Thursday, January 22, 2015

Seven 70's Cannibal flicks off the beaten path

If horror movies sometimes reflect whatever we're paranoid about as a society at any given moment, the horror films of the 70s revealed that, along with the idea of getting possessed or attacked by a large fish with sharp teeth, we became fixated on the idea that someone somewhere would like to eat us. With "Night of the Living Dead", it was zombies that wanted to tear us apart and eat us, but could this really be considered cannibalism? Later films like "Cannibal Holocaust" gave us a heaping dose of xenophobia with our yum yums, with various people venturing into the wild jungle only to be tortured and eaten by the savage natives. A mindless corpse wanting to eat us is one thing, and you've got to expect cannibal tribes to come for you if you travel their hunting grounds, but there's something especially disturbing about cannibal tendencies hiding in plain sight. A distinct kind of cannibal film template started forming in the early 70s that treated the eating of human flesh in a disturbing, matter-of-fact way. If you haven't seen this genre's greatest offering, 1974's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre", what the hell are you waiting for? There isn't much that can match that film's ferocious intensity and bleak depiction of victims dehumanized and treated as meat, but its theme of cannibals luring victims onto their dinner plates exists in a number of early films that came both before and after 1974 (and before 1977's widely-seen "The Hills Have Eyes"). Herein lies a collection of cannibalism flicks that are a little farther off the beaten path, in no particular order.

7. Warlock Moon (1973)
Also known as: "Bloody Spa"

Featured on Groovy Doom just a short while ago, this movie really took me by surprise. A low-low budget effort that nevertheless attains that elusive atmosphere that a horror movie aspires to, "Warlock Moon" tells the tale of a young female college student who finds herself fascinated by a mysterious abandoned resort that her new boyfriend brings her to for some exploring. After discovering a friendly but strange old woman seemingly living alone there, the girl slowly begins to realize that she's been selected to be served as a hearty meal for a cult of devil-worshipping cannibals. Piecing together some local folklore, she learns the cult is eager to recreate their perfect sacrifice, which was when they served a young bride's body to a horde of unsuspecting, hungry guests attending a banquet in her honor.

This movie strikes a unique chord by linking Satanism and cannibalism, bringing the iconic representation of a flesh-eating witch from a fairy tale into a modern environment where even a young college student could be menaced, and although the budget is very low, it's one of those worthwhile tradeoffs where the lack of money brings out great creativity in the filmmakers. There are also a number of well done scenes between the two leads, Laurie Walters and Joe Spano.

6. The Ghoul (1975)
Also known as: "Night Of The Ghoul"

Released in 1975 and helmed by veteran director Freddie Francis, "The Ghoul" is not one of the more celebrated British horror films of its era. This could be due to its lethargic pace and obscure premise. What it does have going for it is Peter Cushing, who plays a disgraced former priest living a secluded lifestyle in a mansion on the moors, seemingly with only a few servants. When a group of posh revelers take part in a drunken racing challenge, one car breaks down by Cushing's manse, its two occupants turned into victims. The young man is disposed of, while the lovely young woman winds up on the menu for the mansion's secret resident: Cushing's demented son, who apparently picked up a taste for human flesh while Cushing had his family in India with him doing missionary work. Although it's extremely slow moving, what we're really seeing is a British take on the then-burgeoning horror trope involving isolated cannibalistic clans. The weird cook in this film is an Indian woman who lives with the family and presumably prepares The Ghoul's unusual menu, which is a far out concept when you think about it. What a niche market cannibalistic chefs must commandeer.

"The Ghoul" is worthwhile more for what it doesn't show than for what it does, and you can believe me when I say it doesn't show a lot. It lacks the gore and sex that was in demand by 1975, and features some laughable not-so-special effects when The Ghoul finally stumbles out into the open at the end. He's revealed to be an ordinary looking guy with a shaved bald head and...a green lens filter over his face. Oh yeah, and he also has a traveling blurry spot that goes with him when he moves, although what they were trying to give the impression of with that I will never know. But "The Ghoul" has a fantastic feel to it thanks to the foreboding settings. The mansion itself is really interesting, with stratospheric staircases and intricate woodwork. John Hurt appears in a role that could best be described as a parallel to "Texas Chain Saw"s bizarre Hitch-hiker character (and to think, just a few years later he gave birth to an alien). Of course Peter Cushing is as compelling as always here, especially the moment in the script when he weeps over a portrait of his departed wife. In reality, Cushing's wife had recently passed away, and it is her picture in the frame.

