Department of Theatre and Film
Introduction: '. . . And the Food Was Terrible!': Food in the Horror Film
Introductions and Appetizers
It is my pleasure to welcome everyone to the fall 2013 edition of The Projector. As with our previous issue, this edition of The Projector spotlights scholarship on food and film. While our previous issue featured articles on representations of food in films ranging from Blackmail (Hitchcock, 1929) to Ratatouille (Bird and Pinkava, 2007), this edition is more focused, looking specifically at representations of food and eating in horror films.
At first, food films and horror films seem like an odd match. However, connections between these two bodies of films become clearer when one notices how monsters in the horror film often terrorize their victims by threatening to consume them, in other words, to turn human beings into food and drink. Cannibalistic ghouls – ranging from inhuman, flesh-eating zombies to all-too-human fiends like Leatherface and Hannibal Lector – want to dine on their victims’ flesh. Dracula and his vampire kin are out to drink their victims’ blood. Monstrous consumption in horror film is sometimes less obvious. For example, Barbara Creed has written extensively about how horror films often feature monstrous women whose all-consuming, insatiable appetites not only make them horrifying, but also make them a threat to civilization at large.
Indeed, questions about what it means to be “civilized” are often at issue in food films and horror films, which are preoccupied with both the maintenance and violation of taboos. In food films, taboos encompass both the banal – proper table manners, appropriate meal times, the right choice of dining locations and partners, etc. – and the bizarre – the consumption of disgusting, “improper” food product such as feces and other human beings. Similarly, horror films trade heavily in breaking taboos. Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton observe that critics and horror fans bestow the label of “cult” upon horror films that “focus on breaking taboos” as “a central element” (195). A reoccurring element in these boundary-violating cult horror films is cannibalism, the ultimate food taboo. For instance, the infamous list of “video nasties,” films that were banned in the UK in the early 1980s, is replete with titles in which cannibalism predominates: Deep River Savages (Lenzi, 1972), Cannibal Holocaust (Deodato, 1979), and Cannibal Ferox (Lenzi, 1981). One of these titles, Anthropophagus (D’Amato, 1980), became one of the most notorious of the “nasties” due to a scene in which a brutally insane and depraved cannibal (George Eastman) rips a fetus from the stomach of a pregnant woman (Serena Grandi) and ravenously consumes the tiny carcass (Mathijs and Sexton 199). So powerful and repulsive was the film’s violation of taboo that some moral campaigners believed the scene was real and accused Anthropophagus of being a snuff movie (Slater 124).
The Main Course
Mathijs and Sexton argue that “the more radical a horror film’s depictions of bodily harm . . . the more likely it is to attract a cultist audience and be labeled cult” (195), but as the above examples indicate, the radical savagery to which the human body is subjected in these films often relates directly to the notion of eating and consumption. Such is the case with recent films Human Centipede (First Sequence) (Six, 2009) and Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (Six, 2011). Six’s films caused a popular culture sensation with their over-the-top and intentionally gratuitous scenes of violence, torture, and mutilation. Both films feature demented individuals attempting to create “human centipedes,” an organism made up of a chain of human beings sewn together anus-to-mouth. Amidst all the cutting, slicing, and stitching of human flesh, what perhaps causes audiences to become truly queasy has to do with consumption; the man-made human centipede shares a digestive system, so what is consumed by the first person in the centipede is digested and shat into the mouth of the next human unit.
Our first peer-reviewed essay, written by Delores B. Phillips, examines this revolting element of the Human Centipede films. Renaissance toxicologist Paracelsus is credited with the axiom: “In the shit, the gold.” While the attribution of this quotation may be up for debate, what is not debatable is that Phillips’s reading of coprophagia – that is, the consumption of feces – in the Human Centipede films dives into the gore and shit of the films and resurfaces with an illuminating reading, connecting the films to larger cultural trends. Her essay “Eat Shit and Die: Coprophagia and Fimetic Force in Tom Six’s Human Centipede (First Sequence) and Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) explores how the human centipedes’ shit-eating in these films is metaphoric for how information travels from circuit-to-circuit and node-to-node via tweets and memes in our digitally networked culture. Thus, the films “outline the contours of a consumer-based excremental posthumanism.” Phillips’s argument grows even more interesting when considering the new-media-fueled reception contexts of the Human Centipede films, which are distributed by IFC Midnight, the Independent Film Channel’s genre distribution arm, and encounter a majority of their audiences via Video-on-Demand (VOD) release, which is simultaneous with their limited theatrical release.
