Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1973)

Earlier last week, the trailer for the upcoming "Ghostbusters" reboot premiered, to a typically divisive reaction. All this talk about a new "Ghostbusters" film makes now a good time to revisit the original films. And who directed those movies? Ivan Reitman has his name on a handful of classic eighties comedies and helped to make Bill Murray a household name. He's been making movies for four decades and is just as prevalent a producer as he is a director. His son, Jason, has become a notable filmmaker too. Yet has Ivan Reitman really made that many good films? Well, I'll find out as I watch and write my way through his career.

1. Cannibal Girls

The director of such beloved comedies as “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes” didn’t begin his career in the way you’d expect. Ivan Reitman’s first feature, the sex comedy “Foxy Lady,” may be lost. There has never been any home video releases, the film hasn’t been screen since the seventies, and Ivan Reitman doesn’t even know if a copy still exists. Reitman’s first available movie doesn’t belong to the genre he’d find success in. Instead, “Cannibal Girls” is a sleazy, low budget horror film. Like many Canadian filmmakers at the time, Reitman’s route to Hollywood began in the drive-in. Obscure and unavailable for years, “Cannibal Girls” would eventually resurface on DVD.

Clifford and Gloria are a young couple vacationing in Canada. Instead of heading some place exotic, the toy are in search of a quint small town. When their car breaks down in Farnhamville, they seemingly find that town. The locals have an urban legend, about a trio of cannibalistic young women who lure men back to their house to eat them. Clifford and Gloria are fascinated by the tale and seek out the home where the legend supposedly happen. Now a restaurant, the couple are entranced by the strange man who lives there, his harem of stranger women, and the delicious food.

The circumstances of “Cannibal Girls’” production is more interesting than the finished film. The movie was shot in nine days. Most, if not all, of the dialogue was improvised on the spot. After the film’s investors withheld its release, Ivan Reitman stole the movie and took it to an American distributor. The movie was a big hit on the grindhouse circuit, bolstered by a William Castle-style gimmick. The Warning Bell would ring any time a murder was about to occur on-screen, ostensibly for the benefit of squeamish audience members. That the film would manage to be the hit it was is surprising. “Cannibal Girls’ is barely coherent, a collection of random horror scenarios, strung together with little concern for plot or pacing.

The first of several stock horror plots that “Cannibal Girls” shamelessly bashes together is the idea of the deadly woman, seducing unwitting men and killing them. A long sequence in the first half of “Cannibal Girls” revolves around three guys meeting the girls in town and being led back to their home. Two of the men wear glasses. They sit in the den of the house playing board games. One of them is covered in a disturbing amount of body hair. The most handsome of the guys, who is headed to a parade in another town, feels something weird is up. But the promise of sex with a beautiful woman makes him stay. This is the most standard horror story, the “sex equals death” formula embraced by countless slasher films. This sequence is apparently an urban legend being told to the lead characters. Yet it runs so long, and is cut with other events happening, that the viewer doesn’t immediately pick up on this.

The next cliché horror concept “Cannibal Girls” employs is the town with a dark secret. The residents of Farnhamville are aware of the cannibalistic beauties. They knowingly send young couples to the house, making sure the titular females’ freezer is never empty. The pre-credits scene concerns a man and woman being murdered by the cannibals. The girl’s brother searches for her. The town folks are aware of his intrusion, finding and killing him. The town sheriff threatens Clifford and Gloria into staying longer. Why does the town tolerate and encourage these cannibalistic habits? No explanation is provided. It’s just another stereotype tossed into the stew.

“Cannibal Girls” was not only shot in a week but seemingly written in a weekend. After spending so much time showing us how the Cannibal Girls operate, the film then totally shifts gears. Upon visiting the restaurant, Clifford and Gloria meet a strange man, a reverend named St. John. The Reverend apparently holds some sway over the man-eating women. Not only does this rip away any sort of gender-related subtext the story might have had, it also introduces a religious cult element into the story. That’s right, another familiar horror cliché. Seemingly in an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible, Reitman and his team cobbled together every recognizable horror story troupe they could think of.

