By Gavin Baddeley

Cannibalism remains, perhaps, the ultimate taboo. Certainly it’s provided filmmakers with plenty of grisly inspiration over the years, particularly in the horror genre. You might argue that all of cinema’s greatest macabre myths – vampires, werewolves, zombies – are at their core about cannibalism. But it was the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre that brought the traumatic prospect of man-devouring-man out of the Gothic twilight and into the blazing American sunshine, hitting unsuspecting audiences like a freight-train way back in 1974.

The new Chainsaw film is the latest production to drag viewers back into that horrifically fecund Texas slaughterhouse, to confront us with the traumatic truth that we are not so different to the bloody flesh we take from the fridge, cook, and put on our plates. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins with a monologue that implies that the film is based on a true story drawn from ‘the annals of American history’. The rawness of the film gave it an almost documentary feel, which added to its impact, but its reputation of being adapted from real events is an exaggeration at best.

The crimes that helped inspire the script were those of a handyman named Ed Gein. They were the deeds of one man, not a family, the victims were either middle-aged or already dead, not young, took place in windswept Wisconsin not muggy Texas, and didn’t involve any chainsaws. Significantly, perhaps, the only unifying factor between the Gein case and the films was that, in both, the victims were hung like sides of meat. A surprisingly large proportion of cannibal films claim to be based on true stories, though many are as tenuously faithful as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Gein connection.

For example, the crimes of Fritz Haarmann, ‘the Vampire of Hanover’ – who raped and butchered over 20 young men and boys before being guillotined in 1925 – have inspired numerous films. Including the 1931 classic M, perhaps the first great serial killer movie, though the film passes over the widely held belief that Haarmann sold the flesh of his victims to his unwitting neighbours as meat. This becomes the focus of the Haarmann-inspired film The Mad Butcher, made 40 years later, and is, surprisingly, a bawdy comedy.

While cannibalism is most obviously a source of visceral horror, over the past century of cinema there have also been singing cannibals, sexy cannibals, comical cannibals and – heaven help us – even consensual cannibals. So, please join us as we celebrate the release of Texas Chainsaw on DVD with a whistle-stop tour through some of the more memorable landmarks in flesh-eating film history. Bon appetit!…

Sweeney Todd (1936)

Ham and Meat Pies…

This is surely a signature performance by Britain’s first horror star, the portly melodrama villain Todd Slaughter, who attacks the role with characteristic lip-smacking relish. The – highly dubiously true – story of a murderous barber, whose victims end up in pies, was filmed twice before, but this is probably the earliest surviving version.

Africa Screams (1949)

Anthropohagus and Costello…

Starting with Trader Horn in 1931, the ‘safari film’ became a Hollywood staple, where ‘great white hunters’ faced exotic – frequently somewhat racist – perils in the African bush, not least hungry native cannibals. Africa Screams is at least a satire, in which a tribal chief longs to sink his teeth into dim-witted comedian, Lou Costello’s, ample rump.

The Time Machine (1960)

Having the Relatives for Lunch…

The best adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel, where an intrepid Victorian time traveller discovers a dark future, in which one species descended from humanity, the bestial Morlocks, keep another post-human race – the passive, childlike Eloi – as livestock. Whether this technically qualifies as true cannibalism or not, it makes for intriguing food for thought.

Blood Feast (1963)

Nothing So Appalling in the Annals of Horror!…

The first true ‘splatter movie’, which employed an excess of cheap gore effects as its chief – arguably only – selling point, it details the efforts of a demented Egyptian caterer to obtain sufficient human body parts to create the titular cannibal buffet in honour of the goddess Ishtar. It’s director, Herschell Gordon Lewis likes to compare it to Walt Whitman’s poetry:  “It’s no good, but it was the first of its type.”

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The Mad Butcher (1971)

Sausage Lovers… Don’t See This Movie…!

Like the meaty delicacies manufactured by the plump sausage-maker of the title, this black comedy isn’t to everyone’s taste. But this zany exploration of inadvertent cannibalism in 1920s Vienna enjoys a cult following among devotees of vintage Euro-schlock, not least thanks to the performance of Victor Buono as the cuddly killer.

The Man From Deep River (1972)

Where Adventure Ends… And Hell Begins!…

The film that can take the credit – or blame – for initiating the infamous Italian cannibal subgenre, is itself a rip-off of the brutal Hollywood Western A Man Called Horse, where a white aristocrat is captured, tortured and finally accepted by the Sioux. The Man from Deep River updates the format, transplants it to the modern Thai jungle, and introduces a rival tribe of cannibals.

Soylent Green (1973)

Make Room! Make Room!…

While even including this film on our list qualifies as a minor spoiler, no discussion of cannibal cinema would be complete without a mention of this classic of dystopian science fiction. The fact that this is the final performance by Edward G. Robinson gives further poignancy to an already highly effective film.

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Cannibal Girls (1973)

They Do Exactly What You Think They Do!…

A micro-budget, cannibal cheese-fest from Canada, which features enough sexy ladies, bad 70s fashions and cheap gore effects to help you overlook the nonsensical plotting and dubious acting. Also features the infamous ‘warning bell’ to warn sensitive viewers of an imminent shock!

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

My Brother Makes Good Head Cheese…

One of a series of films, starting perhaps with Hitchcock’s Psycho (released in 1960 and, like Chain Saw… purportedly based on the crimes of Ed Gein) that transplanted horror from misty Transylvania and into America’s backyard. In the process it took one of the USA’s most treasured traditions, the family barbecue, and turned it into the stuff of nightmares.

