We all know cannibals have essentially monopolized the entire “you are what you eat” philosophy, but are they taking over horror movies as well?
In a post-The-Hills-Have-Eyes industry, screenwriters find cannibalism easier to stomach than ever. With the integration of elements commonly found in short films – staggered timelines and unresolved plots – the neo-horror genre introduces meat-eaters in a new light, reviving the ghoulish and once ancient art.
Since fans devoured Jonathan Demme’s iconic The Silence of the Lambs in the early 90s, flesh-eating antagonists and even protagonists have stormed the box office running right up to this year’s release of the segmented horror anthology XX. The future of this dynamic theme sounds promising, but could filmmakers be biting off more than they can chew?
Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 Cannibal Holocaust lives as one of the earliest blockbusters to immerse horror fiends in the crooked world of man-eating anthropophagites. As the founder of found-footage films (sorry, Blair Witch Project), Deodato along with Wes Craven, the unofficial father of horror, concocted the savage-driven culture behind most twentieth century cannibal films. Picture this: a flock of urban city-dwellers find themselves stranded in a vast and seemingly isolated jungle among a tribe of uncivilized barbarians who, here comes the twist, prefer human flesh to literally any other possible source of meat. Though one can guess just about every detail that’s bound to unfold in the next hour of such a nail-bitter, cinephiles and horror fanatics of the late 70s and 80s ate it up like no other.
In the reinvented recipe for the perfect cannibal movie, directors go by a single standard: the more ominous, the better. This new age of filmmakers gave brutes the boot and sunk their teeth into deliciously sinister every day protagonists; a newborn generation of cannibals that live among society, disguised as your average Joe.
This shift is far from random, but rather ushered in by the principles of classic short films. Horror shorts throw its audiences into the rising action only minutes into the film and the credits begin to roll before any resolution explains what the viewers witnessed – almost like a cliffhanger when you didn’t realize you were on the cliff to begin with – leaving us to fill in plot holes with the bare cement of our imagination. This is where the cannibals come in: being just the right amount of absurd to have the audience reeling hours after the screen has faded to black.
In a refreshing turn of events, this new vessel is often embodied by a female lead, who typically harbors dangerously high levels of sex appeal (I’m looking at you, Megan Fox.) These roles are cooked to perfection, offering more variation within the plotline than films from the past: Drew Barrymore as a famished housewife in Netflix’s comedy series Santa Clarita Diet, the enigmatic devout vegetarian sister duo in Julia Ducournau’s Raw or the inhabitants of the dystopian wasteland in The Bad Batch, starring Suki Waterhouse and Jason Momoa alongside Keanu Reeves.
Cannibalism is making a comeback and in a big way. The delectable glamorization and sexualization of the theme gives the genre a new grade, dancing along the fine line between sexy and scary. One of the greatest manifestations of this phenomenon can be caught in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, starring Elle Fanning and Jena Malone.
The film is set in present-day Los Angeles and follows sixteen-year-old Jesse through her journey into the modeling industry, which you can guess ends on a sour note. In his viciously vibrant storytelling, Refn plants the cannibals in plain sight, stuffing his audience with suspense until the ultimate reveal in the final minutes of the movie. Other films have yet to push the boundaries between allure, sensuality, and savagery quite like this one.
After being cast off for so long, flesh-eating characters will finally reign once again as the titans of horror, just in time for Halloween. I encourage all to embrace this new generation of scary movies with open arms – but don’t be afraid, they won’t bite.