Antonia Bird’s Ravenous is an exciting, new kind of gothic horror film, one that replicates that traditional, oft-misappropriated proto-genre’s fixation with courage in the face of inexplicably unnatural and, in this case, gruesome phenomena. Set during the Spanish-American War, the film follows Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a coward who receives a medal of honor for surviving a massacre, though he only lived because he lay down and played dead. As in a traditional gothic story, Boyd’s convictions are tested by his confrontation with a real, live “Wendigo,” a mythological cannibal that Native Americans believe eats the flesh of its victims in an insatiable quest to augment its own strength. Boyd is not a strong man to begin with, blanching at the sight of a bloody steak set before him even while his equally starved comrades dig in with gusto. In Ravenous, he confronts the horrors of war through a creature which Bird and screenwriter Ted Griffin depict with a rollicking sense of humor that only serves to augment the film’s surreal dread.
Boyd’s trouble begins after his yellow streak is found out—his refusal to eat red meat, not his craven trick of going limp in battle, offends General Slauson (John Spencer), his commanding officer. He’s then re-assigned to a remote outpost manned by an eclectic cast of character actors: a pothead (David Arquette), his level-headed Native American wife (Sheila Tousey), her equally “over-medicated” brother (Joseph Running Fox), a cavalier, chalk-white soldier (Neal McDonough), a fey Chaplain (Jeremy “Farraday” Davies), a drunk doctor (Stephen Spinellla) and an oddly inviting, though terminally depressed, linguist (Jeffrey Jones!). Unlike Boyd, who silently surveys them with his mouth agape, they’ve already resigned themselves to being a cast-off contingent of misfit soldiers. Shortly after he settles in, they’re visited by an anemic, frost-bitten F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who, after recovering, leads almost all of them to their deaths.
Colqhoun is an enigmatic, twitchy little creature who a lesser director would have let Johnny Depp play. Like Bird and Griffin’s general approach to the material, Carlyle invests him with a menace that taints his overtly comic flourishes. He’s not an entirely serious bogeyman, yes, but he’s still more creepy than kooky. When he meets Boyd’s new company, he tells them a story about how his companions ate each other, though he claims to have abstained as much as he could from such depraved activities (“We ate the oxen, all the horses, even my own dog and that lasted us about a month. After that we turned to our belts, shoes, anything with leather and any roots we could dig up…but you know there’s no real nourishment in those…”). He offers to show them back to the cave where he left them and then, of course, slaughters all of them except Boyd. That willingness to literally throw us off of a cliff at about 40-odd minutes into Boyd’s quest for redemption is the best sign of the filmmakers’ uncanny, balls-out confidence in their own abilities. Trust them, they know where they’re going.
That confrontation is also the first of two major turning points in the film, both of which feature the most memorably drawn-out scenes of violence. Blood flows freely, and there’s certainly no shortage of gored, disemboweled corpses, but these scenes are pivotal in terms of Boyd’s maturation. Even in the scene where Boyd furtively recuperates from his grisly wounds, we never see the ghastly acts of cannibalism that Colqhoun alludes to. Showing the consummative act of destroying another person’s body is the real horror, one that Bird and Griffin don’t take lightly.
Which isn’t to say that death and cannibalism are treated with kid gloves. As evinced by Michael Nyman/Damon Albarn’s ingeniously queasy score, the film triumphantly teeters between its conflicting emotions. Bird and Griffin wisely adopt horror giant Joe Lansdale’s philosophy of encouraging the audience to laugh at what scares them because that laughter only serves to make them that much more unsettled. Cross-cut shots of McDonough’s pale, leering face are that much more disturbing after he’s tried to strangle the life out of Boyd with a slapsticky, Jacksonian last gasp of energy.
Just when Ravenous looks like it might veer off towards campy points unknown—which are comically marked in one scene by a signpost that reads “Unknown”—Bird and Griffin pull us back to ground and reminds us why Boyd is right to fear Colqhoun. In the film’s final third, which whizzes by at a dizzyingly satisfying clip, Carlyle delivers a series of flabbergasting, manifesto-like speeches with humorously assured deliberation. His brand of militant Darwinism adopts all kinds of idiomatic justifications, from Benjamin Franklin to Friedrich Nietzsche, the latter of whom is prominently featured in the film’s prologue just before an anonymous philosopher is attributed to the quote “Eat me.” This should all seem ironic to the viewer considering that Colqhoun will later sneer at Boyd that “morality (is) the last bastion of a coward.”
That ability to have it both ways, to look civilized and even successfully fool Boyd’s superiors into thinking that he’s not the monster he’s accused of being, is what makes him so frightening. His inconsistency is matched only by his ability to make his each and every seem measured, even when he’s dying slowly in a bear trap that Boyd springs, whispering, “That was…really…very sneaky.” Painting a cross of blood on his forehead as he goes into final battle at the end, he could be the Anti-Christ. Forget Don Coscarelli: if anyone could make a good adaptation of either of Lansdale’s Jonah Hex comic mini-series or his great standard “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” it’s Bird and Griffin.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.