Sunday, October 28, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Anthropophagus (aka Antropophagus, Anthropophagous: The Beast, The Grim Reaper, Man Eater, The Savage Island)

Directed by the infamous Aristide Massaccesi (better known as Joe D’Amato, which is the name I will refer to throughout the rest of this piece) and containing a gleefully maniacal performance from Luigi Montefiori (better known as George Eastman; again, the name I will use throughout this piece), Anthropophagus is one of the most notorious Italian horror films. Unfortunately, it’s not very good. When one sees “Directed by Joe D’Amato” at the beginning of the film, the expectations drop, and everything from that point on becomes, “okay, that’s not so bad…I mean, it is Joe D’Amato.” Anthropophagus is no different. The film is excruciatingly boring, but for a Joe D’Amato film it’s nice that the film isn’t littered with awful sex scenes. There’s a lot of wandering around by the characters, but for a Joe D’Amato film, it’s nice that the characters are walking around surrounded by a moody atmosphere instead of spouting off horrid dialogue. Anthropophagus – despite its reputation as being one of the nastiest of the “Video Nasty” films – is quite tame throughout save for two scenes as it is more about tone than visceral gore. If there’s one thing I can say about Anthropophagus, it’s that at least old Joe is trying here. But even when the man is trying, his films are still chores to get through.

Things start out promising as a serene score (the rest of the score is awful as it plays like a bad Arcade game) plays over two German travelers as they walk through a deserted Greek town before arriving to a secluded beach. As they lay on the beach, the woman decides to go for a swim. While in the water she spots a rowboat and swims towards it. As she swims towards the rowboat, we sense something isn’t quite right. At this point, D’Amato switches to the Jaws shot – you know the one; it’s the same shot every film that had a horror scene set in water employed after Spielberg’s film – as we now take the point of view of something that is lurking beneath the water. As the POV approaches the woman’s legs, we get a full-on Jaws moment where the water is filled with the red stuff; we stay with the POV as it approaches the shore before we see a hand wielding a cleaver, and it’s elementary from here on: the cleaver is inserted into the skull of the poor guy on the beach (a shot inspired, no doubt, by The Twitch of the Death Nerve).

So, things get going pretty good to start things off: a nice setting, violent setpiece to open the film, decent enough tension and pacing. All of the elements here suggest that D’Amato and company are going to give us an entertaining – albeit generic – stalk-and-slash horror film; however, what happens after the opening is, quite honestly, shocking and indescribable: D’Amato tries to make a movie.

We jump forward in time from the killings that open the film as we meet five American friends touring the Greek islands. From what I could gather from the interwebs – since it never is explicitly discussed in the film – we have Andy, Daniel, Rita, Arnold, and Maggie. This group of friends meet up with a traveler named Julie (played by Tisa “yes I am Mia’s sister” Farrow – a known entity in Italian exploitation thanks to her role in Zombi 2) who tags along as they wander around the deserted Greek islands. The group, however, is forced to stay on the island, finding shelter in an abandoned manor, thanks to an impending storm. It is in this setting that the group – like an episode of “Scooby-Doo” – happens upon a slew of creepy goings-on in the manor. Chief among these is the introduction of another character: a crazed blind woman – soaked in blood and wielding a butcher’s knife – that pops out of nowhere like some kind of psychotic jack in the box.

And that sounds more interesting than it actually is. You see, we don’t actually know what’s going on in the manor because it’s just a lot of wandering around by candlelight. I mean a lot of wandering around; you half expect the film to devolve into pornography as there is ample opportunity with all of the scenes on the boat or around the manor for those awkward, oft-parodied pornographic scenes where hilariously awful dialogue clumsily segues into sex. It’s honestly surprising that D’Amato kept Anthropophagus sex-free when taking his previous films into account. After all, this is the same man that gave us Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (short an ‘m’ in Emmanuel so as to be sued; gotta love the Italians) and Porno Holocaust (yes, that’s a real thing). In fact, the pacing here is so similar to The Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, an awful piece of D’Amato trash that mixed gut-munching with hardcore sex scenes, that I was seriously shocked (and pleasantly surprised) that Anthropophagus didn’t turn into something so schlocky. Again, D’Amato really liked the idea of people walking around this giant, abandoned mansion by candlelight; it’s not a bad notion, but when it’s the entire middle portion of your film, the pacing becomes a major problem – which is ironic considering what he normally would have filmed and filled those exact same dull moments with in his other films. Still, compared to his other films, Anthropophagus is Suspiria.

It’s not until we actually see The Beast – a local named Nikos whose backstory is actually pretty well done…for it being a Joe D’Amato film – that we even understand that the something that is out there is a man; a crazed man with oatmeal pasted to his face. Dodgy make-up effects aside, The Beast is totally redeemed as a menacing character thanks to the crazed performance from Eastman. This is the person responsible for the killings on the beach, and now he’s stalking the group of travelers. When we’re finally introduced to The Beast – a great scene where lightning flashes outside to reveal The Beast standing in the same room with the blind girl – we understand a little better where we’re heading in the film. From this point on – and after much screaming from for D’Amato to get on with it already – Anthropophagus moves at a pretty decent clip. We still aren’t sure if The Beast is a zombie or just a crazed cannibal until we get a little bit of backstory to explain why he’s there.

