Is Ravenous really underappreciated? It may be at large, but I suspect it’s wormed its way into the hearts of many Pajibans, so I may be wasting my breath and your time. This one’s on the edge, but I’d rather err on the side of gushing and make double-sure it’s in everyone’s DVD collections or rental queues where it belongs. While Ravenous barely pinged the North American box office when it hit our shores in 1999, you’d be hard-pressed to find a horror geek, or a fan of Guy Pearce or Robert Carlyle, who hasn’t already stewed in this movie’s viscera. It’s got cannibalism — and Pearce and Carlyle — and pre-allegations Jeffrey Jones rocking his kindly authority figure — and Neal McDonough flexing his inner Arian — and Ojibwa lore — and jagged mountain vistas — and an unforgettable Michael Nyman/Damon Albarn score that chitters and plinks and dances — and virile direction by Antonia Bird.
Ravenous is a period horror piece, a genre that’s difficult to pull off without stumbling into Hammer-esque camp. Events take place in 1847, during the Mexican-American War, when “Continentalism” (the American ambition of subsuming Mexico and Canada into the United States) was still a miasma obscuring the view of Reality. Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) has just been decorated for bravery by his regiment; the problem is, he only managed to infiltrate and capture a Mexican camp because he played dead on the battlefield and was dragged behind enemy lines on a body cart. His superiors know this, but feel a court-marshalling won’t fly with the men. They dispose of Boyd and his ersatz medal in a remote Sierra Nevada way-station to wait out the rest of the war. Boyd is haunted by a coward’s guilt, and Pearce — one of today’s canniest actors — is a convincing vehicle for the character’s self-loathing. He avoids eye-contact with others and mumbles his speech without the defining inflection of self-esteem. He can’t look in a mirror without recalling his drop to the ground in the pitch of battle, or the horror of being crammed into a cart, pressed under the bodies of his dead comrades, his commander’s blood seeping into his mouth.
Fort Spencer is a snow-ragged yawn in the middle of nowhere, inhabited by an afterthought company: Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), their barely competent leader; Knox (Stephen Spinella), an inebriated excuse for a medic; Cleaves (David Arquette), who wanders around in a peyote-scented cloud; Toffler (Jeremy Davies), a chaplain who cringes and whines like a fair externalization of Boyd’s cowardice; and Reich (Neal McDonough), the coward’s polar opposite, a bellicose young yahoo with a face that could cut glass. Each of these soldiers is off his rocker in his own peculiar way and needs to be propped up by Martha (Sheila Tousey), their Native American servant, and her brother George (Joseph Running Fox). Boyd’s entry into their fray barely stirs the air; the men are as isolated from one another as Fort Spencer is isolated from the nearest California outpost, and they only seem to share something akin to camaraderie when the pipe or the bottle is going around. Boyd is resigned and accepts his tour like a world-weary penitent, relieved he won’t have to make friends dear enough to spot the shame crawling under his skin.
The atmosphere livens at the Fort when a stranger (Robert Carlyle) is found outside the officers’ mess on Boyd’s first night, frozen and starved. The men bring him inside, treat him back to life, and listen to a harrowing récit: the distressed Colqhoun had been traveling with a group of settlers who got lost in the mountains at the outset of winter. They took shelter in a cave and, after their rations ran out and their livestock and pets had been eaten, resorted to the obvious. As Colqhoun tells it, their first meal was a “servant” named Jones who died of starvation and made good steaks while Colqhoun was out collecting wood. When Jones had been gnawed to the marrow, hunger attacked the survivors anew — only now their hunger was different. “It was severe … savage,” admits Colqhoun. They picked one another off for food until Colqhoun fled the cave and wandered into Fort Spencer. Col. Hart immediately orders a search party for the survivors. Hart, Boyd, Reich, Toffler and George set off to find the cannibal camp, with Colqhoun as their guide.
