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A Paternity Leave Review of "Ravenous" (1999)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Ravenous is not just one of my favorite horror movies, but an all-time favorite in all genres.  It mixes violence, dark comedy, suspense, drama, and subtle political subtext into this wonderful, bizarre experience.  It's by far the best movie about cannibalism that's ever been made (so far) and I can't recommend it enough.

My Rating: 5 / 5

The Bit Where I Write About Obscurity and Cult Films

Ravenous has always been kind of a missed entry for the Hipster Holy Grail.  It's a movie that got completely overlooked when it was first released back in the '90s and languished in obscurity for the years that followed.  I saw it on video - back when video was still a format you could see it on - and immediately fell in love with it.  I recall recommending it to everybody I met, or even downright forcing them to watch it.

Fast-forward fifteen years and it is a textbook example of a cult film.  Its following has been building slowly, but steadily to the point that it has been blessed with a Blu-Ray re-release and a second (third?) life on streaming services everywhere. In true Hipster fashion, I can proclaim, "I liked it before it was popular!".... except that it's popularity is still relatively small.

It's totally understandable why, although simultaneously frustrating.  Ravenous is the type of horror movie that film nerds love because it defies categorization.  It's one of those genre-bending movies that almost borders on "experimental."  Is it a horror?  Is it a western?  Is it an action thriller?  Is it a historical drama?  Is it a dark comedy?  Is it satire?  Yes to all of the above.

The problem with a movie like this is that since it's so many things at once, the marketing department has no idea how to sell it.  This isn't a matter of cynicism or snobbery - it's not that the movie-going public is too stupid to appreciate it or anything like that.  It's just that nobody seemed to really know what the hell it was until their friends on the Internet started saying, "Trust me.  Just watch it.  It's great."

Ravenous is not a difficult movie to watch, understand, or enjoy - but it still seems to be a hard sell.  Even word of mouth can't seem to do it justice.

Nevertheless... trust me.  Just watch it.  It's great.

The Bit Where I Summarize the Plot

John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is a soldier in 19th-century America.  As the movie opens, he is being lauded for his heroic actions during a recent battle in the Mexican-American War, but after Boyd gives an off-screen confession about the true nature of the battle to his commanding officer, he is re-assigned to Fort Spencer.

Fort Spencer is an isolated, crappy little fort up in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Upon arriving, Boyd reports to his new C.O., Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), who explains that Fort Spencer is basically where all of the army's misfit officers are exiled.  Hart introduces Boyd to all the Fort's other residents: a ragtag collection of seven oddballs who would probably all die immediately if they engaged in actual combat.

Boyd assumes a boring and plain life in the mountains for a few days, but things take a terrible turn one evening when a stranger comes to visit.  Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into the fort, apparently dying of starvation and hypothermia.  The soldiers resuscitate him and nurse him back to health.  While recovering, Colqhoun explains that he was part of a wagon party that was on its way to the west coast to settle when they ran into trouble in the mountains.  Stranded by a harsh winter storm, the party took refuge in a cave and eventually began to starve.  Their leader, a man named Ives, resorted to brutally slaughtering and cannibalizing the survivors, which prompted Colqhoun to flee.

Hart rallies the troops and tells them they have to venture out into the wilderness to find Ives's cave and arrest him.  There are protests, but what can they do?  Fort Spencer is the closest thing to a police department in the area, and there's a chance they may still rescue a survivor.

So the oddballs venture off into the mountains to confront a horrible evil... and then a bunch of spoilers happen.

The Part Where I Openly Discuss (Some) Spoilers

All the stuff I described above happens within the first, oh, 30 minutes or so of the movie.  Most of it is actually about the conflict between Ives and Boyd.

Right around the moment when the soldiers creep up on Ives's cave, Colqhoun starts to freak out.  He makes bizarre, disturbing gestures with his hands and pants like a dog while cringing and generally being weird.  This, combined with some deeply unsettling music, makes for one of the best scenes I've seen in any movie.  It's one of the few movie moments that has stuck with me permanently as a moment of terror.

In retrospect, the big reveal - that Colqhoun actually is Ives, and he was plotting to lead the soldiers out into the wilderness so he could kill and eat them - should not seem to be such a big surprise.  I think the scene got to me not so much because I was shocked on a narrative level, but more on a tonal level.  Up to this point the movie is fairly straightforward.  But once they get to the cave, there's a series of like six or seven plot turns and horror beats that hit you relentlessly until you finally end up with Boyd stuck in a pit and dying of hunger.

It's easily the greatest part of the movie.  I could see some people being let down by the hour or so that follows simply because the entire Ives's Cave sequence is so good.

From here, Boyd is forced to resort to cannibalism - feasting on a corpse that has landed in the pit with him - in order to survive.  When he eventually regains enough strength to make the treacherous journey back to Fort Spencer, he finds that he is overcome with a horrible urge to butcher and eat his fellow soldiers.

