Cannibalism has been featured in cinema for decades, often found within jungle-set narratives – anything from Tarzan films to African Screams and Italian cannibal films like Cannibal Holocaust – and zombie films, like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. More often than not, cannibal focused narratives either take place somewhere exotic, featuring a cannibalistic “other” or are otherwise rooted in the supernatural. Most of these films, however, were directed by men. In the hands of female filmmakers, cannibalism takes on a more intimate – though equally repulsive role on screen, if not even more so.
Though some earlier films like the female co-directed zombie film Messiah of Evil or Stephanie Rothman’s cut of Blood Bath could be considered to feature cannibals, for the purposes of this article we will start with Jackie Kong’s seminal gross-out 1987 horror film Blood Diner as the cannibals in question are human and not undead and/or immortal. Kong’s film features two bumbling brothers attempting to awaken an Egyptian goddess by killing a bunch of co-eds and serving them up for dinner in their diner. Clearly inspired by Herschell Gordon Lewis’s groundbreaking gore film Blood Feast, Blood Diner is a tongue in cheek genre film that gender swaps the primary villain figure to be a woman; though both feature sacrifices made in the name of a goddess, only Blood Diner puts her on screen as a destructive force, leaving the male serial killer as the sole source of carnage.
Moving into the 90s, the cannibal film became decidedly more austere thanks to the Oscar winning The Silence of the Lambs and the Oscar nominated Fried Green Tomatoes, both 1991. This would lead way to less Blood Diner-esque fare in the genre, with the next female directed cannibal film being 1999’s Antonia Bird directed Ravenous, a suitably gruesome, darkly comic 19th century period piece that manages to skewer both man and masculinity as a military regiment battle a vicious cannibal. Also in 1999, Julie Taymor helmed a lavish screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus , featuring Anthony Hopkins in the titular role and pulling no punches in the scene where he serves the Goth Queen her sons baked into a pie, with plenty of Hannibal Lecter scenery chewing.
Moving into the 2000s, we get Claire Denis’s hypersexual Trouble Every Day in 2001 which deftly combines cannibalism and eroticism. With an emphasis on fleshy close ups with skin, viscera, and bodily fluids taking up most of the frame, Denis takes the usually explicit idea of cannibalism and turns it implicit, instead allowing the sex between our two leads to be front and center. Rather than rendering the cannibal(s) villainous, Trouble Every Day uses the concept of flesh eating as a higher (perhaps the highest) manifestation of love. As the tagline says, “I love you so much I could eat you”.
After the release of Denis’s film, the female directed cannibal film got even more personal with In My Skin in 2002, written and directed by and starring Marina de Van. A tale of self mutilation and body horror, we watch as a woman becomes addicted to harming herself following an accident which leaves her disfigured, including sequences in which she eats pieces of her own skin and body matter. And then, in 2016, we got two films from female directors featuring cannibals: Ana Lily Amirpour’s post-apocalyptic The Bad Batch featuring Jason Momoa leading a group of cannibals and Julia Ducournau’s Raw wherein a teenage vegetarian develops a taste for blood including human flesh.
Unlike many cannibal films directed by men, these films are as much about the cannibal as the act of cannibalism, if not more so. The concept of eating flesh is still violent and horrific, but carries a personal weight that it doesn’t in films like Hannibal, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Delicatessen (to name very few). Films like Trouble Every Day, Raw, and In My Skin also tend to pair the act of cannibalism with female sexuality and/or pleasure and tend to transgress the genres in which they operate in.