Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ravenous

I auditioned for a play in college with a speech from this movie. Needless to say, I didn't get the part. Soliloquies about the joys of cannibalism probably aren't what theatre directors look for from potential actors.

Ravenous (1999) is a hard movie to classify but not a hard one to enjoy. Set at an Army Outpost in the 1840s Sierra Nevada's, Ravenous incorporates cannibalism, slashers, vampire tropes, and the Manifest Destiny to create a film as funny as it ghastly. Director Antonia Bird blends several familiar story elements to craft a rather unique and gory film that is a horror thriller, dark comedy, and period piece.

Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a "hero" of the Mexican-American War, is assigned to Fort Spencer, an isolated, bottom-of-the-rung winter outpost in the mountains. Under the command of Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), the unit includes perpetually stoned Cleaves (David Arquette), a drunk major, two Indians ("They came with the place."), a gung-ho brute and a wimpy religious type. Things are tedious but quiet, until the arrival of Calhoun (Robert Carlyle). Calhoun, near death and ragged, relates how his group became lost in the wilderness during a blizzard and resorted to eating each other when they ran out of food. When he reveals there may be survivors still in danger, Hart leads a party to the cave Calhoun says they last were. But what they find, they're completely unprepared for.

The film's tone is apparent right from the opening with a quote by Nietzsche about how he who fights with monsters must look to himself lest he becomes one. That is immediately followed by a quote from Anonymous: "Eat me." Soon, the American flag fills the screen as corny patriotic music plays in the background.

Bird uses the cannibalism angle to reflect the history of American conquest. In this film, those who eat another man's flesh absorb his strength and spirit and gain virility and increased stamina. However, the more a cannibal eats, the more he desires and the more insane he becomes to satiate his hunger. This Wendigo legend is explained by the Indians, which makes sense. The Native Americans witnessed their land and lifestyle get devoured by settlers, who always took more and more land. Also, the Mexican-American War was a conflict which saw the United States absorb a significant part of Mexico. Later in the film, the main villain outlines his plans to feed off of travelers passing through the fort on their way to California for the Gold Rush, fulfilling Manifest Destiny, the dream of a coast-to-coast America. The country is already consuming all it can, and as the villain says, "We merely follow."

Ravenous can be split in half. The first half applies to the summary above. It's a wonky comedy with some chilling moments and moves at a fast pace. Except for Boyd, every character is something of a loon, and much of the humor comes from the world-weary but amiable Hart's comments ("Knox used to be a veterinarian, so he plays doctor. My advice is don't get sick."). It's also unpredictable, and it comes to a head when one character reveals his true nature at the cave. The second half gets a little darker after more of the fun characters are killed off, and the pace flags a little bit as Boyd falls into a "boy who cried wolf" subplot while the cannibals take over Fort Spencer. Still, I like the touch of the villains getting slicker at this stage, covering up their savage nature with fancier clothing and slicked back hair and drinking wine, sort of like how textbooks clean up unsavory aspects of American history. The humor is used for foreshadowing and dark irony more so in this half. Knox, unaware he's addressing the cannibal, asks if he needs help making a stew, and the villain replies darkly, "Perhaps later you can contribute."

The movie is bloody and gory, and the atmosphere feels suitably grimy and cold. Brian J. Wright of Cavalcade of Schlock noted the blood here feels more tangible than in other movies, really sticky and thick, and I agree. Perhaps the most disgusting moment is the opening feast where a group of officers eat some rather undercooked steak while Boyd thinks about his war experience (I should note both Bird and Pearce are vegetarians). I should also give props to the music by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman. Like the movie, it's unconventional, incorporating a more Western style of music in place of traditional horror stock. It contrasts nicely with the dark material as when Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) gets chased, and the music kicks into this zinger that feels like a cross between Deliverance and The Beverly Hillbillies. But the music gets intense when it needs to, such as the search in the cave.

Ravenous is a lot of things, and rather than canceling each other, it somehow works. It's well made and well acted (particularly by Jones and Carlyle), and it's unconventional. The following line of dialogue should determine whether it's suitable for your taste:

"It's lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends."

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