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[whitespace] Cannibal! The Musical
Cutting-Edge Cult: Everyone is a potential candidate for the main course in the horror spoof 'Cannibal! The Musical.'

Can 'Cannibal! The Musical' really be the next 'Rocky Horror' cult flick? Corey Rosen of Los Gatos thinks so

By Richard von Busack

RODGERS AND Hammerstein's hit Cannibal! The Musical is unique among their work for not actually having been composed by either Rodgers or Hammerstein. Colorado college students Jason McHugh and Trey Parker produced and directed Cannibal! The Musical in 1993 in the style of the authors of Oklahoma! and The King and I. In a title card to Cannibal! The Musical, which receives its local debut this weekend (Dec. 19-21 at 9:30pm) at the Camera One in San Jose, Parker explains reverently (and falsely) that this is the lost film version of one of R&H's least-known musicals.

The Donner Party-esque story of the renowned 1870s Colorado anthropophagus Alferd Packer, a mountain man who stood trial for consuming some miners one terrible winter, would seem to be a natural subject for a musical, having both drama and romance. And the Colorado Rockies are so very much like The Sound of Music's Alps--only better, because they're American.

What could have been just a forgotten student prank has a chance to garner a new audience, thanks to the near-overnight success of the grotty cable-TV cartoon show South Park, created by Parker and Matt Stone (who had a hand in Cannibal! as well). The minimally animated series features round-headed kids Eric Cartman, Kyle, Stan and the always-doomed Kenny carrying out various surreal, bloody scenarios in a snowbound Denver suburb.

South Park, thanks in part to some absurd overreaction in certain quarters (Oh no! Cartoon violence!), gave Comedy Central its biggest audience ever, a record 4.8 share, according to Variety. Now, a 20-year-old West Valley College student named Corey Rosen has plans to take the next step and make Cannibal! The Musical into a midnight cult movie--a sort of Rocky Mountain Horror Picture Show.

Parker, Stone and McHugh were film students at the University of Colorado working in what McHugh calls "the least-funded department of the university" when they put together a fake coming-attractions reel promoting a musical based on the Packer story. People who saw the trailer started pestering Parker and McHugh to follow through and make the movie, so they scrounged up a $125,000 budget by prying cash out of their friends and relations.

"We shot in a lot of historical locations," McHugh stresses. "We shot in the actual courtroom in Lake City, Colo., and a lot of the places where the story took place. As much as this is a musical comedy, it's also historically accurate."

When you see Parker, McHugh and Stone wading through swollen high-country rivers in winter, it's obvious that they were putting themselves at risk. "We joked that it was a good thing we were producing too," McHugh says. "We could not have put any actors through what we went through. Our crew was in boots and Gortex, and we were in these very uncomfortable costumes we made out of thrift-shop clothing. We froze our asses off."

A lot of people are surprised, McHugh continues, "because they expect Cannibal! to be a horror film that is a parody of a musical, but I think Cannibal! works on its own merits as a musical comedy. It's one thing to send up that kind of film and another to really go out and do it."

What could have been a one-joke movie is surprisingly well done, far beyond what you'd expect from this level of filmmaking in sound, choreography and photography. Parker and McHugh took care of all of the sinews of the project, including casting an affable lead (Juan Schwartz as Packer) and an appealing love interest (Toddy Walters as the reporter Polly Pry). Parker penned a number of hummable tunes, including "When I Was on Top of You," Packer's ode to his beloved but unfaithful horse; "Hang the Bastard"; and "Let's Build a Snowman." All told, the film serves an overlooked consumer cluster that loves both show tunes and gore effects.

Cannibal! was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, in hopes that at least the Rocky Mountains subject matter would get a rise out of the jury.

"We paid $50 to get rejected, knowing it was a long shot. We didn't even get a rejection letter," McHugh recalls. "So we decided we'd show up anyway. We booked a conference room at the Yarrow Hotel, rented a video projector and started papering the town." A distribution deal with the exploitation experts at Troma Studios (The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke 'Em High) followed.

