Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on April 22, 2012
What do Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen (also 1991), Frank Marshall’s Alive (1993), and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) – to name but a few worthy titles – all have in common? For starters, these are prime-cut films. Great titles no matter how you slice and dice ‘em, and ones I’ve already covered in a previous post of a couple years ago. They also touch on the taboo subject of cannibalism, and there is a reason why I’m thinking of them all on this fine April day.
When I was a student in college (late ’80s and early ’90s), the third week of April had a special day in honor of Colorado’s most famous cannibal, Alferd Packer. On this day, people would eat Rocky Mountain Oysters (aka: bull testicles), have burping contests, drink a lot of 3.2 beer, and watch some great live music featuring bands like Fishbone and Primus. The latter band clearly made a strong impression on two C.U. students, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who later commissioned the band do to the theme music for South Park.
In 1874 a small group of men traveling to Breckenridge, Colorado got stuck in deep snow for two months. Only the mountain guide survived the trip. Packer was later convicted on five counts of manslaughter in 1886, with the judge famously saying: “There was only six Democrats in all of Hinsdale County, and you, you man-eating son of a bitch, you ate five of them.” Packer did admit to eating “the flesh of these men,” but otherwise claimed he had only acted in self-defense by shooting the man who had murdered everyone else in the group. Either way, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison and was paroled after 14 years. A few decades later, in 1952, three Republican state representatives tried to erect a memorial in his honor for his “substantial and lasting contribution” in reducing the state’s Democratic voters.
Despite his partisan diet, Packer still got the student vote at the University of Colorado in Boulder, when in 1968 they named their campus grill after him. Then came the yearly Alferd Packer Days, which lasted a couple decades. The bloody-good times were dealt a death-blow by the politically-correct minded groups that thought such shenanigans glorified gluttonous and other immoral behavior. Not everyone agreed, especially some film students who found inspiration, rather than distress, with Packer. These students went on to make a film about Colorado’s most famous flesh-eater and called it Alferd Packer: The Musical. It was later picked up by Troma and retitled Cannibal: The Musical. You can follow that musical thread all the way to the present with The Book of Mormon. Somewhere inbetween this, Trey Parker and Matt Stone were known for South Park. But with performances of The Book of Mormon now selling-out nation-wide and winning a marathon run of Tony and Grammy awards, well… it’s hard to keep up with them.
One person who not only kept up with them during their early years but also helped land Trey and Matt essential connections for later South Park glory was Jason McHugh; actor and producer on what is now called Cannibal: The Musical. He even helped with the cut-outs for the initial South Park animations (along with influencing a character, or two). McHugh recently self-published a book recounting the stories behind Parker’s debut feature called Shpadoinkle: The Making of Cannibal! The Musical.
Last Thursday night McHugh flew out from L.A. to visit us in the Rocky Mountains for a screening of his splendid student film, along with a Q&A, which was then followed by a double-feature presentation of Jim Roberson’s The Legend of Alfred Packer (1980), a film that influenced a couple scenes in Parker’s musical. Both films were on 35mm, the former thanks to Troma, and the latter thanks to a generous donation by producer Mark Webb, who felt his film should find a permanent home in the state of Colorado. (On a relevant note, Packer was able to avoid death at the hanging gallows thanks to Polly Prye’s assessment that his misdeeds had occurred while Colorado was a “territory,” rather than a state).
Between overseeing franchise stage productions of Cannibal: The Musical, video game concepts, and several other projects, Jason McHugh took a moment to answer some questions regarding Colorado’s most famous cannibal.
K: What kind of research goes into a musical about a man who eats his comrades?
J.M.: The biggest film influences for Cannibal: The Musical were Oklahoma and Friday The 13th, Part 2. The styles and structure of those two movies had the biggest cinematic influence on us at the time and we even referenced those films in our first tag line….. “In the tradition of Oklahoma and Friday the 13th, Part 2 comes the first intelligent film about cannibalism!” Monty Python was of course a huge influence for all of us too. As far as actual films about cannibalism I saw Sweeney Todd as a kid onstage with Angela Lansbury, so I knew there was a market for cannibalistic musicals based on that. I also enjoyed Eating Raoul and The Little Shop of Horrors. Movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre also had some tasty flesh eating impact, but to what extent they played a role is hard to say.
