Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.
So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.
Dir. Antonia Bird
"Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster…"
- Friedrich Nietzsche
I’m not sure how a movie like Ravenous ever received a wide release. It surely wouldn't today – not even with more immense star power. The film’s budget was a moderate one, being estimated at just twelve million (in late 90s terms), and despite the relatively low budget, the film was a box office disaster upon its release. It received warm notices from critics, notably Roger Ebert, who called it “clever in the way it avoids most of the clichés of the vampire movie by using cannibalism, and most of the clichés of the cannibal movie by using vampirism. It serves both dishes with new sauces.”
I applaud FOX for releasing the film, for today they are a studio known as troublesome and bullying; they have gained a reputation for meddling in the productions of some of their tent pole films, neutering some of their harder franchises (Alien, Die Hard ) for the PG-13 crowd, and for being unreasonably fan unfriendly. How a movie like Ravenous ever managed to slip past their radar I’ll never know, but I’ll be forever grateful it did.
Ravenous was one of Guy Pearce’s immediate post-L.A. Confidential roles, and it was certainly a bold one to take on. There is very little dialogue for his character (he does not utter a full onscreen line of dialogue for nearly the first third of the movie), and his role as Captain Boyd, the disgraced war hero of the Mexican-American War, did not stand a chance against Robert Carlyle’s truly maniacal Colqhoun. The role of Boyd is understated and unorthodox – for much of the film he is a weakling coward, and then later, something comparable to a drug addict desperate for a fix.
But make no mistake – this movie belongs to Robert Carlyle. Had Ravenous received more attention upon its release, Carlyle would have certainly been nominated for Best Actor/Supporting Actor (and why couldn't he? Another famous cannibal was honored just eight years prior). His portrayal as the two-faced Colqhoun alernates from helpless and terrified to downright bloodthirsty and savage. Trainspotting’s Begby (another Carlyle role) does not hold a candle.
The rest of the cast is comprised of recognizable and respectable character actors (another detractor in the weird world of cinema, where money talks and bullshit walks). Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ) plays Colonel Hart (ho ho), the even-tempered and fatherly leader of the U.S. Army outpost where the bulk of the film takes place. He reads world literature, eats walnuts, and has graciously accepted his niche as keeper of a bunch of misfits. This role could have easily been written as the typical overbearing army superior fuckhead, but it wasn’t, and Jones bring a real humanity to what could have been a one-note role. Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan ) plays Private Toffler, a possibly autistic, God-loving ball of nervousness. Neal McDonough (Minority Report ) plays Private Reich, and despite his short crop of screaming blonde hair, he fits right into the role of the soldier with far too much testosterone and very little reason. Finally, David Arquette plays Private Cleaves, and despite being fresh off the success of 1996’s Scream, his part is minor and perhaps underwritten.
Our plot is a relatively simple one: During the Mexican-American war, Captain Boyd fakes dying during battle in order to spare his life. He is thrown into a pile of dead bodies – at the very bottom – and has no chance at escaping, due literally to the dead weight piled above him. However, blood from his commanding officer’s “half shot-off head” leaks into his mouth, and he gains the strength to crawl out from under the dead and take out several enemy soldiers. He is hailed a hero, but military superiors know the truth of his cowardice. He is banished to Fort Spencer under the guise of being promoted, and here he remains with the above-mentioned characters until someone comes calling late one night – someone with tales of wintry survival and inhuman appetites.
A strange man named Colqhoun collapses just outside the fort’s main cabin, freezing from the cold, and ready to drop dead from malnourishment. He is brought inside and cared for by the fort’s occupants. He soon awakens with quite a story:
We left in April. Six of us in all: Mr. MacCready and his wife, from Ireland. Mr. Janus – from Virginia, I believe – with his servant, Jones. Myself. And our guide: a military man, coincidently. A Colonel Ives. He professed to know a new, shorter route through the Nevadas. Quite a route that was. Longer than the normal one. Impossible to travel. We worked very, very hard. By the time of the first snowfall we were still one hundred miles from this place. That was November. Preceding though the snow was futile. We took shelter in a cave. Decided to wait until the storm had passed. The storm did not pass. The trails soon became impossible, and we had run out of food. We ate the oxen. All the horses. Even my own dog. And that lasted us about a month. After that, we turned to our belts, shoes, and roots we could dig up... but, you know, there's no real nourishment in those. We remained famished. The day that Jones died I was out collecting wood. He had expired from malnourishment. And when I returned, the others were cooking his legs for dinner. Would I have stopped it had I been there? I don't know. But I must say. When I stepped inside that cave... the smell of meat cooking... I thanked the Lord! I thanked the Lord!
