Inspired by the making of and controversy surrounding Cannibal Holocaust, Kea Wilson’s disturbing We Eat Our Own is a story about artistic madness, danger, death, and the unknown. Set in 1979 in the Amazon jungle of Columbia, Italian director Ugo Velluto is attempting to make a new kind of horror film, something that will raise his reputation as a maker of schlock. Meanwhile, his lead actors are trying to keep up with him even though there is no script, his effects people are stymied by conditions and constant changes, and the country begins to descend into open warfare between cartels, the government, and rebels. It’s a wonder this book doesn’t have a higher body count than it does.
We Eat Our Own opens in New York, when an unnamed actor receives a call from his agent that he has been hired to be the lead in a film currently being shot in Columbia. The actor, who has been longing to break into something better than experimental (unpaid) theater and commercials, leaps at the chance. (Irritatingly, the actor’s chapters are written in the second person. I really don’t like reading second person prose, but the rest of the story kept me interested.) Because Ugo is so determined to have his actors’ performances seem real, does everything he can to put the actor into a state of paranoia, confusion, and fear. By the time the actor arrives on set almost a week after taking off from New York, he has no idea what’s going on and is not having a good time.
The unnamed actor is one of the main through lines for We Eat Our Own. The other is a series of excerpts from a court transcript. Ugo has been charged with criminal negligence and, possibly, murder. Sometime between the filming and the trial, the three main actors of Ugo’s film have gone missing. The film Ugo edited and released makes it look like all three have really been killed. Ugo refuses to tell the court what really happened, telling everyone that they need to watch the film and decide for themselves if the on screen deaths are real or not.
The chapters in between these two plot threads are told from the perspective of crew members or members of a local cadre of anti-government, anti-cartel rebels. Some of these chapters answer questions about what’s really going on; others further complicate the set. Ugo only has one chapter from his own perspective (along with the court scenes). For most of the novel, it’s hard to tell if he’s lost in artistic vision or an extremely skilled puppet master.
Throughout the book, characters ask each other or ponder for themselves why people watch horror movies and what those audiences want to see. Ugo is willing to pander to viewers who want gore, violence, and sex, even in his quest for putting something real on film. The actors have differing philosophies about performance. The unnamed actor is devoted to Stanislavski and character analysis. The female lead, Irena, is a master mimic who can switch emotions at the drop of a hat. She doesn’t care about method or psychology so much as she’s interested in the appearance of reality, even if it means taking her clothes off a lot. The director and the unnamed actor have higher ideals, compared to the cynics around them, but they are frequently shown up as out of touch with their audiences.
The predominate theory (both in the book and in what I know from listening to fans of horror) for why people watch these movies is that it provides emotional catharsis. The plots and scares wind up viewers until the climax, when good triumphs or a plot twist releases all that tension. We Eat Our Own does something similar. The confusion produced by the court scenes and the other chapters about what really happened in the jungle builds until the resolution near the end. But it adds an extra twist that makes you wonder if, even after the trick is revealed, the danger has really passed. I can’t say that I enjoyed We Eat Our Own, because it was a white-knuckle read, but it is some damn fine storytelling.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read something light and fluffy to get this book out of my head.