For many delusional years, Cannibal Girls was my One Movie. Discovered by accident while working at Incredibly Strange Video, during the internet’s fledgling years, I was convinced that I had found the most obscure movie ever made. Since it was a bootleg, its existence was only made privy to the most elite of customers. It was marked with only its title and shelf number, and neither were that inticing. It had never once been rented. In our hastily-scrawled “catalog”, Bruce Lentz, the owner, had written only “weird comedy-horror film directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Eugene Levy” and “Deposit for Rental required.” Well, if that isn’t weapons-grade catnip for the film enthusiast, nothing is. The clear case seemed hermetically sealed, and when I opened it, long-imprisoned air puffed out. It was like opening a little plastic tomb. The plain black video tape. Offering wonders to be explored.
And, of course, after all that mystical bullshit buildup, the actual movie was a bit of a let down.
How could it not be? That’s precisely the reason that the morlocks on the internet stab out “best movie ever? I think NOT!” on listings for Citizen Kane. How could it be? It’s impossible for a mere film to live up to the hype, either borne by decades of praise or merely a few seconds of interior-monologue hyperbole. So back into the shelf it went, and into my memories the viewing was stuffed, tossed among the refuse of other movies I’d watched that day. Still, something about Cannibal Girls still struck me as special. Maybe it wasn’t all I’d built it up to be as I walked it from shelf to in-store VCR, but it was still obscure. Maybe deservedly so, some may argue. Even over the following internet-heavy years, there was still little to learn about Reitman’s embryonic career step. It certainly wasn’t available in any form officially. I had to be one in a mere number of those who had laid eyes upon it.
Until now, thanks to the saints over at Shout! Factory. Recently, they made available on Blu-Ray and DVD my One Movie, complete with extras and the film’s “original” soundtrack. The degraded 35mm image was scrubbed to sparkling. And now Cannibal Girls can finally be seen the way it was intended: by an audience.
Right out of film school, a larvae-stage Ivan Reitman, with his business partner Daniel Goldberg, decided to make a feature-length movie. He browbeat a local equipment warehouse into giving him any unused 35mm equipment, then struck a deal with the processing lab to come aboard as investors in exchange for his fees reduced by 50%. Finally, enlisting the help of many of his friends, in particular two theater-junkies named Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin—he felt sufficiently prepared to make a horror movie. You know, the most commercially-marketable genre around. At the time. In 1972.
Script? Who needs a script when you have talented improvers on your hands. All that was deemed necessary were scene outlines, get everyone from A to B without bumping in to anything. A-to-B in this case: in the quaint and quiet Canadian town of Farmhamville, a local legend has spread about a trio of nubile young lovelies (Anthea, Clarissa, and Leona) who enjoy nothing more than murdering—and then eating—passers-through and other strangers. First, they lure men into lustful security with their naked wiles, then they butcher their prey, devouring some, er, bits, raw and saving the rest to be cooked and served later. They all lived together in the town’s sole stately, comfy bed and breakfast. But since they’re not there any more, here are directions to the place.
All of this bloody exposition is delivered by Mrs. Wainwright (played by wealthy, upper-crust heir to the Jarvis Family fortune May Jarvis, who happened to own the film’s primary location) to young hippie couple, Gloria (Martin) and Clifford (Levy), whose car has unfortunately broken down and need a place to stay. Sent up to this stately bed and breakfast, the young couple meet their host, the suave and tuxedoed Rev. Alex St. John and his three wards, Anthea, Clarissa and Leona.
Of course, there would be no movie if the pair turned tail and caught the next bus, so instead they stay for the night, have a nice meat-based meal, attempt to get it on (if only Gloria would shut up), smoke cigarettes, and await their turn in the being-picked-off department. Because in the meantime, the three usually-naked lunatics are out sexing up and butchering local inhabitants, assisted by their standard-issue mute and inbred caretaker.
The Reverend’s thrall knows no borders, so of course the whole town, more or less, is in on it (six inhabitants, at least), including the local sheriff, who does his share of assisting in the slaughtering of man-flavored livestock.