J.M (cont’d): We, of course, all watched The Legend of Alfred Packer, which gave us great inspiration. But our thinking was: why not throw in some song and dance to spruce the story up a bit?!
K: You, Trey, Matt, and I all attended film classes at C.U. Boulder within a similar time frame. The big difference for me was that Film History courses were an eye-opening experience, and I still covet the memories, whereas for you guys it ended up being very adversarial. Explain.
J.M.: I was a fan of professor Bruce Kawin until he jumped the shark and practically failed our whole crew for missing his class due to our gnarly production hours which caused problems for our hard-working crew – who were not the traditional slackers trying to find and easy class…. Anyways – Kawin gave us great inspiration by turning us on to a film called The Avenging Conscience, which was a silent film by D.W. Griffith that, to be honest, I don’t recall at all as I probably fell asleep in the first 15 minutes.
J.M. (cont’d): Fortunately Trey did not fall asleep and decided that we should use the name The Avenging Conscience as our production company moniker. A few weeks later Trey was leading Ian Hardin, Matt Stone and myself on a shoot to recreate a scene from the movie that featured Ian as the flute playing Centaur, with Trey, Matt, and myself as the angelic sprites wearing tutus and frolicking around Ian as the flutist. Sadly that piece of film was lost in the trunk of Trey’s Geo Storm but, happily, the Avenging Conscience went on to produce two pilots for Fox and then a follow-up feature to Cannibal called Orgazmo.
K: Although Alferd Packer Days no longer occur on C.U. Boulder campus, there is still an Alferd Packer Grill in the University Memorial Center. What other memories do you have about Alferd Packer that influenced the film?
J.M.: In the late 80′s and 90′s Alferd Packer was a big deal at C.U. There was and still is The Alferd Packer Grill. I grew up on California where the most famous case of Cannibalism on the Frontier happened outside of Lake Tahoe in the Sierras with the ill fated Donner Party who got stranded at what is now called Donner Pass. But what was really bizarre for me was how they celebrated Alferd Packer Day on campus with a full-on 3.2 Beerfest on the terrace of the student center, with a local radio station hosting the festivities which included a live band, a variety of meat eating contests, and the highly competitive Al Packer-Look-a-Like-Contest. All of which got plenty of press coverage. Basically it was hard to avoid ol’ Al Packer if you went to C.U. back in the day.
K: One thing that cracks me up is how you somehow get away with all kinds of things, like using the local sushi chef to play the role of an American Indian, have a song and dance number around building a snowman, and yet claim a certain degree of historical accuracy.
J.M.: Cannibal: The Musical is surprisingly accurate in a historical sense. Whenever possible we tried to shoot in the same places that the ill fated Packer party actually traveled. All of our court room scenes, for example, are shot in the very same Lake City Court Housewhere Al Packer went on trial. And in the end of our movie, where the heroine Polly Prye saves Packer, that is also all based on the actual events that took place back in the 1800s.
K: What was the biggest inspiration for the film?
J.M.: There is no doubt that the biggest inspiration for making this film was Trey’s broken heart. We shot the original fake trailer, which led directly to the actual production, after Trey walked in on his fiance, Liane sleeping with another man who we then referred to as Frenchy (aka: the evil trapper in the film). Anyways, Trey needed to express his pain and decided that Packer would be in love with his horse Liane, who turned out to be a slutty horse that would let anyone rider her. It was that simple. A year later when we were shooting the feature and nailed a story on MTV about our production it featured a clip and sound bite that showed Trey saying “Hi! I am Alferd Packer, and this is my horse Liane” and, with that, Trey was super happy and felt like it was “Mission Accomplished.”
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