#56: Ravenous (1999)
Initial release: 1999
Director: Antonia Bird
David Arquette might have been a bit of a media darling in the late 1990s with the success of the self-referential slasher flick Scream, but even appearing in this film didn’t earn it the recognition it deserves. You’d think a movie about cannibalism wouldn’t be funny, but…
It’s 1847, and the lone survivor of a massacre during the Mexican-American war has been promoted for single-handedly capturing a Mexican HQ. However, his general knows he only managed it because he played dead amongst the corpses, blood dripping into his mouth the whole time. As punishment, our nominal hero Captain Boyd is reassigned to a remote outpost in far-off California, staffed by a collection of misfits, including two Native American scouts. One night a frost-bitten stranger, Colqhuon, appears and tells a tale of starvation, cannibalism and murder.
Compelled to search for survivors, Boyd and several others are led by Colqhuon to the cave. But it turns out to be a trap, in which Boyd is the only survivor, forced to eat the corpse of his compatriot to survive. He eventually makes it back to camp, but before long, his new commander arrives: Colqhuon, under a new identity. The rest of the film is an exercise in temptation and distrust, with Colqhuon masquerading smugly as Colonel Ives (who he had in fact murdered) and knowing that nobody will believe Boyd — and nobody does. The film still manages to keep a surprise or two under its sleeve, too.
There’s quite a bit to this film that hearkens back to the 1970s. The muted palette, the tabasco-red blood effects, the opening titles, and the overall vibe of the film, all speak to a style of film somewhat out of sync with what we can typically expect from late 90s cinema. In fact I would go so far to say that on some level this very much has the kind of cheap brilliance of a Roger Corman film, who is the master of low-budget schlock veneers that hide quality cinema under their chintzy surfaces. The varied cast of characters are all as weird and charming as possible as they bounce off each other. Robert Carlyle is menacing and smug as Colqhuon, posing an air of affability and yet still being very clearly off his rocker, while Guy Pearce as Boyd struggles to find his bravery.
The soundtrack is, in a word, unique — lots of drums and moans mixed with traditional folk instruments like banjo and mouth harp, with tons of build-up during tense scenes. It’s unnerving, often downright nerve-wracking.
While the story plays a little loose with the wendigo legend (though, to be fair, it’s explicitly stated as originating from the north) the notion that a man can become stronger through cannibalism feels quite vampiric in nature, and Colqhuon certainly has Dracula’s smugness.
The director is apparently a vegetarian and it shows; one can’t help but feel ill at the sight of meat in this film. An early scene keeps lingering on a cut of bloody steak, indelibly tying it to Boyd remembering his time with the corpses, blood dripping into his mouth. It’s an unsettling scene and sets the tone for the rest of the movie. In a very real way, the film feels like a synthesis between the vampire genre and the cannibalism genre. After all, vampires are, as Roger Ebert put it, cannibals with good table manners.
I’m constantly scouring the internet for good horror movies nobody remembers. This is a unique film that feels very much in the tradition of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and yet it’s almost unheard of — though, perhaps thanks to the popularity of the unrelated 2017 zombie film of the same name, people looking for that one might stumble upon this one. One would hope so, because while it’s not perfect, it’s a rare treat.