After a very scary dream Gloria has of sacrificing a bound Cliff to some dark entity, she becomes much more clingy while Clifford grows distant. He doesn’t even take the time to sing her any ear-scraping awful folk songs on his guitar. All he cares about is devouring “steaks” at the various eateries.
Then, a twist occurs, then some circular logic, the possibility of a sequel and scene.
Okay, so… what? So Ivan Reitman, the guy who made Ghostbusters and Meatballs and a bunch of other awesome cornerstones of our childhood, went out and made the same movie that Ted V. Mikels, H.G. Lewis and lesser-knowns have been making for years. And then he turned around and sold it to Sam Arkoff, whose company AIP was infamous for this sort of film. The story and execution of Cannibals Girls was stale at the time and just got staler until it went past its own decomposition and found new life as the plot of countless micro-budgeted movies found on any nook and cranny website. And you just said that it wasn’t very good.
In my defense, I was not alone in that assessment. The first completed cut ran only 65 minutes, leading investors and even the principal filmmakers to say, “It’s too short and it’s not very good.” Opting for reshoots with less gore, Reitman and company begged and borrowed $5,000 and returned to Cannibal Girls and inserted the now-notorious “scissors mutilation” scene, the infamous “pick-axe” scene and the most wonderful “three naked girls eat a guy alive” scene. So there. Now we had that.
Okay, the joy of Cannibal Girls is not the movie itself. Those watching for the crystalline beginnings of Levy’s and Martin’s comic talents will only strain their eyes. Because much of the movie was adlibbed, the dialogue comes off as more natural but that doesn’t make what they’re saying interesting. The closest we get to funny is a daffy Gloria trying to get their car to start by talking nicely to it. And even for true Levy enthusiasts, you’ll be hard-pressed to even recognize him at the film’s start. Instead of Bobby Bittman, we get a Levy who looks more like one of Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (Phineas to be precise), with his face buried beneath a hippie afro, beard and thick glasses. While there is some comedy to be mined from that, it loses its novelty after about half an hour.
Still, the gore is gory, the sets are nice and Canada is used to a decent purpose (though, while being a part of Canada that landed outside of Toronto, it still just looks like anyone’s backyard in the winter).
When Cannibal Girls was finally released to theaters, Arkoff added a gimmick in the “Warning Bell” (which sounds more like a “horror honk”) to warn viewers that a gore or nude scene is approaching, so one might avert one’s eyes. As dumb as this sounds on paper, it actually works to the movie’s advantage in that it creates suspense out of nothing. It turns a lull or a drag into actual anticipation. So this might have been a genius move on Sam’s part.
But you can overlook so much because of what the movie is. For many struggling independent filmmakers, Cannibal Girls is affirmation that you’re on the right track. No, of course the industry doesn’t work like this any more. You can’t just go out and shoot any piece of crap and hope that Sam Arkoff will rise from the dead and hand you an advance for $50K. What you can best hope for is that you go out and make a piece of crap and Lloyd Kaufman doesn’t punch you after you submit it to Troma.
This was a sell-it-quick movie made by amateurs with little expectation of the outcome. And the man behind it was the guy who made Ghostbusters. Starring two centerpieces from the magnificent SCTV. It’s “the little engine that could” scenario with the best possible outcome. The ultimate message to be gleaned from Cannibal Girls is not “a diet of human flesh will keep you young and beautiful if largely mute”, but “if as cool a director as Ivan Reitman can make a silly little trifle like this and then Ghostbusters and Stripes, and then have his silly little trifle become a highly-sought cult film, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.”
As mentioned, Shout! Factory released two versions of this little gem, one on straight DVD and one to Blu-Ray (so far this is a Canadian release only) and the transfers on both are more gorgeous than they deserve to be and contain copious extras including an alternate soundtrack with that “warning bell”, which is the version most recommended to watch.
And if, in the end, this is no longer one of your Holy Grails, go back to your list. The thrill, after all, is the hunt.