The End of Freddy’s Revenge: Journal of a Scream Queen

When I first watched the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, I wanted to write something about it but it didn’t feel appropriate to do so at the time. Aside from it covering Mark Patton, the actor who played Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and his life as a gay man during the 1980s and the demons he had to face then, and afterwards, there was one other fact with which I had to contend.

I hadn’t watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. Any of them.

The reason I saw the documentary at all had more to do with the anticipation of, and the recommendation from Sam Wineman, and his upcoming documentary on queer horror for Shudder. I’d already seen Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror directed by Xavier Burgin, and I’ve hoped to see a similar treatment to LGBTQ+ people and themes in the horror genre. In the meantime, however, I realized that what I needed to do — unlike Horror Noire where I began watching some of those films and the work of their actors after viewing it — was watch some LGBTQ+ horror itself, or at least some that played with those elements, for good or ill.

This is where Scream, Queen came in. And even now, despite having written something on Sleepaway Camp and its problematic elements, I’m still not writing about this documentary. Not entirely.

I’d like to think it’s not that dissimilar to how Patton wrote “Jesse’s Lost Journal.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, I’m a freak. Given that this blog is called The Horror Doctor at the moment, and the subject matter we are covering, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. But I might be one of the few people in the horror fandom that watched Scream, Queen before ever seeing the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and the sequel in particular. The fact that I saw that documentary before watching Nightmare on Elm Street 2 probably informed my opinions differently than someone who saw the film cold in their formative years, or even afterwards.

I am one of those relatively straight people, who didn’t hate the sequel. I like the fact that there was an attempt to create something new in the Elm Street mythos before it had really even begun. For me, it made sense that Freddy Krueger, as a being of nightmares, would need a physical avatar to properly interact with a material world without relying on people asleep or a half-delirious state. It also really spoke to me that he would prey on an adolescent dealing with anger and repressed sexual feelings in order to infiltrate his mind and body. Freddy is a child predator no matter which way you look at it, and he exploits whatever he can, non-consensually, to enjoy his favourite past times: pain, suffering, and murder.

If you go even further, you will notice in the second film that he only ever kills men and boys. When you consider how Jesse is humiliated by his coach, belittled by his father, his feelings mistaken as mental illness by his mother, even physically fighting with Grady, and expected to be sexual with Lisa at a popular party in a mansion I just read it all as an LGBTQ teen being thrown into a patriarchal or kyriarchical system where he doesn’t belong — and Freddy is the other side of it, the destructive, violent tendencies in addition to being his own hideous self that obliterates the societal structure and people tormenting him along with his own false sense of self. The way Freddy eventually rips out of Jesse reminds me so much of the monstrous sentient tumour that comes out of Steven Freeling after arguably rejecting his own toxic masculinity born of anger and helpless and alcoholism in Poltergeist II: The Other Side.

It’s no coincidence, to me, that Freddy wears Jesse as a skin, though the reverse is also true. Just as Jesse’s father is the reason he is imprisoned in this literally hot and stifling place of suffocation in Nancy’s old house made from murder, Freddy becomes the prison that he is entrapped within by the dominant social narrative: watching his subsequent actions become distorted into the worst possible atrocities.

The thing is, writers like Logan Ashley in his article “Scream, Queen!”: A Reflection on the Legacy of a Gay Cult Classic Death of the author, and examining what we remember about problematic, “bad” horror point out that Freddy may well represent the view that society enforces on LGBTQ people — on gay men in this case — that their sexuality is wrong, monstrous, and equated with child predation and worse. But it is through Lisa’s Platonic, pure love and acceptance of who Jesse is that makes him realize he isn’t sick or wrong, that he isn’t alone, that he is heard and understood even in the greatest darkness, and that he will survive.

It’s been pointed out a few times, of course, that this was probably not the message that the film intended. Much like Sleepaway Camp and its treatment of Angela Baker — with the character’s reveal as being biologically male and that transphobia — there is a homophobic element where some might see it as Freddy being the unnatural “other sexuality” that the love of a good woman can cure. I’m not going to rehash all of that, or the fact that the film’s writer David Chaskin attributed the homoerotic or phobic undertones to the “performances of a few elements” only to take credit for the homophobic “critique” years after the denial of it.

Logan Ashley in his article argues that Roland Barthes’ idea of “the death of the Author” — that once a work of art is completed it no longer belongs to the creators but to the audience or those that consume or perform in its legacy — can be applied to Freddy’s Revenge in this sense, in that other readings can be attributed to it, such as — again — a work like Sleepaway Camp. And if that’s the case, there is another way this narrative can be interpreted.

All of that leads back to Mark Patton and his struggles, and the conclusions to which he’s come. All of that can be seen in Scream, Queen, this documentary directed by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen, and co-produced by Patton himself in 2019. However before Scream, Queen and after the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Patton made something else.

