From ‘Raw’ to ‘The Bad Batch,’ the arthouse cannibal film is on the rise

As I reported earlier this week, “multiple” audience members passed out at the Toronto International Film Festival screening of Julia Ducournau's debut feature Raw, a film about a 16-year-old vegetarian who develops a sudden taste for human flesh following a gruesome hazing ritual at her new school. In addition to a number of allegedly disgusting scenes, the film is also, apparently, very good, with critics and general viewers alike singing the film's praises in print and on social media.

With all the current hullabaloo around that film, it's interesting to note that another movie revolving around cannibalism, Ana Lily Amirpour”s The Bad Batch, also had its North American premiere at TIFF this week before being picked up for U.S. distribution by Screen Media Films. That film, billed as a “dystopian love story set in a Texas wasteland amongst a community of cannibals,” is Amirpour's followup to 2014's striking B&W vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and it, too, has received a fair amount of praise out of both Toronto and Venice, where it was awarded a Special Jury Prize.

Is this the first time TIFF has screened two cannibal movies in the same year? I'd be interested to know! But it's not just the festival that's seen an uptick in cannibal (or at least “cannibal-adjacent”) flicks as of late. Indeed, this summer's polarizing The Neon Demon featured its fair share of supermodel flesh-devouring, while last year, both Eli Roth's The Green Inferno and S. Craig Zahler's underseen horror-Western Bone Tomahawk, about a sheriff facing off with a tribe of cannibalistic Native Americans in the Old West, debuted in theaters. 

For a subject matter as gruesomely offbeat as cannibalism, that's a lot of films. But what's truly remarkable about the recent influx is not just the number of recent titles but the caliber of the filmmakers that directed them, not to mention the broad visionary range on display. Unlike the largely Italian cannibal films of the 1980s (Cannibal Holocaust, Eaten Alive!, Cannibal Ferox, et al.), today's crop represents a breadth of styles, themes and time periods, and they generally have something more to say than merely, “aren't indigenous peoples terrifying?” Raw, for one, links its main character's descent into cannibalism to her burgeoning sexuality, while even The Green Inferno — which wasn't exactly beloved by critics and stirred up some controversy over its depiction of indigenous Peruvians — commented, with intermittent success, on the state of modern activism.

Of course, it's not as if the subject hasn't ever been successfully tackled on the silver screen. The Hannibal Lecter films (and later Bryan Fuller's acclaimed TV series) brought an A-list polish to the story of the titular cannibalistic serial killer, while Antonia Bird's 1999 period film Ravenous has become a minor cult film in the years since its unceremonious release. It's merely that we're seeing a greater number and variety of cannibal-driven movies than ever before, with another recent example being Jorge Michel Grau's 2010 Mexican horror film We Are What We Are and Jim Mickle's 2013 American remake (the latter of which, incidentally, is currently streaming on Netflix). 

That said, it remains to be seen whether any of these more recent titles can reach the mainstream. Despite a stellar cast that includes Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson and Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk flew under the radar last fall, while The Green Inferno — the most overt, straightforward “horror” film of the bunch — failed to reap Roth the mainstream recognition that highlighted his Hostel-era glory days. Indeed, outside the phenomenally-successful Hannibal franchise, the subject hasn't been a particularly palatable one for mainstream audiences, who are otherwise happy to see characters being burned, slashed, stabbed, blown up and otherwise mutilated for their enjoyment. Even for more adventurous viewers, cannibalism is a subject that's often too nausea-inducing to buy into.

Still, commercial success or no, it's undoubtedly a creatively rich period for films “about” cannibalism, and it'll be interesting to see whether this trend continues to catch on in any meaningful way. It's certainly fertile thematic territory. The act of devouring another human lends itself to all manner of thematic interpretations, in much the same way that the act of drinking blood has been exploited in vampire films. So while I'm not quite ready to call this a golden age for the gruesome “sub-genre,” it's nonetheless a promising — albeit stomach-turning — pivot in the right direction.