Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ravenous (1999)

You are what you eat! Revisiting the underrated cannibal cult classic

Plagued by controversy during the production with original Macedonian art house director Milcho Manchevski (Before the Rain/1994) walking out due to studio differences with Laura Ziskin, this hugely underrated gruesome satire starring Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle was to be then directed by Raja Gosnell who at that time only had Home Alone 3 to his credit. Ziskin's choice however, was outright rejected by the stellar cast and on Carlyle's insistence, his close friend a largely unknown British film maker Antonia Bird was eventually called in to helm Ravenous. And what a fantastic choice she was! 

A bewildering cannibalistic western that blends colonial American history with pockets of black humor and naked satire; it's one of those genre-defying strange films that make you unsure of whether to laugh or cringe, so you frequently end up doing both. Surprisingly, Ravenous largely received mixed reviews when it released and performed dismally at the US box office just scraping around $2 million against a reported budget of $12 million, but over the years, this weird little horror gem has now achieved a cult following and is getting the rightful attention it actually deserves.

Set amidst the bloody Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848), the mesmerizing screenplay by Ted Griffin (Ocean 11) melds the supernatural Native American myth of the Wendigo whose appetite for human flesh is insatiable and is the source of its strength with real historical references like the Donner Party - Alferd Packer cannibalism to create an alluringly savage satire on American capitalism, colonialism, over-consumption and greed. Like the Wendigo, this is a 'on your face' bloody take on the voracious locust-like history of the America's brutal past. 

Staying true to this grim motive, the main character, Second Lieutenant John Boyd (Guy Pearce), is shown as a coward who is sent to an outpost manned by a handful of soldiers during the Mexican-American war. When a ragged man F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) stumbles in from the cold and reveals that his fellow travelers resorted to cannibalism when they became snowbound, the commanding officer (Jeffrey Jones) decides to go on a rescue mission. 

The story that follows seems almost predictable, but never stops when you expect it to, with characters popping in and out at the most inopportune times for Boyd and the most unexpected times for us. And that's where lies its magnetic (and grisly) dark charm. 

Guy Pearce is sublime as the weak but upright Boyd; he has surprisingly few lines of dialogue, but his character is intriguing and complex. Carlyle is menacingly superb while Jones and David Arquette provide adequate support. The costumes and makeup are top notch; the mood of the film palpably dense throughout and the bleak landscape shot in Mexico and Slovakia, with its dirty snow and patches of dirt, contributes to the sense of deep isolation and dread that Boyd feels when no one believes his tales of the Wendigo. There is, of course, plenty of foreboding suspense and a lot of blood and gore but its all done with great panache.

Part of the feel good credit undoubtedly goes to the haunting music that permeates throughout the movie. The evocative score, a splendid collaboration between Damon Albarn, the lead singer of  Brit pop band - Blur and Michael Nyman (Piano) elevates Ravenous to an entirely different level adding a surreal omnipresent tone to all the macabre happenings Boyd (and us) have to witness. Nonetheless, it is still appropriately weird, stunning on its own but not at all what you might expect the music of cannibalism and violent death to sound like.

Ravenous is a fantastic example of splendid movie making but horrendous movie marketing. A Hollywood paradox that's sadly yet to be fixed. Until then, see Ravenous again like I did, its still a refreshing watch and the music is a big plus. And for those of you who haven't seen it yet, the time is now especially if you like delicious blood soaked horror! Bon Appetit!  


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