e-mail:Smokey X. Digger
1999, Dir. Antonia Bird
A guest review by Iniquity Films British Correspondent Steve Barron.
First up, I like this film a lot, but I'm not too "precious" to have some fun with it. I had absolutely nothing to do with its making - just ask Ant, Guy or Bob. I like it because it doesn't piss about and pretend to be something it isn't.
Ravenous must surely be one of the best low-budget horror films of recent years - it also has a vein of the blackest humour running right through it. In 1847, during a little local disagreement known as the Mexican / American war, Lieutenant John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is given an honourary dinner and promotion to Captain for single-handedly capturing an enemy command post. The fact that he achieved heroic status via cowardice is soon exposed. You see, while his comrades are being shot to shreds, Boyd freezes; I don't mean literally - this is Mexico on a hot afternoon - he falls to the ground and "plays dead". He ends up at the bottom of a heap of corpses "with my commanding officer's half shot-off head in my face, his blood running down my throat". When the coast is clear he drags himself out of the pile, only to find "things had changed"; Boyd has had a "taste" - and we all know what a "taste" leads to, don't we?
Anyway, he goes on to capture the Mex. command post and is hailed a hero. However, he has been traumatised by his horrible experience and at the dinner in his honour, huge plates of steak (ranging in preparation from ultra-rare to nuked) are laid out for the company to chow down on. In a brilliantly edited sequence of soldiers wolfing this meat down with much slavering and slobbering, Boyd is reminded of his experience at the bottom of the heap and after some sickly looks and laboured breathing, he can stand it no longer and promptly runs outside and heaves his guts. This obviously sows the seeds of doubt in General Slauson's (John Spencer) mind: "You're no hero, Boyd" and after further investigation he is banished to a remote Army outpost in the Sierra Nevadas - Fort Spencer.
It's winter when Boyd arrives so as the commanding officer, Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones - "Criswell" in Ed Wood), puts it: "we maintain only a skeleton company". This company consists of the alcoholic medic, Major Knox (Stephen Spinella) "who never met a bottle he didn't like"; Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) "our personal emissary from the lord"; Private Reich (Neal McDonough) "he's our soldier" - cut to a shot of Reich "steeling" himself in a freezing cold river - "I'd stay clear of him"; a couple of Native American (admit it - you thought I'd call them "Indians", didn't you?) caretakers - George and Martha (Joseph Running Fox and Sheila Tousey, respectively); Private Cleaves (David Arquette) - "the over-medicated Private Cleaves" - cue a shot of Cleaves and George sharing a huge pipe of weed. The problem with life at the fort is boredom (Knox, George and Cleaves seem to have the best methods of combatting this) and this is neatly encapsulated by Hart at the dinner table on Boyd's first day: "So, did anybody DO anything today?" Cleaves and George, of course, are reduced to uncontrollable laughter.
The tedium is broken by the arrival of a very hairy half dead Scotsman, FW Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who, after recovering sufficiently, starts proceedings with: "I suppose I owe you gentlemen a story". The story he tells (around a campfire aptly enough) is a terrible one; he was part of a group of six westbound settlers who became trapped by the arrival of winter, and had to seek refuge in a cave. Because of the severe weather, they remained in the cave for three months. Colqhoun says he believes that their guide, Colonel Ives - "a detestable man and a most disastrous guide", had deliberately led the group off the proper trail by claiming to know of a shorter route. After all the food (oxen, horses, belts, shoes, ground roots) had gone they were still famished and while Colqhoun was out collecting wood, the first death from malnourishment occured - "when I got back the others were cooking his legs for dinner" - none of the group could resist any more and although FW says that he "ate sparingly", he then claims that "things got out of hand". As the story progresses it becomes apparent that Ives had become addicted to human flesh and couldn't wait for the survivors to die naturally before chomping on them; in short he had become a murdering cannibal. Colqhoun says that he took the first chance to escape, leaving behind Ives and the wife of one of the settlers. Hart immediately orders the soldiers to prepare to march to the cave to rescue the woman. Colqhoun insists on accompanying them to show them the exact location, while Knox, Cleaves and Martha are left behind to man the fort.