Jesse’s Lost Journal is a series created by Mark Patton in 2012, posted on Static Emporium in sixty-eight parts, including a Preface from Patton. The premise is that, much like the Journal Jesse Walsh finds belonging to Nancy Thompson in the first film, he writes down his own thoughts as he experiences the events of Freddy’s Revenge … and beyond.

It’s no secret that I love epistolary fiction. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed works such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and Kris Straub’s Candle Cove where journal entries, transcripts, and letters create the narrative of a horror story: this testimony to terrible things and the revelations they contain. Certainly, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust‘s film reels and also Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch mockumentary aspects fall into that place for me. But there are also two other elements I enjoy in my studies, and my own personal interest. For one, I love meta-fictional narratives: works that say something and build on, and from, the frame of the original works from which they are based. The first time I was exposed to this was through John Gardner’s Grendel, the story of Beowulf as told from the perspective of the monster he slays, but I particularly enjoyed Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ comics miniseries Providence — which operates from the idea that Lovecraft created his Cthulhu Mythos from slightly different, but similar events as written down in another Commonplace Book — and E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire that tells the story of what if Max Schreck, who played Count Orlok in Nosferatu, really was a vampire.

And another element I appreciate, relating to all of these points and references, is that of the unreliable narrator.

“Jesse’s Lost Journal” has all of these qualities in spades. Unlike Moore and Burrows’ Providence, or even Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, Jesse’s story begins much like the film in which he exists but even then, there are some … discrepancies. They are subtle, at first, but as you go through you find a very different character to the one portrayed in the film: someone self-aware of his danger and his oppressive surroundings, and will do almost anything to survive.

One fascinating part is how Patton characterizes Freddy and his interactions with Jesse. Fittingly, this prose is where it got pointed to me that Freddy only attacked the boys and men around Jesse, but after thinking about Freddy some more it reminded me of Daniel Sheppard’s Sleepaway Camp and the Transgressive Possibilities of Queer Spectatorship article I referenced in my look at Sleepaway Camp in which he references Sam J. Miller’s “Assimilation and the Queer Monster” in stating that “the queer monster” is an aspect of agony and radicalism that many would like to white-wash or disavow but might be, for all of its problematic nature, a source of strength and power against a tyrannical or heteronormative system. This is something of my own paraphrase, and Sheppard goes on to say that LGBTQ people can relate to the discomfort of this being’s existence, but while that may not work with a being like Freddy — who is a predator and killer of children in the film — in Patton’s “Jesse’s Lost Journal” the protagonist sees Freddy as his tormentor, his jailer, his prisoner, but also his cohort, and sometimes even an agent of freedom. In this context, I think the queer monster definitely applies to Freddy while not taking away from his aspect of being a tool or a stereotype created by the heteronormative patriarchy.

What is so good about metafiction is that it tends to comment on its own nature or narrative structure. The fact that Jesse is wondering where Nancy is and why she hasn’t contacted him in his fight against Freddy can be seen as a commentary on women and gay men being discrimated and separated from intersectional solidarity by a heteronormative kyriarchy. There is also the fact that they have different roles in their stories and the franchise itself: Nancy Thompson in Wes Craven’s first film operates out of a sense of righteous justice and self-agency against the odds and the system of disbelieving and secretive adults. Patton’s Jesse Walsh wants to help those wronged but he has to make sacrifices along the way in so doing. Nancy can’t help Jesse in this system. She comes back in other films, fighting other battles. Jesse continues to wage his own from the shadows, deserving his own time. In the end, he can only help himself.

Jesse also doesn’t end up sugarcoating the situation. He comments on how Freddy’s crimes are downplayed to mollify the citizens of Springwood, Ohio or to entertain audiences while giving him the lion’s share of the blame of all the murders of popular children in an upper-middle class society also says a lot about not just the homophobic of the 1980s, but also the fallout from critics and fans on Mark Patton during that particular period, exacerbated by Chaskin’s comments about his homosexuality giving the film a “gay subtext” where none supposedly existed. Jesse nearly dying and being institutionalized, eventually getting away from Elm Street, becoming homeless for a time, getting to New York, and both creating art and writing in a journal to sort out his thoughts and trauma also has some interesting semi-biographical resonances.

Of course, none of it is precisely factual or biographical. Patton changes facts around and Jesse, well, as I said: I love an unreliable narrator paired up with the conceit that something fictional is real. But I would strongly encourage anyone who has watched Scream, Queen to read “Jesse’s Lost Journal” or vice-versa.

I just want to appreciate the fact that for all the flak that Freddy’s Revenge received, there is so much support and even literature written around it. And I would definitely include “Jesse’s Lost Journal” as something of an artistic commentary and critique of that film, how it was handled, how social elements dealt with it, and that entire time period in which it was made. It is such a great example of deconstruction, reconstruction, and even re-appropriation of its parent narrative’s themes. Also, I dare you to look at how Jesse wins his battle at the end of Mark Patton’s series, and then watch Patton have his own confrontation towards the end of Scream, Queen: a place I never thought they would go, but they did. Either way you look at these parallels, a demon is faced, prices have been paid, unforgettably personal denouements are reached, a burden is possibly owned and shed, and perhaps a nightmare is finally over.

