Revisiting the High Nineties: Cannibal Double Feature

Cannibal Pumpkins!

It seems that I slept through all those timely Halloween horror film recommendations last month. However, this double feature is just is applicable now as it was then, which is why I’m making these my Yanksgiving (what us Canadians call American Thanksgiving, or at least should start) family viewing picks. Because nothing says ‘Thank You’ to your fellow man more than seeing to it that his leftovers don’t go to waste.

The 70’s and 80’s saw cannibal films become a big horror sub-genre popular with the cult crowds. The early 90’s had the subject break into mainstream movies with the Best Picture winning Silence of the Lambs, though most would agree this movie has little in common with the aforementioned underground movement. A couple years later Alive was released, which was a true story with an awesome plane crash and a stranded soccer team doing what needed to be done to survive. It would be almost a decade before Hollywood returned to Thomas Harris novels for subsequent Hannibal Lecter sequels, re-makes and prequels, leaving a period in between where I can think of few man-eats-man movies other than these two often overlooked treats: Cannibal: The Musical and Ravenous.

Cannibal: The Musical (1996)

I won’t beat around the bush here; the only reason anyone is aware of this film and can still find it on DVD today is because it’s the first film made by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But on the flip side of that, there would probably be no Eric Cartman if it weren’t for Alferd Packer. While still enrolled in the University of Colorado film program, they managed to raise $125,000 from independent investors to make a movie during their spring break about the only man convicted of cannibalism in U.S. History. Basically everyone involved in the production was in their class and wore multiple hats (and beards) while filming. Three years after it was shot, they were able to sell it to Troma Pictures (of Toxic Avenger fame) who changed the name from Alferd Packer: The Musical since Packer’s fame does not reach far beyond his home state of Colorado. Were it not for having a completed feature film under their belt, even a rather silly one for a very niche audience, they would never have been able to get the meetings and connections necessary to secure their own show.

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Cannibal: The Musical is an Oklahoma! inspired comedy loosely based on the true events surrounding the case of Alferd Packer, the sole survivor of a group of prospectors that became snowbound in the rocky mountains in 1873. Packer claimed that other members resorted to cannibalism to survive, and he ended up having to shoot one of them in self defense. Even though the makers were very familiar with the true events, they decided to be selective when it came to which ones to leave in. For instance, at several points in the film we see Packer telling his story from a jail cell while assembling a doll house, an apparent pastime of the real convict that has no payoff in the film but is explained in the DVD commentary. They were even able to film in the actual courtroom where Packer was tried, however there is no record of any of the participants breaking into spontaneous song or choreographed dances before, during or following the acts of cannibalism.

Highlights include the first five minutes (which showcases about half of their special effects budget) and several trademark Trey and Matt musical numbers (like Shpadoinkel Day and When I Was on Top of You). The film is bogged down at times with boring dialogue and amateur antics, it is at these points that I suggest switching the audio over to the first of their now infamous ‘drunk commentaries.’ Were it not for listening to this, I never would have recognized a cameo by famed experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who was one of their professors at the time.

While it’s certainly not a good film per se, I have a tremendous amount of respect for its makers who are the first to admit its shortcomings, I’d recommend it to anyone that enjoys their other work. It’s not the easiest find on DVD, but with two versions available it’s out there for those willing to look around a bit (both versions have more extra features than the sometimes elusive duo usually provide, they even recorded a second commentary for the 13th anniversary double disc which I haven’t gotten my hands on yet).

Ravenous (1999)

I can remember renting this film when it first came out and enjoying it so much that I went through the (what then seemed like an immense) task of connecting my two VCRs together for a crude copy. For years it was a bit of a guilty pleasure, as I knew it wasn’t what most would consider to be a ‘good film.’ Few people even knew of its existence and I couldn’t pinpoint what it was exactly that I liked so much about it. A few years ago I picked up the DVD, and upon subsequent viewings I still can’t really think of anything bad to say about this underrated personal favourite.

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Set during the Mexican-American war of 1847, Guy Pearce plays Capt. John Boyd whom we first see at a prestigious dinner while receiving an award for bravery. As he watches the fat military men gorge on their steaks, he flashes back to what he’s receiving the award for, and we see that he survived by playing dead during battle, and was able to capture men mostly by luck once behind enemy lines. Even though the cannibal element hasn’t been introduced yet, the director does a great job of making those associations early on by close-ups of mouths chomping meat cut with shots of Boyd at the bottom of a pile of corpses. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but I always thought his striped collar in this shot looked like a spatula pressing down on his bloody face. The sound design also plays a key role in the effectiveness of this scene. Due to his cowardice with fortunate results, he is given a backhanded promotion to a remote military outpost. Here he becomes third in command of a motley crew of outcasts filled out with quirky performances by Jeffery Jones, Jeremy Davies, and David Arquette, among several others. The story really gets started once a malnourished Robert Carlyle wanders out of the woods with a tale of desolation, starvation, and cannibalism, extremely reminiscent of Alferd Packer’s story. A rescue mission is put together once they realize there may still be other survivors from the lost man’s party. This all happens within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, you will need to see it to find out what happens next.

Solid work is displayed by all departments, from the script to the music, and everything in between. Like Cannibal: The Musical, there is hardly a female to be seen in this ‘macho’ movie, which is why Antonia Bird deserves even more credit for taking on directing duties merely weeks before production. The only other title I recognize on her filmography is 1996’s Mad Love with Drew Barrymore and Chis O’Donnell, making her an even unlikelier choice for this project, but she pulled it off beautifully. I gather getting the job had a lot to do with previous collaborator Robert Carlyle’s involvement in the project.

Though mostly a cannibal pic, it takes a lot from vampire mythology as well. It exploits the belief  that ingesting another man’s flesh transfers his strength to the eater while increasing his desire for more, leading to confrontations of superhuman strength and resilience. Despite the high body count in a variety of gruesome ways, I think the blood and gore is done in a way that will please horror audiences without revolting everyone else too much. I only partially agree with this statement made by Roger Ebert upon the film’s release, calling it “the kind of movie where you savour the texture of filmmaking, even when the story strays into shapeless gore.” Give the man credit for recognizing good craftsmanship when he sees it, and though the second half of the movie isn’t as strong as the first, I think the story remains in good shape.

One of my favourite aspects of this movie is the score done by Michael Nyman along with Damon Albarn of Blur, Gorrilaz, and the lesser known but equally brilliant one-off album ‘The Good, the Bad, and The Queen.’ Few people realize the versatility and talent of this Brit rocker. I’d like to track down the other films he composed original material for just to hear how different they are. He’s only scored two other films, oddly enough all three were between 1999 and 2000, I guess it was a short lived phase in his career. Albarn is one of several collaborators to contribute a DVD commentary. There are actually three commentary tracks: one with Albarn and Antonia Bird, one with Jeffery Jones and screenwriter Ted Griffin and then one with just Robert Carlyle. I wish these were all edited onto one track, as each person has a few interesting anecdotes, but none have nearly enough to fill the entire length of the feature. The DVD also has some deleted scenes and is pretty easy to find for less than ten bucks, well worth picking up.

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So to all our readers south of the border, or even those ex-pats keeping cool up here, you have your Thanksgiving assignment.  Now you can skip having to listen to the women complain about having football on the television by pleasing them with a female-helmed period piece followed by a musical romp.  I know it’s kind of short notice, but your local video store should carry these titles, but hurry up since I predict getting these this week will be like trying to rent Four Christmases on December 24th.

Looks like they're all about to eat some meaty Vaughn with a tasty side of Witherspoon.

Looks like they’re all about to eat some meaty Vaughn with a tasty side of Witherspoon.

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