(1993) Written and directed by Trey Parker; Starring: Trey Parker, Dian Bachar, Toddy Walters, Robert Muratore, Matt Stone and Jon Hegel; Available on DVD.
“I think the biggest influence for Cannibal was just the musicals, like Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musicals like Oklahoma and stuff like that… that was the joke to me. Let’s do an Oklahoma, but about a cannibal.” – Trey Parker (from 2007 interview)
For the past 7 ½ years of this blog’s existence, I’ve been harboring a dark secret: I enjoy a good musical now and then. Judging by my body of reviews to date, however, this genre has been woefully underrepresented. This month I intend to set the record straight with some notable examples, but since this is Cinematic Catharsis after all, you wouldn’t expect me to look at The Sound of Music or Singin’ in the Rain, would you? With my blog’s mission in mind, to discuss the unloved, the unwanted, underrated and otherwise overlooked movies, I’m taking a look at some titles that slipped through the cracks. My first selection for Musical May is none other than Trey Parker’s pseudo-historical extravaganza, Cannibal! The Musical.
Some of the best things are spawned from adversity, and Cannibal! The Musical is no exception. Writer/director/star Trey Parker based the subplot, about the main character losing his horse, on his recent breakup with his fiancée, with a dash of Homer’s Odyssey (watch for a cyclops) thrown into the mix. The central story is based on the notorious exploits of miner Alferd Packer,* who was accused of murdering and eating five of his companions during an ill-fated trek to Colorado. Shot in 16 mm on a budget of roughly $125,000, it was essentially a student film, with Parker enlisting the aid of University of Colorado Boulder** students, friends and family including his fellow (future) South Park co-creator Matt Stone. Filming was on location, featuring many of the same historical sites, including the courthouse (with Trey Parker’s father Randy presiding as judge) where Packer’s trial occurred. Likewise, the courtroom dialogue was pulled from the transcripts of the actual legal proceedings.
* Fun Fact #1: There is some debate about the spelling of Mr. Packer’s first name. Official documents list it as “Alfred,” but in popular circles, he was known as “Alferd,” which may or may not have been an intentional misspelling. Read more here.
** Fun Fact #2: Packer has gained status as a sort of folk hero in Colorado. Visitors to the University of Colorado Boulder can dine at the Alferd Packer Grill.
After the cartoonishly gory opening sequence, we’re introduced to Alferd Packer (Trey Parker, under the pseudonym Juan Schwartz) in jail, as he awaits his sentence from the jury. Polly Pry (Toddy Walters), an enterprising young journalist, listens to his tale, told in flashback, which begins in Utah. A group of miners, tired of their situation, decide to pull up stakes and move east, to Colorado territory, with dreams of untold riches. The only problem is their guide, Lucky Larry, just perished in a freak accident. The intrepid prospectors promptly elect Packer to be their new guide, based on the information that he’s from Colorado, and they set off on a circuitous path to what they hope will be greener (or golder) pastures. Unfortunately for the group, it turns out he’s not as familiar with the territory as they were led to believe, and they take a few too many wrong turns, encountering hostile trappers and ersatz Native Americans* along the way. As the weather turns from bad to worse and the food supply runs out, Packer and his band come to the grim realization that they must resort to cannibalism to survive.
* Fun Fact #3: As a dual major in Film and Japanese, Trey Parker made sure to put his knowledge to good use in the production, when Alferd Packer and his travelers meet the Nihonjin Tribe (“nihonjin” means “Japanese people”). According to Parker, the Japanese dialogue for the tribe members includes lines such as: “This is a really stupid movie.”
The songs are uniformly catchy, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for anyone familiar with some of Trey Parker’s other work. In a moment reminiscent of Oklahoma, Alferd Packer sings the opening song, “Shpadoinkle,”* establishing a time, place and mood. Unfortunately, the boundless optimism of the song is short-lived for Packer and his beloved horse Liane (named after Parker’s ex fiancée). Some other favorites are “Trapper Song,” “Let’s Build a Snowman,” (sung by the insufferably chipper Isreal Swan, played by Jon Hegel) “This Side of Me,” and “Hang the Bastard.”
** Fun Fact #4 In his drunken (no, really) DVD commentary, Parker and colleagues recalled the origin of the nonsense word “shpadoinkle.” Apparently, while writing the opening song, Parker inserted a nonsense word, with the hope of replacing it with a suitable adjective. Everyone liked the song so much, along with the temporary word that he decided to leave it in.
Cannibal! The Musical’s many gags range from sophomoric to clever, but it’s hard not to laugh. In the DVD commentary, Parker and friends discuss all the things that are wrong with the movie, pointing out instances when they did something they would never do now, but this is one of the movie’s charms, and arguably the reason it works. If it had been a polished film, it might not have gone as well. Cannibal! The Musical is consistently silly, full of memorable lines and infectious songs. It’s one of a select few movies guaranteed to drag me out of the doldrums. If you haven’t seen this particular slice of lunacy, you owe it to yourself to check it out. I have a feeling you’ll have a shpadoinkle day.