far more damaged than hers. Her account of her trip to the island of Cabeza de Lobo (Wolf’s Head) is presented as a mute play, with phantasmagoric images of the swarthy locals, the blazing sun, and her own revealing swimsuit. Throughout, Sebastian is never given a face, reinforcing his complete unknowability. The twist of his horrific end only gains power from what we almost see.

Variety’s original review dubbed Suddenly, Last Summer “the most bizarre motion picture ever made by a major American company.” Time has dulled the impact of the film’s content, but there’s still something off-kilter about the way it delivers its surprises. It’s almost like a horror film pretending to be a Tennessee Williams play, rather than Williams dabbling in the grotesque. Like its title, it reflects a moment that ends everything we thought we knew, and leaves us reflecting upon it long after.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Mankiewicz] has turned out a polished film, and one that deals boldly with the ugly theme, but he has certainly not wasted any subtlety on the job…. this bizarre homosexual nightmare becomes the one artistically persuasive section in an otherwise coldly fabricated melodrama.” – Robert Hatch, The Nation (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by blibo. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Suddenly, Last Summer
  • The disk has English audio.

CAPSULE: DO NOT DISTURB (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: John Ainslie

FEATURING: Kimberly LaFerrière, Rogan Christopher

PLOT: Their relationship on the verge of collapse, Chloë and Jack honeymoon in Miami—and ingest a lot of peyote in their hotel room.

COMMENTS: John Ainslie’s evidences certainty as a director in how he orchestrates his main characters’ indecision so convincingly. At one moment—well, at plenty of moments—the audience really, really dislikes Jack, the childish fiancé-no-wait-husband of Chloë, an aspiring nurse; at the next moment, Ainslie forces you to consider that his fuck-all attitude is maybe the way to go. The distressing codependency between this pair saturates their scenes as gloppily as pools of blood will eventually saturate their hotel room carpeting. This film is about the ugly collapse of two people and their relationship.

Saving this relationship is the purpose of the spastic journey traveled by Chloë and Jack—a honeymoon of sorts at an “adults only” Miami hotel during the off-season. This is only one example of the many ways Chloë is disappointed in her now-husband—he was too cheap to book something during a more fashionable time of year. It’s a petty concern, certainly, but as is the case with many crumbling relationships, it’s the petty things that stack and stack, until something breaks. And in Do Not Disturb, break they do. Grandly.

While most of the film is believable (Ainslie made me hate Jack from at the start), the catalyst for the couple’s descent into mayhem is one of the most random and unbelievable bits of screen nonsense I’ve laid eyes on. While at the beach, the pair witness a fellow wake up from catatonia in a passionate haze. He’s high, he’s been duped somehow, and to emphasize how he won’t be duped again, he tosses down a bag of peyote and some red powder at their feet before walking into the ocean.

Ainslie’s story is dialogue-heavy, violence-heavy, and most emphatically drug-heavy. Breaking it down, it’s around one third chamber drama, one third gorefest, and one third feminist hurrah. The feminism and gore were nicely done; I loved witnessing this intelligent, if somewhat confused, woman break free from her shackles—doing so, primarily, through drugs and the aforementioned gore. But golly if the bad relationship dramatics didn’t tire me. That’s probably the point, though, as the bickering and flip-flopping are an icky and tedious phenomenon. Kimberly LaFerrière shines as the mousey-then-new woman, and I hope that Rogan Christopher finds the time for physical comedy; a sequence wherein Jack’s trying to brain a chatty visitor with a lamp whose cord seems it must be glued into the socket is a delight. All-in-all, this movie is like a peyote-fueled cannibal buffet: not to everyone’s liking, but a refreshing change from the ordinary.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In John Ainslie’s trippy hotel psychothriller, a drug-taking couple checks in, drops out, eats in and works through what they really want.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MOTEL HELL (1980)

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DIRECTED BY: Kevin Connor

FEATURING: Rory Calhoun, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod, Paul Linke

PLOT: Out in Rural, USA, Farmer Vincent operates both the “Motel Hello” and a popular smokehouse; neither business is entirely kosher.

Still from motel hell (1980)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Quirky horror is always fun, and so is Motel Hell. However, the extra little touches added to Kevin Connor’s grinder make this a weird little morsel to ingest: psychedelics, home-spun folksiness, a human garden, and the left-field cameo from Wolfman Jack (as the local priest, no less)—all come together to make something strangely delicious.

COMMENTS: As Nietzsche didn’t quite say, “…if you gaze long enough into a sausage, the sausage will gaze back into you.” There is a strong philosophical undercurrent (casing, even) to Motel Hell. Our spiritual teacher is Vincent Smith: pig farmer, motelier, and all around stand-up country gent. Rustic affability courses through his veins, and cheery wisdom bubbles up through his placid surface. He treats his animals humanely; he is affectionate to his simple-minded sister; his guests are all graced with his decorum. And he has a plan to help God to save the world: through transforming sinful passers-by into the best damned smoked meat you can find.