Be Careful What You Take In: Rob Savage’s Host

Some films are a product of their times or, if you’d like to pardon the pun, the Zeitgeist: the Spirit of the times. This is definitely the case of this Shudder Original film Host. Host is a film directed by Rob Savage, co-written by both Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd, and its one of those cinematic narratives created in the fear-soaked environment of the pandemic: of COVID-19.

It takes the form of a Zoom call, in which six young people decide to have a seance with a medium online to pass the time. Obviously, this turns out to be an excellent life — and afterlife — decision as these things go.

The conference call seems be on a Macintosh Apple computer based on all the colourful buttons, and the Zoom platform itself transitions between the different windows of the users involved as a six-panel screen format, and sometimes a single screen when the story needs to focus on one character. It feels like a call, like you are in the chatroom seeing people get invited in, and having little glimpses into their quarantine lives. It feels like an epistolary fictional narrative, only live. There are no letters, journal entries, transcripts, or even texts but if you take it as a recording of the situation you see these different narratives united under one theme. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Host is a found footage film, arguably a cinematic descendant of the epistolary, that feels as though it is live: that it is happening as you watch it.

Unlike The Tribe Murders, another short Zoom-modeled film that, in the words of H.P. Lovecraft “is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax,” there is no disclaimer at the beginning telling you that this happened because, very simply, it is happening as you watch it. There is no past-tense here. Only the eternal, oppressive, over-present.

The pacing of the film is excellent. You have six friends brought together in different places holing up against the pandemic, going about their lives as best they can and under different circumstances, while talking about their lives, and sometimes even gossiping about each other beyond their backs before coming onto the screen. You know it’s the beginning of the end when the six characters can’t take the seance seriously, and try make a drinking game from hearing the words “astral plane” from the medium who so graciously offers to guide them through the ritual.

Strangely Seylan the medium herself as she guides the characters — who are, for the most part, irreverent — brings a feeling of tranquility, even ASMR to the chat with her voice, her calm instructions, and her gentle manner. It makes the tense worse because you know that despite the previous joviality, the latter is a false serenity, a deceptive sense of security. Slow-burning stories or, Hitchcock’s “anticipation of the bang” happen this way. The manifestations of everything that goes wrong are planted in subtle images or distortions, little visual and audio feints and red-herrings, but ultimately the tragedy begins from a sense of utter irreverence against an invisible force that the Zoom participants have vastly underestimated. By the time things get serious, the effects are simply extensions of the infection that has already been growing, its signs already there, the connections not cut away in time.

There is a lot of that language in here. There are at least two themes in Host, not including the title as well. It had only been towards the end of the film that I realized it, and began to think about these elements. The first is the togetherness yet distance of the Internet. A Zoom call, like Skype before it, brings people together while being spatially distant. Seylan goes out of her way to tell each participant to visualize a connected string to their doors should they want to terminate communication with any spirit: kind of like how you would stop a Zoom call. At the same time, even the medium has to think about how to adapt her ritual to an online forum: which she has never done before. Usually, the rite involves physical touch and more direct guidance from the medium or spiritual expert in question: in far more tactile, tangible, and ritualistically secure settings.

To be honest, while some characters are practical jokers, I think in a lot of ways the character of Seylan is the most irresponsible: starting these young people on a potentially dangerous activity, and then leaving them to get a package, and not following up when her Zoom call gets dropped. She also doesn’t consider actually encouraging the characters to have physical elements beyond candles to help them have something material to ground themselves into the ritual. Sometimes, for all the information the Internet has, online existence loses something from the offline world in translation, and this disconnect can make all the difference.

At the same time, when you utilize the Internet as a medium to communicate and you don’t follow the right protocols or you disable privacy, or take it for granted, anyone or anything can be seeing or listening in on what you do. In this sense, this is both a twenty-first century cautionary tale, and an element from the entirely timeless folklore of human hubris.

The Internet and the spiritual intersect in another sense. You need to be careful about what information you broadcast, or put out there. In this case, it’s a falsehood — a story — told by one user that ends up becoming a mask, an anonymous persona, for an unwanted, malicious guest.

This feeds into the film’s other theme, the more implicit one. While the dangers of the Internet and that feeling of connection conflicting with detachment and disconnect are there and the characters operate in that background of life as usual while struggling against global despair, the pandemic itself is another major part of the story.

