Ravenous (1999)

Directed by Antonia Bird

Produced by Adam Fields & David Heyman

Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer, Stephen Spinella, Neal McDonough, Joseph Running Fox

Ravenous (1999)

Back in 1981 a tiny budgeted independent horror flick by the name of "Ghostkeeper" quietly surfaced, then slithered into video obscurity. James Makichuk's film marked the first time I had heard the word "wendigo" uttered on screen, but it would be another five years before Ruggero Deodato's "Bodycount" (1986) would make the supernatural connection to the fabled native American Indian spirit. What is a wendigo (not "windigo", "windigi" or "weendigo", as I have seen it spelt by the semantically-challenged DVD "elite" out there)? Per Ted Griffin's script here, a wendigo is a malevolent Indian spirit that feasts upon the flesh of those it kills, ingesting their essence, growing stronger with each victim, and about the last creature of fiction you'd expect a studio like 20th Century Fox to green-light for a film project. Afterall, isn't the topic of cannibalism a propriety almost solely excelled at by Italian filmmakers, or best covered by the safe fantasy realm of the modern zombie film? Thankfully no, as DVD viewers now get the chance to see Antonia Bird's much-overlooked, lip-smacking black horror-comedy in all of its blood-drenched glory

Amidst the snow-covered peaks of the landscape of the Sierra Nevada wilderness circa 1847, Captain John Boyd (Pearce) is assigned post at the remote Fort Spencer. A decorated war hero of the Mexican-American conflict (more by default than design) Boyd falls under the command of the affable Colonel Hart (Jones), an intellectual man in the company of a rag-tag platoon of extremes. The company consists of Private Cleaves (Arquette), a man not beyond indulging the odd "peace pipe"; Private Toffler (Davies), a socially inept deeply religious loner; Private Reich (McDonough), a soldier's soldier; Major Knox (Spinella), a drunkard and camp doctor; and Native Indian caretakers George (Running Fox) and Martha.

Into this motley crew of isolated madness stumbles wanderer Colquhoun (Carlyle), a Scotsman whose party of settlers had succumbed to the horrors of their surrounds. Colquhoun weaves a tale of stranded explorers, desperate situations, and cannibalism fraught of starvation in the mountains…and terrifying military man Colonel Ives. Mounting a rescue party, Hart, Boyd and the men head into the mountains with hope of unearthing survivors of Colquhuon's morbid story. What they discover is far more horrifying than anything the desolation of their existence can throw at them.

Antonia Bird. Now there's a name most genre fans wouldn't immediately associate with the horror genre, but as they say "it's the quiet ones you've got to watch". Commencing as a director for television with work on "Eastenders" and "Inspector Morse", Bird eventually broke the shackles of the small screen with her cinematic debut in 1993, "Safe", a hard-hitting glance into the lives of a group of young homeless in London. The stirring "Priest" (1994) followed, a bold drama of beliefs and identity that showcased an impressive performance by Linus Roache, and then there was the vague misfire that was "Mad Love" (1995), a sometimes depressing exploration of mental illness. With "Ravenous", Bird proves without doubt, that some of the more adventurous forays into the horror genre have been engineered by female directors. You don't believe me? What of Kathryn Bigelow's "Near Dark" (1987), Mary Lambert's "Pet Sematary" (1988), or more recently Mary Harron's "American Psycho" (2000)?

Bird takes a virtually all-male cast, then lets them loose on a nightmare tableau of testosterone-fueled rivalries, creeping insanity, and dark psychological imbalance. Pearce, a former "Neighbours" star who got his big international break playing a drag queen in Stephan Elliot's sublime "The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert" (1994) (of which I have my own personal story), then drew acclaim for his performance in "LA Confidential" (1997), as the protagonist here makes for a fine under-stated anti-hero. Pearce's Captain Boyd is the audience reference point, a man whose cowardice earned him a war medal, and whose abolition to the remote Fort Spencer becomes his ultimate rite of passage to redemption. As stirring as Pearce's performance is, it is long-time Bird collaborator Carlyle who steals the show as the sinister Colquhuon. Carlyle is one of those rare breed of actors whose mere on-screen presence can elevate most any production into a class of its own. He gave "Trainspotting" (1996) the element of violent thuggery, "The Full Monty" (1997) its working-class heart, "Plunkett & Macleane" (1999) an off-colour lovable rogue, and "The World Is Not Enough" (1999) the best adversary Bond had had in years. Under Bird's direction he infuses "Ravenous" with both a rich vein of black humour and a thoroughly persuasive face for unconscionable evil.