Director Kevin Connor lays out his cards right quick, just in case you didn’t quite grasp the nuance in the film title. Meet Vincent. Meet Ida. Meat farm. Vincent and his sister are pranksters, spooking the twin girls of two guests. But later that night, he lays a trap for a passing motorcyclist and his far younger lover, harvesting the former and seducing-cum-adopting the latter. However, being so smitten as I am by Rory Calhoun’s charm, I’ve already gotten ahead of the game.

One of the delightful oddities in this B-movie blood comedy is just how Vincent and Ida prepare their meat. Sure, sure, there’s a smoking process and “secret spices” (as to be found in the smokehouse, labeled exactly as such), but there’s also the prep work. It involves holes in the ground, gunny bags, feeding funnels, and, when it is time to harvest the flesh-crop, some swirling spin rays, to give the harvest a “…radical, hypno-high. Heavier, but smoother than any trip [they’ve] ever had.” Beyond the groovy head-trips (chuckle along with me), Vincent brings a solemnity to his work. As he openly muses after a gathering, “Sometimes I wonder about the karmic implications of these acts.” His sister Ida, on the other hand, does not wonder. She just likes her work and, even more-so, the tasty snacks which ensue.

Motel Hell is a silly movie with cleverness, uneven acting, and a fun little chainsaw duel thrown into the mix. Connor and his team are obviously having fun, and are more than happy to provide the audience with blood, surprises, and some obligatory T&A. I enjoyed many a chuckle, and sounded an outright guffaw at Vincent’s scandalous confession at the climax. There are weirder movies, there are bloodier movies, and there are sillier movies, but Motel Hell, like Vincent’s secret blend, is a perfect balance of all these ingredients.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s meant to be weird, campy and funny but settles for being tasteless, gruesomely awkward and moronic.”–Dennis Schwartz, Dennis Schwartz Reviews

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973)

AKA Dead People; Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming; Return of the Living Dead

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DIRECTED BY: , Gloria Katz

FEATURING: Mariana Hill, Michael Greer, Anitra Ford, Joy Bang, ,

PLOT: Arletty travels to the quaint seaside burg of Point Dune in search of her father: apprehensions grow when she meets the unwelcoming locals, reads her father’s crazed diary entries, and discovers the legend of a mysterious figure who returns to his cannibalistic flock every hundred years.

Still from Messiah of Evil (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of this site’s features is the Indelible Image: that one shot or scene that stands out in a movie when all the other strange and disturbing visions have faded from view. Messiah of Evil feels like an attempt to make a feature film composed entirely of Indelible Images. It’s entirely about creating a queasy, unsettling vibe, and that it does, in scene after scene.

COMMENTS: Messiah of Evil springs from the minds of filmmaking duo Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who in 1973 were having quite a year. Their script for American Graffiti catapulted them onto the A-list, while this threatened to pull them right back down. Having sat on the shelf unedited for two years, Messiah was finally bought and hastily released, which makes it all the more impressive that the unsettling vibe Huyck and Katz were going for seeps through.

The opening five minutes is a spectacular smorgasbord of mixed messages. A man (played by future The Warriors auteur Walter Hill) breathlessly runs from something terrible, while a turgid ballad plays on the soundtrack in which the singer speaks to the wind. Then a pretty girl slits the man’s throat, and we’re transported to a mental asylum where an exhausted woman unspools a tremendous mood-dump, warning us that “they’re waiting for you” and saying of a town on the coast that “they used to call it New Bethlehem, but the changed the name to Point Dune after the moon turned blood red.” Then she lets out a bloodcurdling scream, which cues the song to return and plops us back to the woman’s arrival in town just as a gas station attendant wildly fires a pistol into the darkness. If you’re looking for a film with a high WTF-factor, Messiah of Evil is off to a terrific start.

The film works very hard to keep you off-balance throughout. Part of that is the bevy of offbeat choices that occur at every turn. At an art gallery in town, the manager is an old blind woman whose fingers move across Arletty’s face “like a pale spider.” An albino truck driver happily offers to share his light snack of live rats while cranking “Wagner” (pronounced like Lindsay rather than Richard) on the radio. The walls of her father’s house are covered with mirrors and murals that stare at her unceasingly, including one that appears to be a very large Lee Harvey Oswald portrait. There’s nothing in Messiah of Evil so strange that it can’t be made just a little bit stranger.

Even better is when those weird twists end up being directly connected to Huyck and Katz’ story. Following up a lead at a motel, Arletty finds a bizarre trio of wanderers: Thom, a long-haired, nattily-attired fellow who oddly resembles a lithe Stephen Fry, and two disinterested hippie girls, Laura and Toni, with varying attention spans. We meet them listening to an extensive monologue/info dump from a disheveled wino. When the vagrant turns up dead the next day, Thom and his coterie move in with Arletty, because why not?

