For my money, Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) has to be one of the most under-rated films out there: it’s certainly one of the most under-rated horror films, which is a real head-scratcher considering just how good the movie is. Perhaps audiences were thrown off by the subject matter (cannibalism has the virtue of still being one of the few remaining Western taboos) or found the tone confusing (an argument that’s certainly valid, if needlessly reductive). Maybe genre audiences were resistant to a horror film helmed by a female director (Bird replaced the original director a few weeks into filming), a terribly stupid prejudice that’s haunted the genre practically from its inception. Regardless of the reason for its “shunning,” however, the facts remain the same: Ravenous is one hell of a great film and deserves to be mentioned in any list of the best films of the ’90s.
Set in the American West, circa 1847, we’re introduced to the character of Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) as he receives a medal for his bravery during the Mexican-American War. The irony, as we see via choice flashbacks and the withering comments of Boyd’s superior officer, General Slauson (John Spencer), is that Boyd is actually a coward: as his men were getting slaughtered left and right, Boyd hid himself under a mountain of bodies and pretended to be dead. Once all of his men were dead and the Mexican soldiers’ attention was elsewhere, Boyd slipped out and, single-handedly, captured the Mexican encampment. A one-man army? Definitely award-worthy! A coward who watches his own troops get butchered? Better get a broom: this is getting swept under the rug, folks.
As “reward,” Boyd is sent to remote Fort Spencer, an isolated and rarely used way-station for travelers in the Sierra Nevadas: the U.S. army loves him so much, they don’t want him anywhere around. At the fort, Boyd meets his new comrades, an exceptionally strange bunch of folks if there ever were any: Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), the commanding officer, is a philosophical man who reads books in their original language because the fort “thrives on tedium”; Major Knox (Stephen Spinella), the next in command, is a falling-down drunk who also serves as the fort’s resident doctor (“Don’t get sick,” is Hart’s sage advice to Boyd); Pvt. Toffler (Jeremy Davies), the group’s missionary, is a real nutcase who’s given to talking to himself in hushed tones and writing fervent religious poetry at the drop of a hat; the “over-medicated” Pvt. Cleaves (David Arquette), the perma-stoned cook who spends the majority of his time getting high and giggling; Pvt. Reich (Neal McDonough), the creepily cheerful, gung-ho soldier who’s given to standing in freezing ponds and primal screaming; and the fort’s resident Native Americans, Martha (Sheila Tousey) and her brother George (Joseph Running Fox), who also happens to be Cleaves’ smoking buddy. In other words, you have just about the most interesting group of characters (and actors) that you could possibly get…and it only gets better from there.
One night, the general boredom of the fort’s routine is upset when the group spy a mysterious, haggard mountain-man outside, in the freezing snow. Rushing him inside, the group finds him weak and nearly dead, but still kicking. After administering to him, they learn that the man is F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), a Scottish immigrant who was travelling with a wagon train that found disaster in the unforgiving Sierra Nevadas. The train’s leader, Col. Ives, was an incompetent man who led them astray and got them all stranded in an underground cave. As the harsh winter set in around them, the group quickly blew through their food rations before turning to their pack animals and things like their leather belts and shoes. When those ran out, the group began to cannibalize the dead, some with more gusto than others, according to Colqhoun. Ives, in particular, became a monster who gleefully chowed his way through all of the survivors until it was just him, Colqhoun and another woman. Fleeing into the night, Colqhoun left Ives and the woman behind in the cave, a cowardly act that serves as a fitting parallel to Boyd’s own act of self-preservation.
Upon hearing that Ives and the woman may still be alive in the cave, Hart wastes no time in organizing a rescue mission, taking Boyd, George, Toffler, Reich and Colqhoun with him, as Knox stays behind to mind the fort. On the way, Toffler ends up getting injured, which leads to the unsettling incident where Colqhoun is discovered licking the missionary’s wound as they all sleep in their tents. Colqhoun, it would appear, has a bit of an impulse control problem. He’s also quite the liar, as the group discovers when they reach the cave and find a much different, more horrible scenario than the one Colqhoun so helpfully described. With the tables turned, Boyd is soon engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Colqhoun, a struggle that ends with Boyd grievously injured and trapped in a hole in the woods.
After freeing himself, Boyd returns to the fort only to discover that General Slauson and his men are already there: Hart’s party is still missing and Slauson has come down to lead the search. He’s also brought a new commanding officer with him, someone to run Fort Spencer in Hart’s absence…a cheerful, friendly fellow by the name of Col. Ives. From this point on, the film becomes a brilliant cat-and-mouse game as Boyd tries desperately to convince those around him that Ives is not only an imposter but a supernaturally strong, blood-thirsty cannibal, as well. Ives has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, however, and he’s a patient man: he’s more than happy to wait as Boyd becomes more and more entangled in his web. The whole thing builds to a Grand Guignol climax that features one of the most intense, amazing mano-a-mano battles that I’ve ever seen (think Family Guy’s “Chicken vs Peter” fights but with live-action actors and gallons of blood), all before finishing up with one of the most subtle, succinct commentaries on the human condition ever put to screen.
