Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust ★★★★

Cannibal Holocaust has been described by some as pure exploitation for the sake of it and by others as incisive commentary on the perhaps false division between the civilized and the uncivilized. While I have no interest in defending this film’s production, one thing is now perfectly clear to me: the former group completely and utterly missed the point. Although it’s hard to blame them for that.

I don’t really think there are any limits to what can be presented in film or what can function as a means of artistic expression. (I do believe there are limits to how this can be done ethically, of course). At the same time, I often feel that provocative extremes are often taken to be artistic expressions in and of themselves, which is not always the case. With Cannibal Holocaust, I am prepared to argue that the extremes did in fact serve an artistic purpose, but I don’t think that purpose was worth putting people (and animals) through this kind of ordeal.

The score is surprisingly strong and important to the story here. At times, it feels irreverent—almost nostalgic—making the movie’s incursion into a hostile jungle feel like a camping trip. Then it turns on a dime to become harsh and unwelcoming, reflecting tribal attitudes toward their uninvited guests.

This film is perhaps best known for its scenes of animal cruelty, which are indeed horrifying and disgusting. There’s really no defense for them whatsoever, as every aspect of them could have been recreated with practical effects. In terms of their role in the narrative, however, there is indeed a discernible motivation for the disturbing imagery.

Cannibal Holocaust’s unusual structure starts with a professor and his guide searching for a missing documentary crew before you see any of the footage said crew shot. We’re forced to endure a litany of horrific violence and brutality before we even see a moment of the film crew’s time in the jungle.

Only once we’re sufficiently disturbed do we see how the white people fared—and it’s not great. I had assumed—and perhaps this speaks to my own prejudices—that it was the cannibal tribespeople who perpetrated the infamous turtle-killing scene, but no, that would be the visitors from New York.

Since I don’t recommend anyone watch this film—in fact I strongly discourage it—I don’t have any problem revealing its conceit (consider this a spoiler warning), which is that the white explorers are not only just as brutal and bloodthirsty as the natives, but they are actually far worse because they have chosen to commit inhuman atrocities with no provocation—just for the fun of it. First, they shoot one of the natives so that he will move slowly enough to be tracked back to his village. Once there, they corral the village’s occupants into a small hut at gunpoint and light it on fire in a scene that’s eerily reminiscent of Come and See’s shocking conclusion—a fact which perhaps provides some insight into the meaning of the film’s title. During this sequence, the warm, tender musical theme comes back to re-contextualize itself into a twisted celebration of torture and bloodlust.

Denial and self-deception are layered on at the very end, when the media and academic authorities who had been so eager to show the world the shocking brutality of the natives suddenly—after seeing what the white invaders did—decide that the footage should be destroyed.

This reversal might have been difficult for many to see because the full message is only revealed in the last 15 minutes or so of the runtime, and getting there means enduring a full hour and a half of near-constant sexual assaults and of some of the most gruesome and authentic-looking mutilation ever committed to film. Ironically, a movie whose entire purpose was to demonstrate that our assumptions about the “uncivilized” being more brutal and inhumane than the “civilized” ended up appearing to many to be a callous, exploitative argument in favor of the exact opposite.

This is, regrettably, a common occurrence across many topics. Cuties attempted to skewer the sexualization of young girls in entertainment, but tons of people took it as unironic titillation. Saló set out to depict the profound lack of humanity underlying fascism, but has come to be regarded by many as simply a perverse revelry in violence and degradation. I Spit on Your Grave was intended to be a stark representation of the damage wrought by rape, but it ended up appearing to many as an endorsement or exploitation of it. I’m truly not sure whether to blame the audience or the artists in these situations, but admittedly I lean toward the audience.

With this particular piece, even though I do think there’s a certain dark brilliance to it, I fall on the “not worth it” side of the argument. Surely, there was a way to convey this message that didn’t involve killing several animals and traumatizing countless people. Surely, causing more human suffering is not a prerequisite for exploring the root causes of human suffering.

Sidenote: I haven’t seen Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, but I cannot think of someone worse-equipped to take up the mantle of this film than frat boy meathead Eli fucking Roth.

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