No matter how hungry you get, there is one food source that is strictly taboo, firmly off-limits, and definitely not for civilized consumption. So it’s no wonder that gorging on human flesh is too harrowing and far too repulsive an act to ever consider – no matter how dire the (pardon the pun) stakes.
The idea literally turns our stomachs.
And that’s what makes the 1999 dark humour horror film, Ravenous, so much fun!
Despite a stocked and worthy craft table, Ravenous was beset by problems from the outset. No, staff didn’t go mysteriously missing – although the original director was ushered away quickly from set only a few weeks into shooting due to difficulties with the studio. Perhaps he wasn’t tender enough for them. Heh.
English-born theatre, television and film director, Antonia Bird, was actually the third director on set, taking over the production reigns of the satirically funny and grotesquely dark movie. It does have a tinge of that Monty Python flavour to it, at times.
Starring Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Memento, Iron Man 3), Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting, The Full Monty, Once Upon A Time), Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan, Lost) and Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow), Ravenous tells the 1840’s story of disgraced Captain John Boyd (Pearce) exiled to the remote (and small) Fort Spence in the mountains of Nevada – a place where only the shamed, the dishonorable and the unwanted, US Army soldiers are stationed.
Here, he encounters and helps save a ragged, cold and starving stranger named Colqhoun (Carlyle), who recounts his flight from his wagon entourage. They had gone mad after a long winter storm trapped them in a mountain cave, where they quickly ate through their food possessions, their pet dogs, and then their horses, before quickly turning on themselves. In a powerful and unnerving scene, a thankful Colqhoun tells the soldiers of Fort Spence that he himself partook of the indecency, admitting that although he ate sparingly, he thanked the Lord for “the smell of meat cooking”.
It’s decided that the soldiers must save those who possibly remain alive, but it isn’t long before evidence presents itself that there is more than meets the eye to Colqhoun and that he is not telling the entire truth. “He was licking me!” warns an injured and bleeding Private Toffler during a frantic midnight scrum in the wilderness – and the mission descends into startling lunacy from that moment onward.
Ravenous is a wickedly wacky film that flits between abjectly disgusting and absolutely horrifying and downright funny. Importantly, it never once feels like it doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be. Each of its attributes strengthens the others and it has become something of a cult classic over the years despite many negative reviews. I, for one, love the various tastes that the film gives audiences. It has a real indie zest and artsy relish to it, and is so different from the usual tabletop offering of horror movies.
There are brilliant performances here, specifically that of the calm, cool, and absolutely maniacal character that Robert Carlyle plays. He’s a joy to watch in every single scene he’s in – which is many, thankfully. A favourite is a scene in which the soldiers finally come across the cave where Calqhoun’s comrades were supposed to have taken residence in their feast of man-flesh. Carlyle’s crazed, animalistic portrayal here, along with Bird’s direction and editing selection make for a marvelous ramp up of fear and apprehension in viewers. We know that something is wrong, that something horribly bad is about t happen. And we’re on the edge of seats helplessly waiting, like the soldiers in the story, for that wickedness to occur.
The music, composed by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), is a major star as well. It’s all foreboding strings and percussion when it has to be and banjo Hicksville in its frenetic sounds during humorous moments. Like the philosophy of the movie itself, its strange – yet it suits.
With a budget of $12 million, Ravenous only garnered about $2 million at the box office – a huge flop. For a period piece that essentially had no North American star draw and a story that intertwined native Indian folklore, American belief in Manifest Destiny, and the unmentionable and unthinkable act of cannibalism, it’s amazing that it even got released into theatres!
Still, Ravenous is a worthy film in the pantheon of great horror films. It’s perfect viewing during these 31 Days of Horror.