Depending on viewer expectations, The Cannibal Man may be the most tediously pretentious film included among the so-called “Video Nasties,” or it could be the most pleasantly surprising. Originally titled La semana del asesino, translated as Week of the Killer, a still salacious though far more accurate suggestion of its storyline, Eloy de la Iglesia’s 1972 feature is a studied art film concealed beneath the veneer of exploitation sleaze, and a shrewd sociopolitical commentary hidden within the mire of its seedy Spanish setting. Like many of the films investigated or prosecuted as part of the U.K.’s notorious censorial crackdown of the early 1980s, it suffered scorn on largely superficial grounds, beginning with its misleading new name. Released internationally as The Cannibal Man, the moniker alteration proved a successful marketing ploy, aligning the picture with a range of “cannibal” titles later to hit grindhouse screens and video store shelves (Holocaust, Ferox, Apocalypse, etc.). But it was also a modification that raised the ire of high-minded powers that be (cover art featuring a grisly meeting of axe and face didn’t help). In both cases, what often gets lost in the controversy and the generic pigeonholing, even 45 years after its initial release, is the film itself, and what it so uniquely imparts.
Going into The Cannibal Man with the promise of scandalous content generally assigned to these “nasty” productions, some, even those eagerly anticipating the gore, may be shocked and potentially repulsed by the film’s most gruesome, disturbing scene: the first one. This visceral opening is an alarming, though immediately revealing, narrative primer. There, in a grinding, gushing slaughterhouse, abounding in the bloodied remnants of cow parts and carcasses, we not only meet the film’s protagonist, Marcos, played by Vincente Parra, a dashing star of the Spanish screen, but De la Iglesia initiates the first of several reflections on the movie’s own assembly. As Marcos observes the procedural, systematic carnage, a process he is so accustomed to that the bloody deluge does nothing to disturb his nonchalant lunch break, his unaffected repose reflects a tonal yardstick for the film, which will likewise offer images of brutality shown with an increasingly routine detachment. In terms of The Cannibal Man’s genre pedigree, it is a blatantly contrasting shock to the system, a way for De la Iglesia to jolt the audience with a strong dose of real-life bloodletting before moving on to the semi-stylized realm of fiction. In other words, he gets the worst over with, at once appeasing and defying those who crave the gore. It is a graphic depiction, but it is passionless, banal, and ephemeral, like the reddened waste as it washes down a floor drain, or like the mortal transience of the victims to come.
With Marcos’ steely expression (or lack of response altogether), the film suggests a predisposition to bloodshed. Yet while our movie-going experience leads us to perhaps read into his passivity a sign of suppressed sadism, it’s worth remembering he is surrounded by coworkers uniformly unfazed by the butchery. His reaction is therefore not so unusual and is, in fact, more likely the chronic result occupational exposure. An initial appraisal of Marcos is further challenged when we see him away from work. He is a genial young man, involved in a clearly devoted romance with girlfriend Paula (Emma Cohen), living with his amicable brother, Esteban (Charly Bravo), and is kindly well-known around town, particularly in a local restaurant where waitress Rosa (Vicky Lagos) shows him eye-catching fondness. With this benign social survey, De la Iglesia pokes holes in the clichéd notion of an outcast loner harboring latent hostilities due to a maligned communal condition. As far as we can tell, Marcos is genuinely decent; he is handsome, charming enough, and bears no sign of a dormant, twisted fury awaiting depraved release. Paula’s father may not approve of him, but even that derision is essentially on economic grounds (an early indication of the film’s fiscal interests). And to his credit, Marcos does indeed hope to secure a better job at his food processing factory, making the money necessary to marry Paula. This civil context hardly resembles the makings of a murderer, but The Cannibal Man is hardly that kind of movie.
For all of his virtues, though, Marcos is also prideful and impulsive. A heated argument ensues when a cab driver chides he and Paula for making out in the backseat, and when the driver accosts Paula, Marcos instinctively springs into action, bashing a rock into the man’s head, dropping him to the ground. Marcos and Paula flee the scene. Though she is instantly worried about the man’s well-being, Marcos assures her, in a self-conscious tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement, “You can only kill a person as easy as that in the movies.” Nevertheless, Paula remains uneasy, and while Marcos does his best to downplay the concern, his mannerisms indicate growing disturbance. Paranoia seeps in and things take a drastic, tragic turn when it’s discovered the cab driver died from his injuries. That’s when Paula pushes Marcos to turn himself in, and that’s when Marcos successively yields to violent acts of self-preservation.
In large part due to Paula’s trepidation, both she and Marcos elicit considerable sympathy; after all, they seem like good people and what happened did appear to be an accident. But it doesn’t matter. Starting with the murder of Paula herself, and soon including everyone from Esteban to Esteban’s fiancée to poor hapless Rosa — anyone whose nosy or purely innocuous comments suggest a threat — Parra and De la Iglesia take The Cannibal Man from a slow burn build-up of dread and simmering violence to a distressing boiling point from which there is no turning back. Once the first murder is enacted, and Marcos’ potential for homicidal protraction is established, his psychological and illicit descent is both irreversible and inescapable. Like the matted lock of Paula’s hair caught in a wrench, all that subsequently occurs in The Cannibal Man, and all that is seen or construed by Marcos, forms a reminder of recent transgressions and a cue for additional savagery. Marcos is living a life of impermanence, with capture, confession, or lethal continuation all equally possible. Anytime there is a passing observation or an innocent insistence (Esteban’s fiancée simply saying something “smells funny”), it becomes an exhausting prompt for what must be done. With near comic regularity, bodies start to pile up.
