Having watched Cannibal! The Musical is one of those things that feels like a badge of honour. The movie was not something anyone saw first in theatres. It had to be discovered. You had to find it or be told about it by a friend. When you finally watched, you were rewarded with proof of pure genius — a film that by all traditional standards is subpar, but rises above that because the people making it were so unbelievably talented.
Those people are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men who co-created South Park. Way before that show became a global sensation, when the friends were still in college, they collaborated to make Cannibal, a feature-length horror comedy musical. At times Cannibal absolutely has the feel of a student film, and yet, its ambition is staggering. It blends genre and tone in ways many seasoned filmmakers could never fathom, moving from horror and violence one minute, to poetic romance the next and absurd comedy right after.
Cannibal was initially made and released in 1993 but didn’t start circulating widely until a few years later. That’s when Troma, the company behind The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, picked it up for distribution. The timing lined up with Comedy Central debuting South Park, which raised Parker and Stone’s profiles, and made fans curious about their past. That’s when many of us, myself included, discovered the film. I subsequently became obsessed with it, watched it weekly, devoured the DVD extras (which include an all-time great drunken director commentary), and even found live performances in New York City. It’s the kind of movie that sticks with you and never lets go.
Directed by Parker, and written by Parker and Stone, Cannibal tells the story of miner Alferd Packer (Parker) who, in the late 1800s, travelled from Utah to Colorado with a group of men in search of riches. Along the way, all the men died, save for Packer, and he was accused of murder and cannibalism. Most of which actually happened. Parker and Stone’s version isn’t beholden to any truth, though. It’s all used as a basis for characters to sing ridiculous songs and rip each other’s flesh off.
Watching Cannibal then and now, the main thing that stands out are those songs. Parker would later go on to help create not just the Oscar-nominated South Park movie musical, but the underrated Team America as well as the Tony-winning The Book of Mormon, and those talents are on full display here. It’s almost a shame songs as catchy as “Shpadoinkle,” “The Trapper Song,” and “Hang the Bastard” are relegated to this weird little movie. In a major Hollywood or Broadway production, their funny lyrics and pleasing melodies could have made them classics. (Also, if you thought Frozen was the first musical to have a song about building a snowman, you may want to listen to Cannibal’s “Let’s Build a Snowman.”)
What’s also undeniable about the film is its charm. Everyone involved is so game to try things and so earnest with their performances. There’s a sincerity to it. A warmness. The characters, at least at the beginning, are ostensibly good people. So no matter what situation they’re put in, even if the movie isn’t working, their willingness to be real and go the extra mile makes it all work anyway. There’s rarely a moment that doesn’t have at least a tiny hint of aw-shucks optimism.
Beyond those things, Cannibal is half raw and exciting, half amateurish and boring. When the group (which also includes roles played by Stone, Dian Bachar, Jason McHugh, John Hegel, and Ian Hardin) are singing or joking, everything is an absolute delight. Parker’s comedic sensibilities were so incredible, even at a young age, joke after joke just lands perfectly. There’s ridiculous repetition, shocking but excellent edits, joke set-ups that pay off multiple scenes later — he’s never afraid to take the audience out of the movie for a second to get a laugh.
On the other hand, this is a story about six men walking across hundreds of miles of land and you feel that in the pacing, especially in the middle of the film. Once the group gets to an “Indian” encampment, I found myself sighing deeply, checking the time and waiting for things to pick up. Eventually they do, and the film ends on a few wild high notes that tie everything together. Unfortunately, the ending loses a bit of its impact because it comes after such a slog.
There are other big flaws too. Characters are introduced for no real purpose. Some plot and character motivations are unclear. Several long scenes add nothing. There’s not a strong sense of time and place. Plus, most notably, there’s a distinct lack of diversity on screen and, in the rare instances there is a woman or person of colour , their characters are objectifications or stereotypes. A product of the film being set in the 1800s? Sure, but it still stands out.
And yet, many of those flaws are forgivable because Cannibal is so damn ridiculous. After all that, it somehow balances scenes of extreme violence with Broadway-level musical numbers, has fourth-wall breaks to wink at its lack of quality, and the production value on what we can only assume was a tiny budget is, frankly, stunning. The costumes and make-up effects in particular stand out. That Cannibal is a movie basically made by kids who were on spring break makes many of its flaws not just understandable, they become part of the charm too.
You get the sense that, if you’d seen this movie before you’d heard of South Park or The Book of Mormon, you would have bet Parker and Stone were going to be hugely successful. Everything about Cannibal! The Musical screams “We will be very, very good at this, even if we aren’t yet.” It’s overflowing with that energy. Watching the movie now, with the knowledge of just how successful they became, makes it even more rewarding. It’s a time machine back to see the origin of so many things we love today. It’s rough around the edges, gross, offensive, and at times a little hard to watch, but the good outweighs the bad so massively, you can’t help but fall in love.
Cannibal! The Musical is available digitally on Amazon.