In what is probably D’Amato’s highest achievement as a director, two of our travelers (looking for Maggie, the only name worth remembering for reasons we’re getting to) happen upon a cave where the victims of The Beast have been stored. D’Amato was obviously proud of this particular setpiece as he spends a few minutes panning over seemingly everything that is in the cave. It is here, too, that we see the one – and I mean only one – thing that D’Amato ever got right in his career. The setting in Anthropophagus is a perfect backdrop for the ominous presence of Eastman; between the abandoned manor and the cave, D’Amato really was onto something with his setting. However, it is with the scene in the cave that I found myself leaning in a little bit in anticipation of what was going to happen next. I never thought I would find myself having that kind of reaction to a Joe D’Amato film. But here we are.

In the cave, The Beast stalks the two tourists, and as he enters he, two things come to mind: Eastman, having to duck down so as not to hit his head on the rocks above, is effective here, and the cinematography by Enrico Biribicchi is quite nice. I love that all we can hear is Eastman breathing as he slowly approaches his next victims; I’m also surprised that the scene was lit well enough so that the moment can be as effective as it is. The way Biribicchi lights and shoots the scene allows for one small moment that I love: when Eastman enters the cave, we see his breath. A small thing, yes, but the atmosphere is spot-on in this moment. And then the moment of the film – the very thing that caused the conservative dolts in Britain to actually consider the film a “snuff film” – happens. Yes, if you know anything of horror, Italian horror, or the “Video Nasty” home video craze, then you know which scene I’m referring to and why Anthropophagus has such a reputation. The scene is, of course, the moment that Eastman – after having knocked Maggie out, dragging her off screen, earlier in the film – grabs the pregnant Maggie (and this is why she, more than any other character, is worth remembering), rips out her unborn child, and eats it. Now, the scene is nasty in conception (just writing about it makes me feel icky), but it is laughable in execution. What was really just a skinned rabbit wrapped in bacon, “the fetus” doesn’t look remotely like anything, and it’s hard to tell just what the hell is going on to begin with. The disturbing part isn’t the eating of the fake fetus, it’s the fact that D’Amato and Eastman conceived of such a thing.

The films ends with a generic chase – again, Anthropophagus is really nothing more than a slasher film – that climaxes in the other infamous scene of the film. The Beast is pick-axed in the stomach; all of his viscera spilling out, and for a moment, he tries to shove it all back inside himself. Understanding that he is about to die, The Beast tries to keep himself alive by eating his own guts. It’s a scene done with gusto, that’s for sure (again, thanks to Eastman), and it’s a lasting image (just look at the poster art; Eastman eating his own guts is about as memorable a poster image as Fulci’s zombie Conquistador) in a film filled with so much nothing.

So really from about the 50 minute mark on, Anthropophagus is pretty damn good. Again, this is all relative because "pretty damn good" for a D’Amato film is really the highest of expectations. But credit where it's due, I suppose, as the film works pretty effectively for what it is: a cheaply made exploitation film that mixes the Italian gut-muncher with the American slasher film. The film even looks nice for being a trashy D’Amato film; it lacks the energy of other hyper-violent Italian films by Fulci, but then few things in horror cinema can match the 1979-1981 version of Fulci. Nothing in Anthropophagus – particularly the gore-pieces – is done smoothly; it’s all very clunky. But I think that’s part of its grimy charm. Still, though, there are some memorable moments that stay ingrained in the brain: the first time we see The Beast lit up by the lightening; the atmosphere in the cave prior to the film’s most infamous death scene; the way The Beast emerges from a well; and the visceral ending where The Beast tries to eat his own innards to keep himself alive. And I guess what it all boils down to is that each of these moments involves Eastman. If it weren’t for his crazed performance, I don’t know that I remember half of what I do from the film. ­­­Look, I appreciate the sentiment here from D’Amato. I mean, it’s a nice idea to make a “dark and stormy night” type of atmospheric horror film; even better that D’Amato wants to apply a slow-burn methodology so that the visceral punch of the gore – when it happens – has maximum effect. However, I cannot help but wonder what the film could have been had a more stylistic filmmaker tackled the material. 

So just what is Anthropophagus? I mean, I feel as though I have described moments in the film but not really what the film as a whole is itself. Well, it’s hard to say really. As I alluded to earlier, it tries to mix the gut-munching elements of Zombi 2 (as well as other Italian cannibal movies) with the slasher. Everything is set up in the film to play out like a slasher; it seems that D’Amato has his checklist handy so that he can tick off every box of the stalk-and-slash film. However, despite the inordinate amount of aimlessness where characters just wander and wander and wander around that damn house, there isn’t a whole lot of stalking (or slashing). Anthropophagus certainly feels like it’s going to be a slasher/cannibal hybrid, but D’Amato opts more of atmosphere over violence or tension. And when a hack like D’Amato is looking to make an atmospheric horror film, we’re all in trouble. So, it’s hard to say just what this film is. It’s not as clearly a slasher film as the unofficial sequel Absurd (also starring Eastman in an even more crazed performance), which eschewed the cannibalism aspect of this film for a “monster on the loose” kind of slasher that is essentially just an Italian version of Halloween II. And it’s not clearly a zombie or cannibal film. It’s a tediously boring picture, with one good, atmospheric scene, whose reputation far exceeds what actually ends up on your screen should you choose to watch it. However, I will say this: it’s kind of a must-see for horror fans considering it’s talked about so much when the topic of Italian horror or the “Video Nasty” era is brought up.


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