Released in 1999, Ravenous quickly and quietly slipped in and out of theaters without making much of an impression to either audiences or critics. Taking place in the Sierra-Nevada mountain range in 1847, at the height of the Mexican-American War, it was a demented, brilliant horror film that took a darkly comic look at the darker aspect of humanity. Masterfully directed by Antonia Bird, its failure at the box office was probably one of the reasons why it was her last feature film directorial effort (sadly, Bird passed away last year at age sixty-two).
The film opens with two quotations that address different aspects of its story. The first quote comes from Friedrich Nietzsche: “He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” The second quote is not quite as philosophical: “Eat me,” attributed to Anonymous (man, that Anonymous sure talks quite a bit). The two opening quotations can serve as an example to the contrasting elements in the film: the gore and dread on the one hand, and the bitter irony and black-pitch humor on the other.
The first image is an American flag flapping in the wind, with patriotic music swelling in the background (it must be said that no horror film has featured more American flags in the background since The Silence of the Lambs). The film cuts to a military ceremony where Lieutenant John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is being promoted due to bravery in the field (we see in flashback that Boyd’s actions in the field were contradictory to this honor). In the next scene, as his fellow officers gorge on bloody steaks, the meat on Boyd’s plate triggers a violent reaction to the meal (this is an astonishingly edited sequence, and it would be fair to assume Peter Jackson was inspired by Ravenous in regards to a similar scene in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King).
Boyd’s commanding officer, General Slauson (John Spencer) says “you’re no hero, Boyd” and banishes him to an outpost far away in California. Fort Spencer, which is at the foot of the Sierra-Nevada range, is a sleepy outpost, overrun by the bored, lonely Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones). During the winter, the fort is down to a skeleton crew that includes the timid, “resident religious man” Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), the stoned Private Cleaves (David Arquette; note his character’s last name), Stephen Spinella as the intoxicated Knox, Neal McDonough as battle-ready Private Reich, Joseph Running Fox as George, and Shelia Tousey as his sister, Martha (the only main female character in the film).
Into their world comes not only the quiet Captain Boyd (I think it’s about twenty-five minutes into the film before Pearce has his first line of dialogue), but also a mysterious stranger by the name of Colqhoun (played by Robert Carlyle), who arrives seemingly out of nowhere late one night. The image of Colqhoun appearing like a specter outside the window in the snowy darkness is quite startling. Before too long, Colqhoun is telling them about his harrowing tale (think: Donner Party).
Colqhoun’s story is mesmerizingly acted by Carlyle, and the editing, cinematography and music all create a terrifying tapestry in this sequence. Before too long, Hart is leading an expedition into the Sierras for survivors. That’s about enough plot. I wanted to give just enough to set up the story, without revealing too much.
I remember seeing Ravenous at the Washington Square theater back in 1999(which is now, I believe, an empty building transformed annually into a haunted house); and I remember being immediately taken by its power. It is not only a terrific horror film, but it also works as a period piece or a dark comedy. Like few modern day horror films, Ravenous creates a feeling of dread and apprehension that the movie builds over the course of its running time.
In addition to the slyly terrifying script by Ted Griffin, the film also features beautiful, frightening cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond; and a music score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman that probably ranks as one of the best horror film scores, period. The film is anchored by Guy Pearce’s mostly wordless, physically demanding role as Boyd. Robert Carlyle is delightfully cast as Colqhoun, and gives the role a bug-eyed, feral, raving lunatic quality (there’s a frightening moment where he frantically digs at the ground like a wild animal). The supporting characters are well-cast, especially Jeffrey Jones and John Spencer as the military superiors.
Ravenous has built up a cult in recent years, but it remains a horror film that has been unfairly neglected. Few modern horror movies have such a scary and bizarre feel as Ravenous does, or are this lovingly put together.
Ravenous. 1999. Dir. Antonia Bird. With Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer, Stephen Spinella, Neal McDonough, Joseph Running Fox, Shelia Tousey. Written by Ted Griffen. Cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond. Czech Republic/ United Kingdom/ United States.