10/14/10

Cannibal Girls (1973) Ivan Reitman & Eugene Levy Ain't Afraid of No Cannibals!

Tonight’s film hits all the big ‘uns’, unseen, unappreciated, and unavailable. The last of those three things is no problem thanks to our friends from Cinema de Bizarre, and the other two I intend to do something about myself. See there’s this guy named Ivan Reitman. He’d go on to direct a few other pictures. Than there’s this twenty seven year old freak named Eugene Levy. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but later on he cashed paychecks for all seven, yes there are seven, American Pie films. He was also on a show called SCTV which originated in the Great White North, as was his co-star in tonight’s flick, Andrea Martin. This was before all of that. This was Reitman’s and Levy’s second film, the first was the 1971 quirky romantic comedy Foxy Lady, but even here it’s easy to see how these two fellows went from 1973’s Cannibal Girls to 1984’s Ghostbusters and 2000’s Best in Show respectively.


Clifford Wallaby (Eugene Levy) and his new girlfriend Gloria (Andrea Martin) take off for a nice trip to a secluded little town in the Canadian countryside. At first they think they’ve found a picturesque town that would be perfect for their vacation, but when they start seeing how strange the townsfolk act toward them, they start to get worried. They should be worried too because the town is lead by The Reverend (Ronald Ulrich) and his three cannibal girls (Randall Carpenter, Bonnie Neilson, and Mia Pawluk). When the couple ends up in the cannibal cult’s clutches, The Reverend wants Gloria to take her place as the newest carnivorous cutie and Clifford to take his place at the dinner table. Wait, did I say at the table. I meant on it, spread across quite a few silver platters.

Eleven years later, Reitman would seamlessly assemble a film that perfectly meshed his comedic sensibilities with the horror milieu, but in 1973, there were more seams than a coat custom made for John Merrick. Cannibal Girls floats back and forth between the light Second City influenced comedy of Levy and Martin to the dark horror world of The Reverend and his gal pals. There are points in the film where the transition from funny to scary happens gradually, but there are just as many points where it cuts from the couple playfully bickering right to a mutated cannibal slave gnawing on a thigh bone. These moments can be jarring, but I could see what he was trying to do. He wasn’t trying to graft a zany comedy into a cannibal film, but rather the same kind of improvisational comedy that Christopher Guest does so well in his films now. There was only the barest of essentials written in the script, and the cast, nearly all alums of the stage in one form or another, performed the film off he cuff. That's not to say that the film is entirely original. There's more than a hint of H.G. Lewis in general and 2000 Maniacs in specific.

While Reitman would go on to make blockbuster films, judging from the look and camerawork going on, it should come as no surprise that cinematographer Robert Saad’s biggest credits would be Police Academy 3 &4. I know some of the flaws in the film can be attributed to the soft, loose print transfer, but Cannibal Girls features not one, not two, but the three best shots of a boom mic that I have ever seen. I was surprised at the end that it didn’t get billing. Consistently throughout the film, more than the amateur acting, flawed effects, or humor that missed its mark, the thing that perturbed me most was the shoddy look. I know Reitman was inexperienced and that his budget was epically low, but Cannibal Girls has enough problems with tone without the camera work being inconsistent as well.

The real saving grace of the film is the cast. While Levy is mostly hidden under giant 70’s glasses, a massive curly fro, and a mustache that would put Mr. Kotter to shame, he still comes off like the likeable nebbish he continues to play in films. He has a great chemistry with Andrea Martin (who also looked way cuter here than I’ve ever seen her look anywhere else). Martin and Levy come across so perfectly as a couple. The two gifted improvisers clearly had a lot to do with the direction of their characters, and they both added bits to flesh out the roles making them fully realized and interesting people. The same can’t be said of the titular Cannibal Girls. While the three girls, a blond, brunette, and redhead of course, are all very fetching, there is never rhyme or reason to what they are doing. They are more pretty monsters than characters. Ronald Urich, who played the Reverend, has limited time on screen, but makes the most out of it. He moves from eccentric to insane at the drop of a hat, and what a hat is it. For the life of me, I could not shake the thought that Urich just looked like an eerie version of Jim Henson in a top hat and tails.

Now that I’ve mentioned how to clear up unavailable (Cinema de Bizarre ftw) and hopefully convinced some of you folks to help make it more seen, I still want to talk about this flick being unappreciated. On IMDB, Cannibal Girls only gets a 3.4 and receives scads of reviews impugning the film. I’m here to tell you that there’s no reason for either thing to happen. Not only does Cannibal Girls give a glimpse into what was to come in Reitman’s career, but it also predicts the rise of snaky, independent horror, the improvised comedic film, and pre-dates the majority of the cannibal craze. Granted, when American International Pictures got a hold of the film for distribution, they had no idea what to do with it. They ended up inserting a William Castle-esque ‘Warning Bell’ that would cut in before the gore scenes. Nowadays, the real problem is that while in 1971 Cannibal Girls was well ahead of the curve, in 2010, some will find it completely behind the times. Me, I found it to be one of the more enjoyable horror-comedies that I’ve seen in quite some time, and I learned that, while Canadians might seem like a nice people, I don’t think that I’ll be eating any back bacon for quite some time.

Bugg Rating

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