Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.
A number of months ago, I was a guest on the podcast The Lair of the Unwanted with Jason Soto and Nolahn. We watched the film Parents, a 1950s nostalgia horror/comedy about cannibalism. Near the end of our discussion, when it came time to rate the film, I said that I liked it (I did), but that it wasn’t my favorite film about cannibalism—that would be either Delicatessen or Ravenous. I like Ravenous a lot. I’d forgotten just how much fun I have with this movie until tonight. I mean, I knew I liked it, but I had forgotten all of the particular reasons why I like it.
John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is a decorated war hero, but is one only because of a fluke. During the Mexican-American war, he panicked during a battle and froze on the field, falling to the ground and playing dead. His body was picked up by the Mexicans and carted back to their camp, whereupon Boyd stood up and captured the command post. It’s important here that he says in admitting the story to his superiors that he was under the body of his commanding officer whose blood was dripping into his mouth.
The reason that’s important is that Ravenous is all about the wendigo myth, the Native American (more specifically Algonquian) creature said to inhabit the bodies of those who practice cannibalism. Those who eat the flesh of humans gain the strength of their victims. Anyway, as a “reward” for his bravery, John Boyd is promoted and sent off to Fort Spencer in the ass-end of California. He soon realizes that no one goes to Fort Spencer as a reward. People end up there, usually because they are a problem that won’t otherwise go away.
Not long after his arrival, Fort Spencer gets a grisly new visitor, a near-mad man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who claims to have been part of a wagon train snowed in in the Sierra Nevadas. The expedition, led by a military man named Colonel Ives, was trapped and eventually turned to cannibalism, something that Ives in particular took to with gusto. Colqhoun escaped, leaving Ives and the other lone survivor—a woman—in their cave. Naturally, a group sets out on an expedition to rescue the woman.
Of course, it’s all a trap and Colqhoun is really Ives after all. He attacks and kills almost the entire party including Colonel Hall (Jeffrey Jones), George the native guide (Joseph Runningfox), the religious Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), and the hard core soldier Private Reich (Neal McDonough). In attempting to flee, Boyd is forced to leap off a cliff and ends up breaking his leg. At the end of his tumble, he winds up in a pit with the body of Reich, and there he is left by Colqhoun/Ives. After some time, Boyd succumbs to the need and begins eating his former companion, which heals him quickly and gives him the strength to get back to Fort Spencer. Once there, he discovers that a new man has been put in charge—and of course, it’s Ives. Ives plans to use Fort Spencer as a place to kill off ones and twos coming through, eating them to keep up his newfound strength and vitality, and plans to start by recruiting Boyd to his side and getting rid of everyone else in the fort, namely the constantly stoned Cleaves (David Arquette) and the constantly drunk Knox (Stephen Spinella).
What makes Ravenous work is a number of little things. Robert Carlyle gives a tremendous performance here even if it’s weak during the part right before he begins his killing spree outside of the cave. There’s too much menace in what he does there for the big reveal to really be that much of a reveal. Otherwise, he’s pitch perfect as the guy who is evil and comfortable with what he has done. There are no regrets in Colqhoun/Ives at all, and that’s more or less what makes it work.
Another thing in this film’s favor is the number of truly great horror movie-fun lines, particularly as the film nears its conclusion. For a relatively unknown little film, Ravenous is highly quotable, with one character or another tossing of pithy remarks like, “It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.”
It also has a fantastic soundtrack put together by Damon Albarn of Blur. It maintains an Old West edge with enough modernity to bring it up to current, and despite this film’s age (13 years as of this writing), the music is still fresh and entertaining.
The real sell here is the story, though, and it’s a good one. I imagine that despite the problems this film had initially (Antonia Bird was not the original director), it may well have been really fun to make. The actors, particularly Carlyle, look like they’re having a lot of fun with the premise.
The biggest down note is that there isn’t that much blood and gore, and that’s what many a horror fan is paying for here. There are certainly a few scenes that show some carnage, and the interior of the cave is tremendous, but most of the killings happen just off camera and are implied, if not fully off camera and seen later and briefly. I don’t have a real problem with this, but I imagine that gorehounds will be unsatisfied at the end.
Still, if you don’t mind a little humor spiking your horror, Ravenous is well worth your time.
Why to watch Ravenous: A great telling of the wendigo myth with added snark.
Why not to watch: For the horror maven, there’s not enough blood and gore.