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When I hear people talk about Canada, I think of Rush, Neil Young and the ubiquitous expression "eh." Beyond that, our "northern neighbor" hasn't done that much for me. But the country has been putting out a lot of horror films lately, such as the beloved Ginger Snaps series. Sharing the same straight-to-video U.S. fate as those films, festival stalwart Cannibal (aka White Skin) recently began showing up on video store shelves.
While the title gives you some idea of the basic plot, the movie plays out in many unexpected ways. When we meet Thierry (Marc Paquett), a white college kid from the country, he's explaining to his black roommate Henri (Frederic Pierre) that being a Caucasian with a conservative upbringing is nothing but detrimental to his career as an author, and in essence makes his life empty. In an attempt to lift both of their spirits, Henri suggests the two solicit the services of a couple "working girls." All hell breaks loose when one of the prostitutes attacks Henri without provocation, nearly killing him before she is forced out the window. As a cover story, the roommates claim Henri was attacked by some skinheads. While this riles up his entire family, things die down and seemingly get back to normal.
Normality doesn't last long, however. Thierry soon meets the beautiful redhead Claire (Marriane Farley), and falls in love with her at first sight. This is odd for him, since Thierry has a strong aversion to redheaded women (due to their pale, nearly translucent skin). At first, she fights him off. "I'm different," she tells him, and we do get the feeling that something is odd about her. But love turns into obsession, and, to the dismay of Henri, Claire becomes the center of Thierry's world, and the two spend every waking hour together. It seems that this young woman fills the void Thierry talked about earlier in the film.
All is not cheery, though, as we find out that Claire is very sick, and she tells Thierry she has cancer. This is where things get really bad. While Claire is bedridden, her mother and sister are demanding she leave the hospital and submit to their "natural medicine." To make things worse, we find out it was Claire's violent younger sister who attacked Henri because (suprise) she wanted to literally devour him. Since because black men are closer in genetic structure than other races, they have "purer" meat, which makes the young girl obsessed with tasting of Henri one more time. This sends the two roommates on separate journeys to discover why these women find men tasty, and the reasons are not what you would expect.
Does all of that sound convoluted enough? Well, it is. While that is slightly detrimental (more on that in a bit), I for one liked the fact that there was a lot going on in this movie. More than just your standard horror fare, the filmmakers touch on issues such as lust, friendship, love and obsession. Yes, this movie is a horror film, but there's no denying the fact that it's a tragic love story as well. While Thierry's obsession with Claire stops short of madness, he tells her one evening that before he met her his "life was nothing." Thierry honestly feels like he needs Claire, and we get the same feeling from her too, though she won't admit it. Pierre and Farley play off each other very well, and it gives their strained relationship a sense of verisimilitude.
Pierre and Paquette do well to make the relationships between the roommates work also. It's interesting to see how they begin the film as friends, but ultimately lose each other's favor over a woman. That situation I think is something we all can relate to, so it helps us empathize what both of these guys are going through. After a while, the film separates the two as they follow separate story arcs. While this allows us to get through the plot more efficiently, I wish the movie would have focused on them together more, since their friendship is a big part of the film.
Another thing I really liked is the restrained way the filmmakers approach the subject matter. While it's more than obvious what Claire's mother has in mind for a miracle cure before she even suggests it (to those that may be slow, the movie is called Cannibal for a reason), the "why" is a little more interesting. In fact, the title, while not totally misleading, may cause people to believe that people get eaten every five seconds. This is far from the case. It's a slow, tense buildup until we, along with the two protagonists, find out what Claire and her all-female family really are. For those that like gore and killing at every turn, the buildup may be too boring, since most of the movie goes by with nary a death scene. There's no guts, no extreme kills or anything like that. We mainly get the aftermath, and the filmmakers focus on how that affects the plot more than just trying to gross you out. Though I will admit the exposition drags a bit, I appreciate the film for trying to make the atmosphere tense. I liken it to Takashi Miike's Audition, where the whole film is a buildup to the last 15 minutes. Once that climax starts, every bit of tension built up for the last hour or so is released, which to me works as well, if not better, than a jump-scare every few minutes. And while I watched a dubbed version of the film (it's in French), the dialogue came off as natural as it could. After a while, I concerned myself more with what they were saying (the good part) instead of how it was being said (the bad part). Anyone watching a subtitled version won't have this problem.
However, this film is not without some big flaws. While the story is good, sometimes it seems like it's trying to fit too much stuff in there. While offering more intellectual fare than, say, Cannibal Holocaust, sometimes it seems like the filmmakers are trying to get on a soapbox for no good reason. Probably the biggest issue here is race. Race is brought up a lot in the film, and while it serves to tell why Claire's sister has developed "a taste" for Henri, I could have done without the numerous long-winded conversations that are all black vs. white. Not that they aren't welcome in any movie I watch, they just tend to slow down the narrative instead of adding something worthwhile to this movie. It's like there wasn't enough material to make the movie 90 minutes, so they padded it with discussions of race to make it seem "deep."
The cinematography here is not good either. The look of the film is okay (considering it is a low budget film), but I felt it could have done better. It seemed way too dank and gray. Maybe they were trying to set a visual mood for the film, but in the end it was distracting to me. Also, the whole movie looks like it was shot in an abandoned apartment complex, with three rooms making up all of the sets. Though the characters get out some, it still feels like you watch people walking around in apartments the whole time.
And while I am at it, I have one tip to Lions Gate ... stop screwing with the names of movies! This film was known as White Skin in Canada. Not the most informative titles, to be sure, but it beats basically broadcasting the fact that there are cannibals in this movie. I'm sorry, but it kills what I'm sure the filmmakers wanted to be one of the film's many surprises. Since the reasons behind Claire and her family's taste for man meat are not the standard fare, it would have created more tension for the audience to find out about the family's dietary habits on their own, since it is really a setup for the finale. But alas, we spend 50 minutes (good minutes, mind you) wondering when the movie will live up to that title. So, give the American filmgoer some credit, please.
Overall, I recommend the film, but not for everyone. If you want mindless death scenes with a thin plot, don't choose this movie. However, if you want to spend a night with a horror movie that deals with a lot more than just blood and gore, check Cannibal out. Despite a few flaws, it is 89 minutes well spent.