I remember going to see Ravenous in the theaters when it first came out and being so absolutely blown away by it that I promptly went to see it again. As soon as I was able, I bought the DVD and have happily revisited the film at least once a year for over a decade. Obviously, I’m quite fond of the movie: it’s actually one of my favorite films, let alone one of my favorite horror films. What, exactly, appeals to me so much about this marvelous little gem? In a nutshell, Ravenous is one smart film, from beginning to end and if there’s anything I appreciate, laud and worship, it’s a smart film.
One of the biggest complaints levied against Ravenous is that the film is tonally inconsistent, so schizophrenic as to almost be two films jammed into one: a slapstick comedy, complete with “zany” sound effects, and a serious, gore-drenched horror movie about cannibals and Wendigos. This tendency is evident from the very first frame, where Nietzche’s famous quote about fighting monsters is followed by the immediate rejoinder, “Eat Me!,” credited to “Anonymous.” The second comment pops up with one of those aforementioned “zany” sound effects, which creates a completely jarring tone when juxtaposed with composer Michael Nyman and Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s austere bluegrass-y score. All of this is balanced against Anthony B. Richmond’s absolutely stunning cinematography: the snowy mountain setting is truly beautiful.
Rather than being a handicap, I’ve always felt that Ravenous’ split-tone was one of its greatest assets. Despite the occasionally slapstick action, the film is never silly or stupid: instead, it uses the frequent gallows’ humor and moments such as Colqhoun/Ives’ sarcastic asides to keep the audience in a constant state of uneasiness. From one moment to the next, it’s all but impossible to predict the film’s next move: a gleefully insane gore setpiece might sit uncomfortably next to a masterfully executed comedic scene. One of the film’s best moments is the one where Hart asks Boyd about his hobbies, only to be told he enjoys swimming: after a long pause, Hart casts an eye outside, at the frozen landscape, before giving the priceless rejoinder, “Hope you don’t mind hard water.” Classic! Likewise, the excellent, atmospheric score (truly some of Albarn’s best work) helps pull the mood in a million directions at once: the film’s main theme is very catchy and evocative and serves to accentuate several key moments, helping to do a little of the heavy lifting, thematically speaking.
And that cast…oh, boy…that cast…Any film that features Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Neal McDonough, Stephen Spinella and John Spencer should be guaranteed more than its fair share of eyeballs glued to the screen but, alas, even this star power wasn’t enough to pull in the ticket-buyers. It’s a real shame, too, because Carlyle’s performance as Colqhoun/Ives is not only one of his very best performances (pretty much second only to the marvelous piece of shit that is Begbie) but it’s reason enough to see the film, hands down. Quite simply, Carlyle turns in one of the all-time best villainous performances I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. He’s so good, in fact, that I’ll stack his performance next to any cinematic villain from the dawn of the Nickelodeons right up to yesterday: Colqhoun/Ives is an unforgettable creation and Carlyle should have been praised from here to the moon for the performance, hands down.
For me, one of the saddest aspects to Ravenous’ box-office failure was the way that it effectively cut Antonia Bird’s cinematic career short. Predominantly a television director until her big-screen debut with Priest (1994), Ravenous would only be her fourth (and last) non-TV effort. After the film went the way of the dodo, Bird went back to television where she would remain until her untimely death last year at the age of 62. More than anything, I lament the amazing, lost films that might have followed Ravenous had the movie only been successful…or had Bird just been given another chance. The irony of the fact is that Ravenous is an exceptionally well-made film: it looks gorgeous and has more atmosphere than a bakers’ dozen of lesser movies. In a perfect world, these traits would be rewarded. In the bizarro-world of Hollywood, however, receipts are king and Ravenous never really had a chance.
And there you have it, folks: the best film that hardly anyone’s seen. Why should anyone care about a 15-year-old horror-comedy about cannibals? Well, if you’re a horror fan, the film features amazingly real and gruesome practical effects, along with one of the all-time great cinematic “monsters” and some genuinely shocking scenes. If you’re just a general fan of the cinema, Ravenous is expertly crafted, featuring beautiful cinematography, a truly unique and wonderfully fitting musical score and a superb ensemble cast. For those who like a little something to think about, Ted Griffin’s script finds some truly brilliant ways to equate Manifest Destiny and Westward expansion with the consumption of human flesh: as the settlers chewed up and spit out the remains of those who came before them, so, too, does Colqhoun plan to chew up and spit out the settlers. It’s the circle of life: it might not be pretty, but it sure does look familiar.
As a writer, I feel that one of the greatest, most important things I can possibly do is to make sure that quality films like Ravenous don’t completely fade out into obscurity. Just as I’ve fallen in love with this ramshackle little mutt of a film, so do I feel that anyone else can, with the right push. As someone who’s spent the better part of his life separating the wheat from the chaff, as far as horror films go, let me now throw the fullest recommendation possible behind Ravenous. Give it a chance and I’m pretty sure you’ll agree: there’s absolutely nothing else out there like Ravenous…and we’re all a whole lot poorer for it.