Having directed such surreal, unpredictable movies as THE AWFUL DR ORLOF (1961), THE DIABOLICAL DR Z (1965) - and especially SUCCUBUS (1967) and VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD (1971) - Jess Franco is rightly considered one of the greats of zero-budget cinema. Despite having these marvellous little films to his name, however, he is a criminally reckless filmmaker, and has churned out more zero-budget crap than any of his contemporaries. But still, he does so in his own unique style, and at the very least demonstrates a healthy dose of insanity to enliven even the most worn out situations.
The film begins with Professor Jeremy Taylor (Al Cliver) on his way to a jungle expedition, with his wife Elizabeth and their daughter Lena. Jeremy is an expert of tropical diseases, and his family persuades him to take them along for the boat ride. After a ‘cute’ interlude with his daughter, in which she asks Taylor to play a musical box and to kiss her goodnight, the captain gives warning of a possible cannibal threat. His suspicions prove to be well founded. A tribe of cannibals sneak on board, kill the crew, and proceed to eat Elizabeth.
Taylor is subsequently abducted, and his left arm chopped off, before the butchery is interrupted. A highly superstitious tribesman finds Taylor’s still-living daughter floating in a river, and proclaims her as the “White goddess”, who will put an end to all their woes. While the distracted cannibals hail the young girl Taylor makes his escape, and is conveniently discovered by two hunters, who then take him to a doctor.
Taylor is transferred to an American hospital, and for years afterward suffers as a mental patient. He suffers from fits of rage, as well as amnesia. All he can recall is the butchery of his wife. A kindly nurse aids his recovery, however, and they go for a romantic stroll together. In one of the clumsiest pieces of exposition committed to cinema, he soon regains the full memory of both his identity and the cannibal attack:
“Now I remember everything. My name is Jeremy Taylor. I’m a specialist in tropical disease. I’m married with a daughter, Lena. And I was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1940. I was sent by the Shelton foundation to Malabe where my daughter disappeared. Elizabeth…”
After recovering his bearings, Taylor approaches Barbara Shelton, who funded the original trek. He informs her of Elizabeth’s death, as well as the disappearance of Elena. He asks her to pay for another expedition. Just as we expect the journey to be accounted for and the rescue trip planned, Shelton and her associate laugh aloud and take the piss out of him!
Taylor subsequently returns to Malabe with his loyal nurse - now his girlfriend - and seeks a Portuguese called Martin who has traded with the cannibal tribe. Taylor asks the man to be his guide through cannibal country, and to supply him with 200 men whom he cannot afford to pay for! Martin naturally refuses. As Taylor storms out he is approached by Barbara Shelton, who with a small unit of bored socialites have decided to accompany him after all: “We’re all mad to go on a bit of a cannibal hunt”. As the group journeys through the jungle, they are picked off one-by-one...
Franco has made some wonderful films, but this isn’t one of them. Right from the start CANNIBALS smacks of cheese, both with its upbeat, funky music, and its grating travelogue type footage. Instead of lacing the film with an aura of sheer panic, as does the brilliant CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979), Franco inappropriately rubs our noses in the exotic pleasantness of everything. Whereas Deodato’s classic placed its audience off balance with jittery camerawork, claustrophobic imagery, and ominous music, Franco’s film depicts wide, pretty spaces, even lighting and happy-looking flesh-eaters. Had it not been for the grisly cannibal attacks featured, this might be viewed as a tourist-friendly depiction of a jungle environment.
The film suffers many bad elements, but, to give Franco credit, he manages to distance himself from the material and make a complete joke out of it. Take, for example, the opening sequence set aboard the boat. Lena is ready to go to sleep, and she asks her father to play the music box. He does so, and the film offers us a sub-Spielberg depiction of endearing family life. Immediately afterward, however, the cannibals hijack the boat and tear her screaming mother to pieces. Later on, Taylor, who has seen his wife eaten, lost his daughter, had his arm severed and suffered in a madhouse for several years, asks Shelton to fund another expedition. She gleefully pokes fun at the poor man and laughs at him! The juxtaposition of contrasts is much unexpected and provokes outright hilarity. It shows that although Franco can do nothing about the dreadful raw material, he allows himself to rise above it, and amuse his audience in the process.
In spite of this, nothing Franco does can mask it from being a bad film. The script in particular has some serious issues, and has great difficulty moving the film to a quick enough pace. After Taylor is wounded, it is a foolish decision to portray him as amnesiac. The whole point of the film is to give him an excuse to return to the jungle, so that he can fight the cannibals. In the protracted scenes, in which he painfully tries to remember what happened to him, we end up being distanced from the action. We know what happened, and want to see the film move along at a proper tempo. Instead, it merely holds up the narrative and tests our patience.
Also problematic is the depiction of time in the film, which is unclear to say the least. There is an ellipse of several years between the initial tragedy, to the time that Taylor emerges from the Stateside hospital. There are only two signifiers that help us to infer the temporal leap. First of all, we see images of the cannibals worshipping a white, blonde, teenage girl - who turns out to be a grown-up Elena. Secondly, Taylor’s gruff beard hints that he is significantly older than the clean-cut idealist from the start. This information is never handed with clarity to us, as a consequence viewers could be scratching their heads for a good few minutes.
Although CANNIBALS is a poor film in just about every way, it isn’t all Jess Franco’s fault. The film, like most others in his oeuvre, was seriously under-budgeted and planned hastily. Franco has, in the past, displayed that he is a potentially great director of horror and fantastic cinema. The film is admirably lacking in sense, but this is only a temporary respite from the general shoddiness on display.
Directed by Jess Franco
English Language / Spain, France, West Germany / 1983 / 90 minutes / Colour
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
A Screen Entertainment DVD Release
All region / Pal / widescreen 16:9 / Dolby mono