There’s a small contingent of the criminally insane who contend the sweetest meat comes from Long Pig, also known as Man. It’s the most dangerous game, I’m told. Cannibalism has always been a taboo subject. While psychiatry and medical science have yet to label the act of consuming one’s own kind a symptom of mental illness, it’s pretty clear there’s something wrong with anybody who’d kill and devour your own species. But, what if it’s taboo because people don’t want to share the power inherent in eating another person? Would you eat up if you knew what it could do? This is the main dilemma, of the many dilemmas, present in the 1999 black-comedy/horror film, Ravenous, a movie that got mixed reviews and reception upon its release but has garnered a cult following in the interim and now has a Blu-ray release.
A famously troubled production, original director Milcho Manchevski was summarily replaced after three weeks of shooting by a Fox 2000 choice, but ultimately that didn’t work out either and star Robert Carlyle recommended (see: demanded) his friend and collaborator Antonia Bird take over, which she ultimately did. Evidently, things were still very touchy between Bird and the studio throughout her time on the film, but it at least got finished. All of this is to say that it’s surprising the film hangs together at all with so many cooks in the kitchen. Not only does it hang together, it’s actually quite engaging and compelling.
During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), one of the bloodiest of the time (they were all pretty bloody), an army captain named Boyd (Guy Pearce) managed to take an entire Mexican regiment and receives special commendation. However, he achieved this by playing dead, spending a day on the bottom of a pile of his deceased and rotting friends, and eventually ambushing the enemy. His superiors think him a coward and “promote” him to a faraway post up in the mountains. The commanding officer there is Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), an aging and retiring gentleman who is happy to be stuck out here to read and collect his pension. A ragtag group of drunks, pot-heads, zealots, and fools are at the camp as well, and it looks like Boyd is going to be able to rest. Not so, of course, because they soon pick up a dying (yet actually pretty healthy man) named Colqhoun (Carlyle) who tells them a harrowing story of his group traveling, like the Donner Party, through a mountain pass, getting lost, getting stuck, and eventually being forced to eat each other.
Now, here is where Boyd’s compulsions really come into play; while he was in the pile of bodies, he inadvertently drank some of his comrades’ blood and he felt like it gave him strength to finish his mission and live. He asks Colquoun about this, and he seems to think, the way the Native Americans do about the Wendigo, that eating the flesh of a man has special restorative and energizing properties. Colqhoun eventually springs a trap and kills everyone in the party except Boyd, who is trapped in a cave with his dead friend and eats the man to heal his broken leg. Later, Boyd finds another fort and is horrified to see Colqhoun is actually Colonel Ives, an influential soldier. The two men play a game of cat-and-mouse with the other members of the regiment as little more than dead meat between them.
There is a whole lot to enjoy about this movie, starting from the script. It was written by Ted Griffin who infuses it with a lot of unexpected humor. I mean, it’s a movie about people eating people, and it’s certainly as gruesome and bloody as you’d think, but the tone is almost gleeful and cheeky which makes you kind of chuckle while the stew is being made, in a way that something like Hannibal does not. Though, here we’re never particularly enticed to join in the eating, so that’s an even trade.
The movie brings up a lot of really intriguing ideas and does talk a bit about the taboo of devouring other humans. It just flatly shows that, yes, eating people does make you heal faster and fight off illness easier and generally feel great all the time. The only problem is a moral one; Boyd can’t just fully engage in what Ives is offering him because he’s still a human and has respect for his fellow man, even in a time of bloody, vile war. It’s a battle of wills that I find really fascinating.
The cast all do a wonderful job, especially Pearce and Carlyle. The former is the stoic, internally-conflicted “hero” and the latter is the raving lunatic who is actually much more with it than he lets on. Terrific stuff. With the exception of Jeffrey Jones, the rest of the cast don’t really have much to do other than become fodder, but they’re good enough actors and they give their characters a lot of depth without saying or doing a whole lot. It’s all in the eyes.
The direction, as you might expect, is a bit all over the place, but you can’t really blame Bird or even Manchevski for any of it. There’s pretty blatant continuity errors in some place, and there are shots that should be there in the middle of action sequences that just aren’t. But, again, they’re minor and don’t really detract too much other than to make people like me go, “oh, there isn’t a linking shot between those two movements.” Real nerdy, I know. However, the look of the actual film and the cinematography are all quite tasty and the most is made of the vast Slovakian landscapes which were used in place of the American Rocky Mountains.
As a film, Ravenous is one that is hard to get off your mind once you’ve finished it. It’s such an odd and compelling mixture of horror and subtle comedy, with some really weird music cues throughout to put the audience in a state of unease, perfect for someone losing their mind from eating people. I certainly recommend Ravenous to anyone who has a strong enough stomach.
The new Blu-ray from Shout Factory looks and sounds great, and is actually full of extras, though most were from the initial DVD release back in the day. The new central feature is a 20 minute interview with co-star Jeffrey Jones who gives a great deal of backstory not only about the production and the problems therein but also, being a history buff, he knows a lot about the time period, the area, and the war being depicted. It’s a really engaging little featurette. There are three commentary tracks, all old (from back when commentaries were all the rage [I still love them]). One features Jones and screenwriter Ted Griffin, one features the composer Damon Albarn and director Antonia Bird (who sadly passed away just last year), and one featuring only Robert Carlyle that begins when he appears on screen. All informative in their own way and nice to have all included on this release.
While not as packed with new stuff as some of the company’s releases, Scream Factory’s Ravenous Blu-ray is certainly worth the asking price and a movie more horror fans should be talking about.