How A Colorado Cannibal Inspired South Park Creators To Write And Produce A Musical

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The creators of the hit Comedy Central show "South Park" have a lot more on their resume than bringing one of the longest-running cable shows in history to the airwaves. The brains behind the cartoon have long since branched out into film and musical theater, bringing their irreverent brand of humor to the big screen and the stage. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have collaborated on several feature films, including 1997's "Orgazmo," 2004's "Team America: World Police," and the 1999 smash hit "South Park: The Musical" (via IMDb). In 2011, the duo teamed up with Robert Lopez to stage "The Book of Mormon," a musical comedy that would eventually win nine Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical (per Rolling Stone).

But before penning award-winning musical theater and animating the foul-mouthed, but (mostly) well-intentioned 8-year-olds at South Park Elementary, Parker and Stone developed a film project that was as morbid as it was hilarious. While film majors at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Parker, Stone, and a group of other students brought to life a century-old tale of murder and cannibalism, livening it up with zany antics, a cyclops, and catchy musical numbers. The gang filmed most of the movie in 1993 during their spring break and over many subsequent weekends, leading many of them to fall behind in their studies and fail their film history class (per Cannibal! The Musical website). After it was complete, it would take years before the project received any real attention. But today, "Cannibal! The Musical" is a cult classic and the first notch on Parker and Stone's entertainment belt.

The real life story of Alferd Packer

Alferd Packer was a prospector in the Rocky Mountains who was commissioned to lead a group of miners from Utah to Colorado. His band of more than 20 men left Provo, Utah to search for gold near Breckenridge. Three months into the journey, they were sidelined by a winter storm and were given refuge by a group of Ute. Though tribal chief Ouray warned the group to stay put until winter had passed, Packer and five others ignored the advice and resumed their trek (per Legends of America).

Packer was the only one of the party to make it back to civilization. When questioned about where his charges were, Packer claimed that he fell behind and they left him. But suspicions were cast on his story as it was noticed that he had the knife of one of the missing men in his possession. He was also holding a lot more cash than, making some believe that he had killed and robbed his fellow prospectors. The truth was much more sinister.

Packer then changed his story. He and the small party ran out of food and were starving. The oldest member died, a man named Bell. Packer and the others ate his body. A poor fellow called Humphreys was next — he succumbed to the elements four days later and was eaten. After some time, there was only Packer and two survivors left. Packer swore that one of them, Bell, shot and killed a weakened man named Noon. When Bell turned to kill Packer, Packer was able to shoot his would-be assailant.

Packer escapes jail

Packer was asked to lead the law to the spot of the murders, where it could be determined if his story were true. But Packer "got lost" leading the party there and it seemed like no rendering could be made. But a separate search party had better luck. They found a campsite that was strewn with the remains of the five missing prospectors. If Packer were telling the truth, the trail to the campsite would have been littered with bodies. Instead, they were all found in one spot. There was enough evidence to charge Packer with murder, and he was transported to a nearby jail (via Legends of America).

Packer was able to escape jail. He fled to Wyoming where he lived under the alias John Schwartze. Nearly a decade later, Packer was discovered by a man who was in the original party but had followed the Ute chief's advice and stayed at the tribal camp. Jean "Frenchy" Cabazon didn't take matters into his own hands, however. He notified the sheriff. In no time, Packer was arrested and on his way back to Colorado to stand trial for multiple counts of murder.

In the courtroom, Packer changed his story yet again. In a new version of events, Packer was out looking for food when Bell went crazy and killed the other four men with a hatchet. When Packer returned, Bell attempted to kill him but Packer shot him. Packer admitted to eating the remains of his team, but only out of desperation.

Packer died a free man

Packer was found guilty and sentenced to hang. But in a stroke of luck, his conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court and a new trial was ordered. The second jury made their decision after Packer's 1886 trial and found him guilty of five counts of manslaughter and sentenced him to 40 years in prison. After his appeal to the Supreme Court failed in 1899, it appeared like Packer would die in prison. But Packer's luck hadn't run out yet. He was able to make parole in 1901, a free man (per Legends of America).

Packer would find work at the Denver Post working as a guard. Reports show that he was a well-respected man after his release, and maintained his innocence until his dying day. He died in 1907 at age 65. A veteran of the Civil War, he was buried with military honors in Littleton, Colorado.

It would take the twisted minds of Parker and Stone to take a tale this gruesome and turn it into a hilarious musical production. But the "South Park" creators were able to pull it off masterfully. Their original film project, titled "Alferd Packer: The Musical," was bought by Troma Entertainment and distributed in 1996 (per Troma website) under its current name, "Cannibal! The Musical." The New York Times writes that the film is "Oklahoma" meets "Bloodsucking Freaks," praising both the campiness of the film and the catchy musical numbers written and performed by the cast. Of course, Parker and Stone's script did have some pretty substantial deviations from the real-life Alferd Packer saga.

The film deviates from history. A bit.

The film begins with Packer's first trial. After he is sentenced to death, he awaits his fate in a jail cell. There, he is visited by a reporter named Polly Pry. From here, the movie flashes back to the beginning of Packer's harrowing journey from Utah to Colorado (per "Cannibal! The Musical").

Packer, played by Parker, opens his flashback scene singing a musical number while riding atop his horse, Liane. From there, he meets other prospectors who are wanting to make it to Breckenridge to pan for gold. Parker lends his services as a guide, and the bloody musical journey begins.

The party of six gets lost, snowed in, nearly drowns in a river, and is accosted by the cyclops that lives on top of the mountain. After Bell (played by Ian Hardin) gets his leg caught in a bear trap, he slowly goes mad from the gangrene that sets in. When Swan is in the middle of singing the catchy song "Let's Build a Snowman," an irritated Bell pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head, mid-bar. 

The remainder follows the real-life Packer's final version of events, only with musical numbers interspersed with the cold weather and the killing. Packer is away from camp and discovers that Bell has killed the other men. A final battle between Bell and Packer ensues, with one of the goriest (and most hilarious) death scenes ever in a musical. In the end, Packer is saved from the gallows and there are hints that he has a budding romance with Pry.

Cannibal! The Musical has been adapted for the stage

"Cannibal! The Musical" developed a cult following when it was released on VHS. After the success of "South Park" in 1997, demand for copies of Parker and Stone's first big project grew. But the gory musical wasn't meant to just stay on home video. It has been adapted multiple times for the stage in short runs at various theaters across the United States, Canada, and England (via The Fringe Review).

In 2008, a special "13th Anniversary Edition" of the film was released by Troma Entertainment. The two-disc set features a "drunken commentary" by Parker, Stone, and other cast members who get smashed and discuss the film and its behind-the-scenes moments (per Amazon). 

While maybe not Academy Award-winning material, this low-budget film shot by a group of film students has certainly made its mark in the history of musicals. "Cannibal! The Musical" paved the way for a successful career for Parker and Stone, who have since found a way to profit off of their morbid senses of humor and their penchant for musical theater time and time again.