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 smartest 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 you 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.
Best 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.