Very rarely do I come across a film where the general critical consensus was as wrong about a film as people were about today’s film. While researching this piece I came across so many negative reviews of the film that I began to wonder if I was crazy. Then I rewatched it and found out everyone else was crazy. Maybe they just needed a good meal and a nap. Or maybe 15 years to think about it.
Release date: March 19th, 1999 (15th anniversary)
Opening weekend box office: $1.04 million (#18, 1,040 screens)
Other notable films opening that weekend: The easily forgettable Clint Eastwood death row detective thriller True Crime debuted at #3, while Warner Brothers’ very costly and very terrible animated flop The King and I debuted at #6. The biggest release of the week, however, was the #1 debut of the Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock comedy Forces of Nature, which would briefly go on to be a punchline in Affleck’s career doldrums before rightfully being forgotten about entirely.
Days in theatrical release: 51 (pulled from theatres on May 6th)
Final box office take: $2.06 million
Estimated budget: $12 million
How I remember first seeing Ravenous:
I was working in a movie theatre at the time that it came out. It was actually one of my first weekends as a projectionist back in the 35mm film era. I remember it was also the first 35mm print I ever built up for exhibition. I was given it as my first assignment because, and I quote, “no one will fucking see this anyway so if you fuck it up, who cares?” I watched the film twice in the very brief two weeks that we played it, told friends and co-workers to watch it, and they all seemed to enjoy it.
While it was a shame to lose noted arthouse director Antonia Bird last October (far too young at the age of 62), the one heartening thing that came out of it was a general outpouring of good will towards a film that I was sad most people had forgotten about and one that I always thought was given an almost completely unjustified unfair shake. Sure, it’s far too strange and tonally bizarre of a film to appeal to the mainstream that its studio – 20th Century Fox, which at that point was trying to make the unwise shift to rebranding themselves as Fox 2000 – wanted it to be. (In truth, this is the kind of film that would have been much better suited for Fox Searchlight, which was specifically created in 1994 for exactly these kinds of films.) But maybe of the film had a smaller and more focused release with less studio tinkering, this would have become the genre classic that it’s seen by some as being today. It’s a great horror satire, and really the worst that can credibly be said about it is that it’s an ambitious misfire.
The story of Ravenous and its ultimate “success” in the face of heavy odds and the history books that say it was a dud doesn’t begin with Bird, however. Heck, the production of the film doesn’t even begin with her. Rather, it begins with first time screenwriter Ted Griffin, a graduate of Colgate University with a degree in English who had recently located full time to Los Angeles with an eye on actually being a director rather than a screenwriter. By his own account in an interview with producer Mike De Luca, Griffin had written about four or five screenplays in total before and while working as a dry cleaner with hopes of landing a big payday. Unsure if he even wanted to be a screenwriter, Griffin shelved the first two films he had written because he thought they were terrible, before landing an agent who sold three of his scripts over the course of a week.
One of those scripts was for Ravenous, a period piece cannibal thriller set against the backdrop of the mid-1800s American westward expansion. (Another script sold during this time was for the Reese Witherspoon starring thriller, Best Laid Plans, which also came out in September of 1999 and somehow performed even worse at the box office, and again released by Fox 2000.) The fourth film that he had written, Griffin described Ravenous as “the first [script] I felt… feels like I’m a real writer… because I’m not paying attention to any of the rules you learn about screenwriting. I threw away the conventional wisdom and wrote something that I thought would be really interesting. And then derived a lot of things from other movies, and made it less interesting.”
The story finds its basis predominantly on the tragically failed Donner Party crossing of the Sierra Nevadas in 1846 and 47 where only 48 out of 87 travellers from Springfield, Illinois survived being stranded in the snowy mountains in the dead of winter for four months with some survivors being forced into cannibalizing the bodies of the dead to survive and subsist. The villain for Ravenous would find a lot of inspiration in a different case of American cannibalism: Alferd G. Packard, a notorious 1870s prospector who murdered an equally ill fated travelling party through the Utah mountains, ate them, claimed it was out of self defense and survival despite a trio of confessions that all contradicted each other, and then would proceed to slip custody several times before getting a 40 year sentence (then a state of Colorado record) for three counts of manslaughter.
Blending the idea that “cannibalism wasn’t so much a matter of survival, but was more a matter of want,” with Darwinian theory, the concept of Manifest Destiny being a corrupt ideal, an addiction narrative, and a retelling of the Ojibwe version of the Wendigo myth, Griffin’s film was almost defying categorization from the start. It was a horror comedy (which was hot at the time) and a period drama (which thanks to the recent Oscar buzz and win of Shakespeare in Love, was also hot at the time), but it was also deeply metaphorical, something that has never been hot at the box office in all of recorded history. It featured tonal shifts so wild that it’s hard to imagine what producer Adam Fields means in the film’s production notes when he compares it simultaneously to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining and John Carpenter’s The Thing. It has precious little to do with either of those films, which suggests a case of the film being misread from the very start.