In Bird's deft hands Ted Griffin's "Ravenous" script becomes a deliriously dark metaphor for America's obsessive consumerism, as the victims of Carlyle's cannibalistic activities must 'eat to alive', whilst the bitter environment of the remote Western frontier threatens to consume them. It is these subtle nuances that wrests the film away from a genre often over concerned with delivering basic primary frissons at the sacrifice of its own intellect. Without wishing to gloss over a film that deserves far greater analysis than space permits, perhaps one of the most surprising elements of the production is that, for a story set amidst the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, it was entirely shot in the Czech Republic and the Slovakian Tatras Mountains! Anthony B. Richmond's glorious cinematography captures the panoramic vistas and agoraphobic expanses exquisitely, enriching Bird's tale with a disturbing sense of isolation and investing it with a burgeoning fear of the wider unknown. But one of the most incredible facets of the film is the way in which the superb score augments and heightens the overall atmosphere of the piece. The work of twin composers, Damon Albarn (of Blur fame) and Michael Nyman (he of Peter Greenaway favour), the "Ravenous" score is one of the most perfectly realised, eerie blends of contemporary and traditional film compositions I have yet heard. Equal parts Old West ragtime and rhythmic minimalist melodies, boosted by percussive electronics, it is so hauntingly catchy I challenge you not to visit the soundtrack department of your local music store in the days after the dust has settled on your viewing experience!

Fox's Region 4 DVD edition of Bird's inspired horror-comedy takes the edge over the Region 1 edition by going the extra nine yards and adding anamorphic enhancement to the widescreen 2.35 image. What an image it is too! No artefacts, a minimum of film grain, strong contrasts and an impressive colour palette that easily matches the way the film looked theatrically. It's a boffo transfer that augments the gory on-screen going-ons nigh on perfectly. Even the snowy vistas of the Slovakian Tatras Mountains look superb, so generally it's a pretty impressive transfer all round. And then there's the Dolby 5.1 audio, that not only gives much needed punch to Damon Albarn & Michael Nyman's incredible score, but also manages to put you right in the thick of the action. You're there during the opening battle scenes, and the eerie creakings and whistling gales of Fort Spencer creep up on you from all around as the plot unfolds. A very nice presentation of a film heavily reliant on atmosphere creating mood to set its tone.

For a film that skipped through cinemas in '99 almost too fast for me to catch it (but I did!), I can't say I was expecting the Special Edition treatment afforded it come its DVD release. Thus, Fox's disc was something of a revelation when all things are taken into consideration. Complimented by not one but THREE audio commentaries, this was my first surprise! Audio commentary No. 1 is the pairing of Antonia Bird and Damon Albarn, proving to be quite an animated little chat filled with anecdotes, location observations and a smattering of well-intentioned jibes & wise-cracks at the film's expense. Audio commentary No. 2 is a solo Robert Carlyle, who joins the viewers with his on-screen appearance in Chapter 4 and, although prone to the odd bout of "dead space", is an amicable chap to listen to (managing to get off a classic crack during the "stew" scene). The third, and final, Audio commentary is by Ted Griffin and Jeffery Jones that manages to detail the original, more fantasy-based screenplay, parts of which wouldn't have been out of place in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon"!

Whoops! Time to wipe my chin I think…(another Aussie gag, you guys'll fit right in soon with this plethora of euphemisms I off-load on you all, if you ever visit that is!). Additional extras tick along with a swag of Deleted Scenes, all fairly short and little more than rudimentary exposition, but Bird discusses why they were dropped on the optional commentary track provided. There's also the theatrical trailer, presented at the standard trailer ratio of 1.85 and 16:9 enhanced. Lastly, there's three Stills Galleries, encompassing Movie Stills, Costume Design and Set Design. Some may find these inconsequential, but sorry old movie buffs like me get a nice little kick out of seeing how a film comes together in pre-production. That's a pretty feature packed disc for a film that was largely ignored on theatrical release! Sadly, the R4 (and R2) disc misses out on the Easter egg present on the US R1 edition: a map detailing the trail & dates that Colquhoun's party took in 1846, with a couple of its own extras (DVD developers' credits & a rather quirky advertising promo for "Ravenous Beef Jerky"). But you all want an anamorphic transfer and the improved resolution of the PAL format over an Easter egg, right? Thought so :)

Rarely would I recommend so heartily what could be termed an "arthouse horror film" to the wider horror community, but the experience that was "Ravenous" leaves me no choice. Antonio Bird's film is one of the finest passages in genre filmmaking in some time (albeit a relatively gory one for a major studio production) and accordingly comes with my highest recommendation. It is a film that effortlessly holds up to repeated viewings, and will have Damon Albarn & Michael Nyman's amazing score humming around your head for days.

International specifications: PAL format disc; Language options in English Dolby 5.1 only; Subtitle options in Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish & English for the Hearing Impaired

*Also available R1 without Anamorphic enhancement & hidden Easter egg (functional map of the journey to Fort Spencer)

Review by Mike Thomason

Released by Fox Home Entertainment
Classified M (15+) - Region 4 (PAL)
Running time - 101m
Ratio - Widescreen 2.35 (Anamorphic)
Audio - Dolby digital 5.1
Extras :
Audio commentaries (3), Deleted scenes, Stills galleries (3), Theatrical trailer, TV spot

© 2001, Icon In Black Media