If “Interview With the Vampire” meets “F Troop” sounds like an interesting idea then look no further than “Ravenous”, a period piece horror comedy about cannibalism like no other, set during the Mexican-American War.
Guy Pearce stars as Boyd, a cowardly American army officer who freezes during combat, plays dead and is buried by the enemy under a pile of his commanding officers’ bodies. As their blood pours down over his face and down his throat, he gains strength and courage, crawls out from the pile and single-handedly captures the enemy command post. When the army brass learn of his cowardice on the field of battle, he is exiled to Fort Spencer, a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas (with the Tatra mountains in Slovakia standing in beautifully) manned by a rag-tag skeleton crew of oddballs.
“Ravenous” wastes no time in establishing a tone of incongruity, as the opening credits montage of Boyd’s journey across picturesque snowy landscapes to Fort Spencer is accompanied by a repeating 6-plink, 7-plunk pattern of banjo notes, joined by an accordion and fiddle playing a light, airy dirge, if that makes any sense. It’s the first piece in a score composed by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn that is equal parts creepy and funny. In his favorable review of “Ravenous”, Roger Ebert noted that the music throughout the movie “calls attention to itself (common) but deserves to (rare).”
Soon after Boyd’s arrival, a stranger named Colqhoun (played by Robert Carlyle) stumbles into the fort, nearly dead from exposure, claiming to have escaped from a Donner Party situation, in which the members of his party were trapped in a cave during a prolonged snowstorm and were being cannibalized by their guide, a military man named Colonel Ives. The company’s commanding officer, Colonel Hart (played by Jeffrey Jones), leads an expedition to the cave to find and rescue any other survivors. Before they leave, they are warned by George, the company’s Native American scout (played by Joseph Runningfox), about the myth of the Wendigo, whereby a man who eats the flesh of another steals that man’s strength and gains superhuman recuperative powers, along with an insatiable hunger for more human flesh.
When things start to get weird and gory, the music and scenery oblige. A chase scene through the woods, with a raving, knife-wielding Wendigo’d Colqhoun (who’s also Ives?) running after his next victim/meal, is accompanied by a peppy fiddle/banjo stomp jingle. Boyd escapes Colqhoun’s rampage by jumping off a cliff (the stunt work is phenomenal), rolling down a mountainside and landing in a pit with a broken leg, next to a dead comrade. The stage is set for Boyd’s moral dilemma – he’s had a taste, albeit not intentionally, and knows the choice is to eat or die.
“Ravenous” has fun with Boyd – he spends the entire movie grappling with his shame for being a coward who’s only alive because he has a touch of the Wendigo in him, and much of the movie bleeding and/or in pain. When the army brass arrive at the fort to appoint Colonel Ives as the missing Hart’s successor, we even get to see Boyd dismissed as paranoid and delusional when no one believes his wild Wendigo story about Ives, who apparently did a good job cleaning up the carnage back at the cave. This is right in Guy Pearce’s wheelhouse – he does quiet and slow better than anybody (see, e.g., “Memento”, a few years later), and is a terrific punching bag, so his final act scenes with Ives really pay off.
Carlyle’s Colonel Ives is a quality Lestat-type, eloquently delivering not one but two expository sales pitches to Boyd, equating cannibalism and its many benefits to Manifest Destiny, westward expansion. He posits to Boyd that a remote mountain location like Fort Spencer would be the perfect place for a couple of swell Wendigos like us to carve out an enjoyable and comfortable existence, all you have to do is acquiesce to what you know your true nature is.
This is a studio-backed (20th Century Fox) movie, on which the initial director was replaced early on by Antonia Bird (who had previously directed Carlyle in “Priest”) and the crew worked with daily re-writes. You’d think that disconnect between the people writing the checks and the people shooting the movie would result in something boring, but even its detractors can’t call it that. The weird concoction of elements – discomfiting music, gorgeous scenery, gore, homoeroticism, history, humor – jumbles together into, at the very least, a curiosity more curious than the indie-est of indie movies.
It’s one of those movies where you really can’t say you’ve seen anything like it, either for good reason or as a pleasant surprise. Moviegoers collectively shrugged at it in 1999, but from the first plunk of the banjo it’s easy to see how “Ravenous” has found a dog-whistle audience.