Cannibalism has emerged as the genre du jour in horror. With the success of last year’s Fresh and Bones and All as well as the second season of Yellowjackets finally digging into the human flesh, everyone seems to be exploring this taboo topic. From nightmare survival scenarios to narcissistic serial killers, these films follow humans or humanoid monsters who consume human flesh in one way or another. Some butcher and cook the meat, while others eat it from the bone, but all cannibal films offer a window into a world of depravity and a fascinating blend of horror and revulsion. We not only fear being eaten ourselves, but we often find ourselves imagining what the meat would taste like should we dare (or be forced) to take a bite.
Films about cannibals may seem like a rare delicacy, but a closer look reveals that the pickens are not so slim. From the notorious Cannibal Holocaust, the award winning The Silence of the Lambs, and the criminally underseen Ravenous, horror is filled with villains (and the occasional heroes) who fill up on the flesh of humans. In honor of the midnight feast recently featured in Yellowjackets, we’ve provided a tasting menu of lesser known cannibal films to tide you over until the next meal arrives. Bon appetit!
Most ten year olds worry about little more than forgetting their homework or leaving their bikes out in the rain. Unfortunately Michael (Bryan Madorsky) has bigger problems. Not only is he having horrible nightmares, but he’s seen his parents biting each other while having sex; and they keep trying to feed him strange looking meat. When he sees (or imagines?) dismembered body parts hanging from meat hooks in his basement, Michael turns to his guidance counselor for help. Unfortunately her involvement only creates more of a mess.
Directed by Bob Balaban, this stylized black comedy serves as an unnerving tale of childhood horror and a sharp satire of the 1950s. Despite its oddball appearance, Parents has a surprisingly impressive roster of award-winning actors including Mary Beth Hurt as a June Cleaver-esqu cannibal, Sandy Dennis as Michael’s ill-fated guidance counselor, and Randy Quaid, whose performance as a murderous father was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Initially panned by critics and ignored by audiences, the film has since become a cult favorite for its nightmarish dream sequences and shocking final stinger. Scenes of grinding meat and sinister cooking make it a perfect appetizer for the courses to come. Like Leave it To Beaver in hell, Parents offers a behind the scenes look at how the human sausage gets made.
Cannibalism comes to space in this dark and thrilling horror film from Christian Alvart. Flight crew members Bower (Ben Foster) and Payton (Dennis Quaid) awake from hypersleep on the deserted Elysium, an interstellar ark sent to reestablish humanity on an Earth-like planet named Tanis. While trying to fend off the effects of Pandorum, a stylish term for space madness, they investigate their surroundings and find that most of the ship’s passengers and crew have become prey for a race of humanoid monsters known as Hunters. Earth has vanished and the ship’s survivors are all that’s left of humanity. Bower must travel to the ship’s hull and brave the cannibalistic hunters to restart the Elysium and save what’s left of the human race.
To say anything more would be to spoil several genuine shocks in a twisting story that manages to pull off a “more is more” approach to plotting. While nothing will ever top Alien as the gold standard of space horror, Pandorum, with its disturbing implications for the future of the species, comes dangerously close.
Five years before animated clones stormed onto Disney+, a different kind of Bad Batch hit the barren lands outside of Texas. The followup to her breakout hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch follows a group of undesirables sent to fend for themselves in a lawless desert. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) has just been dropped off with little more than a bottle of water before she’s captured by a group of cannibals who cut off her arm and leg to add to their gruesome pantry. She escapes before they can harvest more of her flesh and is nursed back to health by a roaming Hermit (Jim Carrey). Hellbent on revenge, Arlen meets a muscle-bound cannibal named Miami Man (Jason Momoa) who coerces her into saving his daughter from a powerful cult-like leader known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves).
The sun-bleached landscape highlights the pragmatic details of this cannibalism and begs viewers to question who they would become if thrust into this cutthroat nightmare. Even more upsetting, there may be worse monsters than flesh eaters populating this dystopian world.
Any film involving outlaw horror author Jack Ketchum is bound to be disturbing. The Woman is an adaptation of his 2010 novel co-written by Lucky McKee following the lone survivor of a cannibal clan living in the backwoods of Maine. Lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) spies the unnamed Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) in the woods near his house, captures her with a net, then holds her captive in his basement in hopes of domesticating the feral creature. Proving there are worse monsters than cannibals, Chris and his son are both sadistic psychopaths and torture their prisoner as a means of “civilizing” her.
Those curious about skeletons in the Woman’s closet will also enjoy the 2009 film Offspring and Ketchum’s first novel Off Season (1980), titles that could easily find their own places on this list. McIntosh wrote and directed a sequel film called Darlin’ (2029) which follows the escaped cannibal and her adopted daughters to a Catholic boarding school.
Like most of Ketchum’s fiction, The Woman contains extreme violence and cruelty leading to a bloody climax chock full of devoured flesh, dismemberment, and well-earned revenge. Prepare to root for the cannibal as you watch this gory film through your fingers.
Few films wear their cannibalism on their sleeve like Anthropophagus. Named for the latin term for mythic cannibals, Joe D’Amato’s grisly film has also been released as The Beast, The Savage Island, and subtitled The Grim Reaper. The story begins with a German couple sunning themselves on the beach of a remote Greek Island. An unseen killer makes quick and brutal work of the pair before disappearing back into the swells. A short time later, five more tourists land on the mysterious island and one by one fall victim to the deranged murderer. Anthropophagus also functions as a terrifying slasher as the tourists run from the killer through abandoned mansions, catacombs, and stormy cemeteries.