Consumption, ranging from corporeal consumption like cannibalism to media consumption and our culture’s seemingly insatiable appetitive for violence and carnage, is explored in our second peer-reviewed essay, which examines an earlier taboo-breaking film, the aforementioned “video nasty” Cannibal Holocaust. Over the past several years, Ruggero Deodato’s gruesome, faux-mondo-shockumentary has gone from being relegated to the margins of cinematic culture to occupying a central place in many academic examinations of how horror films can question core cultural beliefs and values. Many effective cult horror movies about cannibalism “demonstrate how uses and practices of the mode of consuming the human body can be widened to include self-consumption, media consumption, and capitalist consumption” (Mathijs and Sexton 200), and Cannibal Holocaust epitomizes this approach. In the film, the audience finds not only flesh-hungry native people in the jungle waiting to consume white Westerners, but also denizens of the “civilized world” hungry for sensationalist footage produced by a unit of ruthless American documentary crew who will do anything – including rape, torture, and murder – to obtain tantalizing footage. Ironically, their quest to produce films for American consumption leads to the crew being consumed by cannibals as their cameras capture the entire grisly scene. Jennifer Brown’s essay “Taboo and Truth in Cannibal Holocaust” acknowledges the radical potential of Deodato’s film by exploring how “Deodato uses cannibalism amidst a plethora of shocking taboos to question the idea of Western greed.” By extension, Brown finds that the film also “question[s] notions of public truth, audience demands, media credibility and the objectification of the subject.” Not bad for a film that was once banned for being exploitative trash.
Our third and final peer-reviewed essay of this issue, Peter Cullen’s “You Are Who You Eat: Cannibalism as a Symbol of Family Breakdown in the Horror Film,” offers an overview of how cannibalism figures into a handful of better-known, more canonical horror films: Blood Feast (Lewis, 1963), Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974), and The Hills Have Eyes (Craven, 1977). Cullen focuses on the different variations of the “family meal” that appear in these films and how these filmmakers make family meals uncanny by inserting cannibalism into the proceedings. According to Cullen, tracing how cannibalism is thematically employed in these films allows one to see how these films document the disintegration of the image of the traditional family unit, a trajectory that had already begun in the 1950s and early 1960s, but was accelerated by the disillusionment of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Focusing on food gives us a fresh perspective on the meaning-making processes of these well-known films.
The three peer-reviewed essays collected here show the value of examining representations of food not only in horror films, but also in films that are not generally considered “food films.” This approach reflects the spirit of Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation, written by Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson, and myself and published by Wayne State University Press in December 2013. We venture outside of the “food film” genre to look at foodways representations ranging from Classical Hollywood fare by John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock to Third Cinema, from “food films” like Bagdad Cafe (Adlon, 1987) to cult classics like Repo Man (Cox, 1984), and from horror films like the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to food documentaries like King Corn (Woolf, 2007) and Food Inc. (Kenner, 2009). Please see the ad for Appetites and Anxieties elsewhere in this edition of The Projector for information on ordering a copy.
What is a meal without a tasty dessert? This edition of The Projector finishes with a treat: a group of five essays on American cinema written by undergraduate film students at Bowling Green State University. The topics covered are wide-ranging; there are essays on Charlie Chaplin, Universal monster movies, the Roger Corman-produced drive-in favorite Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (Arkush, 1979), Christopher Nolan, and Todd Solondz. We include this work here for a few reasons. For students in film production, many college campuses hold regular film festivals to showcase student films and videos. However, there are seldom any corresponding showcases for the equally important work of film studies scholars. We hope to provide such a venue here at The Projector to emphasize the continuing importance of the academic exploration of film, something that needs defending in the face of recent draconian cuts to the humanities departments of colleges and universities. Critical analysis must be kept alive, and the student work here shows that there are undergraduate film studies students up to the task.
Mathijs, Ernest and Jamie Sexton. Cult Cinema: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.
Slater, Jay. “Review of Anthropophagus the Beast.” Eaten Alive! Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies. Ed. Jay Slater. London: Plexus, 2006. 124-27.