Cannibal Sheds the Conventions of the Horror Genre and Replaces Them with…Nothing
Read the synopsis of Spanish director Manuel Martín Cuenca’s latest film, Caníbal (Cannibal), and you’ll probably think to yourself, ‘Well, at least it won’t be boring.’ After all, it’s about a salacious serial killer who falls in love with — and eats — his prey. How boring could it be?
You have no idea.
Words like “cannibal” and “serial killer” naturally stir your imagination. They conjure images of ghoulish characters like Hannibal Lecter — or some local news-at-ten monster busted with a cellar full of bodies and strange contraptions. This is why almost any horror film is good for at least one genuine scare, or a few moments of ensnaring grotesquery. Cuenca opted to squander this natural reservoir of fear and tension in favor of a relentlessly dull character study. Cannibal is supposed to be a psychological thriller, but long bouts of inactivity in the narrative foreclose on the possibility of any thrills.
In his obsessive insistence on subtlety and minimalism, Cuenca neglects the most essential elements of any good film: the cultivation of compelling characters and original writing, to name a couple. Cannibal is a dour snapshot of its villain’s everyday life, leaving the origin and ferment of his madness totally untouched. Even worse, whenever a scene grasps for a climax, Cuenca unceremoniously steps on its fingertips.
In his attempts to make Cannibal more fit for the art house than the grindhouse, Cuenca let atmospherics and nuance get the better of him. While these can be powerfully eerie tools (see: M. Night Shyamalan’s early work), they have to be used properly — and there occasionally has to be some payoff. Long, repetitive shots of Carlos (the killer, ably but regrettably played by Antonio de la Torre) chewing his victim’s filleted haunches don’t qualify — in fact, they manage to make gruesome, psychopathic behavior seem banal. In the same way, images of Carlos leering at women or slinking through dark corridors become intolerably annoying once you realize that they’re far more plentiful than anything remotely resembling a scare.
As do the interminable — and from the director’s point of view, inexhaustible — scenes that follow Carlos’ pedestrian daily activities. There’s clearly supposed to be a relationship between his meticulous approach to his work (he’s a renowned tailor) and his other…proclivities…but this point should have been made in seconds. Cuenca inexplicably decides that it needs to be made again and again and again. It’s not fun to watch a tailor snip threads and measure things — it wouldn’t be enjoyable for two seconds, let alone substantial stretches of a horror film.
The dreary expression on Carlos’ face never changes as he absently watches a religious procession or organizes spools of fabric in his shop. Personality-wise, Carlos is the anti-Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale’s character in American Psycho). Whereas Bateman oozes hatred, resentment and anxiety — and sometimes pugnacious self-satisfaction — Carlos is the most monochromatic character you can imagine. Perhaps there are a few psychopaths who exhibit exhaustingly drab behavior when they’re not ripping into a fresh victim — but making a film about them that focuses on the former in lieu of the latter isn’t advisable.
Socially, there’s nothing redeeming about Carlos (stop laughing…that’s a reference to his meager abilities as a conversationalist), yet women invariably fall for him — adding a layer of contrivance to the film’s narrative. The storyline can be summarized in a few sentences. A Romanian woman named Alexandra moves into Carlos’ building. At the crest of their flirtatious acquaintanceship, Carlos kills and eats her. Alexandra’s twin sister — the more modest, cautious Nina (both women are played by Olimpia Melinte) — comes looking for her and falls in love with Carlos. Carlos can’t bring himself to kill Nina because he loves her.
Perhaps this sounds thrilling. It certainly could have been, but the burgeoning relationship between Carlos and Nina — the whole point of the film — is such a snoozer that it’s impossible to care what happens to either of them. Carlos is tiresomely diffident and polite, accompanying Nina to the police station as she searches for her sister and offering her a place to stay. You assume he’s doing all this to lure and eventually hook her, but he’s apparently plagued by the occasional nurturing desire (this is revealed later). This cognitive dissonance could have been conveyed powerfully throughout the film, but it was barely perceptible most of the time.
Carlos never says more than absolutely necessary. The writing in Cannibal is rigid and bare, though some of it is perhaps Humberto Arenal’s fault (he wrote the book that Cannibal is based upon). Nina’s probing curiosity about Carlos is met with a string of blunt, short answers, and much of their time together is spent in silence. It’s as if Cuenca thought Carlos’ sinister hobby was enough to make him interesting, so dialogue was a distant afterthought.
You’ll be asking yourself, why does Nina love him? Why was her sister so enamored with him? Carlos’ dim personality means there’s not a shred of worthwhile conversation, let alone any semblance of romance. A more dynamic relationship between him and Nina could’ve at least given the audience some sympathy for Nina. But no, she’s even more of an idiot than her sister — besotted with a stodgy tailor who can’t decide whether or not he wants to eat her.
And frankly, a few of the tasteful fades and cutoffs — Carlos and his victim driving into the night, a single stream of blood running down a soon-to-be mutilated body, etc. — should have been replaced with some raunchy, old-fashioned gore. Scenes of Carlos morphing from the taciturn, fastidious tailor into a snarling, sex-crazed butcher should have been included. Above all else, Cannibal needs to be enlivened. Without a decent script, shocking violence would have done part of the job. A number of scenes had the potential to at least make the audience squirm a bit, but Cuenca stubbornly neutered them as they were hitting full stride.
Cannibal does have one admirable quality: Pau Esteve Birba’s lush cinematography. A few scenes at the beginning were properly unnerving, thanks to his influence. One of them — a long shot of a couple at a gas station — was from Carlos’ perspective. He lingered in the darkness, watching and waiting (he follows them, runs their car off the road, and snatches the woman from the wreckage). Another followed Carlos as he plunked said woman’s corpse onto a slab of concrete, providing a lurid contrast between her perfect skin and the cold, macabre surroundings.
But if the sole reason for watching a film is its cinematography, you know there are some enormous problems. Put simply, if a horror film wants to forego splattering blood and spilling guts, it has to compensate with something. Plenty of classic films — The Shining and The Sixth Sense, for instance — have done so with compelling human drama and complex character development. Cannibal offers neither.
Rating: 1.5 out of 4 stars
Following a limited theater release in July, “Cannibal” will be available for direct rental at all major digitial outlets, including: Cable VOD, iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play, Vudu, etc. The film is also available to members of Film Movement — for more information, please click here.
Video courtesy of Film Festivals and Indie Films.