En-route, Boyd asks Colqhoun if he felt different after eating human flesh - "I felt a certain ... virility; why do you ask?" Boyd's reply is interrupted when Toffler takes a tumble down a rocky hill and is injured. He wakes in the middle of the night to be confronted by Colqhoun sucking on his re-opened wounds; Reich wants to kill Colqhoun immediately (unsurprisingly, so does Toffler), but Hart demands an explanation and gets one: "I was having a nightmare!" claims Mr. C. "Please restrain me Colonel, I'm not to be trusted!"(damn right). This is the first hint that Colqhoun is not quite the full shilling, and when they eventually reach the cave he freaks totally, begging Hart and company to keep him well away while they investigate. Hart pulls rank and orders Reich and Boyd ("I need an officer in there") to go in and find out what's going on.
They find a deep pit in which are several expertly butchered, fleshless skeletons, with gnawed bones and other unidentifiable parts scattered around. Reich soon discovers the awful truth - there are five skeletons and a Colonel's uniform - "It's a trap! Colqhoun killed everyone!" Meanwhile, outside the cave, Colqhoun has set to work; killing George, stabbing and leaving for dead Hart, and having his jollies with the quaking Toffler.
After his gun misfires Colqhoun calmly takes off his coat, covers Hart with it and offers Toffler a chance, holding up a bloody knife: "Run!" Toffler does so with a giggling Colqhoun in pursuit, and some pitiful screaming can be heard as Boyd and Reich emerge from the cave, see the damage and give chase. They catch up with Colqhoun near a cliff edge, but he steps out of hiding, whips out a knife and buries it in Reich's chest, who sails over the edge. Boyd fires his rifle and Colqhoun falls flat on his back. Boyd is then peering over the ledge to see where Reich has ended up, when a groan that segues into a positively evil chuckle makes him turn around in time to see the hairy one rising up like Nosferatu. Boyd, with a totally ineffective "stay away from me!" tries to get away (he's used up his one shot), but a combination of some nifty hand-waving mesmerisation by Colqhoun and sheer panic force him to take a chance and jump. These are the daftest scenes in the film. Boyd somehow survives the longest fall from the highest cliff since the halcyon days of Wile E. Coyote, only we don't get the little puff of dust when he hits the ground.
When he finally hits the deck and begins rolling down the slope, who should be right in his path? Reich's corpse and Boyd roll on down into a convenient hole in the ground, where Boyd has to remain for a while because of a broken leg. After surviving a follow-up hunt by Colqhoun, Boyd soon becomes peckish and it isn't long before he grabs a knife and begins to devour Reich. A couple of weeks later Boyd staggers back into Fort Spencer, to the astonishment of Cleaves and co. After Boyd relates the events, General Slauson turns up and proceeds to tell Boyd that absolutely no evidence has been found to back up his claims. He advises Boyd to change his story because there are four missing soldiers and no bodies, and further informs him that an interim commander has been appointed until a permanent replacement can be found for Colonel Hart - Colonel Ives strides in with a cheery "How's the leg?" - Boyd cannot believe it, and collapses to the ground. "It's him sir - Colonel Ives is Colqhoun!"