He goes on to explain that the consumption of human flesh gave him almost supernatural strength…and unnatural appetites. These words give Boyd pause, as he remembers his own experience on the battlefield — when all seemed lost until dripping blood from the corpses above him gave him unnatural strength…
Colqhoun, we soon come to realize, is not who he seems, and when the men trek to the cave to search for survivors, he reveals his true face. With the help of a buried dagger, he picks off the men one-by-one, leaving Boyd for dead. Out of desperation, Boyd slices off some of Private Reich’s dead flesh, gaining enough strength to make it out of the wilderness and return to Fort Spencer. As does Colqhoun…under the guise of Colonel Ives, one of the alleged murdered. No one believes Boyd’s wild stories about murder and cannibalism and he is shackled.
One of the fort’s occupants, Martha (a Native American), warns Boyd that the only way to defeat a wendigo – an evil force that devours men and absorbs their spiritual and physical strength – is to “give” … because all the wendigo does is “take.”
At movie’s end (this should come as no surprise, but, spoiler), Boyd and Colqhoun battle to the death by falling into an awaiting bear trap, which snaps them both together, six-inch spikes stabbing into their flesh. Boyd is victorious, having “given” his life to stop Colqhoun from “taking” further lives. Before he dies, Colqhoun challenges Boyd: “If you die first, I am definitely going to eat you. But if I die first, what will you do?”
What Boyd chooses is ultimately left ambiguous, but I think it’s safe to say he opts to fast.
At the end of the day, the plot of Ravenous is gleefully and unashamedly stupid – it amounts to no more than a bunch of men stabbing each other, getting blood all over pretty much everything, and eating human flesh. The movie really just wants to have fun, and that it does. Director Antonia Bird knows the movie’s true strengths lie in the atmosphere that can be created – that of a stark winterscape draping across a barren military outpost. Despite this – and as unusual as it may sound – none of the murder and the mayhem ever feels mean-spirited. If made today by a different director, the movie would be a bloody show set in dingy basements or laboratories. Men would be locked into rooms and forced to eat each other. And there would be no humor in the proceedings at all. And this is where Ravenous truly shines.
The onscreen events are horrifying – not just the notion of death, but of your earthly body being consumed after you check out – but director Bird keeps the levity going. And she was smart to. (Credit must also be given to screenwriter Ted Griffin, who would go on to write more straightforward comedies like Ocean’s Eleven, Tower Heist, and Rumor Has It…) Most of the humor comes from the wry dialogue between the characters, but also from the film’s score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (a rare foray into film music from the frontman of Blur and Gorillaz). Hillbilly fiddles play as Colqhoun chases Private Toffler through the woods with a dagger, ordering him to “run;" poorly performed military music squeaks in the beginning of the film, during which a hundred men sit down to their post-war meals of bloody steaks, showing just how ridiculous it all really is. The musical score utilizes found audio, native vocalizations, and wildly diverging tones to create one of the most frenetic (and frankly, best) film scores I’ve ever heard. It effortlessly rotates between goofy, to dreamlike, to pulse pounding, to downright creepy.
And creepy the movie is.
Colqhoun’s descent into newfound madness, and his frenzied digging at the dirt where his dagger is buried; the rapidly increasing cuts that begin when Boyd and Reich descend into the cave; the close-up shot of Reich's dead and dirt/blood-covered grinning face, tinted blue under the light of the moon – it's all incredibly and effectively unnerving, even on repeated viewings.
As for the movie’s “moral”? Take your pick: During the film, Colqhoun muses on the idea of manifest destiny—of the infant country’s citizens as they expand across the land with their voracious appetites. And while they are consuming the natural resources of the country, in the end, it is the country that is consuming them. Meanwhile, the backdrop of the movie is set against the Mexican-American war, yet another conflict involving stolen land and the United States, who in an effort to consume even more territory and grow stronger, killed a lot of their own men in the process. And lastly, there is the Native American element (two of whom live in Fort Spencer), and worn of the “wendigo.” Interesting that this warning would come from them, being that it was their people who were displaced when our ships first breeched their shores so many years ago – in an effort to consume, dominate, and grow stronger.
Most importantly, however, is that Ravenous is just a great movie, whether or not you want to dig beyond the surface and examine the themes below. It boasts great performances, great atmosphere, and amazing music. The red stuff flies, as do limbs and bones. The chemistry between the cast is pitch perfect, and it's truly a shame this movie was not more appreciated upon its initial release.