Filmed in Italian, English overdubbing gives this story the disorienting feel of a hazy nightmare. D’Amato’s film was prosecuted in the U.K. as one of the “video nasties” due in large part to a notorious scene in which a fetus is ripped from the womb and devoured. However, the killer’s tragic backstory may be even more shocking. Not for the faint of heart, Anthropophagus is a stylish and sadistic main course in the annals of cannibal horror.
At first glance, Bartosz M. Kowalski’s film appears to be a standard remix of classic horror tropes. The film’s opening scene in which a priest attempts to murder a baby borrows from The Omen (1976) while the story’s protagonist, Father Marick (Piotr Zurawski), evokes memories of Max Von Sydow’s iconic performance in The Exorcist (1973). Fortunately Hellhole rapidly escalates into an altogether different nightmare. Set in 1987 Poland, Marick travels to a remote and regressive monastery that doubles as a sanitarium for women thought to be possessed by demons. While investigating a string of disappearances, Marick stumbles into a centuries old fraud based on cannibalism that threatens to unleash hell on earth. Ripped from the 17th century, the crumbling cathedral gives the film a timeless quality as sinister corridors, gloomy cells, and shadowy cemeteries begin to prey on the young monk’s mind.
We’ll avoid spoiling the film’s horrific conclusion, but suffice to say, the gruesome meat forcefed to Marick is merely a harbinger for the hellish fate awaiting him. You’ll need a bib for this splatter-filled trip down the horrifying well of cannibal horror.
Of all the offerings on this list, few have a reputation quite so controversial as Dumplings. Directed by Fruit Chan, this nasty tale of horrific treats was originally released as a vignette in the anthology film Three … Extremes (2004) and later expanded to feature length. Both versions follow retired actress Mrs. Li (Miriam Chin Wah Yeung) who longs to retain her youthful beauty and recapture the attention of her philandering husband. She enlists the help of local chef Aunt Mei (Bai Ling) whose miracle dumplings have been known to reverse the physical effects of aging. Mrs. Li is horrified to learn that Mei uses aborted fetuses as the recipe’s secret ingredient, but she’s also delighted with the effects of the magical food.
Each iteration of the story features a different conclusion and it’s up to the viewer to decide which is more horrifying. Despite its controversial nature (or perhaps because of it), Dumplings has achieved cult status. Mei is a female villain for the ages and both tales explore the dark side of feminine beauty, if you can stomach the watch.
The only thing scarier than a killer clown is a flesh-eating killer clown. Co-produced by Eli Roth, this gory film is the directorial debut of John Watts and stars Andy Powers as a real estate salesman and father named Kent who will do anything to give his son a happy birthday. Filling in for the party’s missing clown, Kent dons a costume he finds in the basement of one of his houses and puts on a show for the kids. He later finds that he’s unable to remove the suit and is slowly growing a clownish new skin as well as a hunger for human flesh. As Kent learns more about the nightmarish outfit’s origins, he realizes the only way to reclaim his body and his life back will be to devour five children as an offering to the demonic force inhabiting the costume.
Clown mixes horror with sorrow as this loving father slowly loses himself to demonic possession. Compounding the emotional complexity is grueling body horror and cannibalism including a jaw-dropping sequence that sees Kent hunting for fresh meat in a children’s Play Place. Kent, aka Frowny the Clown/Clöyne, may not be the first floppy-shoed monster to eat children, but he may just be the most tragic.
On the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum is the arthouse horror Cannibal. Directed by Manuel Martín Cuenca, the Spanish film follows Carlos (Antonio de la Torre), a soft-spoken and erudite tailor in Granada who hides a secret talent for stalking and murder. He subsequently transports his victims to a mountaintop cabin where he butchers and preserves the meat for later consumption. Carlos is content with his solitary life until he meets the alluring Alexandra (Olimpia Melinte), whose interest in the ostensibly gentle man threatens his carefully constructed existence. When her sister Nina (also played by Melinte) knocks on Carlos’s door looking for the now missing woman, Carlos is horrified to find his appetite diminished by her charms.
Part Psycho, part Silence of the Lambs, Cannibal is a slow burn that veers away from the gorier elements of cannibalism while leaning into the emotional and practical aspects of the diet. Subtitled, “A Love Story,” the pacing may prove too glacial for some, but more squeamish audiences may enjoy an exploration of this taboo lifestyle without diving into the messy details.
Perhaps the strangest film on this list, Uncle Peckerhead is a curious blend of road movie, musical, and cannibal horror. Written and directed by Matthew John Lawrence, the film follows punk band Duh on their first tour with new roadie Uncle Peckerhead (David Littleton) –yes, that’s really his name–whose qualifications for the job include little more than “has van, will travel.” The only downside is Peck’s unsavory habit of transforming into a flesh-eating monster for thirteen minutes at every stroke of midnight.
This ridiculous sounding premise leads to a surprisingly heartfelt and humorous story as Judy (Chet Siegel) and her two bandmates must weigh the moral implications of Peck’s friendship with their dreams of landing a record deal. It’s impossible to watch this film without rooting for this fledgeling trio and questioning your preconceived ideas about even the most hardened of cannibals.
After all, don’t we all have a little flesh-eating monster inside us?