Matt Stone and Trey Parker have always been obsessed with the macabre. One of the more famous episodes of their most famous creation, South Park, ended with Cartman licking the tears off the face of an older boy, Scott Tenorman, who had just been fed the remains of his parents as chili, all because Scott had the gall to make fun of Cartman.
But 18 years before “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” and four years before Cartman got an anal probe in the very first episode of South Park, Matt and Trey collaborated on their first, and most hilariously ghoulish, film: Cannibal! The Musical.
Originally titled Alfred Packer: The Musical, the movie is loosely based on the story of Packer, a Pennsylvania-born prospector who set out on a mission for gold from Utah to Colorado in 1873. Packer, along with five others, quickly became hopelessly lost and he, depending on whose story you believe, either both killed and ate the party he was with, or shot the man — Wilson Bell — who did the murdering.
I strongly recommend reading about the whole story here because, well, I don’t want to write another article about cannibalism — besides, we’re here to talk about comedy, and how Parker and Stone managed to make such an amusing movie out of something horrific.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker met in 1991 when the two were students in Colorado University’s film program. While there, Parker, who grew up in Colorado fascinated by Packer’s story, came up with the idea of making a musical on the state’s most (only?) famous cannibal, and along with Stone, as well as fellow film students Jason McHugh and Ian Hardin, they made a three-minute trailer.
(Like all great comedies, it came out of a personal crisis: Parker found his fiancée, Lianne, in bed with another man, and she soon became his ex-fiancée. For weeks, Parker was in a depressive funk, until one day, he was ready to shoot the trailer, mostly because, according to McHugh, “The only reason [Trey] wanted to shoot the thing was to get the line, ‘Hi, my name is Alfred Packer, and this is my horse, Lianne,’ on film.”)
The trailer became such a big hit at CU that the chairman and founder of the university’s film department, Virgil Grillo, convinced the quartet to turn Alfred Packer into a feature-length film. So, in the spring of 1993 and with a budget of $125,000, that’s exactly what they did, under their recently-created Cannibal Films, Ltd. production company name, with Parker at the helm.
He was the film’s star, director, and producer. He also wrote both the script and the music (all under the pseudonym Juan Schwartz — Parker doesn’t like his name to be all over his works); even some of the movie’s scenes were shot in the backyard of his childhood home. The cast and crew were friends and fellow students, and no one had any idea what they were doing making a movie — and it shows.
Not in a bad way, necessarily, but it does look like a first movie made on the cheap by a group of kids under the ages of 25. There are cheesy looking scenes supposedly set in the Green River that have clearly been filmed in a small stream somewhere; less-than-subpar beards, practically falling off their faces; and very stunted dialogue written by someone obviously talented, but just not quite there yet.
But also bears the unmistakable imprint of being a Matt and Trey production: unruly “rabble rabble” crowds; tongue-in-cheek title card (on South Park, it’s “should not be viewed by anyone”; in Cannibal, it’s “the film’s violent scenes have been edited out for your viewing pleasure,” followed by savage footage of Packer ripping someone’s tongue out of their mouth); adults acting like children; and, one of their favorite topics, curses.
The begins with Packer (played by Parker) already in prison, telling his side of the story to local reporter Polly Pry (Toddy Walters, who voiced Winona Ryder in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut). Packer claims he’s innocence and tells Pry what really happened on his voyage to Colorado with Shannon Wilson Bell (Ian Hardin), James Humphrey (Stone, who does the Cartman voice once), George Noon (“Squeak” from BASEketball), Israel Swan (Jon Hegel), and Frank Miller (McHugh). The flashback takes up most of the film, with Packer narrating about the group coming to the Grand Canyon (“We’ll just walk around, it can’t be that big”), meeting up with a group of Native Americans who bare a strong resemblance to the Japanese, fighting with a Confederate Cyclops, and their rivalry with the Trappers, who skin helpless animals and “wake up muddy/And go to bed bloody/’Cause I’m a trappin’ man.”
Oh, and the songs are awesome. Nothing is quite on the level of “Mountain Town” or “La Resistance (Medley)” but “When I Was On Top of You,” a power ballad sung by a shirtless Parker that’s similar to Satan’s “Up There” except it’s about mounting a horse, and especially “Shpadoinkle,” a made-up word that means everything from “hello” to “fuck!” are a hint at what’s to come (remember, no less than Stephen Sondheim once said that Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was the best musical he had heard in 15 years).
The film’s most extravagant scene comes near the end, when Packer is being sent to the gallows to pay for his sins. A large, bloodthirsty crowd has gathered, and of course they break into song and dance: “Hang the bastard, hang him well/Send his sorry soul to hell/When his neck bone snaps we’ll know/When the cannibal won’t be killing anymore.”
I won’t give away the ending of the film (it’s available on Netflix Instant), but let’s just say the throng of people waiting to see bloodshed are appeased — unlike the mass audience who didn’t get to see Alfred Packer until 1996, three years after it was completed, when Troma Entertainment, the distribution company of such wonderfully low-budget films as The Toxic Avenger and Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, picked it up and re-named it to Cannibal! The Musical, out of fear that no one outside of Colorado knew who Packer was.
Although Cannibal! was initially only distributed in Colorado, once Parker and Stone hit it big with South Park, the film was re-released on DVD and VHS, and has since become a massive hit — at least for a Troma film — including numerous stage productions and a wonderful 13th Anniversary DVD set, with interviews from the cast.
Cannibal! The Musical isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s a fascinating look into the minds of Matt Stone and, particularly, Trey Parker, and how even after becoming millionaires and being nominated for an Oscar and winning a Peabody, their more recent work (The Book of Mormon, for instance) isn’t all that different from what they were doing nearly 20 years ago — although with a much bigger budget. In a time where we’re always accusing people of being sell-outs, it’s nice to know that at least the guys who once wrote an entire musical about a cannibal remain true to their vision.
Josh Kurp is having a shpadoinkle day.