Written by: Ralph Wooster
Directed by: Antonia Bird
Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones
You’re sitting on a stoop as a gorgeous woman walks past. You look her over, lick your lips and think, mmm …protein.
What is it exactly we humans find so abhorrent about cannibalism? So foreign to our thinking? Consider the little cut marks archaeologists find on people’s bones. The dead tell no lies, human beings have been consuming each other with great consistency throughout history, and yet it’s one of our greatest taboos, a hard-wired revulsion embedded deep within us. Thou shalt not eat thy neighbor.
The Aztecs and Carthaginians did it. The Korowai tribe of Southeastern Papua still do. Look up the true story of Moby Dick or the much more recent Andes flight disaster in 1972, dramatized by the movie, Alive (1993). Not to mention, the many startling examples of lone cannibals out there like Jeffrey Dahmer.
However, regarding cannibalism, the most iconic example has to be that of the Donner Party and their ill-fated 1846 journey over the Sierra Nevadas. It’s that Little House on the Prairie image of the Ingalls gnawing each other to the bone. Last man standing, a filthy, emaciated Charles Ingalls crouches down, growling like a dog as he chews the last bits off Laura’s left femur. It just doesn’t get much worse (or better, depending upon your point of view) than that. That’s real horror. Something you can really sink your teeth into.
The 1999 movie Ravenous tells a tale inspired by the Donner Party incident. The Setting is Fort Spencer of the Sierra Nevadas, a miserable backwater post. It’s a place the U.S. Army transfers those it would rather forget. Captain John Boyd (Guy Pierce) is one such embarrassment, who, though honored for his bravery in the Mexican-American War, is in fact a craven coward. Fort Spencer’s less than formidable commanding officer, Colonel Hart, is played by the memorable Jeffrey Jones.
The chemistry of characters playing off each other in this movie is really quite extraordinary. In fact, casting is one of Ravenous‘ greatest strengths. Every actor is a hand in glove fit for their part. So much so that I can’t possibly imagine any others playing these roles than those that did.
For me though, The real standout here is the antagonist, Colonel Ives/F.W. Calqhoun played by Robert Carlyle. If Count Dracula and Elizabeth Donner hooked up and cranked out a love child, it would be Colonel Ives/F.W. Calqhoun. Carlyle was born to play this part. Pay particular attention to his dead soulless eyes and what he does with those hands. Brilliant acting, deliciously so, as were all the actors throughout this movie.
The most notable aspect of Ravenous, more so than anything else, is its superb, original, off-the-wall soundtrack written and performed by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman. A kind of psychotic post-modern folk with distorted, sometimes off-key instruments supported by the lushness of a full symphony orchestra. It borders on surreal. As I watched, the music evoked a kind of playful irony in me that infused the horror with a dark but subtle humor.
No movie is perfect and that includes Ravenous. It suffers from a kind of bi-polar seasonal disorder. It can’t quite make up its mind if it’s winter outside or spring. Very distracting. The reason for this was because most of the interior shots were done in studio and by the time the crew arrived in Slovakia to shoot the exteriors, an early spring had sprung. Mother nature was less than cooperative and from what was said, neither was the production company.
Apparently, micromanagement by Fox executives had became so bad, the original director, Milcho Manchevski quit after just three weeks. Fox brought in a second director but the cast rejected him. Finally, on a moments notice, the veteran British director Antonia Bird was flown in to inherit the nightmare. She was just who was needed to sort it all out and save the picture. Without Bird, it’s possible Ravenous would never have been completed and certain that the finished product wouldn’t have been as good as it is.
Ravenous is like a particularly fine stew where all the ingredients intermingle (story, acting, music, and cinematography), each supporting the other in a complex layered harmony. Together, cooked to perfection, they culminate in a unique and delightful concoction to piqué the senses while satiating that ravenous hunger for something dark and totally twisted. Bon Appétit.
Rating: 4.5 of 5