“The Man From Deep River” was responsible for kick-starting an entire sub-genre of horror. Few films can make a claim of that magnitude, but Umberto Lenzi’s 1972 effort is granddaddy to a string of cannibal films that followed throughout the rest of the decade and beyond. That might be a dubious honor, though.
Why? Well, the genre is known for graphic animal cruelty, and being its progenitor, TMFDR doesn’t lack in that department. We see animal fights, snake killings, and goat killings - all in gory detail. While it’s mostly ritualistic and contextually accurate, it’s unpleasant and unnecessary - those scenes really only existing to shock in a way that could have been done via special effects, and if they didn’t have the budget to accomplish it, then they should have done something else even if it may have reduced the film’s authenticity. Times may have been different then, but it’s still inexcusable.
Despite all the unpleasant animal scenes, TMFDR is a solid piece of grindhouse cinema. The sweaty jungle environment of Thailand is a nicely shot and compelling setting for a cannibal film that is surprisingly light on the flesh-eating. In fact, it has more in common with something like “Dances With Wolves” than it does with “Cannibal Holocaust.”
The story focuses on our main character (a British nature photographer played with presence by Ivan Rassimov) and his increasing attachment to a native tribe of kidnappers that live deep within the unexplored jungle. He falls in love with the chief’s daughter, and their relationship blossoms. They frolic through the jungle together. Things go wrong, and cannibals show up and eat people. Hearts are broken. You get the idea. It’s cheesily sentimental in a way you would never expect from a widely censored and oft-banned exploitation film.
It’s a ridiculous affair, and some may find offense in the story beyond the obvious sleaze. The civilized white man integrating himself into a tribe of savages and becoming worshipped by them and their women could be seen as a racist fantasy - and perhaps it is - but it’s played here with baffling innocence. It’s probably helped along by a charming performance by Me Me Lai as the chief’s daughter and main love interest.
The rest of the action is nowhere near as shocking as you’d expect from the genre, but the few scenes of people munching must have really captured the imagination of the midnight movie audiences at the time. It became a commercial success that inspired a rash of predominantly Italian-produced cannibal films in its wake. It is by no means a great film, and its animal cruelty is repellent, but if you can look past that it’s worth watching, if only to see where the sub-genre took its first bites.