Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cannibal Girls (1973): or, I Wouldn't If I Were You

Director Ivan Reitman has had a lot of success outside the world of horror, mostly in the realm of wacky, star-studded comedy. He first struck comedic gold in 1979 with a young, top-of-his-game Bill Murray in 1979's Meatballs. He followed that in 1981 with Stripes, perhaps still the funniest army movie ever made. And then he and Murray mixed giggles and ghosts in the 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters and its sequel. By the time the 80s drew to a close, it was clear that not many directors could do wacky big-budget comedy like Reitman.

But nobody starts at the top--often it takes an artist a few false starts before he finds that perfect vehicle for his unique talents, the one that will allow him to showcase his abilities in the best possible way. Ivan Reitman is no exception to this rule, as proven definitively by his last pre-Murray flick, the 1973 would-be horror/comedy Cannibal Girls.

We open in the snowy, craggy Canadian wilderness, where a couple spreads a blanket on a comfortable-looking snowbank so they can lie down and make out--I guess when you're Canadian, you get used to the cold. Before they can generate any significant body heat, however, a mysterious figure clad in a knee-length skirt, nylons, and sensible shoes strolls out of the woods and pickaxes the both of them! Just goes to show the wisdome of the old maxim: GET A ROOM.

Meanwhile, in the extremely ugly rural town of Farnhamville, an old van goes by with a telling legend on the side:

"I'm your Cold Meat Man, Stop Me When I'm Passin' By..."

Yes, we're all about the subtlety here, folks. To drive the point home, the local Sheriff (Bob McHeady, doing a pretty fair Edward G. Robinson impression), informs the local doctor "It looks like we've got another one!" and sends some boys to collect the corpses. This is a town with an industry, and it's obviously not tourism.

But despite the almost universal agreement in horror films that it's NEVER a good idea, there's always some tourist who likes the idea of going off the beaten track. In this film it's hippie couple Cliff and Gloria, played by future SCTV stars and comedy middleweights Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. They haven't been dating long, and Cliff has arranged this dirty weekend in the wilds of Canada in hopes of getting some comedic tail. After some meant-to-be hilarious car trouble solved by ditzy Gloria's "talk nicely to the car" method, they make it into Farnhamville and set about looking for a hotel wherein to GET IT AWN.

I wish I could say that Levy and Martin bring the full weight of their respective future comic brilliance to the proceedings here, but sadly we seem to have caught them (like Reitman) several years before they came into their own in their chosen field. Reitman's script doesn't do them any favors, but we can't lay all the blame on Ivan, since much of the "comedy" seems to be improvised. Obvious gags like Gloria honking the horn instead of cranking the engine, leading to Cliff hilariously bonking his head on the open hood, are pretty much the acme here. And Levy's chemistry with Martin is nothing like that he would develop decades later with a much better comedienne, Catherine O'Hara, in films like Christopher Guest's mockumentary Best in Show, which he also co-wrote. Maybe Ivan should have handed the pen over to Eugene.

Still, is is kind of fun to see Levy in full-out, near-unrecognizable hippie garb:

"Man, I sure could go for some Doritos."

It turns out that GET A ROOM is perhaps not all that great a piece of advice either, as Cliff and Gloria settle in to the only local motel and are regaled by the elderly owner with tales of the town's sordid past. According to legend, three girls used to live in a house on the outskirts of Farnhamville, aided only by a hunchbacked, inarticulate servant named Bunker. After picking up travellers at the local tavern, the girls would invite them back to the house, coax them into staying with promises of free food and free love, and then murder them for their meat. "They were cannibals," the old lady beams, "and they et men! And rumor has it they were never sick a day in their lives!"

Through a poorly constructed flashback we get to see the story of three such victims, giving Reitman the chance to focus on his cast's nonexistent improvisational skills once again in the form or boring, repetitive, and really atrocious dialog. The characters are meant to be wacky and hilarious (one is a professional parade organizer, another an ice-cream truck driver, the third a nerdy, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing rich kid), but all the jokes fall flat ("Are you sisters?" "No, we just share a lot of similar tastes.") and the attempts at building suspense just fizzle. The Cannibal Girls themselves are pretty enough in a 70s way, though, and when they finally get around to the killings after reciting a nice little ceremonial verse ("Within me, and without me, I honor the blood which gives me life..."), they do it in their underwear or fully nude--which goes a long way toward making up for their somewhat lacking acting skills.