When Ives reappears, he does so in full military regalia; as it turns out, Ives is actually a well-respected soldier in the army and is being reassigned to Fort Spencer to clean it up and turn it into a well-oiled machine to support the US's westward expansion.  There's a long sequence where Boyd fruitlessly tries to convince his commanding officers that Ives is a psychotic madman, but of course they don't believe him - this is still a horror movie, after all.

Boyd also learns from one of the Native Americans that works at the fort that he has been possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo; a supernatural force that comes from cannibalism and compels him to murder and eat others.  There is no cure - and it's clear that a Wendigo-possessed Ives is planning something major and terrifying.

With time running out and his hunger growing, Boyd takes desperate steps to stop Ives before it's too late.

The Bit Where I Discuss Hunger

Ravenous is a perennial favorite in my house, and we know from experience that nothing pairs with it quite so well as a steamy, bubbling bowl of home made beef stew.  Especially if it has just snowed outside.

I learned well after the fact that the director, Antonia Bird, was a vegetarian.  (Along with Guy Pearce, who had to vomit after every scene where his character ate meat.)  I'm sure Bird was hoping to bathe every bloody meat dish in dull light to make it look gross and unappealing, but... it didn't work.  I would love some of that Knox Stew.

So why is it that the horrific murders and blood and guts fail to make every chunk of meat repulsive?  I think it just has to do with the fact that the movie does such a good job of portraying hunger.

First of all, you've got the isolated, wintry setting that is Fort Spencer.  There's a foot of snow at all times and a light, chill wind breezing through.  The kind of weather that makes you want to curl up in front of a fire with some booze, some food, and a good book.

Next you've got the scenes where Boyd is literally starving to death: the horrific pit scene where he first digs into a corpse to survive, and the scene toward the end where he attempts (and fails at) a hunger strike.  These are grotesque moments filled with plenty of blood splatter and misery.  The end effect is that seeing Boyd take a bite of human meat ends up as a great relief.

You ever have a day where you wake up and do dishes for an hour, then you go outside to shovel snow off your driveway and your car for another three, and by the time you come inside, you just feel miserable and cranky and tired?  And then you take that first bite of your lunch, and the second the food hits your tongue you feel like your body has instantly converted it to energy and surged it through every extremity of your body?  That's one of the most amazing bodily sensations I can think of - and Ravenous pretty much runs on that the entire time.  No wonder I want that steak so bad.

The resulting irony is that Ravenous, a horrifying visceral experience, is one of the best movies about food I've ever seen.  Ratatouille, Like Water For Chocolate... Ravenous.

The Bit Where I Admire the Subtext

Something I didn't pick up on the first couple of times I saw this movie was all the political commentary on nineteenth-century American imperialism and territorial expansion.  It's pretty much as subtle as subtext gets before you cross the line from "Oh, I never noticed that before" to "Now you're just making shit up." Once somebody points it out, though, you really can't ignore it.

So, for the benefit of those who haven't read about this already: the cannibalism is a metaphor for mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation of Native Americans.  White soldiers are consuming (murdering) Native Americans and absorbing their strength (land) as part of their Manifest Destiny.

It seems a hell of a lot more obvious once somebody tells you.

I don't have a lot to add, necessarily; I just admire movies that take the extra step of having a little more to say than what the narrative lets on, so Ravenous gets a few extra marks from me.

The Part Where I Praise the Music

I touched on this very, very briefly when I gave a shout-out to Ravenous as part of the 2014 Halloween marathon, but this movie has one of the greatest scores I've ever heard.

Composed by Michael Nyman (famous for such films as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) and Damon Albarn (famous for Blur and the Gorillaz), the score is an incredible variety of tunes and tones.  There's an epic, sweeping score that plays when the soldiers march over a mountain, but there's also the folksy and quaint lowkey charm of amateur musicians playing antique instruments when we cut back to the soldiers hanging out at Fort Spencer.  There's the catchy and bizarre main theme that somehow feels like you took a courageous anthem and squished it together with an indie horror about hikers who run afoul of a group of redneck murderers.

The most evocative track might well be the one that plays when they find Ives's cave, but probably the best track is "Manifest Destiny."  It's a great track that mixes multiple layers of conflicting emotions and tensions, as if written specifically to be played in as many genre movies as possible.  Considering where it ended up, it's pretty much perfect.

In Conclusion...

I'm severely disappointed by the contemporary critics of this film, who largely lambasted or just plain ignored it .  Ravenous is a movie that pushes boundaries and tries to do some complex, interesting things.  Even if you don't agree with me that it succeeds, surely you can at least appreciate the construction and thought that went into it.  To gloss over that while giving praise to something like The Blair Witch Project, another horror movie from 1999 that tried out new ideas with, at best, mixed success?  That's just plain foolish.  It's one thing to not like a movie.  It's another to ignore what's actually in the movie.

So, forget whatever critical scores you might have seen.  They're all wrong.  This is definitely a movie you'll want to own.  (Just ignore the shitty Blu-ray cover art.)  It comes with my highest recommendations.