Ivan Reitman is one of the great success stories of Canadian filmmaking. He had a hand in producing many a classic Canadian schlocker (including David Cronenberg’s first feature film, They Came From Within) and later graduated to Hollywood, where he produced Animal House and directed megahits like Stripes and Ghostbusters. His success is all the more impressive when you realize he truly is a self-made mogul who worked his way up from humble beginnings.
And beginnings don’t get more humble than Cannibal Girls. It was Reitman’s second film and the first to attract notice outside of Canada’s borders because he managed to get it released via American International Pictures. They paired it with English terror-flick Raw Meat to create a cannibal-themed double bill and also added a “warning bell” gimmick where a loud bell rings on the soundtrack before any shocking moment unfurls on the screen. Its modest success gave him a name in the business, allowing him to join up with other producers in a successful production company called Cinepix.
But what about the film itself? Let’s just say it is more interesting as a piece of history than as a piece of cinema. The extremely loose plotline involves new couple Clifford (Eugene Levy) and Gloria (Andrea Martin) taking a romantic trip down Canada’s back roads that leads them into the wintry environs of Farnhamville. They are told a legend about a trio of young ladies who lured men into bed so they could kill and then eat them. The house they once lived in has been converted into a restaurant so the couple decides to pay it a visit — cue the warning bell, a light dollop of cheap early 1970’s gore and lots of bad jokes…
You know you’re in trouble when a film begins with a credit in which the cast is described as developing their dialogue from a story by the filmmakers. Said credit should have read: “WARNING: This Film Contains Gratuitous Amateur Improvisations.” Reitman shot the film without a finished script so the cast was required to fill long sections of the running time with awkward, aimless improvisations that more often than not just die a death onscreen. It would be nice to say that future SCTV regulars Levy and Martin show early promise here but this was shot before they got their Second City training — and their performances end up either listless (Levy) and annoying (Martin).
Things perk up a bit in the second half, when Ronald Ulrich joins the fray as a mysterious “Reverend” who runs the restaurant — his performance is the most assured in the film and has a dry wit that the rest of the film reaches for but seldom achieves. It also helps that the plotting gets a little stronger in the second half, culminating in a few decent shocks and a fairly amusing E.C. Comics-styled ending. It’s also worth noting that the film is skillfully shot by Robert Saad, a Canadian exploitation regular whose credits also include They Came From Within and Death Weekend.
That said, Cannibal Girls is pretty rough going. The reliance on improvisation makes the first half a dismal slog, the second half is fairly slapdash despite being more eventful than the first half and the film’s mixture of black humor and horror never quite coalesces into a coherent approach. As such, Cannibal Girls is more a footnote in Canuxploitation history than a worthy entry. Schlock scholars may find it interesting but everyone else is likely to find these cannibals a little too gabby and directionless for their liking.