As for the kills themselves, Reitman actually manages to pull off a few competent grindhouse-level gore scenes, including an in-the-throat scissor kill and a bra-and-panties axe-murder. The best scene comes when the three girls handcuff the sole surviving victim to a bed, leading him to believe he's in for some kinky foursome action--then they pull out the gravy boat, add some sauce, fall on him and start eating him alive, buffet-style! It's actually almost chilling in a weird way, with the victim screaming and straining under their teeth--and it's probably the closest the movie gets to legitimate horror.

Axe Me No Questions

Upon learning that the girls' old house is still standing and is in fact the town's only gourmet restaurant (DUN DUN DUN!), Cliff and Gloria decide to go see the place and grab a bite--like you do. Once there they meet the only real reason to watch the movie, the Reverend Alex St. John (the absolutely EXCELLENT Ronald Ulrich). Dressed less like a man of the cloth than a stage magician you'd hire for a kid's birthday party--top hat, tails, even white gloves and a red satin-lined cape at one point--Ulrich totally OWNS every scene he's in, delivering his lines with the drawn-out creepy tones of Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and obviously having a blast. After treating his guests to the specialty of the house--it's the only dish on the menu--he invites them to stay the night, and of course they accept.

You can probably see where this is going. Turns out the Reverend is the one who initiated first the farm girls (who are still on hand as his servants-cum-harem) and later the rest of Farnhamville into his black magic, cannibalistic ways. Gaining power and immortality from the flesh of the living, the Reverend makes mincemeat out of every tourist who comes through, sharing the spoils with the rest of the town, and occasionally recruits a pretty girl or two into his inner sacreligious circle. No points for guessing his plans for our hippie-dippy couple.

In the movie's favor, the idea of the whole town being part of the enigmatic Reverend's cannibalistic cult is a nice way of expanding the horror outward, giving a Lovecraft-lite vibe to the proceedings that slightly recalls the much scarier and more excellent US film of the same year, Messiah of Evil. But Reitman seems more interested in wringing gags out of his script than shivers, and obviously hadn't yet developed the directorial chops to do either effectively. The editing is slapdash, the shots are static and uninteresting (with the exception of a few nice pre-credit garden compositions and one almost-LOL-worthy visual reference to the Sweeney Todd legend), and the script--what there is of it--is kinda stupid.

Ulrich Revs it Up

As I said before, Levy and Martin are shadows of their future selves here, and the rest of the cast seems mostly composed of non-actors. Ulrich as the Reverend is the sole bright spot, imparting even the corniest dialog with an infectious charisma. (One scene where he narrates the family history over a slow pan of the house's den that was obviously shot without the actors present, shows not only his talent but the film's extremely limited budget.) Unfortunately Ulrich never appeared in another film, according to IMDb--a shame, since I think he'd have been spectacular in a vehicle worthy of him.

In the final analysis I can say I'm glad Reitman built on his experience here and went on the bigger and funnier things, but I can't in good conscience recommend the movie, unless you're a Canadian Comedy Completist, or the president of Andrea Martin's fan club. If you catch it on TV sometime it might be worth sticking around for ten or fifteen minutes, just to get a flavor--especially if Ulrich is onscreen or one of the girls is getting naked. But there are better ways to spend your movie watching time--like watching Ghostbusters again, for instance. Final rating: 1.25 thumbs.

Whoa-oh, here she comes...


Samuel Wilson said...

No worse than Junior, I imagine.

Ezreal said...

Eugene Levy looks like a cross between Gene Shallitt and Eric Bloom of Blue Öyster Cult in that picture.

Al Bruno III said...

Man if I could have grown a moutache like Levy's I would have had all the chicks in my home town!

justme said...

If you want a movie about cannibalism that's actually scary check out Grimm Love... You can get it from BB online starting this Friday it's super creepy

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