LIFF27 - Cannibal Holocaust - Cinema Review

'uneven, unfocused and unpleasant'

Before anything else about Cannibal Holocaust should be considered, a pretty hefty moralistic elephant in the room alongside the film needs to be discussed. Cannibal Holocaust contains several scenes of animal slaughter. Not recreated animal slaughter using special effects or camera trickery, but animals being killed on screen for entertainment. Whilst undoubtedly one of the main reasons behind the notoriety the film gained upon its release, it’s still undeniably a major issue surrounding the film even today.

It’s purely coincidental, as Sam has already mentioned, that this site seems to have stumbled through a short anthology of animal cruelty in cinema, with more than one recent review also entering this sordid and unsavoury area of filmmaking. The 21st Century’s easiest form of research - typing something into your search engine of choice - reveals that animal cruelty is perhaps something more prolific in the movies than all those animal welfare notices in the credits of modern Hollywood offerings would have us believe. Even Apocalypse Now, one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made, apparently laid waste to a water buffalo or two (although the circumstances sound slightly less clear-cut than in Cannibal Holocaust).

Whilst some might attempt to argue the case either way, for me it’s pretty simple: animal slaughter and animal cruelty of any kind being carried out to make an entertainment film cannot be justified. The slaughter depicted in Cannibal Holocaust includes (but is not limited to) a turtle being brutalised, a pig being kicked a few times before being shot at close range, and a monkey having the top of its skull cut off whilst still alive (a scene which was apparently shot twice, meaning two monkeys were killed). It makes no difference what happened to the animals after these scenes were filmed; the primary purpose for their deaths was Deodato wanting to make his film more entertaining, more brutal, more extreme. The deaths were not humane, but were intentionally gruesome. Why should any filmmaker have that right?

Whilst this is clearly a major element in both the filmmaking process and in my enjoyment (or lack thereof) of Cannibal Holocaust, it actually makes up a relatively small amount of the film’s running time. Considering Deodato’s film outside of the director’s choice to include animal slaughter - if it is indeed possible to do so - this feels very much like a film of two halves. The first half sees anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) along with a rescue party head into the Amazon region where a film crew went missing some months before, with the intention of either bringing the crew back or finding out what happened to them. This section, whilst somewhat dated, sees Cannibal Holocaust at its best, with Monroe a likeable and well-crafted protagonist approaching the indigenous tribes of the region largely with the respect and caution they deserve.

The second half is mostly made up of the “footage” shot by the missing crew that Monroe recovers, essentially meaning we see the film’s events folded back over themselves and out of chronological order. The second half is much less compelling, with the film crew consistently coming across as arrogant, ignorant, unlikeable and cruel. The film degenerates into scenes not only of animal slaughter, but of unspeakable cruelty towards the native tribes, unnecessarily exhibitionist sex and despicable gang rape, before Deodato brings us his crowning glory with scenes that make Cannibal Holocaust truly live up to its name.

Whilst it’s true that Deodato’s film has had a unquestionable influence on the horror genre that can still be seen - not least through its use of the “found footage” style, now not only prolific in modern horror but also making its mark more and more in other genres as well - in itself Cannibal Holocaust is uneven, unfocused and unpleasant. That is, may I add, before you even consider the animal slaughter carried out in the name of entertainment. Influence be damned: this is a film with nastiness and shock value at its heart made by a director who (even if he today regrets the cruelty he carried out) was willing to plumb any depths to reach new extremes. I may not have been able to take my eyes off Cannibal Holocaust throughout, but for the vast majority of its running time, it was for all the wrong reasons.

The 27th Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) took place from the 6th-21st November at cinemas around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House and Leeds Town Hall. More information is available via the official LIFF website.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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