Interestingly enough, all of those are pretty accurate... at least as much as each blind man touching the Elephant! (What? What, too obscure?) It's also been derided by many as complete crap on a stick, unworthy of even a glance through ripped pants.
In truth, Ravenous was about as close to a "hit" as New Coke. Not only was it not the number one movie in its opening weekend... it was number eighteen. During its entire theatrical run it made back less than a fourth of its budget... and that doesn't include the advertising that was pretty considerable. So... a hit? Hell, it was a strike out.
Well, there's no accounting for taste (if you'll pardon the pun). Ravenous, it's true, is not the cream of the crop. However, I'm going on record as saying this is a very underrated movie... and I'm not just saying that because the last five Cannibal flicks I've reviewed sucked ear, either. Ravenous might suffer in the eyes of many because it's completely unapologetic about its subject matter, yet presents itself as a relatively mainstream film in the vein of Dances with Wolves as opposed to The Man from Deep River. Further, for such a repugnant subject director Antonia Bird pulls out a hell of a lot of comedy from the screenplay by Ted Griffin. It's dark comedy, yes, but the very presence may have unnerved many viewers. In its new life on DVD, however, people are laughing.
Guy Pearce is US Army Officer John Boyd, recently promoted to Captain for an ironic and almost accidental "heroic" act during the Mexican/ American war. His superior officer, John Spencer's General Slauson, realizes Boyd is about as courageous as one of those Pac-Man ghosts after it turns blue, so he rewards Boyd with a position at Fort Spencer, way out in the frozen wastes of the Sierra Nevada. John Spencer sends him to Fort Spencer, huh? Ain't dat a co-INKY-dink!
And let me tell you, there probably isn't a quirkier military collective on this or any other planet than the gang of goofs at Fort Spencer. First you've got bossman Colonel Hart, an absent minded philosopher played by Jeffrey Jones, with no Ferris Bueller to torture. Then you've got your local religious freak who kind of looks like Elliott from E.T. in Pvt. Toffler (Jeremy Davies, still nine years away from "Rescuing" the Oceanic Six), followed by the manic guy in Pvt. Cleaves (Screaming David Arquette in a near-walk-on), the Gung-Ho Military psycho in Pvt. Reich (the gay guy from Star Trek: First Contact, Neal McDonough), the drunk-to-the-point-of-anesthesia Major Knox (played by actual gay actor Stephen Spinella) and, for good measure, two Northern Exposure-esque Native Scouts in Joseph Runningfox's George and Sheila Tousey' s Martha.
It all gets weirder when a starving madman staggers into the fort one dismal night with a tale of frostbite and starvation. Our man F. W. Colqhoun (well-played by Robert Carlyle) tells the story of a wagon train led by the mean-spirited Colonel Ives whose "Short Cut" to the Land of Sunshine leaves them all snowblind in a cave worse than a South Jersey apartment. See, this was back in the 1840s, 150 years before the invention of the CLIF bar and still slightly before those Green and White Starbucks signs became ubiquitous. So what are they to do? Eat the Oxen, eat the Horses, eat the Dogs... eat each other.
Yeah, yeah, yeah... suddenly you guys aren't making quite as much fun of my ass for being a Vegetarian.
Colqhoun says he escaped the last of the two other (now murderous) survivors, leaving the question open of whether Ives might still be alive and picking pieces of Mrs. Whats-Her-Name out of his third-molars. So, because the United States Army never goes anywhere unless it's to help people, Hart, Boyd and those other G.I. Schmoes trek out to the wilderness on a mission of Mercy.
Right, so they go into harsh territory in search of Cannibals. The results are predictable. See, the 1840s was also 145 years prior to the release of Cannibal Ferox 2, so they weren't exactly as prepared... or... jaded... as I would be.
The rest of the film is not predictable, however, as the varied legends of the area, coupled with a plan worthy of Lisa Simpson all slide into the forefront for an entertaining second half. The detriment of the second half is that it becomes more of a standard thriller than a rule-breaking development. It is in this section that the varied Wendigo legends start to infuse the film with an oddball motif of the supernatural or, at least, the pseudo-scientific. The idea that Cannibalism does the body good probably isn't causing the National Milk Processor Board to sweat any bullets. The second half's not bad, of course, and it has its share of surprises but it's not brilliant either. Luckily, if you're of the kind of mind that can pick up on the black comedy, it also never ceases to be funny.
Antonia Bird works hard to play up the assets of Ravenous by taking her directorial time and developing characters (most notably Pearce's). She also handles the strange mix of Comedy and Dramatic Horror very well. Never is Ravenous an Animal House-like side-splitter, but its dry wit remains droll and almost disturbingly funny through and through. Further, she's equally adept at handling the quiet moments as she is the action scenes.
The very unconventional score, separately created by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman, is also very worth a listen. The music ranges from the mock-authentic western motif to the near-industrial thud of fear to a strange and eerie choral arrangement combining chants and chilling song sounds that work wonderfully well. Such things have been tried in other films, but rarely to this level of success. Nyman's contribution to this particular sound set was Foster's Social Orchestra while Albarn's included the voice of Milton Quiltman Sahme.
Ravenous never forgets that it's a horror film, even when it revels in the caked on layers of dark humor, drama and war. Carlyle in particular does a great job of the crazy guy who has lived through his share of terrors and is slowly breaking down and possibly becoming a different guy, while that other guy, Guy Pearce, gives a steady and appropriately brave and frightened performance at his side. But with all this going for it it's sad, though hardly surprising, when the film collapses under its own weight. While in no form would I expect that a film like Ravenous would achieve the full five stars, I'm as comfortable as a man going to "Saint Ives" in giving this movie Three Stars out of Five. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a lot of writing left to do. For a change of pace, soon this site will have reviews for Night of the Bloody Apes and Cannibal Holocaust gracing its pages. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, I need some kind of infusion of vigor here to get me out of this rut, don't I?
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