It is no wonder that in 1999 Antonia Bird’s bloody horror-comedy “Ravenous” would be somewhat lost amongst the cinematic landscape. This was certainly a year of big budget inventiveness and despite opening on over 1,000 screens, “Ravenous” would only go on to gross a fraction of its $12 million budget. But it has received some following of late, and for good cause. It is an often-overlooked addition to what, at the time, was a burgeoning genre of horror-comedy. The “Scream” franchise had begun only three years prior with a sequel following soon after. Though, where Craven’s franchise parodies the trappings of its slasher film predecessors, the gallows humor of “Ravenous” is very thoughtfully derived from its circumstances and accentuated by a masterful score by composer Michael Nyman and Gorillaz co-founder Damon Albarn.
The movie takes place during the Mexican-American War, with John Boyd (Guy Pearce) being promoted to captain, receiving commendation for capturing an enemy post single-handedly, though under less than honorable circumstances. Because of this, he is moved to the ignoble Fort Spencer. He is introduced to a group of soldiers in rapid succession, all possessing a single defining eccentricity. A haggard and disheveled man named F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives at the doorstep of the camp in search of aid and from here, the film takes little time in presenting its cannibalistic premise and devolves into a grotesque series of murders and subsequent feedings.
The film is an amalgamation of sorts. It contains elements of supernatural, survival, slasher, and B-movie horror, all while maintaining a pretty thick coating of irony. The lack of focus on subgenre plays into the film’s extremely erratic pace and tone, with the latter having greater success than the former. The storytelling seems very rushed and as Boyd moves from his commendation dinner to his demeritorious position at Fort Spencer, and from here to the wilderness and back again, we are never given great insight into the character. We see events in flashback and receive information of the Captain’s nature and proclivities from the supporting cast, but we are never given great insight into Boyd by his actions and thoughts alone. Similarly, the film does not exceptionally establish a sense of place, which if accomplished could have played well into the intended horror.
The tonal shifts of the film though actually work wonderfully and are almost always caused by the schizophrenic score of Nyman and Albarn. As the soldiers embark into the wild in search of a cave-dwelling cannibal, the music conveys a cautious but adventuresome quality, more obviously befitting a much less macabre ordeal. After the eating of corpse in the middle of the film, there is an almost uplifting swell of accordion, banjo, and violin. The music undercuts scenes like these wonderfully and with a sort of giddiness and enthusiasm that plays so well into the film’s dark humor. It’s almost as if the composers saw an outline of the film that contained no reference to murder, cannibalism, or gore and made a soundtrack to that.
There are indeed numerous foibles in “Ravenous,” though many can be easily overlooked. The costumes seem too affected to be mid-19th century garb, possessing an abundance of polish and color. The setting is often overly cluttered in a manner that does not impose any real sort of depth or meaning onto its characters or environment. And its overabundance of elliptical edits occasionally gives way to errors in continuity. But for all these missteps, the film handles its subject matter with an originality and wit that is not easily forgotten. It possesses an exceptional supporting cast and while their characters echo Boyd’s lack of real definition, this actually serves more as homage to the one-note nature of these types found in B-movies and does not denote a lack of effort on behalf of the screenwriter. “Ravenous” revels in its own gruesomeness and possesses such a charming self-awareness that to discount it as schlocky or base is a disservice to how clever and fun this movie about cannibalism really is.
March 19, 1999
1 hr. 40 min.
Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle Jeffrey Jones, David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Neal McDonough