Well naturally, Slauson runs out of patience with Boyd: "Are you mad?" Boyd convinces the General to make Ives display his shoulder to prove that he shot him, but when Ives reluctantly does so, no bullet wound is visible - the dozy bugger missed completely! This puts the seal on it; "Boyd gone loco" suggests Cleaves. Cleaves and Martha were away picking up supplies, and Knox was out cold when Colqhoun/Ives made his first appearance, so none of them know what he looks like. Boyd spends every waking hour watching Ives like a hawk, and he finally confronts him when they are alone for the first time. Ives tells Boyd that he found Reich's body: "You didn't finish! Well, I can't blame you - he was tough, but then a good soldier ought to be". After some more ill-natured banter (during which, in the background, the whinnying of horses can be heard), Boyd slashes at Ives with a knife and is about to finish the job, when Martha intervenes: "He die, you die". This is all too much for Major Knox, who has taken a liking to Ives, and he immediately puts Boyd under arrest. While Knox is treating Ives' wound, he orders Martha to find Cleaves. This she does - the trouble is he's dead along with the horses. Boyd is blamed and given a beating for his trouble and put in chains.
Martha is sent to fetch General Slauson (two days ride away) so Boyd can be taken to a military prison. Ives then kills Knox for use in a stew he is preparing, but really Knox has only himself to blame for this by asking if he could help with the cooking - "No, no. I'm sure you can contribute later", replies Ives. As he is preparing to butcher the body Colonel Hart makes a reappearance - "Hello Boyd!" - "You killed Cleaves and the horses. What happened to you?", asks Boyd. Hart nods in agreement and explains that he thought he was certain to die, but when he came round Ives was feeding him back to health with a special diet - "I feel terrific".
Boyd then asks if he is to be killed - "No! - I like you Boyd. We want to bring you into the fold. It's lonely being a cannibal - it's tough making friends". Ives then takes Boyd outside for a lecture on the virtues of cannibalism, and tells him that he wants Boyd to join the happy pair: "After all, you're already one of us - well almost." Boyd refuses and is stabbed in the kidney by Ives: "Well then, you die. Don't worry - it's not fatal. Not if you take the neccessary precautions". It's time to eat - Hart sits down with his bowl of Knox-stew: "Isn't this civilised?" - a shot of Boyd coughing a jet of blood, and looks of disgust at Boyd's table-manners from our two resident cannibals. Ives spells it out: "It's your decision, Boyd. Famine or feast, live or die." This couldn't be easier to translate - the eating of human flesh cures anything, including stab wounds to the kidneys, broken legs and, according to Ives: "tuberculosis, depression, black thoughts, suicidal ambition - I was in pretty horrible shape". Boyd gives in and is soon gobbling it down. The next morning, Boyd has recovered but he knows what he has to do. It's obvious that Hart's heart (ouch) isn't really in this cannibalism lark, and when he and Boyd are alone together he tries to justify it with: "You have to kill! You have to kill to live! All you have to do is kill!" Boyd eventually wears him down, persuading him to unlock his chains and give him a knife. Hart agrees but asks Boyd for a last favour - "You have to kill me, I can't live like this any longer". Boyd complies by slashing open his throat and then walks out in search of Ives and the high-noon showdown.
This final battle is something else; it's a cross between Straw Dogs and Halloween - constant comebacks from beatings, stabbings, slashings, hackings and even a head-butting contest (hardy buggers, these cannibals - it just goes to show the benefits of a meat based diet). Lumps of wood, pitchforks, cleavers, knives and a fiendish looking, huge man-trap are all employed in a fight to the finish.
Ravenous is a weird mix of Native American legend (you know the one - you take in the strength of who you eat), the Donner party tragedy and the story of Sawney Bean. Sawney was the head of a family of 17th century Scottish cannibals who resided in a warren of caves, did a spot of interbreeding and abducted, killed, butchered and pickled any unwary travellers 'round those parts of wildest Scotland. Such were the clan's numbers that they were able to waylay whole coachloads of folk - just imagine the shock of the poor coachdriver and his unfortunate passengers - surrounded by a mob of incredibly hairy-scary cannibals whose breath must have been capable of felling a rhino. In this day and age refunds would be demanded and strongly worded letters sent. Poor old Sawney and family were eventually hunted down and horrifically tortured before merciful release came in the form of being hung, drawn and quartered.
