Film Review – Ravenous
More horror movies should be set in the Old West. This much I am sure of. It is one of the reasons I was so excited to discover Ravenous (1999) exists. Alas, the film did not hit the sweet spot I so hoped it would.
We meet Lieutenant John Boyd (Guy Pearce!), fighting in the Mexican-American War. When his unit is massacred, he saves himself by playing dead. He is hauled away under a pile of bloody bodies. He eventually frees himself from the pile, ambushes several Mexican soldiers and escapes. Though he is promoted to Captain for this, his commanding officer only sees the initial act of supposed cowardice, and ships him off to remote Fort Spencer in the mountains.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, these opening war scenes are easily the most effective in the film, and we haven’t even gotten to the actual “horror” yet.
We meet the ragtag band of seven soldiers and locals manning Fort Spencer, which includes the easy-going yet vaguely creepy Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), the hapless Cleaves (David Arquette) and, to my delight, Jeremy Davies as the odd, religiously devout Toffler. Boyd is just becoming used to the crew when a stranger named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives. Colqhoun relates the sickening story of his traveling party, who he says have been trying to ride out a storm in a cave. Their guide, Colonel Ives, turned to murder and cannibalism when the food ran out. Colqhoun ashamedly admits that he ran away to try to save himself, and only found the fort by luck. He has left a woman behind.
The soldiers must set out to investigate. But before they leave, their Native American scout warns them of the story of the Wendigo: when a man eats the flesh of another man, he steals his strength, but also develops a permanent craving for more human flesh. (Listen to the scout! Why will no one ever listen to the scout?!)
At this point, I am still all on board. I love Wendigos! If you have ever seen a horror movie, or ANY movie, you know that things do not go well once the men reach that cave. But they end up going not-well in a way that I didn’t predict at all, bypassing the “one stalking/killing sequence after another” format I was expecting. Sadly, immediately after our first great kill scene of the movie, the tone goes completely off the rails.
I had no idea up until this point that apparently I was watching a comedy. But, when men are running crazily through the woods so as not to be shot to death, all of a sudden the background music takes an abrupt shift. We are subjected to folksy, banjo runaway music, clearly meant to be humorous, that completely undercuts the tension. Robert Carlyle’s character, having been revealed to not be the nice guy we thought he was, starts making Freddy Krueger-type quips that in no way mesh with anyone else’s dialogue. It’s bizarre.
From this point on, Ravenous’s director, Antonia Bird, tries very hard to get her movie to work on both a horrific and a comedic level. The first problem is that the beginning of the film didn’t match this at all. The second problem is that I can feel that effort. The tone she seems to want is not intrinsic to the set-up, which is straight gruesome, or the setting, which is harsh and isolated. The very odd music choices that seem like an attempt to insert some sort of savage whimsy into various sequences did NOT work for me. The weirdly placed jokey bits of dialogue are never actually funny in the way characters intend them to be. The jabs of satire here and there about man consuming man (the cannibalism/Manifest Destiny comparison is not lost on me!) could have been so much more clever with more subtlety.
The only way I would give the movie another chance is if I could turn off the music track. I longed for silence in almost every scene. I loved the randomness of the cast, and there is some good acting here (and some bad). The plot takes some interesting turns beyond what I’ve described. The cinematography showcases the bleak, mountainous setting, and most of the action works well. But the tone of the film after that first third or so—exacerbated by that awful music—is so off-putting that I couldn’t really enjoy it.
It’s rare that a film genuinely works on as both horror and comedy. Ravenous would have been a far better film if it had simply gone for horror.