SXSW Review: Cannibal Girls

By  · Published on March 16th, 2010

How excited am I to be attending a reparatory screening of an unsung horror film at SXSW? If you’re at all familiar with the articles I typically write for FSR, then the answer is self-evident. If you are lucky enough to have never read anything of mine, let me just say that this experience made me feel like Dr. Jones in the Egyptian desert realizing that the Nazis were digging in the wrong place. While most of the festival-goers were off attending parties or killing each other to make it into the latest first-run titles, I was eager to cram into the 80-person Alamo Ritz Theater 2 to see this lost horror-comedy gem.

Cannibal Girls is the story of a trio of lovely ladies in a small town that make a habit of being man-eaters…literally. They are the disciples of the Rev. Alex St. John and he manipulates them to enact his horrible bidding. Their exploits have become the fodder of local legend in this tiny hamlet and, despite the supposed fictional status of their deeds, tend to spell doom for any passing rube. This brings us to our central characters: Gloria and Cliff. They are a young, amorous couple looking for a quiet spot to spend their first weekend away together. Will their romantic getaway seal their unfortunate fate? Will they become entrees on the menu of this blood feast? Is the reverend going to pull a rabbit from his hat?

Cannibal Girls is a quality film. For what it is, that statement is surprising. But in consideration of the names behind it, the end result is slightly less shocking. Cannibal Girls was only the second full-length feature film for a fledgling director named Ivan Reitman. Yes, THAT Ivan Reitman. His son, an Academy Award nominated director in his own right, Jason Reitman introduced the film to the tiny, eager theater; regaling of being terrified of the poster that was hanging in his childhood home. In addition to being directed by Ivan Reitman, the film stars Eugene Levy who has become a comedy pinch-hitter with his roles in both the Christopher Guest documentaries and American Pie. So though you may not heard of the film, you certainly have heard of the folks who made it.

I have to say, as much as I enjoy cult horror films, I was expecting to have an entertaining evening but hoped for little more than a momentary distraction from the rest of the festival. What I saw was a great director displaying impressive chops early in his career. The comedy is not slapstick, not spastic gesturing, and not even genre-aware parody. The comedy in Cannibal Girls comes from the actors and the script; the way natural comedy evolves. What Levy is given to say is riotously funny, but all played seriously. The Rev. St. John spends most of the film dressed like a magician and hamming it up with wide-eyed creepiness. There are also subtle, and some less-than-subtle, background activity that is absurdly funny as well.

What really surprised me about Cannibal Girls is the skilled execution of the horror elements. The story, the concept of gorgeous women in a small town who are literally man-eaters, is the very essence of fantastic cult horror. It doesn’t hurt at all that the three girls are perfect recreations of Hammer vixens; making it totally understandable that any man would follow them to that house. The actor playing Rev. St. John, Ronald Ulrich, is marvelous and though he also elicits laughter with his weirdness, he can communicate menace just as well. The framing of certain shots and the explicit gore really emphasize that this is a horror-comedy and not the other way around. In fact, the comedy is strongly compartmentalized and not integral to the story. It would be easy to edit out the funny moments and this would be an effective straight horror film. Very impressive!

Cannibal Girls played this festival partly because Filmswelike is re-releasing it on DVD. I can tell you without any reservation that I will be buying that DVD the day it comes out. Great movie!

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.