The strange thing is that the you-are-what-you-eat scene in Hannibal undoubtedly has what Waddell calls “the ick factor” – but it also prompts queasy laughter. Certain kinds of violence may be unambiguously distressing to see, but Lecter’s cranial canapés make audiences chuckle. At the end of The Silence of the Lambs, he bids Clarice (Jodie Foster) a suave farewell: “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” If he’d said he was going to torture and murder that “old friend”, it would have been abhorrent – but because the audience knows he’s planning to eat Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald), possibly with a nice Chianti, some embrace him as a devilish anti-hero.
Why can cannibalism be more humorous than other such outrages? “It should be the most unspeakable human crime,” explains Forshaw, “but it’s so alien to anything we know that we’re not sure how to react.” Cannibalism in films is unique because it sits right on the border between fact and fantasy, between the everyday violence of a crime thriller and the supernatural violence of a monster movie. It may happen in the real world, but it’s so rare and so appalling that it seems like the stuff of legend – so it can be terrifying and loathsome, but funny, too. For instance, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street features a witty duet in which Sweeney and Mrs Lovett discuss which professions make the tastiest pie fillings. And Forshaw’s favourite line on the topic comes from a 1976 comedy, The Big Bus: “You eat one lousy foot and they call you a cannibal. What a world!”
What’s even weirder is that some cannibal films don’t just have comic aspects, but erotic aspects, too. Bones and All and Fresh both revolve around cool, sexy characters played by pin-up actors, as does Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016). All of these films ponder the link between loving someone and feasting on them, between cannibalism and kinks and body modification. And, let’s not forget, one of these films is available on Disney’s own streaming service. Who knows, perhaps the ultimate taboo won’t be taboo for much longer.
Bones and All is released on 22 November.
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