Monday, September 12, 2011

Ravenous (1999)

When your dinner walks, talks and breathes

The studio didn't give this the promotion it deserved back in the day. I remember seeing a preview early on by my guess to test the waters, but then some time later this passed by theaters without even warming the seats. Needless to say I caught this on a rental, and thought it was an effective film that got lost in the shuffle due to not having an established movement to back it up. It also might be that it didn't come with powerful filmmaking names. This was only the second film made in the US by the director--who had to take over after another dropped out--apart from a dominating list of TV projects in the UK. It also comes from a first time scriptwriter. The lead, Guy Pearce, didn't have impacting star power at that point for American audiences. Then it was shot in Europe about a time period in the U.S. that usually comes as either a western, adventure or period drama. It seemed like people--promoters included--weren't taking a chance with this irregular film at first. Though what makes "Ravenous" worthwhile after the fact, is it wasn't trying to fit into horror or even the time period it focused on. It was a somewhat unique film that dodged what you'd expect.

A Lieutenant named John Boyd (Guy Pearce) during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s pretends to be a goner while his men are dying left and right. Despite at first being a traitor, something awakes in him when he gets the taste of blood and he gets the courage to capture the enemy command. He's promoted to Captain but his superior is still disgusted at his initial cowardice and sends him to a place called Fort Spencer in California. There are seven others of various abilities to accommodate travelers passing through. Boyd doesn't quite fit in as he's quiet and contemplative about the traumatic war experience that originally caused him to freeze in his tracks and then afterwards rear at the sight of blood. A man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) suddenly arrived in bad shape with a story to tell about a previous adventure gone wrong that involves six laid up in a cave during a run of bad weather and it resulting in cannibalism for lack of anything else to eat--shoes and belts included. They form a party to go investigate, but not before George, the native American, explaining about the Weendigo (Wendigo): a myth that when resorting to cannibalism, a person can gain another's strength and spirit, only to become even more hungry--or ravenous.

People turn into something else, traps are in place and Boyd has to make a decision to muster up more courage to beat the tempting desire to feed and a competitive force out to consume more flesh on people's backs. With less dialogue and outward personality, Boyd seems to be a character that the filmmakers speak through with morality to put in perspective all the conquering people around him. What's effective here is he can be viewed as either weak or strong depending on where your perspective lays. Since he's always bloodied or bruised up, he can be seen as a martyr that stands up for a cause--or even a weakling that's unable to adapt and conform to a new situation. It's left in the eye of the beholder. He's playing a mental chess match with a madman who is willing to do what it takes to feed an enormous appetite that never ceases. That's the other character in the equation that seems to mirror not what's necessarily happening in the 1800s but rather how far we've taken our drive since. Not to mention our search for easy solutions at the expense of others. That need-for-more message is delivered a little more subtly than turning it into a let's-all-get-along experience. The film can be point blank at times. There are some bloody scenes, though it doesn't always go for broke to put the grizzly subject matter in the audience's face. Shocking, but not to the point of going for superficial sensations to miss out on the contemplative portions. This has a strangely humorous environment in that it's not always laugh out loud as it's just a satirical play on situations that could have been otherwise stiff, grim or gray. Some of the characters carry a more serious tone, while others provide direct amusement or even deadpan humor that gives it a somewhat black comedic taste.

Sometimes this has off-beat, somewhat abstract music that partially carries a tone of the times but in a much more tainted way that would still seem alien to someone in the 19th century. Occasionally it can be loud, to imperceptive in volume or even missing for awhile altogether to let the visuals and dialogue take a turn. It makes it that much more harder to pin down, with anticipation of what will be played next with its unguessable sounds that are a foreign matter on the first passing. The sets and outdoors look like the Americas despite being filmed in Czech Republic. Nature is captured as well as the harsher times of the 19th century without looking too polished and with formal actors in unfamiliar situations. The subject matter is handled rather effectively in that it flows from one transition to the next without jumping into the proceeding portion of the story too quickly. This is a thriller at heart, but it still moves at a steady pace to get a feel for the situation and surroundings. It makes it feel less inevitable than other films like all the revised slashers at that time from "Scream" to "Urban Legend," which fortunately makes it dodge being formulaic, though it still comes with some irony to give it that horrific touch in the face of morbid curiosity.

Rating: 9/10

Director: Antonia Bird (Priest, Face)
Stars: Guy Pearce, Jeffrey Jones, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Neal McDonough
Link: IMDB, history of a Wendigo

Historical questions from the Black and Red (Answers below, don't cheat!):

1. In which state did the Oregon Trail begin?
2. What were the people nicknamed in the California Gold Rush?
3. Between what years did the Mexican-American War last from?
4. What was the name of the party in the 1840s that participated in cannibalism on their way to California?


1. Missouri 2. Forty-niners 3. 1846-1848 4. Donner Party

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