All singing! All dancing! All flesh-eating!
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 called Cannibal!: The Musical.
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 the University of Colorado film school), he manages to corral Cannibal's potential calamities and make the mess 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.
Some of the efforts in the sonic domain would have been better spent in the script department. Admittedly written over a couple of nights, there is a heavy reliance on Cartman and Kyle style curse word putdowns and silly non-sequiturs. But every once in a while, the cast's comic timing kicks in and the humor is randy, robust, and rib tickling. With exceptional production values (the crew used several actual locations from Packer's past and a perfectly recreated ghost town to provide untold realistic set design delights) and that great score, Cannibal!: The Musical is a recommended pre-success visit to a podunk mountain town filled with fledgling funny men in training.
Troma, known for their no-budget gore lampoons and ultra-sick slick sex pics, was the company that wisely picked up Parker and Stone's spring break lark when every other studio declared it an untouchable stenchfest. Lloyd and the lads then offered the film to video connoisseurs worldwide. With the advent of DVD, Toxie's team have gone and remastered the movie and loaded the digital domain with dozens of extras and hilarious merchandising moments. All the corporate clamor is stuff fans of the Manhattan misfits have come to appreciate: self-deprecating ads and trailers, unbridled shilling for and from founder Kaufman, lots of sleazy T&A, and gratuitous violence. Of special note are the Troma Intelligence Test (or TIT for short) and a virtual tour of the studio that functions as a series of comic blackouts and outrageous satiric send-ups (two adolescent girls concocting the gory deaths for Troma's scripts?).
But the majority of the bounty is given over to the soon-to-be-South Park duo. The transfer is really quite nice and rather evocative of the era. It resembles a digitally colored photo from one of those mall stores specializing in recreating Old West portraits. There are some grain and compression issues evident, but considering the budget and the conditions under which it was filmed, Cannibal!: The Musical's 1.33:1 full screen image looks fairly good. On the other hand, the sound is just plain weird. Interviews and commentary indicate that most of the dialogue (and all the songs) were added in post, and a couple of times you can tell that the looping was done in an available restroom: there is so much reverb it's like being backstage at a Blue Oyster Cult concert. Still, the music sounds spectacular in the available Dolby Digital Stereo. On the bonus side, we get trailers, differing introductions to the film by head honcho Kaufman, a guide for instantly accessing the songs (as well as video of a local live production of the same material so we can see how the show plays to an actual theatrical audience), a rather off-the-cuff set of interviews, and some behind the scenes video filler. But by far the supreme offering of this DVD is the "drunken" commentary by Parker, Stone, and a few of their friends. Drinking "scotch, wine, and beer," the boys start out providing insight into the characters (the horse Liane was named after Parker's fiancée who stood him up days before the wedding) and locations. But soon, everyone is stoned off their gourd and the track degenerates into hilarious name-calling, frat house farting contests, and complete pandemonium. Parker continues to sew his sour grapes and the rest of the gang beg to go to a strip club. More a comment on their newfound success than the movie itself, the bonus track on Cannibal!: The Musical is a must-hear for any fan of the dangerously deranged duo.
If the idea of a mock-historical western that is part Brigadoon and mostly Sweeney Todd sends your satire senses into a shiver, then Cannibal!: The Musical is the movie for you. While it may have some substandard elements, it's still as funny and fresh as a baked potato. It's a spadoinkle film!
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