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'Cannibal!' Filled With Bits of Uneven Hilarity

October 16, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Sweeney Todd" it's not, cinema art it's not, but "Cannibal! The Musical" has its hilarious moments for sure. Produced five years ago by a group of enterprising University of Colorado film students for $125,000, rejected by Sundance and picked up by Troma for direct-to-video release, "Cannibal!" has acquired a sufficiently large cult following for the Nuart, which screened it once at midnight last June, to book it for one week starting today.

That its prime mover, Trey Parker, went on to become a co-creator of TV's "South Park" has surely helped to give it a shot on the big screen. (In collaboration with some of his "Cannibal!" pals, Parker has completed the NC-17-rated comedy "Orgazmo," about a pious Mormon porn star who must rescue his kidnapped girlfriend.)

A spoof of inane musicals and B-western movie plots in which the hero loves his horse more than the girl--and with a nod to Donner Party mythology and a tip of the hat to Chaplin's "The Gold Rush"--has been crossed with the gore-and-entrails genre.

*

No doubt Troma would like to hit the midnight movie circuit jackpot, and the film just might, but you should know that between the hysterical musical numbers, things can seem mighty amateurish and a bit tedious up there in all the grandeur of the Rockies. Those looking for rambling, laid-back nonsense will be better served than those expecting the slick professionalism of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

The most amazing aspect of the movie is that its story is basically true: In the winter of 1874, a fur-trapper named Alferd Packer became the first man in American history to be convicted of cannibalism.

He led a party of five gold-seekers, and when he emerged from the wilderness alone months later in Saguache, Colo., he did not look sufficiently starved, arousing suspicions. When the mutilated bodies of his companions were eventually found near Lake Fork Gunnison, he denied that he killed them, saying that they were murdered by one of the party members, Wilson Shannon Bell, whom he in turn killed in self-defense. He further said that cannibalism was the only way he could survive the harsh winter.

The way the movie tells it, Packer, played by Parker, was so intent on finding his beloved horse, which had wandered away, that he led his party south in search of the animal instead of north, to Breckenridge, its destination.

The loss of the horse leads to one of the movie's funniest songs, the fulsome Barry Manilow-esque anthem "She'll Never Know What She Meant to Me." Other gems include "Let's Build a Snowman," sung by the group's optimist, who also does a soft shoe in snow nearly up to his knees, and "Hang the Bastard!," the chant of lynch-minded locals upon Packer's arrest.

Besides Parker and his pals, playing gold-seekers, fur-trappers and the like, is pretty Toddy Walters as intrepid reporter Polly Plye, surely a reference to newspaper legend Nelly Blye. Everyone involved with "Cannibalism! The Musical" seems to be having a ball. You may too.

* MPAA rating: R, for comic gore/violence and some language. Times guidelines: The cannibalism sequences are patently fake but too intense for small children.

'Cannibal! The Musical'

Trey Parker: Alferd Packer

Toddy Walters: Polly Plye

Ian Hardin: Shannon Bell

Jason McHugh: Frank Miller

A Troma Team release of an Avenging Conscience/Cannibal Films Ltd. production. Writer-director Trey Parker. Producers Ian Hardin, Matthew Stone, Alexandra Kelly. Executive producers Jason McHugh, Kelly, Andrew Kemler. Cinematographers Robert Muratore, Chris Graves. Editor Hardin. Music Parker, Rich Sanders. Production designer Dave Hedge. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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