Party Like It's 1999: Ravenous
For the next several weeks, we are celebrating films celebrating their 20th anniversary this year that have stuck with us! Find additional entries in the series here.
I remember seeing Ravenous in 1999 at a press screening that was nearly empty. It may have been full at the start—people unprepared for this bloody film likely fled in droves as this darkly funny horror-western unspooled—but I was too mesmerized by what was on screen to notice.
I love films about cannibalism, that cinematic taboo that always seems to be a metaphor for something else. In Ravenous, cannibalism represents power. As the poster boasts, “You are who you eat.” Well, I ate Ravenous up—following the instructions of the anonymous quote at the beginning of the film that reads, “Eat me!”
The pre-title sequence has Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce a year before his Memento breakthrough) being rewarded for his heroism in battle. It is 1847, the middle of the Mexican-American war. However, it was not bravery but, in fact, cowardice that help Capt. Boyd’s career. He feigned being dead only to be dragged behind enemy lines, buried under a pile of bleeding corpses before single-handedly capturing the enemy. For his efforts, he gets a ceremony and a juicy steak dinner. But the just looking at the bloody meal in front of him prompts Capt. Boyd to run and vomit. (As a non-red meat eater, that, to me, is just the most perfect response to a slab of beef on a plate). Cue blood-red opening credits.
Boyd is “punished” with an assignment at Fort Spencer in the Western Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s a place Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones) says, “thrives on tedium.” It doesn’t stay boring for long. When F. W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives, practically frostbitten, he claims to have gone three months without food. But, as he clarifies, that doesn’t mean there was nothing to eat. Carlyle delivers his devilish speech in a way that has his audience (and viewers) eating out of his hand. One can practically see and smell the man Colqhoun describes being cooked in his story.
What a carve up Colqhoun is! No sooner has the stranger recounted being forced by severe and savage hunger to eat a group of people than he starts gutting his chums at the Fort Spencer outpost. Can’t say they weren’t warned. So, of course, when someone asks to help with the stew, they’re soon stewing in their own juices. Turns out—spoiler alert—Colqhoun is a Wendigo, and when he eats another’s flesh, he gains that person’s strength. Moreover, his hunger becomes insatiable. The more he eats, the stronger he becomes.
Ravenous gets stronger as it goes along. There is an intense sequence where the troops head out to the cave Colqhoun described in his story, only to encounter some serious trouble. Boyd is injured during an endless fall (that is especially spectacular on the big screen). Soon the hunter becomes the hunted, and the film becomes a mano a mano battle between Colqhoun and Boyd that features palpable homosexual tension. (One clinch in particular is especially delicious).
Ravenous can also be read as a Christ parable or as a variation of Ten Little Indians. The motif of blood on people’s faces is potent, as are the darkly comic moments, such as my favorite scene, which has the usually muffled Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) being roused from sleep one night by the camp cannibal and exclaiming, “He was licking me!”
The film is also punctuated by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn’s extraordinary score, which is adds considerable flavor to the film, most notably during the tense action sequences.
Twenty years ago, people didn’t know what to make of Ravenous. It pretty much died on release, earning approximately $1,000 per screen in its opening weekend (on 1,040 screens), and was pulled from theatres after an anemic second frame. But I loved it. It left me hungry for more. Perhaps Ravenouswas just ahead of its time. The film still holds up two decades after its initial release.