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CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 30, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: This western musical was written and directed Trey Parker and (an uncredited) Matt Stone when they were student filmmakers, well before they created the hit animated TV series ‘South Park’ (which, after 22 years, is still on Comedy Central) and the notorious ‘Book of Mormon’ stage production (winner of nine Tonys and still touring). ‘Cannibal’ was produced in 1993 but didn’t see a release until 1996 and earned an R rating for its DVD releases. Now it’s being revived on the big screen as the closeout program for the Tower Theater’s ‘Summer Late Night’ series, to be shown at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 30 and 31, then at noon on Sunday, Sept. 1. The film didn’t play theatrically in Salt Lake City so I didn’t review it for the Deseret News, but I did write about it a couple of decades ago for a chapter in an unpublished book; here’s an edited version of that review.

Before they gained infamy with the notorious Comedy Central cable-television animated series “South Park” and then broke into theatrical films with “BASEketball” and “Orgazmo,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the latter billed as “Matthew”) were film students together at the University of Colorado where they made this low, low-budget western musical.

It’s very much a precursor to the “South Park” mindset, with a ridiculous amount of over-the-top violence, blood and gore, along with R-rated profanity and off-the-wall gags. And like so many of their shows, this one is also replete with gags about Mormons.

But like “South Park,” this film’s efforts at charm and humor are heavily overidden by the project’s innate tastelessness and sludge-like pacing, which results in a long, dull hour and-a-half.

Inspired by the true story of the only person in American history convicted of cannibalism, the film opens with a gorefest. We see the central character taking large bloody bites out of his companions, as they are lost in the Rockies during the winter snowfall (an exaggerated, brightly colored and sickening homage to “Night of the Living Dead”).

     

Trey Parker, left, Matt Stone, 'Cannibal! The Musical' (1996)

The character in question is Alferd — yes, that spelling is correct, “Alferd” — Packer (played by writer-director-songwriter Trey Parker, using the stage name “Juan Schwartz”!). And as the scene quicklky shifts to a courtroom in Lake City, Colorado, circa 1883, we see that this is the prosecutor’s version of these cannibalistic events.

“That’s not how it happened,” Alferd protests. And over the course of the film we see Alferd’s version as he tells his story to Washington Post reporter Polly Pry (Toddy Walters).

Allegedly punching up the narrative are several silly songs, from the opening “Shpadoinkle” (easily the best, a parody of the “Oklahoma!” opening number, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”) to a silly ditty about building a snowman (which includes tap dancing in the snow).

The story flashes back to the fall of 1873, and we see Alferd riding his beloved horse Leann to the Bingham Mine in Utah. There, he links up with five fellow miners, whom he reluctantly agrees to lead to Breckinridge in the Colorado Territory … though he really has no idea how to get there.

     

“There’s gold in this gosh-darn canyon,” says hopeless optimist Israel Swan (Jon Hegel). And Shannon Bell (Ian Hardin), the religious leader of the group, declares his intentions of building a church with whatever gold he manages to dig up in Colorado. Also along is a geek whose father makes him go, a dour butcher and a young man who hopes that wealth will help him get girls.

As they begin their journey, someone asks how long it will take. “About three weeks,” says Alferd. “Four weeks later, we were just outside Provo,” Alferd then explains in his narration. A mysterious, spooky fellow appears and tells them, “You’ll never come back — it’s got a curse on it.” “Provo?” someone asks. “The Rocky Mountains,” the stranger replies.

And along the way they lose Leann, run into macho trappers (who sing an old to “blood and guts”) and meet up with a friendly tribe of Indians, who all appear to be (and speak) Japanese.

“Cannibal! The Musical” is, as you might expect, a gory, ugly, stupid comedy that has few interesting ideas and only mildly amusing bits, but never really gathers a head of steam. Still, spark of Parker’s wit is evident. It’s just too bad he insists on being so crass.