Ask any writer and they will tell you – titles are perhaps the most difficult part of the literary process. A great moniker can really accent the themes and subtext of what you’ve created, while a bad one belittles everything you’ve tried to accomplish. It’s the same in cinema. A great marquee tag like A Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can completely enliven an audience’s interest, while full blown fumbles like Strip Nude for Your Killer evoke nothing but guffaws. Cannibal Man is a perfect example of the mishandled name dynamic. Upon first glance, one would expect a standard bloodbath, main character lunching on human flesh as part of a pathological pastime. In truth, this is a subtle, slightly unhinged character study focusing on a lonely individual who uses murder, and the subsequent disposal of his victims, as a way of dealing with his disenfranchised lot in life.
You see, by day, Marcos is a butcher at the local slaughterhouse. The random killing of animals and the making of the company’s signature soup (in a large mechanical extruding device) doesn’t bother him. But living in a hovel in the shadow of some luxury apartments drives him crazy. He hates being poor, seeing it as the reason he can’t get ahead in life. It also keeps his possible paramour – Carmen – at arm length. When an argument with a taxi driver turns fatal, the resulting death has Marcos starting to slowly unravel. Before long, he is killing his friends and family and hiding the bodies in his bedroom. Then, late at night, he cuts up the corpses and transports pieces to his job. There, they find their way into the offal that makes up the patented processed broths. As he further loses his grip on reality, a fey neighbor named Nestor befriends Marcos. Together, they enjoy late night swims and intimate company. But our murderer is incredibly paranoid, and with his new pal’s apartment overlooking his home, there may be more to the companionship than mere camaraderie.
That their conflict and collusion comes late in the film highlights Cannibal Man’s multifaceted approach. At the beginning, we get actual animal slaughter (never a good thing), the bled cows symbolizing Spain’s gutting of its people. The argument that leads Marcos to his first murder is based solely in morality, the cabbie unwilling to let our hero and his honey make out in the back of his hack. In fact, all the crimes here are based in inherent social unease. Carmen can’t be with Marcos because of her father’s overbearing paternalism, while his brother’s lack of familial cooperation leads to his demise. Eventually, our antsy antihero stops killing, and it’s at this point where Cannibal Man goes a bit wonky. There are some incredibly evocative moments, as when we see the silhouette of our lead butchering his victims. But there are also sequences of forced lunacy, as when a rotund, effeminate drug store owner coos and minces over Marcos’ purchase of air freshener and perfume.
In fact, it’s fairly obvious that de la Iglesia was far more interested in the suppression of same sex sentiments than playing with fear. Before he befriends Marcos, Nestor is shown staring, longingly, at shirtless boys playing soccer. When he speaks, it’s in a soft whisper that seems to imply something sinister, or sad. Whenever he runs into his neighbor, the tension is so thick it practically stifles them both, and a late night swim at a local spa is all wet torsos and longing looks. As if to amplify this undercurrent, Marcos has several quiet moments where he flashes back to his night with Nestor. When the two get together at the end, playing possum while avoiding the obvious attraction, it’s meant as a instance of solidarity. For 1972 Spain, this was all subversion as high treason. Perhaps the random murders were necessary to remove the stigma of social commentary from the film. After all, had Cannibal Man been categorized as something other than scary, the government would have stepped in and shut it down.
Yet because of the title, and the concept of human flesh eating, many will come to this film expecting nonstop hack and slash. And while we get a gruesome collection of kills (including a nasty axe to the face that predates such F/X prosthetics by at least a decade) and a Sweeney Todd style manner of disposal, there is very little dread in Cannibal Man. Instead, it is more of a psychological study with political subtexts than a full blown fright flick. De la Iglesia really pours on the proposed suspense, constantly hinting that Marcos will eventually be found out. But some of his stunts are far too obvious. Dogs are seen sniffing around his front door, and coworkers play a game of ‘keep away’ with a gym bag loaded with body parts. Much better are the times when local barmaid Rosa constantly thrusts herself into Marcos’ life. All she wants is physical companionship. But we know loverboy’s bombshell secret, so their sexual back and forth really gets the anxiety flowing. While the last act ennui faced by our lead can feel overwhelming, dragging everything down with it, this is still a very inventive and intriguing film.
Like Delicatessen without Caro and Jeunet’s flair for the visual, or Tobe Hooper taken Continental, there is much more to Cannibal Man than death, dismemberment, and digestion. As a matter of fact, once you realize that this isn’t going to be your typical fright flick, the political and cultural agendas become painfully obvious. This makes Eloy de la Iglesia a very interesting filmmaker, one not afraid to mix genre, metaphors, and meaning to get to the heart of his obsessions. Those looking for a grue-laden, lunch loosening exercise in nausea will be sadly disappointed. Others who don’t mind a little message with their menace will find Cannibal Man a refreshing forgotten gem. It’s very good, in a very odd and insular way. It’s just too bad about that title, though.