The girls’ most important contribution to the film is to be the focus of a pair of standout setpieces in which they fall victim to the appetites of Point Dune’s hungry residents. Laura’s decision to skip town seems like an aimless diversion until she ends up at a mostly empty grocery store (it’s a Ralphs, for the benefit of our readers in either California or Night Vale) where a group of patrons make a squishy, slurpy buffet of the raw items at the meat counter, and then make a meal of her. Toni meets her end in a similarly creepy fashion at a movie theater, where the empty auditorium quickly fills up in precisely the same manner that The Birds populates its school playground with avian aggressors. These scenes are the best illustration of the kind of horror Huyck and Katz are interested in: a slow, methodical, and inevitable sense of doom that can’t be debated, understood, or avoided.

The movie works best when it’s not trying to fulfill your expectations for a comprehensible plot. For example, Royal Dano’s dread-laden narratives are head-scratching when you try to mine them for clear explanations, but sharply effective when you focus on the batty circumstances he describes. (It’s extra fun to imagine that Dano is invoking his most famous role, that as the voice of Disneyland’s Abraham Lincoln animatronic.) The less sense things make, the more potent the film’s dark vibe. And that turns out to be fortunate, since there is so much that does not make sense in Messiah of Evil. This quiet little picture packs a lot of mood. It’s best not to come to town looking for more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The miraculous alchemy isn’t that Messiah of Evil suddenly turns good at any point – the acting, in particular, remains comically atrocious throughout – but that it somehow uses its badness as a tool, rather than a limitation. As the film depicts increasingly weird, threatening, and ultimately violently behavior, the very film itself seems to have become possessed by a spirit of evil.” – Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending

(This movie was nominated for review by Pinstripe Hourglass. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DUMPLINGS (2004)

餃子]/Jiao Zi

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DIRECTED BY: Fruit Chan

FEATURING: Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Tony Ka-Fai Leung, Meme

PLOT: An aging woman, eager to recapture her lost youth and the attentions of her wayward husband, patronizes a local maker of dumplings whose creations reverse the ravages of time; however, what she learns about how the dumplings are made force her to confront her own desires and tolerances.

Still from Dumplings (2004)

COMMENTS: The big twist is fully revealed exactly halfway through Dumplings, but in truth, we’ve known what was going on all along. Aunt Mei makes dumplings that restore youth thanks to a special ingredient. Mei’s current client, the former TV actress Mrs. Li, is eager for a therapy that will bring about the return of her youthful beauty quickly, to which Mei replies that the best ingredients are hard to come by. We learn that Aunt Mei used to be a doctor, and on her occasional visits to a local hospital to get illicit supplies, she discusses the ramifications of China’s one-child policy and the procedure some have used to bypass it. Meanwhile, a neighbor has brought her pregnant daughter to Aunt Mei for “help.” You’re with me here, right? There’s not really any mystery about what’s in the dumplings, is there?

Director Fruit Chan is a great deal more artful than that, of course. The camera lavishly chronicles the cooking process with loving attention, in the manner of Babette’s Feast or Big Night, so that you might be lulled into thinking you were watching Hong Kong’s answer to Chocolat. All the while, he is careful to avoid featuring anything too gory until the key moment, even if there are suggestions of something untoward throughout. (A special shout-out is owed to sound designer Kinson Tsang, who helps bring the horror by delivering the alluring, disgusting power of every slurp, chop, and bloody plop.) But there’s no getting past the litany of taboos that Dumplings confronts. Pretty it up all you like, but eventually, you’re going to have to face the facts about what’s in your food.

The film is an expansion of Chan’s segment from the horror anthology Three… Extremes, but at 90 minutes it remains taut and effective. The film is buoyed by the pair of stellar performances at its core. Bai Ling cavorts around her kitchen like a mischievous wood nymph, singing and spinning around confidently like a water strider; an Act 3 monologue extolling the virtues of anthropophagy frames her actions as virtually righteous. Meanwhile, Miriam Yeung is the very model of prim propriety pushed to its limits. No Death Becomes Her transformations here; you never once believe she is old or has lost any of her beauty (Yeung is stunning throughout), but you can be certain of her own perception of her failings, and they underline her commitment to the course of action that leads to her ultimate fate.

Dumplings is weird by virtue of its off-limits subject matter, but curiously not weird thanks to its earnest and forthright exploration of said material. A couple key subplots, such as the fate of Mei’s unlucky neighbor or a confrontation between the chef and Mrs. Li’s philandering husband, hint at a greater reckoning that never really arrives. Instead, Dumplings is a sober meditation on what we’re willing to do to get what we think is justly owed to us. No fortune cookie here, but instead this admonition: It’s not what we eat but what we choose to eat that makes us who we are.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jiao Zi is a never ending cycle of absurdity leading to comedy leading to absurd reactions leading to more horror… the surreal way in which the horror and comedy of Jiao Zi was implemented ending up being too alluring for me to ignore.” – Bill Thompson, Bill’s Movie Emporium

(This movie was nominated for review by Ed. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)