Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cannibal Girls (1973) review


Eugene Levy (Clifford Sturges), Andrea Martin (Gloria Wellaby), Robert Ulrich (The Reverend Alex St. John), Randall Carpenter (Anthea), Bonnie Neilson (Clarissa), Mira Pawluk (Leona), May Jarvis (Mrs. Wainwright)

Directed by Ivan Reitman

Rick:"I notice you wear the same kind of things, you sisters?"

Anthea:"No, we share a lot of similar tastes."

The Short Version: Before directing movies like GHOSTBUSTERS and TWINS, Ivan Reitman started out in exploitation movies. This one is an average blackly humorous horror tale of cannibalistic cuisine about three man eating beauties, a sinister Satan styled impresario and a bizarre glut of townsfolk. The film suffers in a few spots, but otherwise, considering the problems encountered during the shoot, it's an accomplished little feature that will likely be most appreciated by die hard 70s exploitation fans. Everyone else may want to order something different on the menu.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

While on vacation, Clifford and Gloria break down in the snow covered town of Farnhamville. Looking for a place to stay, they learn the town has a gruesome legend attached to it. Three beautiful girls who used to live in an old farmhouse, lured young men back to their home where they were slaughtered and eaten. Some time later the old house has since been turned into a bed and breakfast presided over by a sinister Reverend and his three alluring assistants.

Some ten years before directing the enormous success that was GHOSTBUSTERS (1984), Ivan Reitman, like many enterprising and future famous filmmakers, started out directing exploitation movies. The two year odyssey that was CANNIBAL GIRLS began in 1971, started out as a nine day shoot for a projected $12,000 budget. But at a slim and trim 65 minutes, the film was a bit too short. By 1973, Reitman and crew had managed to complete the film and while some things aren't fully explained, this maiden effort from the future hit comedy director is an average, if creepily enjoyable example of 70s exploitation cinema shot with a passion that likely couldn't, or wouldn't be done today.

CANNIBAL GIRLS is a straight up horror flick peppered with plentiful nudity and light humorous touches courtesy of future SCTV performer Eugene (AMERICAN PIE series) Levy. It has elements that foreshadow the likes of Pete Walker's FRIGHTMARE (1974) with its isolated farmhouse, eccentric characters and cannibal culinary delights. It also possesses an uneasy aura in its Canadian township of Farnhamville that mildly anticipates the one in MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973). The citizenry are a bit on the peculiar side and the first few individuals we meet aren't the most friendly sort including the sheriff who is anything but law abiding. The folks in this 'population 1,124' also have a strange preoccupation for meat. The consumption of meat is a frequent subject here in a string of visual shots that consistently remind us that we are watching a movie with the word 'cannibal' in the title. The name of the town even has the word 'Ham' in it!

Like any trashy movie worth its salt, CANNIBAL GIRLS starts off on the right foot with a couple preparing for an intimate encounter only to be interrupted by an unseen character with a pickaxe. The man is skewered and the woman has her shirt stripped away before having blood smeared on her chest cue scream and the movie begins. It's the first few minutes and we already see blood and breasts in the same scene.

The story behind the cannibal girls is told in flashback and this lengthy sequence easily captures the creep factor ably assisted by Doug Riley's spooky soundtrack stings and cues. The notion of ravenous, beautiful women luring naive or lonely men back to their lair for sex and eventual death is frightening enough in itself. On the surface, these women appear normal enough, especially when interacting with one another, but once they're mingling with the men, one gets an uncomfortable impression of the outcome between 'the spider and the fly'. Imagine if you will, enjoying the company of a seductive woman only to wake up and find yourself handcuffed to the bed realizing too late the horror of what's coming.

Whereas a lot of movies take a vague approach in relaying script details, there are a few ingredients in CANNIBAL GIRLS that are left undisclosed which was mostly down to the lack of a script. An opening title credit attests to this as does Reitman's assertion in one of the DVD extras--'The dialog was developed by the cast from an original story by Robert Sandler with Daniel Goldberg and Ivan Reitman'. considering the movie was predominantly an improvised production, it's amazing both the dialog and the film ended up as coherent as it did. The girls have a preoccupation with blood which is used ritualistically prior to each killing and has some sort of satanic connection to their longevity and healthy existence. There's also no explanation as to the connection between the flesh eating lovelies and the bizarre Reverend. He isn't seen in the flashback (it's a fair assumption he's around somewhere), but has some sort of diabolical, hypnotic hold over people including the entire town where homes and establishments contain hanging pictures of him. Could he be....Satan?

The Reverend:"So tell me, Clifford, what do you do?"

CLifford:"I'm a rock musician...I'm an axe picker."

The Reverend:"An axe picker?! Clifford, you're a man after my own heart!"

The rapturous morbidity exemplified by the cavorting, eccentric Reverend is played with ghoulish panache by Ronald Ulrich. He's the most macabre character in the film and his dialog is rich in gallows humor. Every word he says and every conversation he entertains references some gruesome act, execution, or deplorably murderous deed. His delivery is delightfully sinister and provides a creepy contrast to the touches of paranoia and building tension of the last reel. After a life threatening stay over at the gore-met restaurant, Gloria escapes and upon awakening the next day, is back at her motel room with Clifford. She spends the next 15 minutes or so trying to leave the town and get her boyfriend, who now wants to stay(!), to join her. Of course, things don't end well for certain people leading to a predictable cannibal climax ending.

Eugene Levy is pretty much unrecognizable with his moppish hairdo and bushy mustache. In fact, much of the cast is covered in dollops of hair which was typical of the 70s. Levy will no doubt be remembered for his participation on the sketch comedy series SCTV where he worked with John Candy. Modern audiences will likely remember him best for the long series of AMERICAN PIE movies. Andrea Martin was among the cast of young victims to be in Bob Clark's seminal BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). Martin also took a role in the 2006 remake.

During its release, AIP saddled the film with some additional gimmickry. Here it's the 'warning bell'. When you hear it, close your eyes to avoid the sight of the bloody, if crude effects shots. For the Shout! Factory release, you can watch the film with or without the intrusive bell ringing. Other movies used similar tactics such as the CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966) with its horror horn and fear flasher. Also, there's the Spanish horror flick, WHEN THE SCREAMING STOPS (1974) aka THE LORELEI'S GRASP. For the North American release, viewers were notified when to turn away by the screen flashing red. This sort of carnival styled showmanship adds little to the films themselves aside from a nostalgic view at movie marketing of a bygone era.

CANNIBALS GIRLS is a good strip of meat mildly marinated by a team that had good things to come in the future. Fans of AIP and late night creature features such as the COUNT YORGA movies will find this of interest, but others may find the quirkiness and clash of styles problematic. A good meal is to be had here although some of the ingredients don't quite gel properly. This obscure curio is a hearty helping of steak and potatoes that's reasonably satisfying, even if it doesn't taste as good as it could have.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory DVD

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