See? All it takes to make a ghoul happy is a little pot.
5. Folks At Red Wolf Inn (1972)
Also known as: "Terror House", "Terror At Red Wolf Inn", "Secrets Beyond the Door", "Club Dead", "Terror On The Menu"

"...and if you want, we can even name our first child Tonka."
What would you do if you were a lonely college student and a Nigerian prince sent you an e-mail that said he needed your bank account to deposit a few million dollars? Well if you were Regina McKee, you would probably agree, because in this movie she falls for an even more outlandish scam: a letter she receives just in time for spring break announces that she's won an all-expenses paid vacation to a seaside resort, and when she calls the phone number they give her, she's told a private plane is coming to pick her up that very day. What she doesn't realize is she's on a collision course with cannibalism, a potential victim of a lovely old couple who lure girls to their mansion, where they are pampered and overfed before being slaughtered and served for dinner the next night (only the hosts, of course, know what the meat really is). Regina breaks the cycle when she and the old couple's bizarre young "grandson" Baby John take a liking to one another, but will it be enough to keep her from becoming pot roast?

"Folks At Red Wolf Inn" features an off kilter atmosphere that is rather unique. The horror elements aren't overstated, with very little onscreen violence and only the tamest of gory content. Instead director Bud Townsend emphasizes the oddball personalities of both the cannibals and their guests, with a memorable cast of interesting character actors. This movie got under my skin because even though it doesn't have the brutality of "Texas Chain Saw Massacre", the horrifying aspects came from unexpected places. It is a very early treatment of cannibalism as a matter-of-fact plot element, presenting characters who slaughter human victims like animals and eat them for food, yet still have to interact with them socially in order to maintain their food supply. The film's cynical twist is that it has shown us how Regina dodges her fate and has come to accept this lifestyle of cannibalism and murder as a trade off for finding love. It also contains one of the most unsettling dinner scenes ever committed to film, as a small dinner party takes part in an orgiastic feast on what we suspect to be human ribs, with half of the guests unaware that they're stuffing their faces with the remains of a human body.

The performers are all appealingly quirky as well. Veteran character actors Mary Jackson and Arthur Space are quietly menacing as the old cannibal couple, Jackson later becoming well known to a generation of TV viewers as a recurring character on "The Waltons". Margaret Avery who later appeared in Spielberg's "The Color Purple" appears here as a Red Wolf Inn main course named Edwina. Lead actress Linda Gillen is charming as the naive Regina, who is first lured to the estate as a meal but is ultimately seduced into the cannibal lifestyle by John Neilson, whose performance is weird and startling. Neilson's character is quiet throughout most of the film, suddenly lurching into terrifying violent outbursts, such as the moment that fans of the film have come to know as "the shark scene". Just watch.

4. Welcome To Arrow Beach (1974)
Also known as: "Tender Flesh", "Cold Storage"

Young drifter Meg Foster finds her early-70s mellow seriously harshed by a guy who keeps his freezer well stocked with the human victims that he lures to the house he shares with his sister. When he invites Meg to stay, she stumbles upon his meat-eating secret and escapes. Returning to the house with a sympathetic young man she meets when she's hospitalized, she manages to convince everyone that she isn't tripping after all.

"Yeah man, it was like, you know, really bad like the brown acid at Woodstock, man...."
Although not as violent as the film's ads would have you believe, "Welcome To Arrow Beach" does have some blood and one gross-out shock, a brief but satisfying moment when the freezer and its bloody contents are revealed. It's worth noting that when the film was re-released in the 80s as "Tender Flesh", the film's poster boldly proclaimed that this scene would be the most terrifying sight of your life, so it's a good thing they at least tried to make this moment scary. What makes "Welcome To Arrow Beach" so memorable though isn't really its horror, but its heavy 70s vibe. This film is also notable for featuring a number of well-known actors, including Foster, Laurence Harvey (his final film), and Joanna Pettet.
The cleaning staff is gonna be pissed when they see this.

3. Raw Meat (1973)
Also known as: "Death Line"

A somewhat more obscure British production that has found a greater audience on home video after a DVD re-release in 2003, "Death Line" was the original title before it played American theaters as "Raw Meat", a delightfully lurid title change that emphasizes the cannibalism aspect of the story. A series of disappearances in a particular station of the London Underground turns out to be the work of a demented tunnel dweller, a descendant of a group of workers who were hopelessly trapped in a turn-of-the-century tunnel collapse and presumed dead. Instead the group survived and continued on by eating their own dead. When his mate dies, this last living descendant starts to venture out into the underground to search for human victims to bring back to his lair for food.

