Recently, being in the mood for something that would leave us wrung out, we 'treated' ourselves to a rewatch of Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST at Probert Towers. It's no surprise that this film often tends to be discussed and compared with cannibal movies produced around the same time, such as Umberto Lenzi's MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY and DEEP RIVER SAVAGES, and Sergio Martino's SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD. But whereas Lenzi and Martino’s intentions were to make purely exploitative gory jungle adventures there’s a lot more going on in Deodato's picture. Indeed, despite the parts of it that no-one can condone, I think the rest of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST displays a level of integrity that allows it to be discussed in the same breath as a different group of films altogether. 'Up the Creek Without a Paddle' may sound a flippant phrase to describe these movies and for anyone who might prefer something more serious sounding then 'Journeys into the Heart of Darkness' would be equally apt. Because that is what these films are – worst case scenarios of what happens when often foolhardy individuals with unrealistic expectations set off into some unknown wilderness. As the story unfolds it becomes obvious to the viewer, but often not to the characters themselves, that they stand little chance of surviving as they venture further into hostile territory. We know that all that actually awaits them is madness and death, that their fated journey is merely a disaster waiting to happen, and all we can do is watch fascinated as it all happens before out very eyes, sometimes in an almost unbearably protracted form.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is a grim, unpleasant, unrelenting film. It has deservedly courted controversy and ironically has nearly destroyed the career of its director while at the time being the best thing he has ever done. It's an easy target for those who wish to criticise it, and the use of animal footage has been deemed misjudged by pretty much everyone, including its director. Apart from the obvious reasons, it's a great shame that footage was included at all as it has served to detract from what is a biting, beautifully constructed, utterly harrowing satire on the lengths unscrupulous documentary film-makers could be prepared to go to in order to get results. Of all the graphic and unpleasant horror films made during the late seventies and early eighties, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is probably the only one that has even more relevance today than it did when it was made. The film is now old enough that those who want to see it probably have, and those who know it would be too much for them have sensibly steered clear. But if you like your cinema tense, cruel and edge-of-the-seat-exhausting, if your experience of films from the period has been coloured by the efforts of Lenzi et al, and you haven’t seen CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, I’d recommend you check out the Grindhouse double disc Region 1 DVD release from a couple of years ago that has the ‘animal cruelty free’ option.
For further examples of the sub-genre we need look no further than some of its most respected practitioners. Werner Herzog's AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD is the spellbinding story of a group of Spanish conquistadores who decided to journey up the Amazon in search of the fabled city of Eldorado. We know they're onto a loser from the start but it's only a couple of minutes in, when the camera catches sight of a certain Klaus Kinski, that we know they're utterly doomed. What follows is seriously great film-making, as the intrepid group pushes ever onwards losing men and women along the way, with Klaus eventually doing what Klaus always did best - scaring the hell out of anyone within a 100 mile radius with his contagious madness, chasing monkeys and insisting the few remaining members of his band pilot their hopeless little raft on into inevitable death and destruction. We're with them all the way, through death and disease, hallucinations and madness towards the inevitable conclusion, and the film is a fascinating experience that rewards repeat viewings.
A few years later, and on a much bigger budget, Francis Ford Coppola would embark on a similar journey, taking cast, crew, financiers and eventually, once it was finished, the audience with him as well when he made APOCALYPSE NOW. We're with Martin Sheen all the way as he descends into both literal and metaphorical hells, and by the time his band of weary 'explorers' find Dennis Hopper it's clear they've all arrived at a level of hell only Mr Hopper has probably seen previously. All that's left is for Marlon Brando to tell us, not entirely intelligibly, about “the horror, the horror” and Coppola's operatic journey into his very personal heart of darkness is complete.
Perhaps the most recent contribution to the subgenre has to be Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Viking epic VALHALLA RISING, a film where almost nothing happens and yet the grim atmosphere and unrelenting sense of dread means you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Slow moving but always fascinating, the movie doesn’t really need its on-screen chapter headings for you to know that this is a story about a group of men who have no idea where they’re going or that they’ve completely lost their way. It’s a testament to the skill of the film-maker than so many of the ‘twist’ endings that have been suggested as add-ons to the way the film actually ends are so apt. Everything from the final shot being of an apocalyptic cityscape to Winding-Refn’s own suggestion that a spaceship arrives to carry away the character of One-Eye merely proves that that the “haunted hopeless journey into madness” tale is one that suits any time period.