There are films, that as a horror enthusiast and connoisseur, I feel I must watch in order to call myself a true horror film lover. Most of those films I have seen and enjoyed – Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Last house on the Left, Psycho, I spit on your grave, Evil Dead and many many others that are seminal to the genre. One of the few ‘classics’ I had yet to see was ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and the reason I chose not to see it was the animal killings. I’ll say now that I deeply disagree with anything real in horror films, no one should suffer for your entertainment and the thought of anyone enjoying footage of someone’s pain – human or animal – makes me feel sick to my stomach, and doubt the sanity of that particular individual; moreover, I do feel it damages societies collective psyche to indulge in something so morally bankrupt. So even though I have wanted to watch this film and have always hated that I couldn’t watch it, I was never going to cross the line and see it, more importantly, I didn’t want to.
So when I was recently supplied with a version that had all animal scenes edited out, I was overjoyed to finally be able to say I had seen this influential and notorious ‘video nasty’.
For the uninitiated the storyline is as follows – A professor and his guide go into darkest Amazonian jungle to find what happened to the small documentary crew who’d disappeared a year earlier in pursuit of filming a cannibal tribe.
Essentially the first half of the film is about the professor’s experiences and the second half is the footage from the documentary crew.
I liked the screenplay very much; it was unique how the film was basically two halves and your opinions of all the players changes and develops with new revelations and differing perspectives. I was tense for the professor, hoping he’d survive his trip and find what he came for; seeing his experience of the cannibals and how their society worked was intriguing.
The second half was, as the story demanded, mainly exposition, but seeing it unfold and learning the fates of the documentary crew was a harrowing experience.
There are things to admire here – the refusal to see anything as black or white, anyone all good or all bad, it asks who the real ‘savages’ are and its right to ask that question; the damning of the exploitation of sensationalist news stories – something that was just dawning in the world back in 1980 when this film was made – where’s the line? At what point are we encouraging and endorsing what we are supposed to be shaming?
The most obvious shock value here is the brutality of the horror which unapologetically bursts onto the screen and is captured in its every excruciating moment by a film-maker who refuses to look away and dares us to do the same. This is in no way a movie you pop in to watch with friends and eat popcorn, this is not ‘fun’ or cheesy or cool, its punishing and relentless almost to the point of over-saturation but it is effective, and I do feel that almost everything shown had a reason and did not exist merely to ‘scare’ you.
The acting is a little amateur by the unknowns, especially in the film crew, but Robert Kerman as the professor carries the film admirably and is well cast as the audience’s moral compass and stand in.
Director Ruggero Deodato and writer Gianfranco Clarisi had a juggernaut on their hands here, the themes are controversial to say the least, the violence and gore extreme enough to earn the film a banning in 31 countries, the director brought up on obscenity charges (and incidentally murder charges until he could prove that the ‘found footage’ feel of the film was all for show and the actors so gruesomely torn apart on film were alive and well). It damaged both their careers and was apparently deeply regretted by Deodato, particularly the animal scenes.
I cannot comment on them, my feelings about those things remain unchanged and I am glad he regrets them.
But he should not regret making this film.
I cannot say I enjoyed it, its not a film to enjoy, but I respected its contribution to a genre I love and I appreciated its commitment to use the genre in order to say something important about the darkness inside us, our willingness to denigrate those we don’t understand and our lurid thirst to exploit another’s pain for our own profit.
Themes worth exploring, done in a way that only a horror film could.
(but only without the animal scenes)