Retro Review: Ravenous

"You are who you eat."

Ravenous (1999)
Directed by Antonia Bird
Written by Ted Griffin

Zombies, vampires, werewolves, and masked lunatics have long been the bread and butter of the horror genre. We’ve all been subjected to countless films starring these monsters and seen their myths approached and explored from just about every discernible angle. Though they’re regarded as the standard go-to villains for many a modern horror film, most of these creatures can trace their origins back to folk tales. So it’s no surprise that when a filmmaker wants to come up with something a bit more unique than the average horror fare, he or she is wont to delve into cultural myth for inspiration. Folk tales, regardless of their country of origin, contain an almost infinite bonanza of mysterious and terrible creatures that have yet to get their silver screen due: the Glawackus, the Mare, the Draugen, the Golem, and – one of my personal favorites – the Wendigo.

According to the old Algonquian story, the Wendigo is a malevolent, cannibalistic creature which can possess a human, bringing about the urge to eat flesh. It is also said the mere touch of the monster will turn you into a cannibal. In certain tales, the Wendigo may also take the form of a cursed spirit, something a witch visits upon a victim because they resorted to cannibalism rather than starving.

Set in 1847, during the Mexican-American War, Ravenous stars Guy Pearce (Memento) as the weak-willed and altogether unlikable Captain John Boyd. Boyd is a supposed war hero whose act of cowardice in battle was mistakenly perceived as one of bravery. As a reward he’s “promoted” to an isolated outpost in the Sierra Nevadas manned by a colorful cast of characters including the always entertaining Jeffrey Jones (Beetlejuice, Ed Wood) as Colonel Hart and a stoned-to-the-gills David Arquette (Scream series) as Private Cleaves. Not long after Boyd’s arrival, a half-dead stranger, portrayed by Robert Carlyle (28 Weeks Later), wanders into the camp and a darkly humorous tale of cannibalistic terror begins to unfold, the origins of which may lie with the fabled Wendigo.

Guy Pearce has never been one of my favorite leading men, but there’s no argument that he’s a gifted actor. His talents are plainly evident in the way he makes Boyd so annoyingly lukewarm and easy to hate. Robert Carlyle’s turn as Colonel Ives is an incredibly chilling performance and one that deserves a landslide of recognition. Ives is one of the best villains I’ve seen brought to the screen in a long time.

Ravenous’ strength lies ultimately in its unpredictability. The film has an underlying tone of dark humor, but director Antonia Bird manages to combine this aspect with a tension that never seems to dissipate. The score, composed by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, received a fair amount of praise upon its release and it does a fine job of enhancing the film, albeit in a strange way. Most of the music sounds almost lighthearted, but at the very same time ominous, as if it is being performed with very primitive, de-tuned instruments.

Ravenous culminates in a spectacularly gory finish that the majority of viewers won’t anticipate. In fact, nothing about this movie is predictable, or standard. If you need a break from shaky, handheld video footage, or yet another heavy-petting vampire flick, Ravenous will provide you a breath of fresh air – air that, unfortunately, may also smell a bit like raw meat being turned over a fire deep in some dark mountain pass.

4 Knives

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