Remember what I’ve said about the Zeitgeist. If F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu serves as an artistic attempt to exorcise the demons of World War I in Germany, if the jinn in Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow represent the darkness of the Iran-Iraq War and Iran’s fundamentalist patriarchy, and if Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and José Villarrubia’s comic Infidel deal with the forces of xenophobia in contemporary America as ghosts feeding off hatred, I think there is something to be said about Host and its status as a piece of horror symbolizing the fear of the pandemic.

It is no coincidence that it’s due to the actions of the characters in underestimating the powers of unseen forces to the naked eye, and downplaying manifestations — or symptoms — of the supernatural that everything begins to unravel. In fact, it’s only one of the characters, Jemma, who brings a false narrative — or a false positive — into the procedure out of boredom that their spiritual, and material spaces are compromised by a hostile, foreign agent. One of the characters, Radina, looks pale and sick before the seance begins. Jemma claims to feel a tremendous pressure on her neck, making it hard for her to breathe. Everyone involved doesn’t even consider the other people in their spaces, not participating in the spiritual activity but still present: and how they put them at risk.

Haley is the only one of the characters aside from the medium who she brought into the Zoom call that takes the entire situation seriously, but it’s too late as she’s been exposed to the break in their neutral safe space. Caroline’s Zoom background of herself eternally repeating the same mundane task, a hope to return back to normal, plays as she is brutally possessed and murdered: life going on after being taken by something for which she hadn’t prepared herself. This looped background becomes something of a mockery for the group, for the normalcy they will never have again, that will never cover up the horror they now understand. Even Emma, who is hiding to her last breath, under her blanket — perhaps symbolizing her former ignorance, a flimsy safety — knows the terror that lurks outside, and that will get her now that she’s let it in: and there is nothing she can do about it. There is no cure for this plague they let into their lives.

Jemma herself hastily grabs a medical mask before fleeing her space, barely even getting it on her nose which one needs to have in order to have some protection against the virus. However, even though she ends up putting it back on, it gets knocked off: as if to say it’s already too late for her, and for Haley whose place she breaks into in order to get some protection from this infection. Of course, it’s too late for all of them as, one by one in both in full knowledge and unknowing they watch each other fall — separated — into absolute helplessness: all because of the mistakes of a few.

The film itself, aside from its jump scares — feints and special effects-wise — especially at the end, are fairly predictable, though I was always wondering who would die first. And there is something about a childhood fear in the form of a music box with a limited time span, with something of a timer — much like the one at the corner of the Zoom platform that needs to be upgraded monetarily — that hits home the fear that permeates our world now. It’s just my read that the demon summoned on this Zoom call is a metaphor. The spectres of World War I, the spirits of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the hungry ghosts of xenophobia and hatred in contemporary Trump era New York, all them would be in good company with this unseen demon — borrowing the tools of our online culture, misinformation and terror — that will consume us if we underestimate it, or ignore it, or pretend that we’ve banished it when we know that we haven’t, when we don’t listen to the experts, when the experts themselves don’t even know the full implications of its adaptation, and we let it in.

When you take this read of Host into consideration, you realize that it doesn’t just mean the facilitation of a Zoom call with privacy that doesn’t exist as is examined in The Tribe Murders, or a chatroom, forum, or platform without moderators that can get hacked by entities revealing secrets and spreading lies. Rather, a host is a person who sometimes takes an unwanted guest into themselves, thinking they are safe or non-existent: and both they, and everyone around watches their space get taken over, and they pay the price. That is the fear I feel that Host plays on, and with, and this — combined with how it presents its aesthetic all the way to the credits being a list of participants in the Zoom call itself (almost all them having the same first names as their characters, by the way) — is nothing short of something terrifyingly beautiful, a prime example of imminent horror, and it should be considered a classic of our time.

Making a Green Inferno Turn Red: Watching Cannibal Holocaust

Designation: Trigger Warning. Reader’s discretion is advised. I will attempt to not become too graphic, but I will refer to things that some people might not like, or feel comfortable reading about, even on a Horror Blog.

Welcome to Phase Two of Looking Out to the Horizon of The Last Road to Hell: Cannibal Holocaust: where this Designation truly applies. My first post deals with my preconceptions of Cannibal Holocaust, and some of the information I’ve looked up about it. This writing will focus on my impressions of the film and its structure, and how I reacted to its contents.

So from last time, to reiterate: the short answer?

It’s messy.

I think that sentence sums up Cannibal Holocaust. After several trigger warnings, from the film, from Shudder, from even Joe Bob and Diana Prince themselves, we were introduced — or reintroduced — into this cinematic narrative, into this situation. It didn’t start the way I thought it would. Riz Ortolani’s musical score, which is genius and on point throughout the entirety of the film, is cheery and as bright as the lush green trees we see below us from a bird’s eye point of view.

And I didn’t trust it. Not one bit.

The scene then eventually shifts to the city of New York and the bustle of humans within it. This is where we are introduced to Professor Monroe, who gives an interview, in which he is going to help find a team of young filmmakers that went missing attempting to make a documentary about “indigenous cannibal tribes” in the Amazon rainforest.

