Cannibal! The Musical DVD

Good taste gone bad

South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut has been admired and even respected as the first real traditional musical film in years. But it wasn’t Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s first musical, their first controversial project, or even their first exploitation of their native Colorado heritage.

Cannibal! was “made in 1954,” a “lost” film made during the boys’ pre-natal period. It’s a musical comedy based (loosely) on the true story of Alfred Packer, the only American ever to be convicted for cannibalism.

Opening in black, white and blood red, we get a shocking account of wild-eyed Packer (Parker) tearing his companions apart in the snowy Rocky Mountains of 1874. This shocking footage illustrates the climax of the story according to the prosecutor at Packer’s trial. Reporter Polly Pry (Toddy Walters) gets the real story from Packer himself as he sits in jail, awaiting his date with the hangman.

It all starts with Packer’s horse Liane. Like many movie cowboys, Packer is in love with his horse – though not in a sick way. Asked to lead Utah miners into the gold country of his native Colorado, Packer agrees. Oddly, he’s the only one with a horse – but he’s also the only one to lose one. One night, Liane disappears, and a heartbroken Packer tends to lead the group around in circles looking for her, rather than toward their intended destination.

Swept off course while crossing rivers, led astray by Packer’s lovesick woodcraft, captured by Japanese Indians, troubled by trappers, menaced by a Cyclops – there seems to be no end to the party’s tribulation. When one of the party is killed (for a reprise of his “Let’s Build A Snowman” song), they turn to cannibalism, bad wigs and false beards. Packer is the only one to make it out of the wilderness alive, and he’s immediately accused of foul play. But since this is based on Packer’s own version of the tale, first we get to see some rather extreme carnage for which he claims no responsibility, and some catchy song and dance numbers.

Despite being plagued by amateur acting, as well as the limitations of their $125,000 budget and one week shooting schedule, Cannibal! works more often than it doesn’t. The boys had not yet achieved the joke-per-second ratio of South Park, but it’s still pretty funny stuff, and the unusual theme helps. The songs are held back by the limited orchestral range of Parker and Rich Sanders’ mostly-synthesized score. But, hey – are you really looking for Rodgers and Hart from these guys?

The commentary track reveals that the film was shot with a great deal more authenticity than one would think – more than is necessary, as it turns out. Many scenes were shot on the actual historic locations, even though they could have been shot in Bulgaria. The judge (played by Parker’s father) reads the actual sentencing speech from Packer’s trial, and Parker is shown building dollhouses in jail, just as the real Packer did. However, there is no evidence that Packer ever met a Cyclops.

The commentrak also reveals that Parker made the film to get back at a girlfriend that dumped him (Liane – who left him for a guy in an acappella group). It also reveals that a lot of DVD commentaries might be improved with a couple bottles of whiskey, as the cast puts alcohol to good use while watching the film. It’s one of the funniest commentraks I’ve ever heard, even if it sounds a little gay. Perhaps Martin Scorsese will tie one on for his next commentary, or maybe Abel Ferrara will snort some heroin.

While Troma is famous for their low budgets, they are almost obsessive about providing value for the dollar, and their DVDs are loaded with extras. This one includes on-set footage of the film being made, two (!) introductions from Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, some documentary bits, the original promotional trailer for both Cannibal! and Alfred Packer (the film’s original title), a look at Trey Parker’s beach house, a tour of Troma studios, a Troma quiz, and much more!

Despite the fact I’ve always been a big South Park fan, for some reason I’ve avoided Parker and Stone’s other work. Perhaps I thought I’d only like them through animation. Now that I’ve seen Cannibal!, I guess I have to catch up with Orgazmo, and maybe even BASEketball.

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