Thursday 10 March 2011

Anthropophagous (1980)

When considering the pantheon of Italian genre directors, at the top table you have the likes of Mario Bava, Sergio Leone, Dario Argento (although his membership is up for renewal) and possibly Sergio Corbucci.  In the next rank down there are there likes of Antonio Margheriti, Michele Soavi and Lucio Fulci.  In the rank after that there are the likes of Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi, Enzo G. Castellari and Alberto de Martino.  The last rank is reserved for the likes of Bruno Mattei.  Then there is the bottom of the barrel.  And after that there is Aristide Massacessi. 

Among a group of directors that included the genuinely gifted, the talented but inconsistent, the honest pros and the jobbing hacks, Massacessi, who is probably more familiar under his pseudonym Joe D'Amato, stood out as being perhaps the most cynical and the most nakedly mercenary.  If ever there was a director whose existence disproves auteur theory then it is Arisitide Massacessi: he would turn his hand to any genre, including hardcore porn, if he thought there was money in it.  And that is the only thing which links any one of his films to another.

Michael Caine once said "I'll always be around because I'm a skilled, professional actor; whether I have any talent is beside the point."  What I think he meant was that there is sometimes the expectation that those involved in the creative arts must necessarily be talented, whereas the reality is that some - perhaps many - work in that field because that is what they have been trained to do.  I think Massecessi falls into that second category.  He followed his father's footsteps into the film business and worked his way up, until he was acting as cinematographer and eventually director.  He knew how to make films, of that there can be no doubt; that he didn't know how to make good ones is equally certain.

ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (variously known as The Grim Reaper, The Beast, Man Eater and many others) was Massacessi's stab at the cannibal movie.  There were plenty of cannibal movies being made in Italy in the 70s; they kind of morphed out of the adventure movie and most of them featured a group of explorers or anthropologists who fall foul of a hostile tribe and ... well, you get the picture.  Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is simultaneously the most notorious and probably the best; it's not easy to watch, as a film with that title should not be, and has an incongruously beautiful score by Riz Ortolani.  No Italian genre director's CV was complete without a cannibal movie and ANTHROPOPHAGOUS was Massacessi's.

It's too easy to pick holes in the film - the acting is terrible, the script nonsensical, the effects ropey, the taste non-existent - but that would be missing the point.  Massacessi wasn't interested in making great art, or even in making great schlock - he was interested in making a profit.  Massacessi's films are like the 'no frills' supermarket own brand, as opposed to Heinz baked beans; his films are Matsui not Sony.  The problem with that approach - or perhaps the genius, if you take Massacessi's view - is that you pay the same money to see a bad film as a good one.

What you get, essentially, is a basic horror set-up (group of young holidaymakers go to remote island and find it deserted) with a few gory sequences thrown in.  I've said before that Italian film-makers dared to go further than their British and American counterparts; well Massacessi probably went further than most of his colleagues.  It's not that his film is more graphic than others, or has better effects, it's just more tasteless.

Despite myself, and I can't believe I'm actually writing this, the film does exert a weird sort of attraction.  I think it's because the film is so relentlessly one-note, so blank and impersonal, so lacking in personal touches that better directors might not be able to resist putting in, that it mirrors the story and becomes almost hypnotic.  Of course the acting, script and effects prevent it from building on that intensity to become something decent but I would hesitate to write it off entirely.  Film, whether we like it or not, is an industry - a production line geared towards profit-making.  And similarly, whether we like it or not, in that sense Massacessi is the embodiment of film-making.

I can't end this review without drawing your attention to Tisa Farrow - Mia's sister - who gives possibly the worst performance by a leading lady I have ever seen.  Her facial expression doesn't change throughout the entire movie, whether she's chatting with her friends or being chased by a cannibal.  Imdb tells me that she never made another film after this; perhaps working with Aristide Massacessi cured her of the desire to be in the film business.

Tisa Farrow at the start of the movie, in happy mood.

Tisa Farrow at the end of the movie, in frightened mood.

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