What I found the most fascinating was examining how the found footage, the epistolary, was used in framing this story. At one point, we are literally introduced to the filmmakers through a close-up at a television screen. This is where we see, and Joe Bob pointed out, that the footage with the filmmakers is filmed with 16mm in contrast to the rest of the movie’s 35mm film, to give it that grainy, realistic, rough feel. Most of the movie itself is Professor Monroe actually encountering the Yacumo and, eventually, the Ya̧nomamö tribes to get confirmation about what happened to the group.

The first is told almost from the end of it, where we see the remains of the group, the aftermath of the tribes they encountered and affected and, finally, the retrieval of their own unedited documentary film in a canister. I found Munroe’s interactions with the tribespeople fascinating in that he began to understand their sense of reciprocity and that while they are warlike — he and his mercenary accompaniment actually interfering with a war between the Ya̧nomamö and the Shamatari, these supposed two cannibalistic tribes, on the side of the Ya̧nomamö to get their favour — and himself is fairly paternalistic about their culture, they tell their stories. You can see it in how they are choreographed in the film to gesture and reenact certain motions of past violence. This whole film, even at that point, is about storytelling, and that really does it for me.

Deodato apparently created Cannibal Holocaust, once titled The Green Inferno because of these supposed practices in the Amazon, as an artistic rebuke of exploitative journalism focusing around violence, murder, and tragedies: how these journalists would accentuate and over-focus on the worst elements to profit off of the sensationalism of it.

Again, for those people who have seen and love the movie, I’m not telling you anything new. But I think what really affected me the most wasn’t the gore as I knew it was simulated: it was acted out. Part of it was definitely the animal cruelty. I teared up when I saw what happened to that turtle. I felt a profound anger at that moment, even though the full sequence proved to be a foreshadowing of what was going to happen to some of the filmmakers later on. I also know that these animals had been eaten after the fact by actors on set, so their lives weren’t wasted. But the way they were killed just made me emotionally detach from the rest of it.

But it wasn’t until later, on these reels retrieved by Monroe, that I saw why the film was truly called Cannibal Holocaust. I am Jewish. I guess, aside from my own individual empathy towards animals over humans — as they are perceived to be more innocent — there is this idea that the way an animal is killed can affect the meat you get from it: a resonance of it. Perhaps in some way this is why Deodato had them killed, as something of a ritual, to ascribe something bloody and visceral into this film that couldn’t be done with human sacrifice. After all, the word holocaust itself is taken from the chief ancient Greek verb Holokautein: made up of holo (whole) and kaíō (burn) which refers to animal sacrifice, and sharing the parts of the being with the gods, and the community, but over time it has been used as a definition for human genocide.

This is where my own cultural resonance went beyond the depicted cannibalism that was displayed at the beginning and end of the film. It didn’t stop informing me when the filmmakers began to attack and torment the Yacumo, destroying their food, and forcing them into their huts and setting their huts on fire: all in an attempt to stage a “tribal war” to record. And it definitely didn’t stop when the filmmakers took turns raping a Ya̧nomamö woman, and possibly impaling her afterwards to make it look like a “senseless honour killing.” This is where, as one of my teachers put it, the karma is set and they are going to pay it. You know that these filmmakers, whose remains we find earlier in the film, deserve everything coming to them. That is my feeling. But it’s more than that. For me, these were the moments, especially based on finding out what they did with their previous documentaries, it just hit home that they didn’t even see these people as human beings.

They were just toys to “play with,”  in order to gain fame from the stories they forced on others. They dehumanized them, treated them like objects, tormented, killed them whenever they wanted, and recorded it. Even the one woman in the team, Faye Daniels, is more upset that they are wasting film recording the men raping the tribeswoman and her boyfriend and director Alan Yates having his turn, than because a fellow woman and human being is being violated. These colonial and genocidal atrocities make their resonances clear.

By the time the Ya̧nomamö deal with the group themselves, I found myself having little sympathy for them and you begin to realize that the violence inflicted on these “children of the Space Age” is more justified and understandable than the team and their sense of entitlement to the lives of these people.

Dehumanization is the best way to sum up the theme of Cannibal Holocaust. The tribespeople do it to each other, though in their minds they are fulfilling social functions to keep surviving and their reasons and motivations are no less human than anyone else’s, while the team does it for fame and glory, and even the syndication company that has recruited Professor Monroe wants to use the spectacle of the situation to get ratings. It’s an infection or poison more insidious than any tropical disease or blow dart. You see it in the group’s amputation and abandonment of their guide Felipe and the blasé manner they treat his death, in the way they treat the tribespeople, and even in the manner in which they sacrifice other to the Ya̧nomamö to survive, and failing that, to keep recording.