David Ladd and Sharon Gurney are featured as a young London couple caught up in the murder investigation, Donald Pleasance sports a heavy accent as the Inspector in charge of the case, and Christopher Lee makes a cameo appearance as well. The movie isn't nearly as violent or gory as the trailer wants you to believe, but the premise is pretty nightmarish and there are a few strong moments, including a slow pan around the cannibal's lair revealing bodies in various states of decomposition and consumption. Although the cannibalism is implied rather than shown graphically on screen, the cinematography is pretty creepy, and the look of the movie is appropriately morbid and gloomy.

2. Cannibal Girls (1973)

Hailing from the same era as most of the other films on this list, "Cannibal Girls" is a Canadian twist on the people-eatin' theme, directed by Ivan "Ghostbusters" Reitman. Although "Cannibal Girls" could also be considered a low budget blend of comedy and horror, don't expect anything along the lines of "Ghostbusters". "Cannibal Girls" is set against the backdrop of the wintry Canadian countryside, with Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin (YES!) as a road tripping couple who stumble upon the legend of three ghostly cannibal girls in a quaint rural village. These supposed cannibal girls lived in a home that's now (supposedly) been turned into a (supposed) restaurant, so naturally our curious couple wants to visit, where they find out that some legends (and recipes) are just too good to not be true. Although there isn't much actual gore in "Cannibal Girls", the producers felt the need to include a William Castle type gimmick where an alarm sounds just before anything (supposedly) violent is about to happen, just in case you want to look away. Selling the movie with the promise of violence isn't the same thing as actually showing violence, and "Cannibal Girls" is about as tame as it can get. But it's oh-so-70s, and I am a total sucker for that.

She can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan...
1. Messiah of Evil (1973)
Also known as: "Dead People", "Revenge Of The Screaming Dead", "Deep Swamp", "Messiah Of The Evil Dead"

A young woman travels to a small seaside town searching for her father, who has stopped communicating with her under mysterious circumstances. She finds that the town has been infected by the return of an occult figure known as the Messiah of Evil, who inspires the local townspeople to take up cannibalism. They also may or may not be dead.

I wanted to leave zombie films off this list, but this one is a must because zombie lists don't really want "Messiah of Evil", either. There aren't any real zombies in it, since the pasty-faced 'dead people' in the film aren't always visibly zombified, and they are able to walk, talk and run. Zombies don't run, do they?

"I told you before, I'm not a zombie, zombies aren't blue. Well, not THIS shade of blue, anyway."
"Messiah of Evil" earns its modest creep factor by depicting its villains as ordinary-looking people who have all been 'infected' by a conspiracy to attack people and consume their flesh. Although we never really see much of the Messiah of Evil, he's depicted holding 'sermons' where he seems to convert people to cannibalism as some sort of religious experience. The movie is an atmospheric slow burn punctuated by a few attack scenes that are low on gore but staged extremely well, particularly one where a female victim finds herself trapped in a supermarket and realizes she's about to become the daily special.

As far as the cast goes, the cult movie cred in "Messiah of Evil" is through the goddamn roof. Marianna Hill is the lead actress, she of such classick films as "The Baby", "Thumb Tripping", and "Blood Beach". Anitra Ford makes one of her precious few genre film appearances as well, and while her role isn't as juicy as it is in "Invasion of the Bee Girls", it's still a pleasure to watch her. Also on hand is Michael Greer, who appeared in films such as the fantastic "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart" and "The Gay Deceivers". Joy Bang also features in this, doing one of her best characterizations as one of Michael Greer's two female traveling companions. She also has one of the film's best scenes, where she's attacked in a movie theater by an ever-increasing horde of cannibals who come into the theater and slowly gather behind her, like the crows gathering on Hitchcock's playground.


It's probably inevitable that several of the films in this genre, as well as a few listed here, share very similar elements, but some of the plots are so alike that you wonder who had the first idea. "Folks at Red Wolf Inn", "Welcome To Arrow Beach" and "Warlock Moon" all feature older cannibals luring potential young female victims to their intended doom, as well as an important "what's in the freezer?" moment where the protagonist discovers the truth about the mystery meat she's been eating. Curiously, "Cannibal Girls" has an unexpected connection to "Folks At Red Wolf Inn" as well, due to its silly William Castle style gimmick of a "horror horn" going off before the supposedly gory moments; and in "Red Wolf Inn", when Regina opens the freezer to find decapitated heads, we hear the same oogah car horn sound. There's also some major crossover between "Cannibal Girls" and "Warlock Moon", as both of them feature a local legend mixing ghosts and cannibalism. Coincidence, or were they all copying each others recipes? Only the chefs know for sure.

1 comment:

Jeff J. said...

Laurie Walters was also Joanie Bradford on Eight is Enough.