Ladies that lunch: CANNIBAL GIRLS (Ivan Reitman, 1973)

Mention cannibalism in conversation (sorry, yes, I often do), and you will usually (in my experience) be met with either humour or revulsion and very often both at once. Ivan Reitman has wrestled with that paradox in this early movie – he went on to direct Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters I and II, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Dave and Junior. Great comedy classics, but none of them involved cannibalism, unfortunately.

This Canadian film employs the classic horror trope of the young couple lost or having car problems or, in this case, both at once. The couple are Clifford and Gloria, played with gusto by the very young and almost unrecognisable Eugene Levy (American Pie, Schitt’s Creek, most Christopher Guest movies) and Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

There’s the creepy gas station person, the corrupt cop, and a particularly unctuous reverend. When shown in the cinemas, there was apparently a bell that rang immediately preceding the gore to warn the squeamish to close their eyes. This was omitted in the version I watched, and with good reason – if you don’t know what to expect when a guy starts pulling on his clothes and a woman reaches for a sharp implement, then you are probably watching the wrong channel.

Then there’s the hotel of horrors, where the motel proprietor tells them the “legend of the three beautiful girls”, who lure men to their farmhouse, take them to bed, and then kill and eat them.

“Food can be a marvellous appetiser” one of them tells her chosen victim. The girls have a ritual – a dab of blood between the breasts and the incantation:

“Within me and without me, I honour this blood, which gives me life.”

There’s the wink to the audience as the butcher holds up a piece of meat and tells a customer: “Mrs Wilson, if it was any fresher, it would get up and tell you itself”.

And then, there are the cannibal girls of the title. Turns out they are, I dunno, maybe succubi? Anyway, they eat human flesh, drink blood, and live forever. And, we are told, they never get sick. They feed the reverend, who seems to be in charge of all this hocus pocus, on their blood, as they chant:

“We shall drink the blood of life, of life eternal, and we shall live forever.”

The problem here is that the film is trying to be a horror story and a comedy at the same time, and does OK at both, but brilliantly at neither. It was made on a low budget, not uncommon in cannibal movies, but, to make a long story short, the less the money, the greater the tendency to make a short story long. It drags a bit, and although there’s lots of blood and meat, there’s not much terror or humour.

But it does get to the point of cannibal stories – humans are edible, under the skin we are just another large mammal, and probably taste, as several cannibals report, somewhere between veal and pork. The movie reminds us of that sad truth with subtle hints like cows grazing beside the road, and a meat truck carrying some sort of mammal flesh to the local butcher.

Hard to build a whole horror show on that, so of course there has to be a supernatural element, based on traditional beliefs about capturing the strength, wisdom, skill or even soul of the one being eaten. You can trace this belief, or hope, in contested stories of cannibalism, such as the Fore tribe of PNG who ate their ancestors and acquired not strength or skill but a nasty shaking disease called Kuru. A popular version is the myth of the Wendigo, a spirit that inhabits humans and gives them an insatiable desire for human flesh, which makes them immortal and invulnerable – a topic covered rather nicely in the movie Ravenous.

These cannibal girls are not Wendigos – they are not particularly strong, just well armed, and are under the thrall of the reverend, who lives off their life forces and can hypnotise anyone with just a glance. Maybe he is some sort of evil spirit.

But real life cannibals do not gain strength from their meals, and they do not live forever. Jeffrey Dahmer hoped only to keep his boyfriends with him as zombie sex slaves, and eventually was beaten to death in prison. Ottis Toole died of cirrhosis of the liver, also in prison. In the final analysis, what cannibals eat is just meat, it has no magical powers, and usually results in legal trouble rather than invulnerability.

But it’s an entertaining enough movie, and after all the movies we have reviewed, it is a refreshing change to see some women tucking in to a bit of man-flesh.

That’s a carrot she’s peeling. Behave yourselves.

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