Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pages from This Shpadoinkle Island Earth

Last weekend, the Octoberzine family attended a big science fiction convention, where I inadvertently watched one of the best triple features EVER.

First up: Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996) -- basically an episode of the TV series, but without commercial interruption, and a bigger budget for the skits (featuring 1955's This Island Earth).

Second: Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) -- a lush collaboration with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet company, featuring bizarre, dream-like imagery and silent-movie intertitles.

Thirdly: Cannibal!: The Musical (also 1996, obviously an interesting year) -- a crude, amateurish, but very funny tale of real-life cannibalism in the American West, an early effort by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

If you don't know the concept behind the Mpls-based phenomenon MST3K (as we all know it), well...frankly, I can't understand how that would even be possible. But here goes: a guy in space and his robots watch B movies, and make jokes about them. Basically like every nerd since the beginning of time, only these ones are actually funny. Many of their shows are available on DVD (and will be re-released by a new company, Shout! Factory, starting this fall). If I had to pick an all-time favorite, it would be the first collection of "Shorts" which includes four classic "mental hygiene" films (The Home Economics Story, Body Care and Grooming, Cheating, and A Date With Your Family).

Check out A Date With Your Family at If this doesn't make you laugh, then MST3K just isn't for you.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary seemed to try the patience of the young girls sitting next to me in the theater. They kept asking each other what was going on, and, looking exasperated, threw up their hands to mime "I have no idea." I wanted to tell them, "Dudes, it's a surrealistic ballet. It's not going to get any clearer than this."

Of course, the irony of that is that, apart from The Saddest Music in the World, this is the most linear of Maddin's films that I've seen. They're all full of kooky faux-antique visuals and off-the-wall elements, but the stories tend to meander, so while they're intellectually interesting, the films themselves tend to drag. (I'd add that 1992's Careful might be the best depiction of Northern, Scandinavian stoicism ever, were it not for the fatigue factor that sets in. Its opening prologue, ten or fifteen minutes establishing how its world is fraught with danger, is non-stop, straight-faced hilarity. But when the plot kicks in, it starts to seem just weird for weirdness' sake). With a pre-established narrative, though, that's not such a problem.

The ballet premiered in 1998 (its principal original cast all reprise their roles in the film) and you can read the reviews of the production, including one from famous Dracula scholar Elizabeth Miller, here:

For the first half or so, this adaptation tells Lucy's story: a girl who's full of joie de vivre, naughtily wanting to marry all three of her suitors, even as she is being secretly tormented by life-sucking visits from the undead. Tara Birtwhistle, a dancer making her film debut, is excellent in the role, as is Zhang Wei-Qiang as the seductive Dracula. When the focus shifts over to her friends Mina Murray and Jonathan Harker, the movie skims over the famous Transylvania section of the book with a bunch of quick scenes and flashing intertitles ("Babies for breakfast!" and "Flesh-pots!" being two of my favorites).

And then there's Cannibal! For once, the exclamation point it theirs. The original title was Alferd Packer: The Musical, but lore has it that the distribution company thought nobody outside of Colorado would know who Alferd Packer was. They were probably right.

I've always thought that the Donner Party is the quintessential American story. It's a tragedy that starts with good intentions. The people involved have a naive optimism, a can-do spirit, but they don't know what they're doing, or appreciate the difficulty of what they're getting into. Then there's someone who sells their services by claiming a little more knowledge than they actually have (early resume-padding). Happens all the time. But in this case, these common happenstances lead to the most horrific consequences imaginable.

Cannibal! tells a similar story, and one of the strangest things about it is that it seems to depict the historical facts fairly accurately. At least to the point that it reflects what the real-life Packer claimed happened, and is certainly plausible enough. Looking for gold, a group of miners trek to the Colorado Territory. Beset with bad luck, and eventually ignoring the advice of an Indian tribe to stay put with them for the winter, the men get lost, freeze, and starve, with consequences you can probably guess from the title.

Quick warning: the movie opens with a very gory scene of a crazy-eyed Packer attacking his comrades, which is later revealed as the narrative told by the prosecuting attorney at his trial. There's some relatively graphic stuff later on, too, but the beginning as as over the top as it gets (almost like they were getting it out of the way).

Despite the ludicrous nature of much of the film (the trappers who behave like a street gang, with "Trappers" written on the backs of their jackets, just to pick something at random), the film does have a serious side that's true to its storyline. When it's a nice day, and your heart's as full as a baked potato, it's sometimes good to appreciate that, and not to "want a little more," as the "That's All I'm Askin' For" song puts it. Fortune is all relative. At one point, "We're tired of being sick/We're sick of being poor." But once survival is really on the line, that hard-knock life doesn't seem so bad ("Forget our piece of pie/We just don't wanna die.")

These elements of the story are counteracted by Parker/Stone humor, much of it admittedly juvenile, but some of it pleasantly absurdist. My favorite line was the cheerful "Watch out for that bear trap!" I'm also very fond of the old-timer who shows up and announces "You're doomed! Doomed! Doomed!" He's even credited as "Crazy Old Ralph" on the official website, if not on the IMDB. (Crazy Ralph is, of course, the similar harbinger of doom in the first two Friday the 13th movies).

The songs do for the Oklahoma! style of hokey musical what the Team America: World Police songs do for the conventions of movie soundtracks, and in both cases, that's a good thing. Especially good are "It's a Shpadoinkle Day!" (which is sincerely cheerful) and "Let's Build a Snowman" (which is morbidly so). the Sadly, the soundtrack doesn't seem to have been released, even as a South Park-related curiosity, but the tunes are available at

Among other historical accounts of Packer's life online, there's a slew of material from the Colorado State Archives at My fellow Minnesota natives will notice that he served in the Civil War, with a Minnesota infantry unit. He signed up in Winona, according to Freaky.

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