That’s more set-up than I’m usually wont to offer, but I’m not sure how to pimp the real merits of Ravenous otherwise. To get to the bones of the movie is to unearth a few spoilers in the process. Fuck it — spoilers ahoy. It’s not that the movie’s charm rests on plot twists, anyway. It should be obvious to viewers what Colqhoun’s really up to, and it’s only after he lures his prey to the cave that Ravenous becomes Ravenous, and the human smorgasbord is laid out to tempt us not with its gory, fatty morsels per se, but with tense survivalist drama followed by a lingering, close-quarters game of cat-and-mouse between the unapologetic cannibal and his reluctant protégé. Wait — that’s not quite accurate. It’s only after Toffler suffers a compound fracture on their way to the cave, and wakes up to the sensation of Colqhoun licking his wound, that the bits and pieces of plot and theme rattle their way to the surface and begin to click at you like crab-hands. Then again, only the village idiot could miss what’s coming. If the movie’s title doesn’t give it away, the film’s opening scene of officers inhaling bloody steaks pinned by the camera’s eye probably should have tipped you off. The point is that, once the action reaches the settlers’ cave, there’s no more denying that Bird’s gone and flown straight into the taboo’s nest.
As Colqhoun chases his food around a mountainside to the rhythms of Nyman and Albarn’s inimitable score, something happens to Carlyle’s eyes: they become hard little Charlie Manson nuggets in his face, electric with madness, signposts of his unlikely strength and ferocity. The Wendigo lore that feeds the film’s horror is fully exposed in Colqhoun’s expression and gestures — in his satisfied gnawing at warm human bones. A First Nations’ variant on the vampire myth, the Wendigo (according to one of several traditions — the one the filmmakers chose to use) is a man who, after tasting human flesh, grows addicted to the infusion of vigor that comes with ingesting the lifeblood of others. The script points out that the myth hails from the North of the continent, but harnessing it to tell a tale of the American West is metaphorically natural. Some of you may have thought all that prattle up top about the film’s Mexican-American War setting was gum-flappage that I planted in this retrospective to fill up space. Not so. The backdrops of Continentalism and colonial expansion amplify the cannibalism trope and darken the movie’s already charred tones. Granted, using cannibalism to satirize imperial greed isn’t unique to Ravenous, but few films have ever done it better; it often takes a foreigner’s eye to read the guts of our nastier historical beasts, and Bird and her mainly British crew (a nation that knows a thing or two about colonial plunder) don’t shy away from hard truths.
It begins with Martha: “You give yourself,” she explains to Boyd. “Wendigo need more, more. Never enough. He takes, never gives.” A statement like this coming from a First Nations woman in a movie about cannibalism and Westward expansion can’t help but have a double meaning. Gluttony for the flesh is an image for a larger kind of gluttony — the kind hinted at in the opening scene in the officers’ mess, where they celebrate territorial victories over steaks swimming in blood. Nations grow stronger through colonialism like the Wendigo grows stronger when he eats another man. And if there were any doubts about this uncomfortable underlying theme, Carlyle rams it home late in the film when his character talks about Manifest Destiny. “This country’s seeking to be whole,” he tells Boyd. “Stretching out its arms, consuming all it can.” The satire sparkles in Carlyle’s eyes and the metaphor is complete. Boyd stands in for all European-descended Americans, catching his own Wendigo lust by proxy back in the cart when another man’s blood trickled down his throat; some Wendigos consciously consume with guilt-free avarice, but anyone caught in the colonial machine winds up being complicit to a degree. So watch Ravenous knowing that there are two sides to every proposition. Boyd’s official bravery was born in a craven moment, and winning the West wasn’t bloodless, no matter how cherry patriots try to paint it. Films that open with a shot of a fluttering US flag usually go one of two ways: they celebrate the American mystique or they vex it, and Ravenous vexes it beautifully with shiny gore, dark humour, and some fine young cannibals that stick to the memory.
But all the subtext in the world is ultimately neither here nor there. This movie deserves promotion for cinematic reasons alone. It’s the literal horror that makes Ravenous what it is, along with its particular tang of wit, and the collection of characters Bird and her screenwriter, Ted Griffin, have set out on the landscape, and the dramatic landscape itself, and that haunting soundtrack which almost seems to be laughing at us. There’s a hue and tone to Ravenous that’s difficult to describe, but once you’ve watched it, you’ve felt the frozen creek Reich bathes in, breathed in Cleaves’ dopey cloud, and tasted a bowl of man-stew yourself. This movie stimulates most of your senses and makes everything about it seem three-dimensional and present. Ravenous is a rare beast: a smart, witty, gruesome, and beautifully constructed film that defies categorization, yet it comfortably wears the Horror label, delivering where it needs to and then some. And it wouldn’t be half of what it is without Pearce and Carlyle doing some of their best, most memorable work against a memorable background. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Underappreciated Gems series, on May 7, 2008.)