Color, 1973, 84m.
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Starring Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Ronald Ulrich, Randall Carpenter, Bonnie Neilson, Mira Pawluk
Shout Factory (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Cannibal Girls is the Dr. No of Canadian horror films. It's definitely not the best of its kind, but without it, popular culture would be a whole lot poorer. Sporting a weird pedigree and an even weirder back story, this oddball exploitation film stumbled onto screens in the early '70s as a pick-up from American International Pictures, who outfitted it with a William Castle-style gimmick ("The picture with the Warning Bell! When it rings - close your eyes if you're squeamish!") and a memorably luried one-sheet poster design which thankfully appears on the DVD cover. Of course, now it's more significant as the first significant film directed by Ivan Reitman (who went on to a trio of Bill Murray hits starting with 1979's Meatballs) and an early vehicle for future SCTV comedy pros Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy, with the former dipping her toes into Canadian horror once more the following year with Black Christmas.

After a brief prologue (equipped with the warning bell) in which a man is attacked on the beach while feeling up his girlfriend, we meet our two protagonists, Clifford (Levy) and Gloria (Martin), a Toronto-based couple out for a weekend in the countryside after being an item for only two weeks. Equipped with an untrustworthy car, they wind up in a small town called Farnhamville where big trucks with "MEAT" signs drive around the streets. The local motel owner and town historian regales them with a local story about three beautiful cannibal women who lure men to their culinary doom and have never been apprehended. Fascinated, the pair decide to check out the scene of the crime which has now become a well-appointed restaurant run by the eccentric, Shakespeare-quoting Reverend Alex St. John (Ulrich) and three sexy women (Carpenter, Neilson and Pawluk) who look an awful lot like the maneaters we've seen before. They decide to accept an invitation to stay the night, but Gloria is traumatized when the Reverend and the girls invade their bedroom, tie up Cliff, and seem to prepare for a nasty ritual. Gloria escapes with her life, only to wake up in bed with her boyfriend the next morning. Was it all a nightmare, or is there something more sinister going on?

A perplexing but at times wildly entertaining film, Cannibal Girls boasts no technical prowess at all and, thanks to its dingy cinematography, theatrical splashes of stage blood, and often improvised, florid prattling by the cast, feels at times like something made by Andy Milligan on a trip to the Great White North. For some reason the film has since acquired a reputation as some sort of horror parody, though there's really not much in the film to back that up. Martin and Levy do get a handful of amusing moments such as her attempts to start their car by cooing sweet nothings at the steering wheel or Levy's wry segment involving a cigarette planted on the end of his guitar string, but overall there's actually a lot less humor (intentional or otherwise) here than the aforementioned Black Christmas. Most of the film goes for an eerie vibe with its isolated, wintry setting and splattery cannibal murders every fifteen minutes or so, while the film often wanders around in search of an actual story. (The opening credits promising dialogue "created by the cast" should be a good indicator that this isn't exactly Robert Altman territory on the improv scale.) That said, it does manage to pull out a fairly effective Grand Guignol ending, and cinematographer Robert Saad (who went on to Death Weekend and Cronenberg's Shivers) wrings some solid atmosphere out of the austere locations.

Despite its reasonable box office success (often paired by AIP with another cannibal-themed import, Raw Meat), Cannibal Girls quickly faded into oblivion in the U.S., earning only a tiny handful of token late night TV broadcasts and never getting a VHS release. Horror fans were left to resort to the early '80s tape issued by Canada's CIC (the same folks who brought you the first uncut version of Bloody Moon), which became a hot catalog collector's item and occasional mom 'n' pop video store staple. However, this edition was the original Canadian version without the warning bell on the soundtrack, leaving the AIP version in limbo for decades.

Therefore it's with great relief that Shout Factory's much-needed DVD release presents the film with both soundtracks fully intact. The disc defaults to the standard Canadian version, but you can also watch it with the AIP track which commences with a voiceover explaining to the audience how the whole process works. Basically a noise sounding like a bicycle horn goes off right before blood appears, and then a doorbell chime indicates the nastiness is over. This tactic seems fine (if awfully comedic) at first but becomes increasingly useless as the film progresses, often sounding off only a couple of frames before the gore hits and sometimes bypassing shocking moments entirely. In any case, it's nice to have this nifty bit of cinematic ballyhoo (basically a twist on Chamber of Horrors' "horror horn") back in circulation where it belongs. The actual transfer is obviously much improved over the dated, cropped CIC edition and does as well as you could expect for a cheap, early '70s Canadian title that had extra footage shot for padding and shock value months and months after it was originally completed (including the prologue). Along with the wonderfully trashy American theatrical trailer and two radio spots, the disc includes a pair of great extras explaining exactly how the film came about. Reitman and producer/editor/co-writer Daniel Goldberg (who went on to much bigger, full-fledged comedies like The Hangover) appear in one featurette and candidly talk about how the film came about, including its lack of script (using only a 14-page treatment), their ignorance of things like shot coverage, and their covert methods used to push the film at places like the Cannes Film Festival. Best of all are the tales about dealing with AIP's Sam Arkoff, who evaluated it as "so terrible it might actually make some money." Eugene Levy (now looking much more familiar without the film's wild afro and porn star mustache) appears in a separate video interview (titled "Meat Eugene," of course) in which he stands in the butcher section of a food market and talks about his own naive approach to his leading role, including how his own smoking habit contributed to his cleverest onscreen gag. The disc sleeve comes with a reversible option with alternate poster art on the opposite side. A very tasty disc indeed.