It reminds me of the words, and the obsession behind them, from F.W. Murnau in The Shadow of the Vampire: “If it’s not in frame, it doesn’t exist.” That fictional depiction of that German film director was willing to throw away human and monstrous lives to make his art immortal. And, in the end, the group’s film reels almost doesn’t exist: kept by the tribe they antagonized, and nearly destroyed by the company that hired Monroe to uncover their story … only for the film to be sold for viewing by the projectionist in order to get his, if you will pardon the terrible pun, pound of flesh.

When Monroe asks, in an internal monologue voice-over — which was also done well earlier in the film through his tape recordings, another element of the epistolary — “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” it becomes pretty clear that it isn’t just the tribe that butchered and devoured the filmmakers. I can see just what Deodato could be arguing: that profiting from the suffering of others is a cycle of self-consumption that will devour us all.

And I can just end this off-the-rails article here. I can talk about how the film slowly pieces together the testament of these four young neo-imperialists through depictions of television interviews, tape recordings, testimonies from the people who knew them, the oral tales of the tribespeople that unfortunately encountered them, and the unedited film reels that create this entire frame story: this narrative beginning at the end and going back and forth into the past to when it all lines up again. I can even point out what Joe Bob mentioned about the film being the precursor to the found-footage subgenre which, in turn, is the result of combining the structure of a Mondo film — a pseudo-documentary depicting taboo subjects — which leads well into the sensationalism of the cannibal film, and the seeming of a snuff-film.

It’s strange to say this with regards to something so brutal and rough in content, but it’s elegant. The pacing is excellent even with the shaking of that 16mm camera work working with, in H.P. Lovecraft’s words, “the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” You can feel it building towards something and the payoff is there. Ortolani’s music is summery and light but also at turns tragic, catastrophically climactic, and unsettling: especially when he juxtaposes them with the other towards the very end. There is a sense of justice to that ending, but there is also a tremendous humanity in the worst possible way, and it does illustrate the power and danger of exploitation. The effects are realistic for their time, and the camera doesn’t focus too long or specifically on them, just to let the viewer put the grisly visual pieces together in their mind.

But when you consider that this film is a social commentary on human consumption, there are just some thoughts that won’t go away. Joe Bob mentions that Deodato not only didn’t credit the indigenous people he got to act in this work, but he also didn’t really make the effort to research the people in the area was using for his film: the ones he had acting as the cannibal tribes. Apparently, the Yacumo aren’t portrayed correctly, with their aesthetics not being as they are in the film. And the Ya̧nomamö not only aren’t at war with the Sanumá (the Shamatari) but they rarely practice cannibalism. And when they do, they consume their deceased tribespeople through an elaborate funerary ritual to keep the spirit of that individual alive among them. It has a meaning, and it is not a punishment.

See, one of the things I keep thinking about now is what could have happened if Deodato, or another creator, took the Ya̧nomamö with this information and attempted to make a film like this? Would the Ya̧nomamö simply eat the dead, and the not the half-alive tribespeople depicted in the film, and only attack when some neo-colonizer assaults them? Or could he have just used another group instead and adapted them accordingly? One account I recall is that, for instance, indigenous or First Nations peoples of North America didn’t scalp settlers until European bounty hunters committed those acts first. Imagine a film from the perspective of the Ya̧nomamö, with a bunch of filmmakers, opportunistic missionaries, or mercenaries wanting them to fulfill these cannibalistic “savage” stereotypes and forcing them to do it, maybe even resorting to cannibalism of the people themselves after devouring all of their food and no luck finding their own, only to have these same people use these tactics against their tormentors later. It’d be a different form of film, of course, and even then as I write this I know it’d be extremely difficult to bring out the nuance of the thing.

And it would be exploitative as well, even in attempting to subvert the tools of that exploitation. Would a director show the humanity and three dimensions of the Ya̧nomamö or another tribe and watch it erode because of what happened to them, becoming the thing they hate or are projected upon? Or would there be some kind of vindication in their acts? Perhaps if the prospective filmmakers had someone from a similar group to consult or collaborate with, and deal with some of these themes with sensitivity … You see, I just don’t know if it’s possible. You would still get a stereotype or a caricature. I mean, the Mondo and cannibal subgenres of film and horror are, in and of themselves, problematic. And even if a director makes an entirely fictional tribe, as Deodato could have done, it still draws from those tropes.

I think this is some of what happened to Deodato and his own crew. In their own attempt to show the consequences of exploitation by using its own structures against it, they perpetuated it, or at least the attitudes behind it. But does this responsibility end there? What about the people that view, have interest, are hungry for such stories? In Cannibal Holocaust, people wanted to watch the missing group’s The Last Road to Hell: a fictional documentary that uses actual footage of State and terrorist executions. And the people who watch Cannibal Holocaust will view it, some of them knowing about the deaths of animals, the killing footage, and the indigenous people not credited in the work.

