Living down a legacy can be hard. For Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it’s almost impossible. Long before there was South Park, Comedy Central, Team America: World Police, and the millions of dollars with the success of same, the University of Colorado students went off on a Spring Break jaunt to make a movie. The result was the wildly ambitious and decidedly dark comedy Alferd Packer: The Musical. That was 1993. When no other company showed interest in releasing and/or distributing the film, Troma Entertainment came to the rescue. Since then, there has been an uneasy alliance between the camps. And with the release of the excellent 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition DVD, the duo once again become the focus of one company’s continuing commercial sustainability, and their own incomplete past.
The story for this wild musical ride is oddly compelling - and based on real events. Looking to seek their fortune in the Colorado territory, a group of miners follow fellow gold rusher Alferd Packer deep into the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, they run into a band of scurvy trappers who steal Packer’s prized pony Liane. No longer concerned about wealth or riches, angry Al marches the mystified men farther off the well-beaten path and closer to death’s doorway. A stop-off at a local Ute Indian Reservation provides a last chance at avoiding tragedy, but Packer will not be persuaded. He eventually places his party into one Donner of a dilemma.
And soon, it’s shinbones and short ribs for everyone as fallen members of the ore obsessives become bar-b-qued and fricasseed. Strangely, only Packer escapes. When pressed, he tells a wild tale of murder, mayhem, and massive helpings of man meat. It’s enough to put you off your pemmican as a Broadway-style back story leads to a tuneful trial and an even more melodious mob scene with everyone trying to determine if Al is a real life butt muncher, or just the subject of an insane song saga.
Outrageous, amateurish, guaranteed to make your toes tap, your fingers snap, and your gag reflex respond all in one sitting, Cannibal!: The Musical is the small, silly sapling from which a mighty comedy oak eventually grew. The titanic tree of unbridled, brave humor is today known as South Park and the creators of that crazy comic chaos are Matt Stone and his partner in perversity, Trey Parker. Trey is the tricky mastermind behind this musical version of the (supposed) crimes of Colorado’s most infamous flesh-eater, Alferd Packer. Anyone who has ever doubted Parker’s flourishing genius with paper cut-out cartoon characters need look no further than this ambitious, anarchic pseudo-student film to realize that he (along with Stone) were bound for bigger, longer, and uncut things.
Cannibal! is filled with juvenile humor, unprofessional performances, lapses in taste and tone, and - above all - a severe drop-off in inventiveness toward the end. But it also contains classic tainted Tin Pan Alley tunes, a genuine love of gore horror films, and enough sharp, hilarious wit to outshine a few hundred Hollywood dark gross-out comedies. Cannibal!: The Musical is an idea that shouldn’t work (and occasionally heaves and lurches like a block and tackle about to fail), but thanks to Parker’s vision and his merry band of borderline student psychotics (the film was made while Trey and pals were at film school), he manages to corral Cannibal’s potential calamities and make the chaos work. It is far from perfect, but it’s also entertaining, memorable, and filled with infectious, fantastic musical numbers.
This may be the very definition of a cult film. It is a movie made for a specific mindset. You are either “in tune” to its troubled, terrific manic mantra or not. No amount of big screen talkback or audience participation prop pandering will make it click. You will either “get” Cannibal!: The Musical or it will seem static, insipid, and scattered. Just like his efforts on that Comedy Central kiddie show (or the unjustly dumped sitcom spoof That’s My Bush), Parker operates from a big picture, avoiding a non-stop salvo of junky jokes to hopefully create a certain amount of depth and irony to his work. His goal always seems to be the complete deconstruction of typical cinematic and humor norms, only to rebuild them with his own twists. Many critics clamor that Parker and Stone are irrevocably stuck in an infantile world of farts, feces, and offensiveness (stereotyped Japanese men as Ute Indians?). And Cannibal! could very well be used as an example of such salacious obsessions.
But in reality, it is a smart take-off on the musical format mixed with historical drama and laced with the noticeably lowbrow sense of stupid humor - and it succeeds more times than it derails. There are some forgivable lapses in character and plot development (the trappers should have had more involvement in the story) and the good-natured goofiness of the songs leave you wanting more of them (there are a couple of lost tracks - a barroom rap/funk spectacular called “I’m Shatterproof” and the cautionary choral entitled “Don’t Be Stupid Motherf******s”). Still, Parker is out to simultaneously celebrate Packer and bury him. And he does so with a little song, a little dance, and a lot of fake blood down the pants.
Surprisingly, Cannibal! The Musical understands the strange dynamic of having characters break out into song and plays on that unreal magic magnificently. Where else would you find victims of frostbite, so hungry they are unable to move or even sit up straight, singing a joyful - if immobile - roundelay of special sentimental wishes called “That’s All I’m Asking For”? Or how about a lynch mob gaily swing choiring their way through a jubilant reading of the local riot act called “Hang the Bastard!”? The juxtaposition of traditionally non-musical moments with outrageous parodies of Great White Way standards is what marks Cannibal! (and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for that matter) a step above other attempted mismatching. Parker is a gifted writer, and along with original score arrangements by Rich Sanders, the songs are rich, resonant, and instantly memorable. Indeed, this flesh-eating effort may be the first fright flick you’ll ever find yourself humming afterward.
The question then becomes, should fans once again dip into their W. Bush Administration tapped wallets and spring for yet another DVD version of this title? The answer, oddly, depends on how much you love the movie and your completist need to see now mega-famous superstars feign interest in a movie made 13 years ago. Parker and Stone appear in new interviews, and both seem slightly disinterested in revisiting their history. Of course, Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman is there to lighten things up with his irreverent Q&A style. In the end, we get some quality information. Elsewhere, a new commentary features some stars from the film, and it’s as chaotic and crazed as the now infamous “drunken” track featuring Parker, Stone, and some pals doing shots. Both are offered and provide a combination of anecdotes, riffs, and curse-laden cutdowns.
Sprinkled liberally across both discs are a host of deleted scenes. Some are fascinating; some seem like cutting room floor fodder. In addition, there are a few Behind the Scenes featurettes showing us how different F/X were achieved, as well as the oddball production path the film took. Finally, the DVD contains a look at a local production of Cannibal! The Musical. It seems that, every year, amateur theater companies put of versions of the film, with varying degrees of success. We even see one show where Lloyd Kaufman made a stand-up style cameo as a judge. Overall, the 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition of this film offers enough new material to spark the interest of even the most casual lover of Cannibal!‘s craziness.
Yet one still walks away wondering how long this first taste of fame will continue to haunt the boys. As the first release in Troma’s planned “Tromasterpiece Collection” (complete with clever PBS-style logo), the import of Cannibal! The Musical cannot be understated - not to Parker and Stone, and definitely not to the company who came to their rescue. The edgy agreement between the two means that there will always be a place in the corporate cornerstone for another digital version of this hilarious, half-baked gemstone. And when the results are as winning as these, the men behind South Park really shouldn’t care. Sure, all of this can seem like the stalker-esque girlfriend who won’t take the hint post-breakup, but first love is always the strongest, and most unwieldy. That’s a perfect description of Cannibal!‘s unique charm, and Troma’s treatment of same.
// Notes from the Road
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