First, a confession: I opted to watch the animal cruelty-free version of Cannibal Holocaust. I have a high tolerance for shock, but actual death is too much for me, and the death of adorable turtles and monkeys is even worse. While my view of nature is closer to Herzog than Pocahontas, I want to know that if I'm going to see cute little animals offed, it's for a valid artistic reason. And though the movie's defenders claim that the animal snuff add to the movie's verisimilitude, I don't expect to rewatch it to find out. Cannibal Holocaust's crass mix of vulgarity and self-importance places it near the bottom of the barrel even by grindhouse standards.
Director Ruggero Deodato frames Cannibal Holocaust from the start as a commentary on representations of violence in the media. The movie starts with a team led by an anthropology professor (Robert Kerman) who travel deep into the Amazon to find a missing documentary crew. They return with the crew's footage, and the second half is a first-person account of the shocking practices of the native tribes and the manipulative and cruel steps the filmmakers take to improve their footage. Deodato's explicit point is that more "civilized" Westerners are no less capable of cruelty than the "savages," literally ending with the professor's line "I wonder who the real cannibals are." Any claim to sociological importance is deflated by Deodato's sleazy approach to the material. When the rescue team observes the ritualistic rape of a woman guilty of adultery, the camera is less unflinching than prurient - prolonged shots of the woman's writing, mud-caked body give the impression that Deodato isn't commenting on the image as much as he's getting off on it. The entire movie is just as crass, demanding to be taken seriously even as it caters to the lowest common denominator. Worse still, the film's criticism Vietnam-era media is incoherent, as the images of wartime atrocities broadcast on the nightly news was largely responsible for ending the war. I can appreciate disturbing material employed for a purpose, but Cannibal Holocaust says very little as loudly and obnoxiously as possible.
That the film has been taken seriously by some very intelligent film writers suggests the level to which shock has lost all meaning. We can see its influence in unexpected places; watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, I was struck by the lingering close-up of an a bloody aborted fetus late in the film, after the filmmakers had earlier opted to cut away from a tense but conventional sex scene. Interesting how sex is deemed exploitative and gratuitous, yet the fetus, which offers no insight into the film's meaning, is worthy of inclusion. Cannibal Holocaust is similarly disconnected from any pleasure (the consensual sex is literally dirty) or anthropological interest in the tribes beyond shock value. The difference, of course, is that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is serious-minded and skillfully crafted; Cannibal Holocaust is devoid of any real perspective on its subject beyond the simplistic nihilism that is currently trendy in my generation. Both versions of Funny Games are similarly didactic, but Haeneke is able to make the same points with precision and tension (and with little gore) because we're invested in his characters and scenario. And a sense of humor would have helped - Eli Roth cited Cannibal Holocaust as an influence on Hostel and Hostel: Part II, but those movies work well as gallows satires of Western arrogance and unchecked masculinity. Only Riz Ortolani's hilariously deadpan score offers any such pleasures here.
But even on the level of its shallow aspirations, Cannibal Holocaust is a failure. The actors can't pull off the transition from "civilized" to "primitive," and when they turn violent, it's arbitrary and difficult to buy. Deodato is terrible at generating tension - without any suspense or investment in the movie's outcome, it just made me feel annoyed and grossed-out, like I was eight again and hanging out with dumb kids who like to torture animals. And while the movie is frequently cited as a predecessor of The Blair Witch Project, it can't hold a camera to that movie in terms of believability. I', all for using shocking material to make a point, or even to entertain. Cannibal Holocaust takes a dump on the floor and gets in your face to argue that the smell is your fault.