Sometimes, a major stu­dio will amaze you by mak­ing a film that is deeply non­com­mer­cial.  Consider the case of Ravenous: it’s a nice­ly bud­get­ed and slick pro­duc­tion from 20th Century Fox about can­ni­bal­ism.  If that wasn’t non­com­mer­cial enough on its own, the film also nav­i­gates a tricky mid­dle ground between grue­some hor­ror and satir­i­cal black com­e­dy that fur­ther dilutes its abil­i­ty to be a saleable com­mer­cial pro­duct.  That said, commercialism’s loss is the hor­ror fan’s gain here, as Ravenous is one of the best and Ravenous-possmartest hor­ror films to emerge from the ‘90s.

The film is set in the mid-1800’s.  Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is haunt­ed by the way he faked death to escape being killed on a bat­tle­field.  Ironically, this allows him to cap­ture a base behind ene­my lines — but the mil­i­tary brass know of his secret cow­ardice so he is “pro­mot­ed” by being sent to an obscure moun­tain­side fort in California under the com­mand of Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones).  It’s home to a group of mis­fit sol­diers who are con­tent to idle the time away.

However, this bore­dom is soon dis­rupt­ed by the arrival of Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), a half-frozen sur­vivor of a failed group of set­tlers who has a wild tale to tell about dis­as­ter and can­ni­bal­ism.  The sol­diers ven­ture into the moun­tains to inves­ti­gate his tale but nei­ther Colqhoun nor his sto­ry are quite what they seem.  To say any more about the plot would ruin a lot of sur­pris­es — but it’s safe to say that what fol­lows mix­es dark hor­ror ele­ments with even dark­er com­e­dy.

If yRavenous-01ou can tune into its eccen­tric com­bi­na­tion of hor­ror and satire, Ravenous is a dis­tinc­tive and reward­ing film.  Ted Griffin’s script is full of sur­pris­es and uses mor­dant humor to off­set its mor­bid ele­ments.  Better yet, it smart­ly uses the can­ni­bal­ism angle to sat­i­rize the con­cept of man­i­fest des­tiny: as the film illus­trates, it con­nects both as being dri­ven by an unholy hunger that can nev­er be sat­is­fied.

Director Antonia Bird nav­i­gates the film’s tricky shifts of tone well, mak­ing the hor­ri­fic moments con­nect in an appro­pri­ate­ly grue­some way but nev­er allow­ing them to over­pow­er the film’s healthy sense of the absurd.  She also gives the film an impres­sive atmos­phere with the cam­er­a­work of Anthony Richmond, who makes great use of moun­tain ranges, and the quirky rock/orchestral/electronic score cooked up by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn.

Ravenous-02Best of all, Bird has a tal­ent­ed ensem­ble of char­ac­ter actors to bring the tale to life.  Pearce and Carlyle form an impres­sive yin-yang bal­ance that anchors the film: Pearce’s per­for­mance is sub­tle and inter­nal, con­vey­ing his character’s inner tor­ment and con­fu­sion in a qui­et way, while Carlyle is a malev­o­lent delight as a man whose dark world view effort­less­ly jus­ti­fies his ter­ri­ble actions.  Jones is impres­sive as a well-mean­ing lead­er who retains human­i­ty and wit no mat­ter how dire the sit­u­a­tion becomes.  There are also fun scene-steal­ing bits by Neal McDonough as a fright­en­ing­ly gung-ho sol­dier, Jeremy Davies as a meek chap­lain (his silent reac­tions are fre­quent­ly hilar­i­ous) and David Arquette as the fron­tier ver­sion of a hip­pie.

In short, Ravenous is one of those defi­ant­ly odd films that was des­tined to be a cult suc­cess rather than a com­mer­cial one — but it’s also smart, styl­ish­ly made, wit­ty and very reward­ing for any view­er will­ing to take on its chal­leng­ing approach.