Motel Hell (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★
Farmer Vincent’s smoked sausages, though not internationally available, was renowned for its unparalleled tasty goodness. Excited travelers often checked into the motel, managed by Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and Ida (Nancy Parsons), just so they could try the local delicacy. But the farmer and his sister had something brewing a couple of yards away from the motel. In one of their well-camouflaged gardens, they planted people in the ground, neck-deep, removed their victims’ vocal cords so they couldn’t scream, and fattened them up so, when the time came, their flesh could be used as the secret ingredient to be mixed in with the pork. Written by Robert Jaffe, Steven-Charles Jaffe, and Tim Tuchrello, “Motel Hell” was an inventive macabre story about cannibalism which supported the idea that real horror is embedded in the details. Much of the picture was plagued with comedic eccentricities in order to dilute the evil happenings in the farm. The brother and sister had a sly sense of humor which was very appropriate because we got to know them as more than serial killers who liked to cut people up and serve them to the public. As much as they took glee in watching people compliment their meat, they took greater pleasure in the hunt. The duo set traps, like putting cardboard cows in the middle of the road, to capture their victims’ attention. Since the campiness was given more screen time than the torture and the gore, I almost wanted the outsiders to get out of their vehicles and investigate. Furthermore, with each person who was captured, we got to know a little bit more about Vincent and Ida’s deranged methods. Just how did they avoid being caught without so much as a suspicion from their friends and neighbors? The motel was always empty but it was always open. One had to wonder. There was a lack of a strong hero or heroine which, surprisingly, did not work against the film. There was Sheriff Bruce (Paul Linke), Vincent and Ida’s brother, who had no idea about what was happening in the farm. I wish it was explained why his siblings didn’t let him in on the secret. His being a man of the law was not good enough. After all, Vincent and Ida could have exploited their brother’s profession as protection from investigators like the ill-fated animal inspector (E. Hampton Beagle). And then there was Terry (Nina Axelrod), “rescued” by Vincent after she and her boyfriend fell into one of the traps. She slept most of the time. When she woke, she walked around and expressed her disbelief in quickly being accustomed to farm life. I had to scoff; she didn’t lift a finger to help out with chores or the business. Vincent and Ida smiled forcefully. I shared their sentiment. There was an awkwardly funny subplot involving Terry’s attraction toward Vincent who was probably around twenty years older than her. Ida felt threatened. One had to wonder if she was attracted, subconsciously or otherwise, to her own brother. “Motel Hell,” directed by Kevin Connor, nicely straddled the line between showing something full-on and simply suggesting an idea or an image. I found it refreshing, even for its time when slasher films dominated, that I wasn’t able to predict which parts were going to be shown and which were going to be left to the imagination.
We Are What We Are (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
When the family patriarch (Humberto Yáñez) passed away while admiring mannequins, the matriarch (Carmen Beato) and her three children (Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Adrián Aguirre) were left to fend for themselves. Behind closed doors, as part of some tradition, they kidnapped vulnerable people in the streets, like homeless children and prostitutes, and ate them. “We Are What We Are,” written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau, was an interesting hybrid of chamber drama and horror. The first half focused on the volatile relationship between the two brothers. Alfredo and Adriana wanted to prove that they were man enough to lead the family. The eldest, Alfredo, had the most complexity. It seemed as though he was almost pressured into eating people but couldn’t set himself free because he felt responsible. Alfredo was torn between expectations at home and the experimentation required to find his sexual identity. Since he couldn’t come up with a way to deal with the two spheres, he felt a lot of self-loathing. There was an intense scene in which he decided to follow a gay man around his age. I was engaged because it was difficult to discern whether the hunt was for business or pleasure. I enjoyed the film’s tone exactly because it lacked gloss. Grau made his project’s lack of big budget work for itself. For instance, when one of the victims escaped the house, there was no booming music to suggest that the victim was being followed. In fact, the sound was muffled. Since there was barely any sound to guide my expectations, I turned my attention to the images and the shadows that surrounded the escapee. I was that much more aware and transfixed on the screen. Unfortunately, the script introduced characters that took away focus from the topic of cannibalism. There was a detective (Jorge Zárate) whose sole motivation in capturing the cannibals was to earn the so-called respect of his colleagues. We saw him look disgruntled and angry, but we never really learned what made him special enough to break the case. He wasn’t especially creative, patient, nor brave. He just seemed like another cop who tried to find an easy solution to a complicated question. He lacked depth so I found it difficult to take him seriously. During a key confrontation, I found it strange that I actually rooted for the family to get away with what they did. If the writer-director had focused more on the details of the strange tradition and less on the detective, though above average in parts, “Somos lo sue hay” would have been a more a visceral experience. It left my stomach grumbling for more.