And if that didn’t work, the director made sure to include plenty of flesh and blood. The gore in “Cannibal Girls” is relatively low tech. There’s plenty of it. People are stab in the chest, in the crotch, stabbed in the neck, and cut up with an axe. Despite the savagery of the murders, you can tell “Cannibal Girls” didn’t have a very high special effects budget. There’s little in the way of dismembered bodies. There's no actual make-up, just lots of food dye and corn syrup. What the film does have is plenty of female nudity. Every one of the flesh-devouring sirens take their tops off, sometimes for flimsy reasons. Sure, they’re attractive. Yet the exploitative elements are so desperate, so adamant to appeal to the lowest common denominator, that the viewer can’t even appreciate them for cheap thrills.

Unless you’re a fan of Canuxploitation, most people will probably check out “Cannibal Girls” because of its lead actors. The film stars Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. Both of these performers would become best known, years later, for appearing on “SCTV,” the cultishly beloved Canadian sketch comedy show. (Martin would also appear in “Black Christmas,” a much more distinguished Canadian horror film.) If it wasn’t for that distinctive voice, Levy would be unrecognizable. He sports a ridiculous afro, a very seventies handlebar mustache, and a pair of coke bottle glasses. Martin, for what it’s worth, is pretty cute, especially in the knee-high go-go boots she wears. Unfortunately, Levy and Martin don’t share much chemistry. To learn that their dialogue was improvised on the spot is not surprising. The dialogue is inane, rambling, and inconsequential.

Another thing I’ve read is that “Cannibal Girls” is supposed to be funny. A horror/comedy in 1973, especially among the low-brow drive-in market, might have had a certain novelty value. The only problem is “Cannibal Girls” isn’t funny. If the film’s compendium of clichés was meant to be satirical, there’s no sign of that in the finished movie. If the rambling dialogue or meaningless story were intentionally absurd, that isn’t convey to the audience. The only time I laughed during “Cannibal Girls” was when the movie baffled me into a state of confused amusement. I somehow doubt that was intentional.

“Cannibal Girls” only runs a little over eighty minutes. Even to get to that brief run time, the movie had to be padded out. Living among the Cannibal Girls is a hunchbacked, limping, mute man-servant named Bunker. Bunker randomly appears and disappears throughout the film. His most bizarre appearance has him suddenly leaping out of the woods, attacking Martin. This scene is so badly directed, I didn’t understand what was happening at first. In one especially needless scene, Levy serenades Martin to sleep by playing his guitar. The subplot of the man searching for his missing sister adds nothing to the film. For that matter, why is the girl killed at the beginning? These are the kind of questions “Cannibal Girls” gets the audience asking.

Despite its meaningless plot and senseless construction, there’s one or two interesting moments in “Cannibal Girls.” One kind of cool shot overlays the naked bosoms of the girls over the starring eyes of the mad reverend. Though the character’s exact purpose isn’t exactly clear, Ronald Ulrich’s wide-eyed performance as the insane reverend is certainly memorable. A sequence where they stand over the couple’s bed is mildly creepy. Searching for good or interesting moments in “Cannibal Girls” is hard but not impossible.

The film concludes on an especially nonsensical note. The lead couple seemingly escape the home of the hungry cannibals. Gloria awakens in a bed, told by her boyfriend that the film’s entire events have been a dream. While the “It was all a dream!” ending certainly would have been a lazy cop-out, at least it would’ve explained the movie’s senseless plot. Instead, the story circles back around, the couple returning to the house. Levy appears to be in cahoots with the villains. Until he isn’t, as he becomes their latest meal. The ending is as slapdash and pointless as anything else in the movie.

Listen, I’m a fan of low budget horror films. I even have a certain affection for sleazy, cheap exploitation flicks.  I usually use the term “trash cinema” affectionately. Yet “Cannibal Girls” is trash in the truest sense, disposable and without value. That the movie is bad probably didn’t bother Reitman or his team much. The director clearly made a movie, cheaply and quickly, that would make money. He accomplished that mission. However dire the finished product may be, “Cannibal Girls’” financial success paved the way for Ivan Reitman’s much better later films. It also, indirectly, lead to the careers of genuinely talented Canuxploitation directors, like David Cronenberg and William Fruet. That almost validates this dumb movie’s existence. [Grade: D]

No comments: