Directed by Antonia Bird
Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, David Arquette, John Spencer, Stephen Spinella, Jeremy Davies, Neal McDonough.
1999 103 minutes
Rated: (for violence and extreme gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 20, 1999.
"Ravenous," the new horror film directed by Antonia Bird (1995's "Priest," "Mad Love"), is one of the most unsettling motion pictures I have seen. Although far from perfect, when the end credits began to roll, I physically felt sick in my stomach, not to mention surprisingly disturbed, at what I had just watched. Rarely does this ever happen, at least to me, anyway.
Set during the Mexican-American War and obviously obtaining much of its story ideas from the true account of the infamous Donner party, the film begins as Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) has sat down to eat with his comrades and, thinking back to his horrific experiences previously in the war (mistaken as a dead body, he was buried under the blood-drenched remains of his fellow soldiers), he runs out to throw up after witnessing everyone around him eating rare, very rare, meat. Immediately afterwards, Boyd is sent to stay at an outpost in the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains, where he meets a wide array of eccentrics: the commanding officer, Hart (Jeffrey Jones); Cleaves (David Arquette), the goofy, drug-addled cook; and Toffler (Jeremy Davies), a religious, young recruit, among others. Just as Boyd is starting to become acquainted with his new surroundings, everything ultimately changes when they come across a mysterious and bearded, nearly frozen man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who tells them of the pioneers he had been with who became stranded in a cave when winter arrived and, when worse finally came to worse, they ended up murdering and eating each other for food. Colqhoun claims he is the only one to have escaped the clutches of the maddest man there, Ives, so all of the men trek back to the cave to investigate the goings-on there.
Although this is only the basic set-up, it's decidedly best not to give away any more of the plot developments since "Ravenous" is a film that wins many of its brownie points for the high quotient of surprises that proceed this opening. Not only that, but "Ravenous" is a true example of a film that stands as a perfect moniker for the saying, "style over substance." There wasn't a second to be had that I wasn't completely impressed by the film's technical areas, many of which added to the fact that this is certainly one of the more frightening films to come along in some time (certainly more effective, overall, than the recent teen slasher movies we have recently been bombarded with). Scene after scene arrived from the half-hour point on that was almost nerve-rattlingly suspenseful, thanks, in part, to the bravura, remarkably eerie and complex music score composed by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn. Even though it is only March, there is no doubt in my mind that this score will go down as one of the five best of the year, and it would be criminal for the Academy to overlook it. Also adding to the picture's potency is the chilly, atmospheric cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond, and the tight, captivating editing by Neil Farrell.
So far, however, the main elements that the film brings up have not been discussed, and that includes the overwhelming themes of cannibalism, which then can easily be linked to vampirism. If "Ravenous" had not dealt with this idea is a straightforward manner, it, no doubt, would have ended up seeming like a cop-out. Instead, the film is filled with extreme violence and unimaginable gore, even for an R-rating, and it should be stressed that those people who are easily grossed-out should not, under any circumstances, torture themselves with this film. Even I, who almost always remains unaffected by the visceral experience of a film, found myself often shrinking down in my seat, afraid to see what was going to happen next, but not daring to take my eyes off the screen, either.
The cast in "Ravenous" is filled with an equal measure of those actors who are recognizable and those that are less so. The supporting characters, headed by Arquette and Davies, are highly underused and have very little to work with, but they do their jobs professionally and disappear rather (and unpredictably) quickly. The main characters fare better and are more memorable, as Pearce, following his role in 1997's "L.A. Confidential," stands as a sympathetic, if not purely "good," protagonist, while Carlyle (1997's "The Full Monty") comes off as one of the more believably nasty and despicable villains to grace the silver screen in a while. Meanwhile, Jones, an underused actor who has one classic performance to his name, in 1986's "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," is thankfully handed a rare meaty role to sink his teeth into (pardon the pun).
All of the technical expertise and professional performers, not to mention director Bird, who obviously understands how to make a powerful genre piece, work together to make "Ravenous" a stirring experience that will not easily be forgotten. Sure, the film feels like more of an exercise in terror (with noticeably dark, pitch-black humor) than a three-dimensional movie, but why should that be a problem? With all things considered, "Ravenous" is definitely worthy of being looked upon as the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" of the '90s.
©1999 by Dustin Putman