I’ve long been intrigued by the tragedy of The Donner Party, pioneers who set out for California in the winter of 1846, became stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.
News of the grisly events captivated the nation. The California Star reported, “A more shocking scene cannot be imagined than that witnessed by the party of men who went to the relief of the unfortunate emigrants. The bones of those who had died and been devoured by the miserable ones that still survived were lying around their tents and cabins. Bodies of men, women and children, with half the flesh torn from them, lay on every side. A woman sat by the body of her husband, who had just died, eating out his tongue; the heart she had already taken out, broiled, and ate! The daughter was seen eating the flesh of the father; the mother that of her children.”The movie Donner Pass takes that already-horrifying tale and adds an extra ingredient to the stew: As a result of eating human flesh, the wagon train’s leader George Donner becomes a wendigo, endowed with unnatural strength and longevity—as well as an insatiable hunger for man meat. When a group of present-day teens pay a visit to a cabin in the cursed mountain pass, they soon find themselves on the menu.
The first scene set in modern times is less than promising. Four teens of quickly identifiable types drive toward the cabin, while one recounts an urban legend that Donner still haunts the woods. The story-teller cavalierly jettisons the well-known facts of the tragedy. In his version, Donner was the sole survivor, while in actuality 48 of the 87 members of the party lived. Par for the course, the kids are not deterred by talk of Donner’s ongoing snack attacks nor is their enthusiasm dampened by news that a woman’s half-eaten corpse was recently found, apparently the victim of a homicidal maniac.
After Joss Whedon so brilliantly dissected the hackneyed remote-cabin scenario in Cabin in the Woods, it’s hard not to groan at another stab at it. However, the movie turns out to be well-executed, with some imaginative twists—and more than one of the characters is nursing a surprising secret. Yes, of course the archetypes Whedon pinpointed are back: The Good Girl, the Whore, the Jock, the Nerd, etc. And the characters die in exactly the order you’d anticipate. (Don’t expect the amorous couple who get busy in the hot tub to make it to the prom). But the interplay between the characters is engaging, particularly when they turn against each other as the situation grows more desperate. Although most of the plot turns are telegraphed five or ten minutes ahead, they are well thought out—and you many not actually see the final twist coming.
This isn’t the first time Hollywood has sunk its teeth into the myth of the wendigo, which is rooted in Algonquin Indian folklore. The movie Ravenous (1999) also featured a vampiric cannibal spawned by a Donner-Party-type catastrophe, and the intrepid brothers in TV’s Supernatural did battle with one.
Interestingly enough, psychologists have identified a real version of the phenomenon, just as there is for lycanthropy. “Wendigo Psychosis refers to a condition in which sufferers developed an insatiable desire to eat human flesh even when other food sources were readily available, often as a result of prior famine cannibalism,” according to Wikipedia.
I think one reason the Donner Party tragedy so profoundly affected the mind of the public is that it exposed an ugliness in Manifest Destiny and our winning of the West. Just as the sinking of the Titanic later put a damper on the Gilded Age, the Manson family murders revealed the dark side to carefree hippie movement of the 1960s and the Challenger disaster knocked the wind out of America’s triumphant space program.
And perhaps it lingers in our imagination more than a century and a half later because of the awful choice it presented. Would you resort to cannibalism to survive? Drawing straws and dining on the unlucky loser may seem morally defensible in an extreme famine. What would Jesus do? Hard to imagine Him nibbling on the calves of St. Peter. Still, He did say, “Eat of my flesh,” at the Last Supper, so He might be forgiving of cannibals. Anyhow, not much of a worry for a fellow who can mass produce fish and loaves of bread at will. But I digress. Chew the question over, then answer the poll below:
Also by the writer of this review is the new novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House