I’m always looking for new horror movies to watch and in my quest I often come up disappointed and annoyed. Cthulu was on my side the day I decided to watch Ravenous. It’s an unsettling period piece/dark comedy/thriller/horror film that explores morality, self-preservation, and societal taboos in an unforgiving and wild environment. Although the idea of cannibalism isn’t a new one in cinema, Ravenous uses the isolation of military outposts during the Mexican-American War to remove any chance of assistance or warning to the mix. The film also uses the Native American Wendigo myth to outline the rules by which their cannibal must abide: consuming the flesh of one’s enemy will grant you strength, but it will turn you into a demon with an insatiable hunger for more flesh.
From the opening title card (“He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” - Nietzche and “Eat Me” - Anonymous), you know that this isn’t going to be your average war movie. English helmer Antonia Bird chooses to intercut the promotion ceremony for Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) with footage of his behavior that got him there—playing dead, the blood of his fallen brothers dripping down into his throat as he lie helpless. We are then slammed into a soundtrack filled with Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman penned music as Boyd travels to his new post, the isolated Fort Spencer, as a reward and punishment for what really happened when he took an enemy hold.
Bird keeps everything moving with introductions to Boyd’s new regiment via small snippets of character-building actions narrated by Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones). Private Cleaves (David Arquette) is a drug-addled man-whore. Knox (Stephen Spinella) is an alcoholic. Private Reich (Neal McDonough) is a loud, crazy, and testosterone-filled soldier. George (Joseph Running Fox) and Martha (Sheila Tousey) are Native American siblings. Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) is the nervous and awkward religious man of the Fort.
The tedium of daily life at Fort Spencer is immediately interrupted when the seemingly frost-bitten and exhausted F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives. When Colqhoun revives, he tells the regiment about the loss of his entire group when they became stranded for three months. He tells them Colonel Ives, the leader of his six person travel group, decided that cannibalism was in order to survive. Colqhoun paints Ives as a horrible bastard, psychotic and ruthless. Bird effectively tells her character’s story through narrated flashbacks interspersed with the current story.
Once Colqhoun finishes his tale with the possibility of another member of his party being alive, Hart jumps to action. It is their duty to find possible survivors of the travel party, so the men gather their guns. But Hart and Boyle are interrupted by George’s tale of the Wendigo, insinuating that anyone that eats the flesh of another is a demon. How lucky that Colqhoun, who admitted to eating flesh of his fellow travelers, has decided to assist the members of Fort Spencer in their search.
It soon becomes very apparent that Colqhoun has not been as forthcoming as one might think, leading to a deadly attack upon Boyle’s regiment by the mysterious stranger.
Bird boldly allows character’s faces to take center stage when conveying the mood overtaking a room. As Colqhoun tells his tale, close-ups of Carlyle, Pearce, and Jones communicate the suffocating unrest, unease, and sadness overtaking the once tranquil and dull Fort Spencer. Impressively, Bird does not waste a single frame or moment on unneeded exposition or sweeping shots of the wilderness all around her actors. Instead, the wilderness becomes a character itself, enveloping the soldiers and rooting the fantastical story in a real fear of seclusion and hidden dangers.
Though Bird herself had problems with the “manipulative” shooting schedule, the “horrible” shooting space, and the final theatrical cut, Ravenous still seems a success in effectively blending dark humor into a thriller/horror film without being cheesy or forced. Bird was able to set a tone of unease that allows the audience to nervously giggle at the distressingly cheerful soundtrack or various quips while still being tense as hell. Though these qualities went mostly unnoticed during its theatrical run, Ravenous managed to find a well-deserved cult following once released on home media.
Carlyle, as is his wont, gleefully portrays the psychotic Colqhoun with tics, breaths, movement, and an undeniable presence. Pearce is the quiet, terrified, man willed into heroism simply by stumbling from one war into another, more sinister war. When the two men come together in a final showdown, their stark personality differences embody the film’s central moral question: in the face of self-preservation, is it better to resort to cannibalism or to starve to death?