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where food was very scarce and selflessness was rare, a former clown named Louison (Dominique Pinon) moved into an apartment complex where the residents depended on a butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) to give them food given that the circumstances were right. That is, every once in a while, an unsuspecting person, like Louison, would move into an empty apartment and later be murdered, chopped up, and served to the residents. Things turned complicated when Louison fell for the butcher’s daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and vice-versa. The daughter knowing the happenings in the apartment complex tried to seek help from people who lived underground that did not eat other humans. I loved the look of this film. In every frame, there was a beautiful yellow tinge that highlighted the desolate existence of the characters. I also noticed the picture’s great attention to sound, not just in terms of soundtrack in the foreground and background but the characters actually creating music to serve as a distraction from their increasingly desperate living conditions. I thought it was creative because it able to take very different sounds and arrange it in such a way that they all complemented each other. As for the story, it was consistently fascinating but it could have been trimmed. While the involvement of the sewer dwellers was necessary, there were far too many scenes that painted them as too goofy, almost infantile. The slapstick did not work because I got the impression that they were supposed to be the moral center (people who did not eat human flesh), thus the savior of Louison and the butcher’s daughter. It would not have hurt the script if the underground people were actually intelligent and strong. Just because they lived underground for, as the film suggested, quite some time, they need not have been cavemen-like. In this case, playing against the obvious would have been far more interesting. Despite its shortcomings, the film was strong. I highly enjoyed its quirks, wit, and irony because the images on screen had double meanings so it kept me on my toes. For example, when the residents tried to break into Louison’s apartment, I thought about George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” with a modern twist: The good guys were inside struggling for survival, while the bad guys (who were not undead) were outside craving for flesh. They, too, were struggling for survival. Directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Delicatessen” was a treat in which the jokes were served in just the right amount of proportions. It always had new jokes peeking at each corner so specific types of comedies did not overstay their welcome. Film lovers who have a penchant for the macabre, satire, cannibalism, and post-apocalypse worlds will most likely find this movie as a delectable gem.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
★★★ / ★★★★
A family (led by Russ Grieve and Virginia Vincent, the patriarch and matriarch) got into an accident in the desert while on their way to California. It happened during the most unfortunate time because the area in which their vehicle broke down was a nuclear testing site and was occupied with deformed cannibals. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “The Hills Have Eyes” was a horror film with a simple premise but it expertly embodied an animalistic tone and gathered momentum until the final shot. For a slasher flick, I found it strange because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. I enjoyed the way Craven framed regular well-meaning folks and forced them to eventually become like the monsters that terrorized them in order to survive. While it was very violent, especially the events that transpired in the trailer which consisted of murder and rape, it was far from gratuitous. I felt Craven holding back in terms of showing certain images that might glorify the terrible things that there happening. It was successful at allowing us to feel anger so that we could root for the remaining members of the family to not just seek revenge but also obtain something that meant a lot to them. The heart of the picture was arguably the siblings Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston). Brenda was unhappy about her father’s decision to take an unknown route while Bobby almost immediately sensed that there was something wrong about the environment they had no choice but to occupy. As the title’s anthropomorphic title suggested, the environment was like a creature that lived, capable of defending itself when threatened. However, things such as rattlesnakes and the possibility of dehydration and starvation were the last elements the characters had to worry about. The animalism and savagery became a trend. One angle was when the characters eventually got over their fear and sadness and decided to fight back even if it meant losing their lives. Another was using the family pet, a dog that was normally friendly unless threatened, as a figure readily able to attack and kill. Perhaps Craven hoped to suggest that the deformed cannibals living in an isolated world were really no different than regular people that successfully integrated in society. Lastly, I thought its abrupt ending was a smart decision. There was no explanation about how the characters would end up. It did not need to because the situation in which they were thrusted upon was beyond reasoning. Its main goal was to show whether or not the cannibals would get their comeuppance. “The Hills Have Eyes” did have its flaws, such as characters who whined too much for no good reason, but the quality of horror was consistent and it ended on a very high note.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
★★ / ★★★★
When aspiring filmmakers (Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi) decided to go to a rainforest in the Amazon to document real cannibals and never returned, a New York University professor (Robert Kerman) went on a journey to get them back. But when he found out that they have been murdered by the cannibals, he took the footages shot by the crew back to America. Little did he know that the contents of the film reels contained grotesque behaviors performed by the aspiring filmmakers which included rape, flaying animals, and multiple attempts in murdering the natives–all the while putting on a show for the world that the things they stumbled upon were shocking and sometimes enlightening. Directed by Ruggero Deodato, “Cannibal Holocaust” has a reputation of having the most intense images portrayed on screen. What I liked about the movie was its daring attempt to blur the line between simulated and the actuality. When I saw an image and I could not tell whether it was one or the other, that was when I thought the picture was at its most horrific. But there were a plethora