Friday, 12 February 2010

Cannibal Holocaust Critique Part 1: Movie structure & genre subversion

Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust is simply the number one nasty and a film that can challenge the sensibilities of even the most jaded of horror film fans. In this mini series of videos I'm going to take a more detailed look at this film and explore ideas of what the film is about, its construction, the controversies and myths and it's place in horror cinema history.

Cannibal Holocaust made it's début in Britain via the then unregulated video cassette market, crashing into our homes and stoking the video nasties scare of 1984. Its brutal depiction of murder rape and the all too well known animal cruelty has ensured that it has remained heavily cut in Britain and that it will remain available only in its cut form in Britain for the foreseeable future.
Despite the extensive banning, cutting and prosecutions that this film has gone through it has endured all that has been thrown at it to stand as one of the most legitimately controversial, interesting, cutting, shocking and bold movies that suffered the wrath of the censor.

In this series of videos I'll be looking in more detail at this highly controversial film and exploring the various facets of what is not only one of the most heavily censored and reviled films to hit the screen but a film that is also a multi faceted, clever and interesting piece of film making.

Welcome to Mondo Fiction......
Movie structure & genre subversion.

Cannibal holocaust splits into 3 distinct sections, the first is prefaced with a short justification of the trip by Dr Monroe in the form of a news report that sets up the reason for the trip. This opening (after, of course, the haunting and often reoccurring, Riz Ortolani score over the shots of the Green Inferno) immediately sets one of the main subjects matter for the film, the media. We are from the start given the camera's point of view implying the authority of documentary. This is an important part of how this film works. Despite this opening being not entirely convincing and somewhat pre-emptive in tone it does set the subject and approach of this film very effectively by immersing us in the recorded reality that will reappear later.

At this point this device is little more than a method of explaining the reasoning for the dangerous trip but the blurring of lines between the documentary and the cinematic has already begun.

And so we venture seamlessly into the first part of the film. It's important to notice quite how seamless this transition is. The preface runs straight into the first act of this film, this first act that is not retrospective, and it does so so neatly that the shift in perspective is not immediately recognised. The third person shifts from being the news camera to being a film camera, a shift from factual to fictional, and it does so so effortlessly and rather covertly that there is a certain disorientation. Looking even casually at this first act reveals that it is a cinematic contrivance though, It make no effort to be otherwise. Multi angle camera work, focus specific framing and editing and obvious cinematic camera techniques clearly place this outside of the journalistic style that prefaced it. It just takes a few moments to reorient yourself is all but this is indicative of how the film will run and Deodatto blurs the lines between the contrivance of cinema and the supposed and assumed reality of the media.
There is an abandonment of the real in this act, opting as it does to follow a more conventional cinematic approach that shares the commonalities of the cannibal genre with close ups of obviously fake rotting corpses and lurid displays of the clichés of the Italian horror market. There is little effort other than in the introduction to make this any more real than its average cannibal movie peers with the exception of the much lamented animal killings but this is one of the elements that are beginning to blur the lines of reality.




The second act of this film takes place back in New York where Monroe has recovered the film cans and is now interviewing the relatives and colleagues of the dead crew. This section acts very much as a transitional stage, tying the films narrative threads together by reintroducing the journalistic style that we encountered at the beginning, we are still in obviously contrived territory but the implication of what we're watching is changing.
This change is emphasised by the footage that makes up the crews previous film 'The Last Road To Hell'. This is an important element in the film and particularly because it's included at this point. The movie is shifting its position and subverting the audiences expectations and perceptions of what is happening on screen. The Last Road footage, a true piece of Mondo filmmaking, is confusingly reality portrayed as a fictional reality, Deodatto twists reality and fiction into knots and the lines of reality and fantasy are almost irrecoverably smudged.

With the scene set and our expectations confused we are then hurled into the recovered footage that makes up the majority of the 3rd act.
The 3rd act takes a seemingly much less formal, or certainly less traditional cinematic, approach than the first two, famously using the hand held cameras of the film crew to show the events that run up to their demise. The film at this point makes such a radical change in its appearance and construction that it intentionally makes it appear to be an entirely separate film in most respects, however it is, as I will demonstrate later, reliant on the first and second act to create the illusion of reality.
It deliberately avoids immersing us entirely into the' found' footage, in fact it goes to great pains to separate us from the world that it portrays constantly breaking down and revealing its physically fabricated nature and oddly this has the effect of not softening the blows but surprisingly magnifying them. The shaky cameras, the pops and scratchy interruptions, the seemingly candid and supposedly irrelevant scenes that have nothing to do with their reason for being there, all these elements create a scene of spontaneity, an unplanned, non cinematic or rather real series of events that have been captured on the run by the film makers. After the obvious fabrication of the first and second acts the third act really jars our expectations, being as alien as it is in comparison.

This 3rd act also acts as a counterpoint to the 1st act. Here we have the antithesis of Professor Monroe, who is a decent and humane man, there we have the utterly detestable film crew of whom Monroe sought to discover the fate of.
I will at times later look more closely at how the film uses its construction to subvert the viewers perception of what they are watching when I talk about the narrative.

Cannibal Holocaust dips into a couple of genres, most significantly it stylistically leans heavily on the Mondo genre who's own blurring of reality with fiction is a device that this film uses to critique the media. The films of Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti, Mondo Cane, Mondo Cane 2, Addio Zio Tom and most relevantly in this case Africa Addio, that popularised and lent it's name to one of Italy's more fascinating contributions to world cinema seems to act as not only a stylitstic approach that Deodatto uses to lash out at his targets but also as a template by which the film is, in part, built to.
The use of Mondoesque footage of jungle animals, the leering attention to strange practices and gruesome rituals of the savages from around the world are all trademarks of the mondo genre and the exploitative documentary style which it adopts is also taken on by Deodatto. The last Road footage is quite literally mondo, its use of news/documentary footage to construct a narrative of sorts is one of the defining features of Mondo, indeed 'The Last Road to Hell' is quite literally a mini mondo film within the main film.


It's used not only to be shocking but to subvert the nature of the film that surrounds it. One of the challenges with Mondo is knowing what's real and what's fabrication or recreation, and as this is exactly where Deodatto is going so he hitches a ride, using the techniques of the genre that already walks the line between fantasy and reality in order to push us over the edge with the final act. While Cannibal Holocaust is not Mondo, save for the 'Last Road' footage, it most certainly presents a nightmare imitation, bringing all the attending baggage, good and bad that comes with the genre.
But more about that later...

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