One fascinating aspect of The Cannibal Man is how this grueling series of events weighs heavily on a disinclined, if exceedingly capable, Marcos, and how it increases an empathetic association with his plight. Make no mistake, he devolves into a brutal serial killer, yet from the way he turns battered corpses over so as not to see the faces of those he knew and loved, to the arduous, suspenseful process of body disposal (severed pieces hauled in a small gym bag), one can’t help but feel some degree of compassion. Parra turns in a discerning, harrowing performance, his potent intensity cutting through the abhorrent actions of his character (and the shoddy dubbing of the film in its current technical state). He is no maniacal monster, no demented soul feeding an insatiable bloodlust. This was never what he wanted. Should The Cannibal Man be considered a horror or even slasher film — and both designations are debatable — the model of rampant one-by-one slaying is not in itself unique. What does distinguish the film is how Marcos responds to the collective carnage. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but something can be said for the way these deeds impact his moral compass. In the wake of each murder, he exhibits evident disquiet; De la Iglesia and cinematographer Raúl Artigot hold prolonged close ups of Parra’s lamentable face, beaded with sweat, furrowed in desperation. He is guilt-ridden and contemplative. Similarly, they hold back in wider shots as he moves around his house — methodically, hesitantly, carefully covering his tracks and concealing the executions — indicating open regret and considerate anxiety. Though the murder of the cab driver was a heat-of-the-moment act of violence, the rest are almost like reluctant last resorts. It becomes a noirish onslaught of one thing leading to another, a salvo of circumstances beyond his control. Fate continually steps in to strike a cruel blow. Despite his best efforts to maintain an unflappable front, Marcos’ composed humanity falters.
This outward expression of internal anguish contributes to the tonal texture of The Cannibal Man, where the further Marcos goes down a spiraling path of destruction, the more the picture increases in atmospheric strain. Intensified by the sweltering heat of the setting, the film takes shape as a stifling fever dream. Fernando García Morcillo’s hypnotic score meshes with De la Iglesia’s integration of aural accents to create an active, unnerving soundscape of buzzing flies drawn to spoilt flesh, creaking doors that mock and incite horror conventions, and passing trains and jets overhead, reminders that in this intentionally insulated realm, an incessantly intrusive outside world is never far away. The sounds get inside Marcos’ head, projecting his delirious decline so that something like an amplified ticking clock pitilessly counts down to his existential collapse. Alongside these vivid touches, De la Iglesia just as often deals a deft, subtle hand. The violence of The Cannibal Man is quick and vicious, with little gratuitous lingering and relatively minor arterial spray; the (in)famous ax shot is so synthetic it scarcely frightens, and when Marcos begins the posthumous disembowelment, De la Iglesia records the action from behind a closed door, with only sharp zooms to reflect each unseen chop. Indirect indications of corporeal rot are represented by understated reaction shots and natural signifiers like the aforementioned flies or a multiplying pack of stray dogs curiously sniffing outside Marcos’ house. This modest precision even applies to the film’s negligible sexuality. See the love scene between Marcos and Paula, for example, when the camera begins with them on the couch then slowly pans and tracks to the empty bed. There is then a cut to the empty couch, followed by a pan and track in the same movement to the couple now in the bed. It’s certainly not the vulgar grindhouse hyperbole one would expect.
Perhaps more apparent to Spanish audiences at the time, The Cannibal Man also articulates rather provocative cultural concepts, ideas De la Iglesia incorporates primarily through the significance of the film’s location, the architectural contrast of a swanky apartment complex looming over Marcos’ rundown hacienda. Like his patched-together residence, the region is in a state of perpetual construction or demolition, and while Marcos is a dejected working-class product of his environment, embodying the high-rise high-life is Néstor (Eusebio Poncela), whose orchestrated introduction is almost graceful in its economy and silent perception. Néstor personifies a class he is quick to deride, disparaging their vacations, discotheques, and sports cars, but he also enjoys the spoils of his standing. During a night out with Marcos, following visual inserts of guns, batons, and officer regalia, icons of enforcement and oppression, Néstor’s lack of ID is excused by the local police when they find out where he lives (Marcos had already stated a pronounced distrust of authority when he pleaded with Paula not to go to the police, lest their lower social status leave them susceptible to harsh condemnation). De la Iglesia, who was himself gay, also works through Marcos and Néstor’s friendship less emphatic homosexual allegations. Though Marcos is cordially ignorant to the flirtation, at least to start, flashback snippets of his time with Néstor tease his reveries. But what is it that bothers him most, the psychosexual implications or an envious glimpse at how the other half lives? It’s remarkable that with everything else going on, De la Iglesia takes the time and the calculated focus to break for these sociopolitical musings.
The Cannibal Man was 28-year-old Eloy de la Iglesia’s fifth film. He remained productive until the mid-1980s, when rumored drug addiction kept him out of commission until 2003. He returned with a new feature, Bulgarian Lovers, but the return was short-lived and he passed away three years later. De la Iglesia may never be a household name, but The Cannibal Man, his most famous film, deserves renewed critical and historical attention. There is a good deal at work in this deceptive feature, which De la Iglesia wrote with Antonio Fos, from allusions to Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime, to the subversive sexuality, to the satirical stance on social and economic disparity. It is both sensitive and vibrant, unsettling and, in its own way, endearing. The political subtext is cynical, the humor dark as night (watch how the factory’s signature Flory Soup comes into play). It isn’t always a pretty picture, though it is an insightful one, with De la Iglesia calling out the complexities and contradictions of human behavior. In this regard, it is Néstor who vaguely intimates the film’s disquieting thesis, which presents an unsightly and unseemly reality to make a point: “We like to eat the meat but not prepare it,” he states. “But you should not relate this to humans.”