of scenes where it was easy to tell if something was real of not. For instance, the flaying of the giant turtle was obviously real. I experience no pleasure in watching animals suffer because when I was a kid, I’ve seen a dog being killed in the bloodiest, most unkind way and it was later served as a meal. So it was a bit of a struggle when I saw that segment. As for the filmmakers being killed by the natives, it did not move me as much–in a positive or a negative way–because the movie tried too hard to make it look real to the point where it looked fake. However, the most disappointing element in the picture was the heavy-handed messages that it tried to get across. Questions such as the media’s role in trying to sensationalize every story in order to get reaction from the people were painfully transparent. There were also some bits and pieces about who the real savages were: the tribes in the Amazon who were “backwards” or the Americans who stupidly decided to walk into the tribes’ territories and terrorized them for the sake of having power over them? As a faux-documentary film, it felt too calculated, too controlled, and too contained so it ultimately worked against itself. As for the graphic nature of the film, I was horrified at some points because it was indeed very violent. But then I started thinking about modern horror movies of today and their gratuitousness. The “Saw” pictures suddenly came to mind and I felt that “Cannibal Holocaust” did not seem as bad as a whole. Nevertheless, “Cannibal Holocaust” is definitely not for everyone especially the squeamish. I wish it left a lot more unanswered questions. Since it answered everything for us, despite the many intense images, I started to forget about it right when the credits started rolling.
The Book of Eli (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Book of Eli” was about a man (Denzel Washington) whose goal was to protect a book and journey toward the west of post-apocalyptic America. Along the way, he met a friend named Solara (Mila Kunis) who was enslaved by a power-hungry leader (Gary Oldman) in desperate search for the very same book that the mysterious man held. The picture started off strong and it immediately looked great. I believed that I was really looking at a world so ravaged by starvation, desperation and a lack of ethical and moral conduct. It reminded me of John Hillcoat’s “The Road” in terms of its tone and sadness elicited by the gray environment. Unfortunately, the middle section felt interminable and it lacked a sense of isolation that the first twenty to thirty minutes had. It was painfully obvious that the film tried to establish a contrast between Washington and Oldman’s characters. For a movie about faith and retaining that faith against all odds, the easy answers came quick so the material ultimately lacked subtlety and I slowly lost interest over time. As for the action sequences, they came few and far between but only one stood out to me. I was impressed with the almost western-like stand-off in and out of the house of an old couple (Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon) who happened to be cannibals. I wished more action sequences were similar to that scene in terms of tension and delivering dynamic (sometimes awkward) camera angles. Furthermore, I craved more interactions between the protagonists and the couple who offered them human meat to eat as a meal. There was something very sinister during that part of the film but at the same time it felt darkly comic. It would have been nice if Washington and Kunis forced themselves to eat the human flesh just as they felt forced to drink the tea offered to them prior. At the end of the day “The Book of Eli,” directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, blended into other more recent post-apocalyptic movies with religion as an undercurrent instead of standing out via using similar works as templates to avoid making similar mistakes. I would have liked the movie a lot more if it offered us answers that were vague but surely make us think like haunting ending that Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” had. I just wanted to be challenged instead of spoon-fed.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) had been promoted for successfully infiltrating an enemy line. However, he was not proud of himself because he played dead in the battlefield while his comrades met their demise. Capt. Boyd was sent to a fort in the California’s snowy Sierra Nevada mountains with seven others (Neal McDonough, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Running Fox) who guarded the place. When a badly injured soldier (Robert Carlyle) arrived at the fort, he told them that he and his men ate each other in order to survive for three months in utter isolation. I thought this film was simply superb. Even though it was a little rough around the edges such as its sometimes distracting soundtrack, I was impressed with its originality. This picture was a melting pot of various genres. It mainly worked as a horror film because of the Native American’s myth involving the fearsome wendigo, a cannibal whose taste for its fellow man increasingly grows over time. It was also effective in being a dark comedy. Certain scenes were purposely amusing to relieve some of the tension prior to the kill and the graphic images of eating or destroying human flesh. One-liners such as, “It’s lonely being a cannibal; it’s tough making friends,” arrived at the most unexpected moments and I could not help but smile. Lastly, it succeeded as a western because it paid attention to the land and its impact on the individuals who occupied it. The main character was conflicted because he was torn between survival and his moral code. Watching the events unfold was such a joy because the ideas were executed with confidence. It was not afraid to take risks and embrace the bizarre. It could easily have been a one-dimensional horror movie about cannibalism in the mountains were characters make one stupid decision after another. (Or worse, attempting to climb down the mountain to “find help.”) But since the premise was so exotic, it took advantage of what we are not normally aware of such as our potential lack of knowledge involving the Indian myth. “Ravenous,” written by Ted Griffin and directed by Antonia Bird, is an overlooked gem with a perfect measure of menace and wit. It might have done poorly in the box office but gained a deserved cult status since then. However, I must warn that this film is not for everyone. It might make some people uncomfortable because of the subject matter or the images of human flesh being eaten raw or even cooked in a cauldron. I loved every minute of it because it was not afraid to show us something different. It makes Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and other commerical cannibalism movies I have seen look like child’s play.
