I first discovered Ravenous because I’d rent any movie I could from my local store. In front of one of those whatever-the-fuck films was a trailer for Ravenous. It was weird and atmospheric, and I didn’t get a clear grasp on the tone. But I was enamored. It looked like—even though I was 12—exactly my kinda shit.
When I was finally able to rent it, I was blown away. I had seen a lot of horror movies already, but none quite like this. The setting and the characters made it original, but so did the tone. It had the look of a serious, atmospheric, period-piece, but it was as funny as something like Scream. I was instantly in love.
Ravenous takes place during the Mexican-American War and is about Captain John Boyd, played by Guy Pearce. He gets stationed at Fort Spencer in the Sierra Nevada, a cold, quiet, and boring backwoods outpost. He gets posted there when he admits that an act of bravery, for which he was promoted, was preceded by the less-than-brave act of playing dead among the bodies of his fellow soldiers. So Fort Spencer is his punishment.
Boyd’s an interesting character. He’s clearly ashamed of his so-called cowardice. He gets chewed out by his superior once he admits what he did. But he also accepted a promotion to Captain, so there’s a little bit of weaselly opportunism in him. Boyd is not dissimilar to Edmund Exley, the character Pearce played in LA Confidential, except Boyd is a lot more sympathetic and likable. He’s not an opportunistic suck-up like Exley; he was just in an awful situation and was understandably not as brave as he could be.
I’ve always maintained that one of the best things you can do for your movie is stuff it to the brim with character actors. That’s exactly what Ravenous does. Once Boyd gets to the outpost, we get Jeffrey Jones (Beetlejuice, Howard the Duck), Jeremy Davies (Rescue Dawn, The House That Jack Built), Neal McDonough (Walking Tall, I Know Who Killed Me), Sheila Tousey (Thunderheart, Lord of Illusions), David Arquette (Scream 3, Bone Tomahawk), and Stephen Spinella (Virtuosity, Rubber). That’s a murderer’s row of character actors. Hell, even Pearce has done a lot of his best work as a weirdo lead or an interesting supporting character.
But then Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting, 28 Weeks Later) enters the film and blows them all away.
He appears at the outpost as Colqhuon, a man who is near death from the cold. He tells them a story about his wagon train getting stuck in the snow for months and another man on the journey named Colonel Ives, who eventually resorted to murder and cannibalism. Colqhuon is sad and pathetic, but we sympathize with him like we sympathize with Boyd. He was doing what he had to do to survive.
Being bored idiots, they decide to trudge out to see if the woman traveling with the wagon train is dead. Obviously, things go wrong for them. And Robert Carlyle being Robert Carlyle, it’s no surprise he was actually Colonel Ives and was leading them into an ambush. Boyd manages to survive—after jumping off of a cliff and then eating pieces of a dead guy—and makes it back to Fort Spencer, only to be greeted by his superior officers and Colonel Ives himself. Nobody believes his story. He has a history of lying about this kind of stuff. Everyone still at Fort Spencer was either gone when Colqhuon showed up or too drunk to remember his face.
Ives is both a demonic figure—a devil or a vampire, offering Boyd strength and longevity in exchange for his soul—and a dark reflection of Boyd. He’s smart, confident, even brave in his own twisted way (it takes some balls of steel to walk an entire outpost full of soldiers into the wild to ambush them) and, more importantly, he’s right. Twice Boyd has consumed human flesh and survived in a hopeless situation. But Ives plays with Boyd, teasing him, trying to seduce him, framing him for murder. It’s similar to the Hannibal Lecter/Will Graham relationship in the TV series Hannibal.
Besides the performances and the score—composed by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, it’s sparse, atmospheric, and occasionally silly—the best part of the movie is that it’s really funny. There’s a little bit of slapstick, but most of the humor comes from the satire. Not only does it take a lot of slasher/vampire movie archetypes and plop them down in the middle of a 19th-century setting (there’s a stoner, a religious guy, a jock douchebag, etc.); it also comments on Manifest Destiny in a very cutting way.
There’s a scene late in the film where Ives is trying to tempt Boyd with the promise of thousands of people coming out West, invading a land where they don’t belong, in the hopes of striking it rich. Instead, as Ives suggests, they can just eat them. Sheila Tousey’s character Martha, a native woman who works at the outpost, warns them of the myth of the Wendigo. They don’t believe it or truly understand it. They don’t respect it. Ives is a representation of the Wendigo, a vengeful spirit fighting back against violent colonialism. He’s a way to quite literally chew the colonizers up and spit them out.
It’s a small miracle that Ravenous is as good as it is. The production was a mess, with the original director leaving over creative differences with an interfering studio. The crew rejected the director the studio brought in as a replacement. Luckily for us, Robert Carlyle suggested Antonia Bird, and we ended up with this singularly quirky and immensely entertaining horror film.
It’s the perfect kind of movie to watch in the winter. Hell, you can even put on a stew and have a friend over for dinner. Bon appétit.