Serving Up Richard is built on a simple, Hitchcockian premise: a flawed hero makes a bad decision and has a change of heart, but not soon enough to escape the clutches of a lunatic who administers a disproportionate punishment. Unlike Psycho’s Marion Crane, however, Richard Reubens (Ross McCall) isn’t put out of his misery a few reels in; he’s locked up in the “guest room” (this film’s original title) of your average suburban cannibals.
What follows is neither a horror flick nor a black comedy (though it has flashes of both), but a cat-and-mouse suspense thriller. Reubens’s captors are Everett and Glory Hutchins (Jude Ciccolella and Susan Priver), a globetrotting anthropologist and an ex-missionary who have brought a taste for human flesh back from the African jungle. Because the movie would be over if they ate Richard right off the bat, the Hutchinses decide to make him a sort of project by keeping him in confinement to torment and, perhaps, enlighten him before they turn him into dinner. When Everett improbably goes away for six weeks, Richard goes to work on the chalk-faced, agoraphobic Glory, trying to gain her trust to facilitate his escape.
Despite these fundamental contrivances, the film (written and directed by former character actor Henry Olek) is admirably taut, intense, and well paced, putting Richard through a series of small victories and demoralizing setbacks. But it could have been ratcheted up more, especially by making the hero more resourceful, which would require his captors to be more ingenious as well. As it stands, Richard is slow to adapt and kind of a weasel, an impression that isn’t helped by the Scottish McCall’s version of a Yank accent, which makes him sound like Leo Gorcey.
When not depicted as savages, modern-day celluloid cannibals are either worldly sophisticates (like Hannibal Lecter) or ultra-conformists (as in Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul and Bob Balaban’s underappreciated gem Parents) whose transgressive tastes tease out the contradictions of civility. Although Serving Up Richard merges these two types, it exhibits no such metaphorical ambition. What could have been a grueling test of a man who must become his enemy to survive or an exploration of the clash between tradition and modernity ends up merely a better-than-expected thriller.