Does watching a film built on all of these elements make someone culpable in them? I’ve been asking myself this question for a few reasons, but mainly because this film fascinates me. I admire its structure and what Deodato attempts to do with it, what he tries to say, and I wonder if there is a degree of self-consciousness that the film has about what it is that even the director might not possess. In mixing together truth and lies, real violence and simulated, it’s a journey I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on, and now that I have — because I am probably the poster child of the protagonist that goes after the thing in the Forbidden Knowledge that “Man” Was Not Meant to Know trope — I find that I can’t look away from it. I don’t feel drained, or depressed by what I saw. It was terrifying and gross, and I had my own emotional reactions to it. But I think it is good art.

I can see why Joe Bob and Shudder decided on including it for viewing, because not only is it important to understand the formation of a horror cinematic subgenre in found footage, but makes you question the assumptions in the film itself, and your observer-participation in it. Aren’t we also consuming human suffering and exploitation in watching this? Would it be right, or disingenuous not to include the animal killing scenes? Would it be morally right not to even look at the film because of all the above elements, or do the messages implicit within the narrative honour what is depicted? What was done?

And I ask myself: does this make me complicit in the forces that made this film, and if it represents the attitude of the consumable media, could just make me aware of how I have already been participating in this cycle? And what can do I do about it?

You can see how timely and timeless these ideas are, especially now. I think the real reason Cannibal Holocaust scares me, now, is that I liked it. I want to know more about how it was made, and who was involved. Part of it, like my rudimentary fact-checking is me just wanting reassurance that it wasn’t real. Another part of me wants to know more about the people and customs that were shallowly depicted as complex human beings, and the creator in me wants to see this tale or something like it from their perspective, even if that’s impossible. Gwendolyn MacEwen, who is not a horror writer, was a Canadian poet from Toronto who penned:

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

And when I think about how this film began, I remember another part of her same poem “Dark Pines Under Water”:

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

Cannibal Holocaust Vinyl Cover
Art Credit: Jock, Mondo

The young film team went out for fame and glory in documenting an obscure cannibalistic tribe, even if they had to make one. Deodato and his crew sought artistic acclaim to create a film to expose the hypocrisy and danger of the mentality in turning trauma into spectacle, even if they had to make one.

And in writing this article, drawing on Deodato, and Joe Bob Briggs, and the whole contents sordid colonial contents of this film, in actually finding something more than cathartic but inspiring and revitalizing in looking at this movie — taking the traits of other humans’ work and consuming it — of wanting to be noticed, of wanting to say something great, of commenting on something that isn’t my background and should feel tremendous discomfort in even considering, but not turning back when I should have done, how am I any different?

Perhaps I got to talk about creatures and monsters after all.

I think making me ask that question of myself again — reminding me that I am not a Doctor of Horror, but merely a student — is the legacy imparted to me by Cannibal Holocaust.

Looking Out to the Horizon of The Last Road to Hell: Cannibal Holocaust

Designation: Trigger Warning. Reader’s discretion is advised. I will attempt to not become too graphic, but I will refer to things that some people might not like, or feel comfortable reading about, even on a Horror Blog.

I was expecting to talk about monsters, or creatures.

Instead, as another kind of segue from my last post, I’m going to write about my first impressions of a film I never considered watching.

Yes, this past weekend I watched Ruggero Deodato and Gianfranco Clerici’s Cannibal Holocaust.

Of course, I start off my Blog writing about one of the heaviest, most controversial horror films in the genre, and possibly cinema. Before that night at Joe Bob Briggs’ Last Drive-In, this Horror Doctor such as I call myself had very different ideas about what this movie actually was.

Years ago, I just thought it was a mindless grindhouse story where an army of masked killers and mutants attack and torture a group of hapless adolescents, or their families with chainsaws. I think it was my expectations of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre conflate with a title that sounds like one great over-exaggeration, one blatant and gory spectacle. I mean, seriously: Cannibal Holocaust. It sounds like a child trying to show how dreadful, menacing, and important they are by combining two grandiose and horrible words together: human flesh-eating, and mass destruction. You know, like an overgrown man-child that calls himself Kilgrave.

Aside from going there, I learned more about it and realized it was part of the cannibal subgenre of horror: the kind that exploits stereotypes of “the savage,” of isolated tribes of people in developing countries supposedly being barbarians and xenophobic murderers. The stereotype has existed ever since pretty much colonialism. Again, I thought it would just be about supposedly well meaning white missionaries or journalists getting brutally tortured and murdered by caricatures of non-white indigenous people. Like, these cannibals were going to mass-murder a whole lot of supposedly civilized people.

I didn’t think about the film much, even when I heard about The Green Inferno that I may have only vaguely knew had some creative link to it. I just wasn’t into watching castration happen, or gratuitous violence for its own sake in some, in my mind, sloppy attempt to show how terrible human beings are. I don’t need a film about human flesh eaters, and slaughter to know that fact about humans. I can just watch, or read, the news.

