December 20, 2011

Ravenous (1999)

The decade of the 90s isn't really know for its horror cinema, not even when Wes Craven's postmodern mix of horror and comedy, "Scream", seemed to reinvigorate the slasher subgenre in 1996. Nevertheless, as the decade reached its end, several horror films were released that proved that the genre was still alive and kicking. The independent spirit of "The Blair Witch Project" and the new wave of Asian horror started by "Ringu" paved the way for the renaissance that the genre experienced in the 2000s. Director Antonia Bird's "Ravenous" (1999) was also one of those films, an offbeat horror film that succeeded at being what most of the postmodernist clones of "Scream" failed to be: genuinely creepy and entertaining at the same time. A clever mix of horror and black comedy, Bird's "Ravenous" is a Western film that not only is intelligent and thought-provoking, it also allows itself some real fun thanks to the fresh and unpretentious approach of the film. This movie about cannibalism, is a nice surprise that it's not only a great horror film. It's a great film, period.

In "Ravenous", Guy Pearce plays Capt. John Boyd, a young member of the American Army during the Mexican-American War, who by lucky circumstances ends up becoming a war hero despite a shameful display of cowardice in the battlefield. As a "prize" for his dubious honor, Boyd is sent to Fort Spencer, a small and forgotten fort located somewhere near the Rocky Mountains. There, the troubled Captain Boyd meets the gang of misfits that form the military crew of Fort Spencer: the drug addict Pvt. Cleaves (David Arquette), the psychotic Pvt. Reich (Neal McDonough) and the perpetually drunk Mayor Knox (Stephen Spinella). As Boyd tries to get used to his new position, the group receives the visit of a stranger, a lost wandering man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who tells the group of army men his bizarre story of survival: according to Colqhoun, his wagon train got lost in the Sierras Nevadas and his group reduced to cannibalism to survive. The soldiers at Fort Spencer decide to investigate, and their own horror story will begin.

The debut work of writer Ted Griffin (who has carved himself a name as a screenwriter of thrillers), "Ravenous" deals with the dark and disturbing subject of cannibalism, but the clever way the script is written makes the ride a captivating and intriguing instead of morbid, thanks in part to the great set of quirky and fascinating characters that populate Fort Spencer. While it could be argued that Griffin's use of dark comedy diminishes the impact of the horror in movie, actually Griffin's witty touch of humor and irony is what truly adds the strange offbeat charm the film has; and by making his gang of undesirable misfits a lot more human and likable, Griffin has developed a story that almost works as an ensemble piece. With great character development that challenges twists the typical conventions (for instance, the main character, is truly one big unashamed coward), Griffin's "Ravenous" presents one of the most original stories in modern horror, one that doesn't shy away from dwelling into human's darker nature.

Director Antonia Bird takes a straight forward approach to translate Griffin's screenplay to the big screen, though there's a special focus on the characters that turns them into the driving force of the film and ultimately what separates it from the rest. Bird's "Ravenous" has the benefit of having as assets the remarkable works of cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond and production designer Bryce Perrin. Despite working on a budget, their work manages to make a pretty faithful rendition of the time period in which the story is set. Richmond's cinematography makes great use of the locations (The Tatras Mountains in Slovakia) and develops a nice contrast between the beauty of the natural landscape and the grotesque gore of the events that takes place inside the Fort. But even when the story aims for a graphic orgy of violence, Bird's heavy focus on the characters allow a deeper insight from the story beyond the violence. In "Ravenous", Bird succeeds in making cannibalism both repulsive and captivating.

Leading the cast is Australian actor Guy Pearce, whom delivers a remarkable performance in the difficult role of Capt. Boyd, as his job becomes making likable a character that in essence is really the antithesis of the classic hero archetype. Using more his body and facial expressions, Pearce's presence completely owns the screen even when his character barely speaks at all in the film. However, he is not the only one to shine in "Ravenous", as every member of the cast receives a chance to show off their talents. The highlight is certainly Robert Carlyle, who delivers an outstanding performance as the disturbed Colqhoun, a man driven by his obsession, or better said, by his addiction. The sociopath Colqhoun is a savage force of nature, and Carlyle makes the most of the role without resorting to cliché or caricature. Jeffrey Jones' Col. Hart gives dignity and the touch of black humor to the ensemble cast. And finally, David Arquette, Jeremy Davis and Stephen Spinella deliver restrained yet effective performances that complete this delicious black comedy.

Offbeat, grotesque and yet captivating, Antonia Bird's "Ravenous" is a pretty original and interesting take on the Western genre in which horror elements are added in an interesting and original way. Mixing elements from Native American folklore, Griffin and Bird have created a story that seems to be an allegory for addiction. The cannibals are addicts to the strength they receive from human meat, and ultimately, each member of the group is fighting for their own survival. Interestingly, director Antonia Bird is a vegetarian, so that can explain the added repulsiveness added to the meat consumption. While definitely not perfect, "Ravenous" is certainly a refreshing film that brings back introspective horror to the spotlight. Beyond the gore and violence, the horror is found in what Capt. Boyd is becoming: he and Colqhoun are not that different, and Boyd's gory journey is basically his way to come to terms with this. If the film has any flaw, it is definitely the somewhat slow pace it has, but that's more a quibble than a problem.

The ultimate human taboo, cannibalism is an act that encompasses uneasy feelings of both fascination and repulsion. From Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" to Ruggero Deodato's classic of exploitation "Cannibal Holocaust", cannibalism has inspired several works of art through history, as it's certainly a complex subject matter that will continue captivating the minds of authors for centuries. In the hands of Ted Griffin and Antonia Bird, cannibalism has resulted in one of the most original and refreshing horror films of the late 90s. A true gem in a decade with very few hits, "Ravenous" is part of those films that closed the 90s with a bang and foretold the horror revival of the 2000s. Grim and slow, but sill witty and funny, "Ravenous"' odd mix of horror and comedy in a Western setting is a terrific addition to the genre.



Kevin Matthews said...

I rate it even higher than you do, mate, but loved the review. And, of course, I praise fellow Scotsman Robert Carlyle whenever possible. Haha. It really is a fantastic film though.

J Luis Rivera said...

Ha, you Scotsmen gotta stick together, don't you? Fantastic film indeed, my friend.