Cannibal! The Musical
Chewing the Fat: The mountain men of 'Cannibal!' plan their next tuneful meal.

LAST WINTER, Corey Rosen was sitting in his Los Gatos home taping A Very Troma Christmas special off of Cinemax at the request of his father, who wanted a home copy of the movie Vegas in Space. Rosen saw in the TV Guide that Vegas in Space's co-bill was Cannibal! The Musical, but he wasn't expecting much.

"I thought I was going to see a lot of nudity," Rosen remembers. "But Cannibal! was well done, better than any Troma movie I'd ever seen."

Cannibal! made Rosen think of his days as a teenager growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where he used to spend Saturday nights watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the NuArt theater in West L.A. As in dozens of other theaters across the country, at every screening, costumed fans pantomimed the dialogue, shuffled along to "The Time Warp" and hurled rice and toast at the screen on cue.

When Rosen and his family moved to Silicon Valley, he became part of Velvet Darkness and Bawdy Cast, two local groups that acted out the screen story of Rocky Horror Picture Show at Camera One in San Jose. Rosen started out as part of the "line crew"--the extras who would prompt the audience to respond to what was on screen, to pump them up as they talked back and interacted with the dialogue. "I started out as an audience member, and I ended up acting every part except Frank," Rosen says.

By the time Rosen discovered Cannibal!, the long midnight run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Camera One was finally coming to an end, and there was a vacancy ready to fill. Watching the cannibalism and dance routines in Parker and McHugh's film, Rosen was struck by how a lip-synching cast could play along with Cannibal! just as it previously had with Rocky Horror. Not willing to let a good idea slip by, Rosen contacted McHugh and got the rights to screen Cannibal! The Musical in movie theaters.

"We're trying to come up with a new genre of vaudeville," Rosen explains. "We want the audience to get involved with the show, throwing stuff and yelling things, but we also want the actors to take the show seriously. We don't like to completely associate this with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This will be more of a professional show. We're getting as professional actors as we can. The Rocky Horror Picture Show crowd is a midnight-movie crowd. I hate using this term--but I think it's more of a 'clean' crowd that we're looking for."

If Cannibal! catches on in San Jose, Rosen has plans to take his show on the road. "After two or three months at the Cameras, we'll start doing road shows: Santa Cruz, Petaluma, San Francisco. I have contacts all across the country with Rocky Horror-cast leaders."


Troma Studios site.

Alferd Packer info.

South Park fan page.


MIDNIGHT MOVIES offer the underaged one of their few legitimate opportunities to be out late at night. Rosen and Camera One are hoping to lure back the hundreds of young people who went to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But the appeal of Rocky Horror, beside its music and its gross humor, was its polysexual undertones; it enticed adolescents with the message "Don't dream it, be it."

This was a rare message in favor of sexuality lent to young people accustomed to having the wits scared out of them on that subject by parents and teachers, pastors and peers. But Cannibal! is just sex-free, prime silliness without a subversive kernel in it.

There is another important difference. The fans of Rocky Horror built their subsubculture by accretion, by the spontaneous creative acts of dedicated audiences. Rosen and his actors will have to coach their audiences into making Cannibal! The Musical a new social scene. Rosen is trying to build a cult phenomenon from the top down--instead of from the bottom up. Will it take?

"I don't know," Rosen answers. "I'd done Rocky Horror Picture Show for seven years, and I wanted something new, and this is something that I think will work. I have seen attempted cult films before. They tried it with Phantom of the Paradise and with The Rocky Horror Picture Show's sequel, Shock Treatment. And that bombed. They tried it recently with Showgirls."

Rosen is philosophical but hopeful about his project. "Cannibal! could very well bomb like the rest of them, but it has all of the elements of a cult film. It was made amateurishly, there are pauses in the dialogue for the audience to speak up and it's easily acted out in front of the screen. Besides this, it's something I've seen a hundred times on video. If I can watch it a hundred times a year and not get bored with it, then people can see it every weekend."

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From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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