The Countess Perverse (1974)

Hunting Humans Was Her Favourite Game…

A lively adaptation of Richard Connell’s much-filmed man-hunting-man story, ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, directed by Spain’s sultan of sleaze, Jess Franco. Being Franco, both hunter and quarry are naked, nubile and female, and the cannibalistic fate of those who fail to escape is depicted in queasy detail.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

The Family That Slays Together…

Cult horror director Wes Craven pits one, apparently perfect, nuclear family, against another literally nuclear clan, irradiated mutants hungry for human flesh. Inspired by the Sawney Bean legend, the – likely mythical – saga of an inbred clan of cannibals who reputedly terrorised medieval Scotland.

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Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)

A Feast of Sensuous Excitement…

Combining the most lucrative porn franchise of the 70s with its most lurid horror trend must’ve looked like a sure-fire winner to infamous Italian exploitation king Joe D‘Amato, the director also responsible for such sleazy genre crossbreeds as Porno Holocaust and Erotic Nights of the Living Dead. More sweaty than erotic and nauseating more than scary, D’Amato’s queasy B-films still command a dedicated following.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Can a Movie Go Too Far?…

Still highly controversial, over 30 years on – a roiling cauldron of casual sadism, sexual violence, actual cruelty to animals, and of course cannibalism – it’s director Ruggero Deodato was even obliged to prove in Italian court that it wasn’t a snuff film. Deodato tried to square the circle by concluding that the true monsters weren’t the Amazonian cannibals but the film’s American protagonists.

Motel Hell (1980)

Meat’s Meat, and a Man’s Gotta Eat…

In many respects The Texas Chain Saw Massacre played for laughs, Motel Hell’s much underrated with some authentically witty lines and a few genuinely disturbing ideas. The candid final confession by the barbecue fanatic Farmer Vincent is a particularly nice touch…

Eating Raoul (1982)

A tasty comedy of bad manners…

An uptight LA couple start preying on unsavoury swingers in this cult black comedy, which plays out a little like Woody Allen meets John Waters. Very offbeat, very funny, very wrong…

Eat the Rich (1987)

You Are What You Eat…

Despite featuring Lemmy from Motorhead and Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall of Young Ones fame, this left-leaning satire featuring cordon bleu cannibalism isn’t as much fun as it should be. There’s still much nostalgic fun to be had playing spot the Thatcher-era B-list celeb however.

Silence of the Lambs (1988)

I’m Having an Old Friend for Dinner…

Made the serial killer phenomenon mainstream, and won no less than five Oscars, an unprecedented haul for a horror flick (though the filmmakers distanced it from the label). It created an antihero of sorts from a psychopath, the lines about Chianti and fava beans surely being the most famous cannibal quote of all time.

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Parents (1989)

What Were They Before They Were Leftovers?…

A quirky horror comedy that takes its perspective from a child’s viewpoint, asking what if a young boy’s worst paranoid fears about his family turn out to be true? Set in a sit-com version of 50s suburbia, its surreal, ghoulish blend of chuckles and chills initially bewildered critics and audiences, but have since attracted a cult following.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

Lust, Murder, Dessert…

Made by the painterly Brit director Peter Greenaway, the film is a characteristically lush, visceral and unusual romantic-crime thriller crossbreed. It’s meditation on food, sex and violence ends with one of the strangest, most disturbing gourmet meals in cinematic history.

Delicatessen (1991)

Gory Gallic Gastronomy…

Inevitably, perhaps, in a French film, the focus for this post-apocalyptic world is culinary, with an apartment block dominated by a grotesque butcher with a highly suspect speciality. In the ultimate Gallic gastronomic nightmare, events spin out of control when the building is menaced by a rebel force of militant vegetarians…

The Untold Story (1993)

The Pork Buns are Off…

One of the most notorious of the Category III films – the certificate given to pornographic or extremely gory flicks from Hong Kong – supposedly based on the true story of a Macao serial killer who made his victims into dim sum. Even by Category III’s harrowing standards, The Untold Story’s a punishing, bizarre ride.

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Cannibal! The Musical (1993)

All Singing! All Dancing! All Flesh Eating!…

Perhaps only the guys behind South Park could take one of the grisliest episodes from the Old West – where a guide ate his companions after running into trouble in the Rocky Mountains – and turn it into a feel-good musical. It features references to the ‘Donner Party’, the other infamous case of cannibalism from the era.

Alive (1993)

The Triumph of the Human Spirit…

Unlike so many of the cannibal films claiming to be based on true stories, Alive actually tries to stay faithful to the case that inspired it, even employing a survivor as a technical advisor. The script endeavours to explore the noble aspects of the tragedy where the survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes and then ate their dead comrades to stay alive.

Trouble Every Day (2001)

I love you so much, I could eat you…

Paris is the city of romance, but in this decidedly strange horror film it also plays host to some scenes of gut-wrenching violence, as well as the kind of pretentious dialogue we’ve come to expect from French cinema. A slow-moving, beautiful, erotic meditation on the link between different carnal desires, Trouble Every Day mesmerised some as it bemused others.

Grimm Love (2007)

Think I’ll Pass On the Weiners…

A film inspired by the surreal case of Armin Meiwes, a German homosexual who advertised on the Internet for someone willing to be literally eaten by him, and incredibly, found an eager candidate. Matters took an even more bizarre turn when Meiwes, then in prison for the murder of his volunteer, sued the filmmakers claiming that depicting him infringed upon his personal rights.

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