by Brian Clarey
Before Trey Parker and Matt Stone turned their shared love of scatological humor and bizarre musical numbers into the phenomenon that is “South Park” — which has been running since 1997 — they applied these elements to historical fiction.
They made Cannibal! The Musical in 1993, developed from a film-class trailer while the two were still students at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
It’s based on the actual story of Alfred Packer, who in 1874 managed to survive a terrible winter trek through the Colorado mountains by eating some of his dead companions.
It is also, obviously, a musical, cribbed straight from the Rodgers and Hammerstein playbook. But there are elements of 1980s slasher films, the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker influence from movies like Airplane!, some pieces reminiscentof Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and some comedy that is entirely its own thing. It may have been considered revolutionary at the time but now this kind of thing is seen in every episode of “South Park” and on display on their Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.
It’s brilliant. It’s transcendent. And it’s also really stupid.
Really stupid. Like the Native American tribe is cast by a group of Japanese exchange students; its chief is played by a Boulder sushi chef who carries a samurai sword. But after midnight, the line between stupid and brilliant is a bit more blurry.
Joe Scott, in his customary introduction before the screening of Cannibal! down in the basement of Geeksboro, noted the Japanese cast members and also its connection to Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Entertainment, the surrealist B-movie house that brought us films such as Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Surf Nazis Must Die, the Toxic Avenger series and Sizzle Beach USA.
Troma picked up Cannibal! in 1996, the year before “South Park” debuted, and eventually became a prized cultural reference for fans of the show. Troma re-released it in 2008, which merited its inclusion in Geeksboro’s October film festival, Troma-ween, devoting the downstairs movie house to the genre every Friday at midnight.
The Cannibal! screening brought a small set of the “South Park” cohort, including two teenage boys whose father figured them to be of the perfect age to appreciate such a thing.
It’s true that Stone and Parker have a strong appeal to the average teenage boy, but it’s equally true that most of their body of work is wildly inappropriate for kids that age. Cannibal! doesn’t delve into the blue in the way that, say, “South Park” does — though, indeed, Eric Cartman’s spirit is felt throughout the work. It’s truly violent, as a musical about a cannibal must surely be, but the action and gore come Troma style, cartoonish and bawdy, with a wink. In the first scene, Packer tears off a man’s arm and beats him with it.
Other elements foreshadow the whimsy that marks “South Park.” Swan, the first guy to get eaten, is shot because he suggests they all build a snowman with the song, “Let’s Build a Snowman.”
“We can make him tall/ or we can make him not so tall! Snowman!”
It is such a stupid moment. But after midnight in a basement movie house, it’s absolutely hilarious.