Written by: Ted Griffin
Directed by: Antonia Bird
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, and Jeffrey Jones
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“It's lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends."
My enduring memory of Ravenous will forever be the bewilderment I shared with a couple of friends after we plucked it from a rental store shelf when it hit VHS about fifteen years ago. Not quite sure what we had just witnessed, we at least conceded that it was something else, which probably explains my fascination with it since its release. It’s not that oddball horror movies aren’t abundant of course—it’s just that Ravenous is a special kind of weird, the type of movie that demands a cocked eye the minute it opens with a wordy quote from Nietzsche followed by a more succinct “eat me.” Because it’s about cannibals, you see.
During the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) receives a citation for heroism after capturing a Mexican stronghold; however, when the truth behind his feat is revealed (he played dead—not for strategic purposes but out of cowardice), he’s exiled to Fort Spencer, a desolate outpost on the frontier. There, he joins a number of eccentrics, and their bizarre existence is soon interrupted by Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), a disheveled stranger who wanders out of the wilderness with a disturbing tale involving the death of his own company, which fell prey to madness and cannibalism. Insisting that some survivors may remain, he coaxes Boyd and his men into investigating the nearby scene, only to reveal himself as the deranged cannibal.
Wrapped up in these proceedings are whispers of the Wendigo, a Native American myth concerning the preternatural powers granted to those who eat the flesh of their fellow man. Boyd has struggled with such cravings ever since tasting the blood of his fellow slain soldiers during the war, and his clash with Colqhoun is a personal reckoning that’s blown up to allegorical proportions, as Ravenous places Manifest Destiny and Catholicism in its crosshairs. You might say it has a lot on its plate.
Its bemused manner of picking around it is wry; if the “eat me” epigraph isn’t obvious enough that something strange is afoot, then the incongruent score clarifies matters. Ravenous looks the part of a horror movie writ large: filled with ominous, icy landscapes and dark, foreboding nooks mirroring the cloistered, savage wilderness brewing within the characters filling it. However, these and other, more overtly violent images of rent flesh often work in concert with playful motifs that serve as the most obvious cue of the film’s black-hearted, darkly humorous intentions to highlight the folly of man, here imagined as strange beats doomed to violence and corruption despite its delusions of grandeur.
Ravenous is often so black-hearted that its droll sense of humor disappears altogether, as director Antonia Bird is content to simply revel in the eccentricities of its cast, most of whom dial up their oddball turns to eleven. Surrounding Pearce is a collection of weirdoes, like David Arquette’s raving lunatic and Jeffrey Jones’s not-all-there commanding officer, leaving Boyd as one of the few voices of reason—if there’s any reason left to be found. Pearce is coolly muted throughout, acting as a counterbalance to all the madness (nevermind that his character sometimes finds himself fantasizing about consuming human flesh), and there’s something heartening about his dogged quest to sift through the madness, even if it entails razing it all to the ground.
Carlyle’s Colqhoun acts as Boyd’s would-be doppelganger—he’s the unleashed id to his counterpart’s repressed ego to an extent, and Carlyle is a delightfully sinister clown prince. Borrowing cues from vampires and cult leaders (the bloody cross on his forehead faintly echoes Manson), Carlyle is something of a chameleon whose colors shift with the winds. Simultaneously seductive and repulsive, he holds court during the film’s final act, which finds him hatching a plan to transform Fort Spencer into a way-station of the damned, a terminal point of despair. Somehow, watching this scheme is perversely fascinating, perhaps due to the suffocating, fatalistic air hanging about, waiting to ensnare the hapless participants in this mad dance with inevitability—no one gets out alive, especially those who dare to assume dominion over a ravaged land. When nothing’s left to conquer, the conquerors gorge on themselves.
The dark humor of it all might be subtle, but the film’s targets are obvious, particularly when characters discuss Manifest Destiny and looming gold-rushes. Ravenous is a scathing indictment of the Darwinian culture that gave rise to frontier justice and that still persists today in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. Colqhoun is a 19th century fanatic, repurposing the likes of Ben Franklin and Nietzsche to justify his warped worldview; that he also disguises it under the auspices of Catholicism (his cannibalistic indoctrination is nothing more than a fucked-up version of the Eucharist) points to the dangers of evangelism and fanaticism.
These days, Ravenous still bewilders me in the sense that it’s almost an impossible movie: I can’t believe that it exists in the first place (I can’t imagine a major studio tackling this sort of material), nor can I believe it turned out as well as it did given its behind-the-scenes turmoil, which saw Bird take the helm days after director Milcho Manchevski was dismissed and his original replacement (Raja Gosnell) was rejected by the cast and crew. Faced with an already difficult task, Bird endured Fox's micromanaging to the point where she went on to disown studio-mandated elements. Out of this chaos emerged an impossibly singular film—you can almost feel as if everyone involved decided “fuck it” and just rolled with it, hence the sort of glib, offbeat final product. Ravenous is a film about inmates running the asylum and feels appropriately so.
My friends and I were far from the only folks puzzled by Ravenous upon its release, and it took about a decade for it to catch on. Like so many films before it, its reputation has been rescued by the cult crowd, who should feel vindicated by Scream Factory’s decision to canonize it on Blu-ray. The faithful might be a bit dismayed to discover the worn source material the studio has been saddled with, as the transfer is a tad erratic when it comes to detail, vibrancy, and digital tinkering. On the whole, it’s fine but not as sharp as other Scream releases, but the DTS-MA tracks (including an isolated score/sound effects track) hold up quite well at least.
All of the supplements from the previous DVD are ported over, including all three commentary tracks: one joins Bird and composer Damon Albarn, while another pairs screenwriter Ted Griffin and Jones, and Carlyle flies solo for his own track. Some deleted scenes (with optional commentary from bird), a 20-minute interview with Jones, a trailer, a TV spot, and a photo gallery round out the supplements. While it’s not among the studio’s most robust offerings, it’s nice that Scream has given Ravenous a new lease on life—it has a lot to chew on, so here’s hoping this release brings more to the table. Buy it!
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