DIRECTED BY: Trey Parker
FEATURING: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Dian Bachar, Ian Hardin, John Hegel
PLOT: Alferd Packer and a small band of hopeful gold-rushers lead an ill-fated expedition from Utah to Colorado through the snowy Rocky Mountains. Six walk in; one walks out. It’s also a musical.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The base premise of a comedy-musical about a historic cannibal gold-rusher is certainly attractive enough to watchers of weird. Beyond that, Cannibal! The Musical, while funny and charming, doesn’t shoot for the extremes of weirdness commonly seen on the List. It’s not even the first musical western comedy we’ve reviewed here, and it’s way at the end of the line of movies we’ve considered.
COMMENTS: Fans of the animated franchise “South Park” can already tell you how skilled Trey Parker and Matt Stone are at writing musicals; the theatrical feature South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was a surprising hit with show-stopping numbers, and then “The Book of Mormon” (the play, not the book) cemented their reputation. And of course, black humor is a given with this creative pair. So it’s interesting to see their work on this low-budget production when they were still students at University of Colorado-Boulder, before “South Park” made them famous. It released originally as Alferd Packer: The Musical in 1993 before Troma Entertainment, spiritual peers to Parker/Stone, picked it up for distribution as Cannibal! The Musical.
For a hopeful few seconds it meets the expectation you have for a Troma movie, when the film opens with a deranged cannibal attacking and taking bites out of hapless settlers in the snowy woods. This turns out to be a flashback from a courtroom, circa 1883, where defendant Alferd Packer (Trey Parker) is on trial for murdering his traveling party. Later, in his cell, a local reporter who’s attracted to bad boys goads him into telling her his story, by segue of talking about his horse, Liane. And so we’re swept into the musical tale of the ill-fated Alferd Packer’s Gold Rush expedition in 1874, accompanied by a ragtag band of optimistic hangers-on—teenagers James Humphrey (Matt Stone) and George Noon (Dian Bachar), Mormon priest Shannon Bell (Ian Hardin), butcher Frank Miller (Jason McHugh), and twinkle-toed Israel Swan (John Hegel)—none of whom have the slightest clue about gold-mining or surviving treks through the Rockies in the dead of winter.
Of course, for a campy comedy musical, the movie treats the historical Packer’s tale with about as much accuracy as Mel Brooks recounting the Spanish Inquisition. Townspeople and random pioneers on the trail warn the party of grave doom, Indians, and a cyclops (who proves disappointingly un-Harryhausen). The group stays disciplined by putting individuals on time out when things get uncivil. Bad luck haunts the crew in every way from losing the horse (to which Packer will sing an ode) to stumbling into random bear traps, and the crew gets lost enough to chance upon the Grand Canyon on their way from Utah to Colorado. A band of punk-rock trappers taunt the party along the way. Asian kung-fu Indians beset the party. While not a lot makes sense, the story moves at a swift enough clip that you’ll barely mind. Be wary after watching it so you aren’t caught idly singing “Hang the Bastard” in inappropriate contexts.
Formed from the quirky imaginations of the Parker/Stone team, Cannibal! The Musical is an enjoyable romp with plenty of the team’s trademark dark humor. The production at times is patterned after Oklahoma! There’s parody of tropes both musical (songs break down mid-verse as the singers argue about chord theory) and western (“Look at all these teepees we have; because we’re Indians!”), yet despite the gory opening scene there’s barely a whiff of a horror aspect: our Troma expectations fizzle after the first five minutes and don’t rekindle until the final twenty. Considering it was a student effort that started out as a fake trailer for film class before the professor called the team’s bluff, the movie is an excellent, if silly, effort. Its legacy is a cult following, the occasional stage revival, and the introduction of “shpadoinkle” into weirdophile vocabulary. But it only has passing business flirting with the wild west of weird cinema.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s all pretty stupid, but at times, there are refreshingly ludicrous notes that even people old enough to see this movie without a guardian can appreciate. One approach: Imagine the film taking place in South Park animation. If Cartman were ripping that man’s arm off and eating it, it might be cute.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (1998 revival)