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The Strange and the Sleazy, Thoughts On

My Love – Hate Relationship with Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

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Warning this post is NSFW

For months now I have wanted to write a piece on a personal horror favourite of mine. Actually to call it a personal favourite might seem a bit bizarre, but out of all of the Italian cannibal movies Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust has stood the test of time and still affects me after countless viewings.  Over the last few years I’ve attempted to make it through this sub-genre of Italian cinema, mostly to say I have seen these films (finally) but also to see if I could sit through them.

Admittedly most of these films are pieces of cinematic trash, such as the likes of Umberto Lenzi’s still cut Cannibal Ferox, (still one of the hardest films I’ve ever viewed) and Mangitai vivi (aka Eaten Alive!). Cannibal Ferox is a vile piece of 80s exploitation sleaze which revels in masochistic violence and animal cruelty, with little in the way of redeeming features. Even Giovanni Lombardo Radice’s performance (credited as John Morghen) is hard to tolerate for long periods of time, but to be fair it has been a while since I’ve viewed it.

Deodato’s film was, like Lenzi’s feature,  a video nasty and although available on various formats in England now it’s still cut by a few minutes (mainly a sequence involving a firing squad). Having watched it again on pristine Blu-Ray and I can honestly say it hasn’t lost any of its impact, if anything it affected me more. Its use of the  cinema verite style of filmmaking adds to the tense moments and helps to disorientate what the mind truly sees.

Cannibal Holocaust is a film that’s much more than its notoriety makes it out to be. Admittedly it does have scenes of unrelenting violence against wild animals that still make me shudder when I think of them, specifically the turtle kill (more on that later). Yet under all of this is an incredibly intelligent meta-movie about the lengths some people go to receive accolades through art, while questioning where the lines of reality and fiction blur.

After being bombarded with assorted types of found footage film over the years, there’s still something fresh and interesting about Cannibal Holocaust considering the age of it. Maybe it’s the way we have become in society, desperate to grab a brief slice of fame through different media outlets (such as YouTube) or possibly because of it’s blurring of fiction and reality. Jumping back and forth between the found documentary footage and another set of explorers looking for the Ya̧nomamö tribe, Deodato cleverly plays with expectations. Is what we viewing fake or is it actually real?

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When viewing a film like Cannibal Holocaust your mind is trying to work out if it’ll live up to its notoriety, and within the first 10 minutes it does. I must admit on first seeing this (I was lucky or unlucky to see the uncut version from America) it took me completely by surprise. I winced at the animal slaughter but it never really bothered me as much as it should have done. What really shook me was the level of sexualised violence, which although fake, was still hard to stomach.

The violence and degenerate actions of Alan Yates and his doomed film crew really struck a nerve. The actions of the three men boarders on psychopathic at times, all in the name of getting sensationalism on film.  Their descent into more extreme methods to capture the Ya̧nomamö tribe on film quickly becomes more depraved and twisted. The Alan and the crew’s rape of a woman from the tribe is a truly unsettling moment, particularly as the camera tries to capture the action as its unfolding (like an excitable voyeur) with Faye trying desperately to stop them.

This is further cemented in the following sequence when the crew finds the previously attacked woman, barbarically impaled on a wooden spike. It leaves the viewer to decided whether it was the Ya̧nomamö’s that did it or the crew; although it points more to the latter as Alan appears incredibly happy with the sight until he feigns disgust for the camera.

The animal slaughter is also a hotly debated topic and one of the main (if not the main) reasons for its infamy. When I first watched the uncut version I was truly disgusted by the senseless murder of the turtle, it also caused me to turn it off for a brief period.  I came back to it later in the day watched it all the way through, my stomach beginning to churn through the sequence, and yet the rest of the animal kills (possibly from the way they are framed) didn’t phase me.

Possibly the most bizarre element of Cannibal Holocaust is its truly beautiful score from the late Riz Ortolani. Their orchestral piece evokes a sense of wonder and beauty that is completely juxtaposed with the imagery unfolding on screen, and yet it works to unsettle particular scenes the more it carries on. I’ve listened to the score several times and with each listen I’m still astounded by its majestic themes and dreamlike quality, more akin to melodrama than horror.

Cannibal Holocaust is that rare genre film that genuine surpasses its notoriety and violence. Barring its genuine animal slaughter and slightly shoddy make-up effects it’s an incredibly powerful and smart film to view. Admittedly like all exploitation films it has its moments the truly test ones patience, but unlike Cannibal Ferox it has a statement to make about humanities uncivilised nature towards the unknown, revelling in evermore in violent excess and extreme sensationalism.

Having seen Cannibal Holocaust countless times now, each viewing affects me in different ways. Its stomach churning, thought provoking and beautifully shot for an exploitation film, all of which adds to the film’s unique flavour. Yes said flavour is an acquired taste (pun intended), but then aren’t all genre films?

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