|Thinking back over the years, I can recall a handful of distinct, formative horror film-related memories. Sneaking away from my parents at the bookstore to leaf through the Creepshow comic adaptation. Staring at the body part-filled shopping bag art on the video store's VHS copy of Chopping Mall. Returning from trick-or-treating to watch the "It's alive!" sequence in Frankenstein for the first time.
But none of these memories confused, delighted and -- yes -- even creeped me out as much as my first viewing of Ivan Reitman's 1973 film Cannibal Girls, a crude and surreal locally-shot effort that also helped spark my interest in Canadian genre movies.
It's impossible to say for sure, but I probably saw Cannibal Girls initially around 1989 or 1990, when my parents finally acquiesced and allowed me to watch and rent horror flicks.
Like most newly minted teenagers of the day, my tastes leaned towards slashers -- the tackier the better -- but I was also starting to nurture an appreciation for B-movie trash, mostly thanks to a beat-up copy of The Golden Turkey Awards book I scored at a library sale and reruns of Elvira's Movie Macabre, which one of the local stations played after Saturday Night Live. Scanning TV listings for particularly lurid titles, I would sometimes set the timer on my parents' VCR to tape Elvira's show. That's how I probably ended up popping in a blank tape one evening when I noticed something called Cannibal Girls was playing on a competing channel, CityTV.
Now, in the 1980s and even early '90s, Toronto television station CityTV was known for pushing boundaries and even airing the risqué -- they were the inspiration for the "Civic TV" station in Videodrome, after all.
Though infamous for their late night softcore films, they also aired horror and sci-fi movies some weekends after midnight. Most of the 1970s films in their library were fairly tame, such as Empire of the Ants or Squirm. But Cannibal Girls was something else entirely, and watching that tape a few days later certainly shook up my tastes and expectations.
The movie opens with something I'd probably never seen on television before: a half naked girl with blood dripping down her chest, chomping down on a victim. Used to the neutered, safe-for-TV prints regularly offered by Elvira's show, I was shocked and surprised to discover that CityTV had aired the uncut version of the film (as they always did) and it gave me a new perspective on the decade's horror.
Gratuitous boobs and blood were a regular feature of slashers, of course, but I discovered Cannibal Girls was charged with an earthy eroticism that was largely missing from the airbrushed horror output of the 1980s. "These girls do EXACTLY what you think they do" indeed.
After that surprising tidbit, Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin appeared on screen and confusion quickly set in -- I was at a complete loss trying to detect the intended tone of Cannibal Girls.
These two hilarious actors I loved on SCTV appeared to be hamming it up for the camera again. But wait, were they? Maybe I was just a bit too young but during that first viewing, I simply could not gauge whether Levy, with his bushy 'fro' and unkempt moustache, and Martin, who radiated awkwardness, were actually trying to make me laugh with their relaxed banter. To be fair, the film's humour is extremely deadpan and underplayed by the two leads, but I almost entirely missed the subtle jokes. I wanted the film to fit into my established ideas of horror cinema at the time as either outright camp or straight-faced spookshow but, with every surreal plot turn, Cannibal Girls steadfastly refused to conform.
As the film progressed and the early character moments with Levy and Martin gave way to more traditional scare sequences, I decided that Cannibal Girls had to be a serious horror movie. The motel owner's narration of a lengthy flashback wherein three girls seduce men back to their communal home so they can feast on them was something that I could get a handle on.
And the film had more to offer than just squeamish flesh feasts. When Levy and Martin step inside the dark, gloomy manor -- now a restaurant -- where these bizarre killings supposedly took place, the film cranks up the off-kilter atmospherics to an unsettling degree. Reitman makes it clear that something is just not quite right in this place, regardless of the fact that the waitresses are clearly the same girls from the flashback and that the couple's host, the enigmatic Reverend, appears to be hiding his true intentions.
That's partially why, for me, the Reverend remains one of the creepiest and most imposing figures in '70s horror cinema. Part Charles Manson, part sideshow magician and part campfire storyteller, the Reverend doesn't so much recount the house's history as he does weave a spell to ensnare Levy and Martin as a midnight snack for his girls.
And just when I finally thought I knew what was going on, the film wraps up with a barely credible twist ending that would have had Rod Serling walking out of the theatre in disgust. At the time, I couldn't believe the blatant lack of logic and stale silliness of the "it was all a dream...or was it?!" ending, qualities that can ruin the experience if you are dead set on taking the film as seriously as I was at that point in time.
Even through my disappointment, I recognized that Cannibal Girls still managed to pull off a compelling, nightmare-fueled wooziness -- just as the Reverend cast his hypnotic spell, the picture had transfixed me in some way that I had only experienced from some of the more outré entires on Movie Macabre. It's the kind of film where, two weeks later, you can't quite remember if you actually rented it or simply dreamed the whole thing. In that way, Reitman had at least successfully created a surreal and strange world in which a conclusion that anti-climactic almost made sense.
What remained the most interesting aspect of Cannibal Girls to me was its regionalism -- this was a Canadian horror movie, with all the snow, lumberjack jackets and University of Toronto window decals to prove it.
Shot about a 45-minute drive directly east from the spot on the couch I watched the film from, it wasn't hard to imagine that the Reverend and his girls lived on the outskirts of my own small town, slowly turning my neighbours into blood-crazed maniacs gorging themselves on messy lumps of ground-up humans.
The film's locality and specific setting stuck with me even longer than some of its horrific images, and when I started to take a more serious look at Canadian horror cinema more than a decade later, it was one of the first films I eagerly wrote up, along with other recognizably Canadian titles I had previously come across in my adventures at the video store or late night TV, including The Mask, Crime Wave and Ski School.
Even though Cannibal Girls received a nice special edition DVD release last year, the original experience I had watching the film is gone, never to be recreated again.
But just in case, I still have that VHS tape stashed away, and I'll probably keep it until it falls apart...