Retro Review: Ravenous
November. Shorter days, longer nights, and a good dose of New England cold beginning to seep into the bones. Against all this is the allure of Thanksgiving; of families to visit, food to prepare, and good will to be shared. So, cannibalism. Yup.
This month, I’ve decided the best way to celebrate the drawing together of people to feast upon the tasty makings of our dear beloved mother Earth is to look at the darker side of the feast. The tab0o against anthropophagy (fancy for eating your fellow) is widespread, but is also widely reported. It is a favorite bogey man for moralists to regard another people as backwards or primitive, but early man may have only gained dominance by eating our muscular cousins, the neanderthals. Bet they were great with butter and cilantro.
So lets put aside petty issues as to who ate who, and explore some of the cinema which dares to explore the sampling of eating humans: the other, other white meat.
Set during the end of the Mexican-American War (1840’s), Ravenous centers around the military careers of two men, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pierce) and Colonel Ives (Robert Carlyle.) Boyd was a green second lieutenant who came under fire during the bloody conflict, and saved himself by playing dead. Dragged amongst the corpses of his fallen comrades to the enemies encampment, he gets his first taste of human blood as it drips into his mouth, being unable to move or else give himself away as a survivor. Invigorated, he storms the camp and takes it single-handed. He is promoted, but when news of his initial cowardice is reported, he is banished to the lonely outposts of the Sierra Nevada, as a scout.
A traveler named Calqhoun arrives to the outpost and delivers a report of shocking detail: a rogue Colonel Ives led his party astray in the mountains and there caused them to resort to cannibalism in order to survive the treacherous conditions. The fort is roused and a search party is mounted to catch the evil Colonel and to help any survivors. It is soon discovered that Calqhoun is Ives, and has led the men to a similar fate. Boyd only survives by throwing himself from a cliff, injuring himself critically. Again, he hides and is forced to sustain himself by cannibalism. Rather fortunate that he hides by dead bodies so easily, one thinks.
Despite being a cannibal movie, the central premise of this flick is actually the Native American myth of the Wendigo, an oddly specific type of were-wolf. When a man devolves into eating other men, he gains their strength and power, but is forever marked by a ravenous appetite for human flesh. In the myth he often assumes a monstrous, wolf-like appearance, but given the sweet sweet beards on display here, we can assume it’s close enough.
Boyd quickly heals and heads home, but finds that he is seen as a madman and likely coward. A new commander of the fort is dispatched, and lo-and-behold, it’s one Colonel Ives. Lucky coincidence. Or not.
Ives turns the place into an abattoir, murdering the unwilling to feed those who he has converted into flesh hungry servants. Who cook tasty stews patiently. With corn bread. So well mannered flesh hungry servants. With good taste. And corn bread.
Ives stabs Boyd and puts him to the ultimate test: Eat to live. In the creepiest and best sequence of the film, Pierce goes through the gamut of every emotion: revulsion, lust, hatred, fear, and finally acceptance. To a riveting score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, Boyd makes the hard as nails choice to eat stewed human in order to keep up the good fight. If Ives had seen his war record, he’d have given him the corn bread.
Boyd is once again full of piss and vinegar, and manages to escape his bonds and sets about getting his vengeance. And what a vengeance it is. In the final confrontation a great twist is set in motion, and you have to see it to appreciate the devilishness of the final gambit. I won’t wreck it. Not on your tasty tasty life.
How does it taste? The visual beauty of this film is quite wonderful, with scenes of desolate grandeur aplenty. The score is likewise great, with some of the most driving and insinuating horror music I’ve heard since the original Halloween. It really gets under your skin.
The acting is beyond reproach, with great turns by Pierce, Carlyle, and supporting actor Jeffrey Jones. Everyone seems a bit delirious and on the edge, perfect for the atmosphere of hard pressed terror. Even David Arquette is note-worthy here.
As an opening salvo into our look at cannibal cinema, you can hardly do worse than to chew your way through this devious look at morality and no-win situations. Maybe this taboo isn’t so cut and dried, after all. Unless you’re talking human jerky. Then it had better be cut and dried. I hate second rate people-jerky.