The Road (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, “The Road” focused on a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they traveled to the south of the United States, on foot, in hopes of finding a place where they could be safe from cannibals and starvation. A post-apocalyptic film in every respect, the look of the picture was very bleak–everything was grey and characters were covered in mud and grime. The only warmth that was present was the bond between the father and son as they evaded gangs who killed and ate people and who had stooped so low that they were willing to molest children. Mortensen did a great job portraying a father who wanted to be a model for his son just in case he met an untimely death. I was impressed because even though his character was nurturing (the mother, played by Charlize Theron, passed away), there was a certain toughness about him that was so precise when circumstances turned for the worst. On the other hand, I was very annoyed with Smit-McPhee’s character because he was so whiny about everything. For having a father who obviously tried his hardest to protect and provide for him, during the first half, the kid found every reason to whine and mope. I seriously wanted to shake (or punch) the kid to knock some sense into him. Fortunately, during the second half, he grew on me because he provided a much needed heart to the story, especially when they met an old man and a thief, Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams, respectively. As much as this film was depressing, I didn’t think it was monotonous like some audiences suggested. I thought it was very suspenseful, especially the scene when the father and son went into a cellar to find the most horrific images. Strangely enough, I also thought it was hopeful because of the strong relationship between the two leads. They kept talking about a “fire” inside them (a religious implication, I’m not entirely sure) that helped them to continue their journey while at the same keeping their humanity. The tone was complex and it was definitely easy to get lost in bleak atmosphere if one was not emotionally invested in the characters. As the film came to an emotionally draining conclusion, I started to think about life and how it would eventually end for myself, my friends and my family. It just made me incredibly sad and I couldn’t help but turn on the waterworks. “The Road” may not have been as strong as critics expected it to be but it’s nonetheless a solid film with a heart despite the exploration of the darker side of humanity. There was something very poetic about the whole experience right from the start so I was glued all the way through.
★★★ / ★★★★
This is one of those first American films I saw when I was about six or seven years old. Even though I had little understanding of the English language back then, I found myself mesmerized with what was happening on screen. Directed by Frank Marshall, “Alive” was about a group of survivors, led by Ethan Hawke as Nando Parrado and Josh Hamilton as Robert Canessa, whose plane had crashed in the Andes mountains back in 1972. Not only did they have to deal with the plane crash and the death of their mates and loved ones, they had to deal with starvation, plunging temperatures due to the weather, avalanche, and eventually finding a way out because the rescue teams had given up looking for survivors. Revisiting this picture after thirteen years after I’ve seen it for the first time, the images were that much more haunting and their journey that much more unbelievably brave. Their willingness to survive to the point where pretty much all of them decided that they would eat human flesh was so touching. It definitely made me think what lengths I would go to if I were put their situations. But I liked the fact that cannibalism was not the focus on this film because it was so much more than that. Instead of being a movie about people who got stuck in the mountains and cannibalism, it was a movie about how much the human body can withstand and how willpower can push us to our extreme limits and beyond. I found this to be a very moving tale and at times I couldn’t believe the trials that the survivors had to go through. My only minor complaint about the film was that I would have liked to see the real survivors get interviewed instead of John Malkovich (as great as an actor he is). I think the movie would have been that much more personal if the actual people recounted what had happened to them. If I had not rewatched this movie again, I would have easily labeled it as “that one movie where the plane crash survivors ate each other.” But now I know better and I consider it a dishonor to those who survived to label the film merely as that. This is a harrowing and haunting picture but there were definitely signs of uplift and hope which highlight the human spirit.