“It’s lonely being a cannibal,” observes Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones) in Ravenous, and the same could be said for the film itself.
The victim of a troubled production and lackluster studio push, Ravenous was ignored at the box office and largely dismissed by critics. Of the few who saw it during its festival and theatrical runs, some were poisoned by the prerelease coverage and others didn’t know what to make of this gleefully morbid tale of cannibalism set amid the Sierra Nevada in the mid-1800s.
Yet Ravenous is the rare cinematic concoction worthy of praise as “a hoot,” self-aware genre fare that embraces, extends and subverts its inherent stylistic trappings to become something exhilarating and singular. And while Ravenous feeds a burgeoning cult, whose members savor the film’s macabre, tongue-in-bloodied-cheek sense of humor and its (sometimes literally) scenery-chewing performances, it remains ripe for rediscovery.
Ravenous concerns the plight—and appetite—of Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a veteran of the Mexican-American War who survived by playing dead, first slaking himself with human blood while buried under a mound of corpses and eventually breaking the last taboo. He is “promoted” to Fort Spencer, a remote mountain way station (with the foreboding peaks of central Europe’s Tatra Mountains filling in for the Sierra Nevada) besieged by winter and populated with the requisite troupe, or in this case troop, of misfits.
Into this isolated camp staggers Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle, sinking his teeth in), a mangy-haired, wild-eyed stranger who spins a horrific yarn that borrows from the stories of the Donner party and Alferd Packer. It spoils nothing to note that Colqhoun is not what he seems, and that he and Boyd share a similar hunger, though they have different principles about satisfying the craving.
Working with a clever, meaty script by Ted Griffin and abetted by a game cast, director Antonia Bird (a last-minute and capable replacement for the fired Milcho Manchevski) crafts a bleak, funny, highly sensory horror film. Filmed in muted hues and earth tones by cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, the cold and damp environment is nearly palpable, and Bird, who was vegetarian, amplifies the sounds of eating to quease-inducing levels, a comically grotesque cacophony of bites, chews and slurps. The tone is heightened by a moody, mischievous score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn.
The film’s most glaring misstep occurs in its opening seconds in the form of a crass quote that practically jabs an elbow into the side of the audience to indicate, “Hey, this is supposed to be funny!” One gets the impression from Bird that this was among many tweaks made by a condescending studio that didn’t trust viewers to get the joke(s).
The humor is telegraphed just fine thanks to moments such as when Colqhoun, preparing to chow down on a human limb, remarks, “Ben Franklin once said, ‘Eat to live, don’t live to eat,’” then, with thanks-I’ll-be-here-all-week relish, adds, “Eh? Eh?”
Franklin, incidentally, is quoted more than once in Griffin’s delightful screenplay, which incorporates Native American folklore, Manifest Destiny, and a discussion of the ethics associated with cannibalism. Ravenous is sometimes categorized as a vampire film, but, despite a sly wink to Nosferatu, the nature of Colqhoun’s and Boyd’s mania for human flesh remains, like the film’s spring-trap of a conclusion, enigmatic.
Antonia Bird died in October 2013 of thyroid cancer. She directed a number of productions for the BBC, as well as the controversial feature Priest, a film I admire if not love, and the well-regarded British crime film Face.
Bird’s career was too short, and she had a rough go in Hollywood, but with Ravenous she helped fashion one of the most distinctive and enduring horror films of the past two decades. On June 3, Shout Factory will release Ravenous in a welcome Blu-ray edition that includes commentary tracks with Bird and others, as well as additional bonus features; Ravenous is currently available on Netflix streaming and DVD.