But I did know, even though I wasn’t aware of the full details, that Cannibal Holocaust had a legendary, fearsome reputation among horror fans.

Then, Joe Bob announced on Twitter that it would be the second course of the sixth week of The Last Drive-In.

I expected the worst. I’m not going to lie. I was waiting to see the racism, the colonial themes, the mutilations all well up, the gruesomeness and the gore, just all blur together and bring me completely down. I felt a little bit of that when I was watching Blood-Sucking Freaks that very first night of the second course of the first episode of the second season of The Last Drive-In: when I was first acclimating myself to watching with the rest of the Mutant Family live for the first time.

So many firsts. I thought it’d be Blood-Sucking Freaks with its ridiculous, banal grossness, but magnified and with more prejudice in there.

We were given the option not to watch it. To skip it. To just, for the first time as far as I knew, watch all the Joe Bob segments as their own independent self. But I also knew there was a reason why Joe Bob and Shudder were showing, and curating, Cannibal Holocaust, and I didn’t think it would be something as simple as shock value, or pandering.

And so, I did what I do when I don’t understand something and I don’t want to face it head-on right away. I looked into it.

It wasn’t research, but I wanted to ground myself. To remind myself that it is just a film. Just a piece of art and production. And what I found was something that caught my eye: that Cannibal Holocaust is the first known example of the found-footage subgenre of horror. Now, anyone who knows me understands that I love epistolary fiction. Epistolary fiction, a word I use a lot and find myself defining quite a bit, is a narrative put together through different written accounts: such as letters, journal entries, transcripts, and the like. It’s a simulated multimedia affair, and found-footage has that quality in it: of a film within a film, or a piece of cinematic narrative that is supposed to be real. And both epistolary fiction, and found-footage have something of a confessional bent at times, or they portray testimony of particular characters.

Cannibal Holocaust Found Skull

It got me hooked, even as I began to feel a kind of inevitability. After I discovered this, I looked into the controversy without spoiling too much of the plot because I knew, at this point, that I was going to see it. And well, between the indigenous people that were featured as actors in the work and not credited by Deodato, the inclusion of rape scenes, and the very real animal cruelty as well as the fact that the filmmakers were put on trial for murder — as the hoax they were attempting to portray through the realism of the film felt very real at the time — I really got a better idea of what kind of monster I would be facing.

None of these things are surprising to those of you who have seen, or heard of the reputation of, this movie. But that wasn’t enough for me. I was operating under the idea that once I saw this film, it would change my life forever, that I would not be the same person as I was before I watched it. I needed a foundation from which to work from; a perspective to ground myself from, to understand the extent of it.

And then, Diana Prince posted an article on her Twitter account. This is an article written by Joe Bob, under his real name John Bloom in 1981, titled And Jesus Said, “Mai Eeñeno” (“Weep Not”). A lot of the terminology in it, such as “primitive,” “third world,” “the white man,” “Indians” and the like are dated, even there are attempts to rectify some of the cultural misconceptions such as the Waorani (now the Huaorani) people no longer being called the Aucas (a Spanish word for “savages”) but the gist of it is Joe Bob — in his usual tangential, winding way — explaining the implications of a Western missionary program’s effects and interactions on isolated tribal cultures in South America, and who some of these indigenous people actually are, and what they have to contend with as their world changes.

I was looking for a human take, a human or individual face, or at least a nuanced look at a whole other world, and the implications I took away from the article — from what both well-meaning and selfish influence from Western elements on other human ways of life — were complex to say the least. In fact, it brought to mind the story from two years ago where the American missionary John Allen Chau had been killed by Sentinelese tribespeople off India after being warned away from their island at least once.

When you try to imprint a narrative on someone else’s story, especially one that has been developing on its own for ages, there will be consequences. Of course, according to Joe Bob’s article the world is becoming smaller — had been even in the 1980s — and having a presence that can help you adapt to these changes can make all the difference. But then, wouldn’t that same force also have a moral responsibility to seeing those changes through, and bearing the consequences of them? Joe Bob’s article is interesting in and of itself, especially in how the translation of a religious text can mean the recording and preservation of an oral language into a written one … while also changing the paradigm from which that language comes. And the missionaries that are in that article are, despite not getting monetary gain, or scholarly notoriety, still pushing an agenda and a narrative onto peoples that didn’t have it, displacing their own instead of attempting to integrate them in a healthy manner: or help preserve the cultures they have.

But I am veering off of my own tangent. So what did I think about this film?

The short answer?

It’s messy.

As for the long answer, well, you will have to be found in my next post. Think of this post as Phase One, the preliminary, of my preconceptions and rudimentary investigations on and around the construct of the film and its contents. Phase Two will be how I processed the experience of Cannibal Holocaust, and saw what was to come as a student of horror.