Ms. Bird's direction is much better than I expected - even more so when you consider she was drafted in at a very late stage - the original director either jumped ship or was shoved overboard. Her previous films, the crap Brit version of Reservoir Dogs - Face and the semi-crap Priest, did not prepare me for this assault on the senses. It's in your face and rubs your nose right in it, but at the same time is very funny. The fact that she was working off a superb script by Ted Griffin helps matters enormously - it's very gory, quasi-philosophical (no, keep reading!) and is full of sly digs at the voracious expansion of the USA: "spreading out it's arms and consuming all it can" (much like yer average cannibal really), and possesses a black, twisted sense of humour; Silence of the Lambs it ain't. There are so many one-liners and throwaway jokes that it would be pointless for me to start quoting them, otherwise I'll be here all day (besides which, I'm a lazy sod), and as such it bears repeated viewing. I have to say though, that Carlyle's mini-monologue on "manifest destiny" is brilliantly written and delivered. The performances of the three leads are of a uniformly excellent standard. Guy Pearce plays a difficult role very well. He has to appear almost catatonic because of his battlefield trauma, and this he does while at the same time fighting his increasingly ferocious urges. Jeffrey Jones is wonderful as the world-weary Colonel Hart. He gives the distinct impression that he would much rather be anywhere other than Fort Spencer. He gets to deliver some choice dialogue, such as when the rescue party are about to set off and Major Knox can be heard puking his liquid breakfast up: "too much bourbon in his bourbon". The star of the show is undoubtedly Robert Carlyle. It's a great performance; funny, savage and barking-barmy - those little dark eyes convey wild humour and downright evil at the same time. The rest of the cast are not just there as make-weights; they are all allowed to interpret their well written parts as they see fit. A lot of people don't care for Mr. Arquette, but I think he does OK as the peyote and loco-weed addled Cleaves. The movie was filmed on location in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and if you didn't know that fact, there would be little doubt in your mind that you were looking at California in winter. The opening battle scenes were filmed in Durango, Mexico.
The production design is almost faultless. Fort Spencer ("inherited" from the Spaniards) itself looks like it was simply thrown together and left to rack and ruin; it's a series of jerry-built shacks in the middle of a hostile environment. The uniforms and weaponry look very authentic. I know next to nothing about guns, but the large cumbersome revolvers and the inaccurate one-shot rifles must be pretty close to how they would have looked and handled in those days. The tin lid on all of this is a fab music score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman. I'm not a fan of Albarn's band, BLUR, but he and Nyman have come up with some very atmospheric stuff. At various times it's creepy, spooky and almost knockabout when required (a sort of Deliverance-style banjo and some whoopin' an' a hollerin'), but above all it complements whatever is happening. It's especially effective during the scenes in the cave, the telling of Colqhoun's tale and the brutally violent climactic fight.
To sum up then, Ravenous is one of recent moviedom's most perverse and bizarre experiences; it's juicy stuff, a dark cartoon veering from gross-out horror and wince-inducing violence to laugh out loud comedy, sometimes all of these at once. It somehow slipped through the net in cinemas, probably due to a combination of poor marketing, dodgy subject-matter and sheer eccentricity. It's got plenty of plot holes, the major one being why wasn't Colqhoun killed as soon as it was apparent that he could not rid himself of his nasty habit? George knows all about "Windego" and the fact that once you've had a chew there's no turning back, so why didn't he kill him? Toffler also has a good opportunity to shoot the mad jock, but what the hell - these and other faults are easily overlooked when you're enjoying yourself. If you're a fan of horror that is far removed from the usual (and boring) "set-em-up-and-hack-em-down" fare and contains some imagination, intelligence and humour; then enjoy it you will. If you're feeling in the mood for a tad of harmless sadism, then watch Ravenous in the company of a couple of devout vegetarians and chortle as their faces go even paler than usual - much jollity to be had. One more thing; the end credits name one of the on-set caterers as Tim De'ath.