Before there was South Park (1997-Present) there was Cannibal! The Musical (1993), Trey Parker’s directorial debut while still a film student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Distributed by beloved cheapo gore-purveying Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment, Cannibal is a gem of student filmmaking (not that that’s a high bar). Here is a land of contrasts: avant-garde filmmaker (and apparently the only faculty member who encouraged the film’s production) Stan Brakhage has a cameo alongside flesh-hungry ghouls and an upbeat theme with lyrics like:
The sky is blue, and all the leaves are green.
The sun’s as warm as a baked po-tayt-uh.
I think I know precisely what I mean,
When I say it’s a shpadoinkle day!
Shot on video, Cannibal lets accused maneater Alferd Packer tell his side of the story. Packer was a prospector who supposedly consumed his travel companions on a journey from Utah to Colo-RAH-do Territory (a name repeated so often in the movie that if you sipped a light beer every time it’s uttered, you’d end up either dead or looking like Mickey Rourke in 1987’s Barfly). Packerd (Trey Parker) rejects the idea that he ate any more than one person (and even that was, in his telling, a grim bacchanal for the remaining members of the party). Cannibal is just a blithe musical retelling of his quest for survival during a bleak, snowy Colorado winter.
In watching the movie, I felt myself to be a little gumshoe, ferreting out what would later become mainstays of Parker and Stone’s comedy (the latter plays a side character). One of the travelers is a devout Mormon who constantly grins that God’s providence must be showing itself in their freezing and starving to death. Early on, the characters suddenly break into a rapid-fire rendition of Mister Ed’s (1961-1966) “a horse is a horse! Of course! Of course!” as if engaged in unremarked-upon witty repartee. One man, driven insane by hunger and frostbite, tap dances in the snow. Only about ten minutes later does another journeyer wonder: “Hey. How’d he do that, tap dancing on the snow? That shouldn’t have made any noise.” The prospectors are nerds in a high school movie, juxtaposed with the mean, lean (but poetic) trappers, who steal Packer’s horse and mock the unmanliness of digging in the earth. Packer loves his horse; he won’t stand for this besmirching of her honor. He never comes out and quite declares his desire, but the movie can’t help but play on the cowboy’s love for his noble steed. Witness, “On Top of You,” Packer’s chanson d’amour for his beloved equus:
She’ll never know what she meant to me.
Whenever I was with her, I was always as gentle as I could be.
And now I don’t know why, but she’s gone away.
And I’ll just have to stand on my own two legs.
Your eyes, your smile
Made my little life worthwhile.
There’s was nothing I couldn’t do,
When I was on top of you.
This is the stuff of medieval fin’amor. Daniel Radcliffe could never.
As a first film, Cannibal is uneven, stilted at times. But that’s no matter. What’s remarkable is how funny and satisfying the picture manages to be despite its $125,000 budget. It’s no wonder that the pair fell back on gags like the Natives the party meets being played by Japanese exchange students, who are obviously not Plains Indians.
Who but Parker and Stone could see the comedy in an accused cannibal getting away with the deed (or so many modern historians think)? Who else could pluck a musical out of that fallow orchard? We used to make comedies in this country; we used to have song and dance numbers, had heroes with long beards, had Mormons smiling as the gray sky stared back at pursed, prayerful lips! Then again, I guess we had cannibals too.