Cannibal Girls (1973)
All the right pieces are in place for Cannibal Girls to be a schlocky, comedic gem: a pre-Ghostbusters Ivan Reitman at the helm, the fresh-faced tandem of Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin in the lead roles working with a mostly impromptu script, and a cheesy "warning bell" gimmick that alerts viewers of a particularly gruesome death sequence. Yet the potential wallop that Cannibal Girls packs with its one-two punch of dark comedy and B-movie cheese never quite hits the intended mark. Despite the simplicity suggested in its title, the film's plot is unfocused at times and further mired with pacing issues. Though the humor provides temporary reprieve from the listless pace, the comedic bits are few and far between and typically hit-or-miss. Suffice to say, Cannibal Girls is middle-of-the-road schlock horror.
After finding themselves with a bit of car trouble, Cliff (Levy, with a mustache/afro combination that could single-handedly revive disco) and Gloria (Martin) are stuck in the town of Farnhamville (in Canada) and decide to spend the night at a local motel. Their curiosity about the town becomes piqued when the motel owner regales the couple with a tale of three cannibalistic girls that used to lure men home and eat them alive. Naturally, the girls' home has now become a beloved town eatery known for its lip-smackin'-good meat dishes and Cliff and Gloria are convinced in checking the place out. Running the establishment is Reverend Alex Saint John (Ronald Ulrich), who treats the couple to a nice home-cooked meal served by three young female waitresses and offers them a room for the night. Cliff and Gloria accept the offer, albeit hesitantly, and wouldn't you know it that the three waitresses turn out to be the legendary cannibal girls.
Like most dark comedies, Cannibal Girls coaxes the audience into an uneasy laughter amidst what would otherwise be a dire situation. There's an insurmountable tension being built up during the dinner scene in which the Rev. John talks Cliff and Glora into staying the night all the while the infamous cannibal girls serve them dinner. From the audience's anxiety, a bit of laughter comes into a later scene when the Reverend, showing Cliff and Gloria their room, comments on the room's previous occupant, his Aunt Pricilla, stating, "She died, poor thing, burned at the stake. Oh well." It's difficult not to laugh at the nonchalant manner in which the Reverend speaks during this scene, particularly the end when he wishes Cliff and Gloria a goodnight and then adds, "Goodnight Pricilla." The Reverend is a careful blend of terror and unintentional humor that suits the film's tone extremely well.
In terms of wholesome laughter, the on-going banter between Cliff and Gloria did leave me grinning from time to time. Our first introduction to Cliff is the sight of him jumping out to scare Gloria just after their car has broken down, and in the middle of gloating about what he had just done, Cliff realizes how frightened Gloria is and changes his tone to sincerity mid-sentence. Equally as amusing is their rhythmic chanting of "come on baby!" while attempting to get their car started; the back-and-forth quick-cutting between the two actors adds a nice touch, giving the illusion that the two are making love to one another. Nothing is sidesplitting, but the playfulness between the couple adds a welcome lightheartedness to the proceedings, given the terror that is about to besmirch the couple.
On the other side of the comedic spectrum are the titular cannibal girls, whose brand of "humor" drenches the comedic undertones previously exhibited in a thick layer of cheese. Though I'm all for a bit of cheese on the side of a good B-movie experience, the humor is entirely one-dimensional. Much of the dialogue from the girls is sexual in nature, delivered with the bravado of a B-list porno actress, and usually involves some juvenile double entendre using the word "meat" to imply sex, such as, "Can I please have some more meat?" Yet there's no discernible inflection or voice coming through when the girls deliver the lines - it all just sounds like words being read from a page. Vindictive lines like "You have to cut the meat just right" fall flat. In horror, cheese is the kind of thing that should be dripping from the dialogue-here it just feels like it was slapped on top.
One issue that's much larger than the film's comedic hiccups is its pacing. Toward the beginning of the film, the use of flashback to convey the tale of the cannibal girls is a much better approach than just simply telling the story through dialogue, but the scenes are stretched out to an unnecessary length. Although I enjoyed the banter between the three poor men lured into the girls' trap, simply seeing the men's deaths would have sufficed. There's no need to see the girls coaxing the men home, spending time with them, and then gradually killing them off just to arrive at the point that these girls are not at all what they appear to be. Had this flashback been delivered at the top of the film, its length would not have been as much of an issue, but to take the audience away from Cliff and Gloria for that amount of time just as we were just starting to get to know them detracts from the film's pace considerably.
Further slowing the proceedings is a slew of needless additions to the plot that cause the film to frequently lose focus. A trivial subplot involving a man looking for his lost sister (a victim of the cannibal girls) is exacerbated with the inclusion of a local sheriff who is hell-bent on preventing the man from exposing the lair of the cannibal girls. Not only is the man an inconsequential element to the proceedings (he's killed off after a few short scenes) but the motivation for the local law enforcement to help protect the Reverend is never fully examined beyond an overarching suggestion that the entire town is just in on the cannibal girls' murders. Neither of these elements adds up to something worth taking our attention away from Cliff and Gloria.
One attention-grabbing bit that does work, however, is the film's "warning bell," which sounds each time a grotesque scene is about to take place on screen. Although Reitman appears to have his more squeamish viewers' best intentions in mind, the joke here is that the bell is so loud and sudden that it winds up scaring more viewers than it alerts. Those that want to miss the more frightening aspects of the film will wind up having to bear with something more startling than a little blood. Even better, the "bell" isn't a bell at all but a cartoonish car horn, resulting in a warning that brings the audience to a point of simultaneous laughter and dread, Reitman's true intention no doubt. Anyone that watches Cannibal Girls would be remiss not to watch it with this feature, though take note that the recent DVD release requires the feature be turned on manually. I made the mistake of watching the film the first time without it on, so needless to say my second viewing was much more enjoyable.
Some of the best schlock films are either incredibly well made (like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series) or shockingly awful (like Troll 2) and sadly, Cannibal Girls does not fall to either side definitively. Although it's an interesting piece of cinema history (how many Canadian horror comedies can you say you've watched?) and the early career of a famed Hollywood director, the initial potential is lost along the film's slow pace and sporadic focus, depleting into a fleeting admiration of its efforts. As a dark comedy, the film has its share of smirks and smiles, and there's no denying the hilarity of the warning bell gimmick running throughout. Those looking for a hearty helping of B-movie cheese will need more than Cannibal Girls to wet their appetite.