The one-two punch of Ravenous and Best Laid Plans bombing didn’t end up hurting Griffin’s career. His next gig in 2001 would be the screenplay for the George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh reboot of The Rat Pack classic Ocean’s Eleven. He would go on to work as one of the most noted script doctors in the industry and rack up credits that would include the Ridley Scott directed and incredibly underrated Nicolas Cage film Matchstick Men and the more easily forgotten about Ashton Kutcher hitman comedy Killers and the ensemble comedy Tower Heist. His one chance to actually be a feature director, adapting his own screenplay for the romantic comedy Rumor Has It… in 2005, found him being replaced ten days into principal photography by Rob Reiner.
Still, given what ultimately happened with the film’s production, it’s safe to say that Griffin probably thanks his lucky stars every day that he didn’t have to make Ravenous his directorial debut, as it would become one of the greatest clusterfucks in movie making history.
For a film as seemingly artful as Griffin’s screenplay purported to be, Fox 2000 executive Laura Ziskin would attach Macedonian documentarian and artist Milcho Manchevski to direct. A writer, performance artists, and experimentalist, Manchevski’s biggest “mainstream” credits to date were winning awards for directing a music video for hip hop pioneers Arrested Development (“Tennessee”) and for directing the Academy Award nominated romantic triptych Before the Rain in 1994. Needless to say, this was not a mainstream choice for a major studio production, even more so than Bird would have been had she been hired outright. At least Bird had made a Hollywood studio picture before, but more on that later.
Problems were evident in the hiring of Manchevski right from the start, and they might have been compounded by Ziskin’s appointing of Carla Hacken, an unproven and untested former agent for ICM turned Fox 2000 executive, to oversee the production in what must have been the ultimate trial by fire situation. Hacken would bounce back nicely, eventually overseeing Walk the Line, The Devil Wears Prada, and both the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Percy Jackson family franchises before leaving Fox in 2012. She then headed briefly to New Regency, her own production company Paper Pictures, and DreamWorks, before just signing a deal last week to act as President of Production at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, a job that takes effect just two days before her first gig as a producer turns 15 years old.
The same can’t be said of Manchevski, who by all accounts ran roughshod over the production from the start, handling himself as a “capital A artist” who seemed to think being handed a studio production and winning a ton of awards around the world meant he could do whatever he wanted. The least controversial part of the production (but still a problem in Manchevski’s eyes) seemed to be the casting that took a gamble on then untested Australian leading man Guy Pearce (then best known for his work in LA Confidential) as the hero, Robert Carlyle (fresh off the sleeper success of British import and multi-Oscar nominee The Full Monty), and a wide array of character actors (Jeffrey Jones, David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, John Spencer, Steve Spinella, Neil McDonough) to surround them in the modestly low budget effort that no one realized was about to become one of the worst kinds of money traps.
The biggest warning sign that Manchevski was going to be difficult to deal with should have hit Ziskin and Hacken immediately. Even before signing on and agreeing to do the film in the first place in the summer of 1997, Manchevski demanded that Fox shell out for a luxury car or convertible to be made available to him just to take the meeting. Fox declined and rented him something a bit more sensible. Whatever that car was, Manchevski somehow during his time in California managed to total the car without telling anyone at the studio and rack up an exorbitant amount in parking tickets that he then demanded the studio pay on his behalf. These are the signs people should pay attention to.
Production moved along tenuously, as a lengthy search for Canadian locations to shoot proved fruitless (and shooting in the actual Sierra Nevadas an impossibility). The shoot was to commence in January of 1998 in Prague to give the film the mountains it needed to look believable and to take advantage of the snow cover that would undoubtedly be available during the season. Then, about a week before production, the ambitiously artists Manchevski provided Fox executives with an entirely new batch of storyboards and a demand for an extra two weeks of shooting. Fox agreed to a single extra week of shooting, but according to a very detailed behind the scenes look at the film in Entertainment Weekly dated April 10th 1998, Manchevski decided to go back on his word somewhat once the first day of shooting was to commence.
Manchevski refused to meet with on-the-ground producer David Heyman or executive producer and line producer Tim Van Rellim over repeated concerns over the film’s budget and schedule. Refusing to sign off on the paperwork that would allow the project to go ahead (despite everyone already being in Prague), Manchevski lost a third of a day of production on his first day renegotiating the terms of the film.
Then, somehow, things got even worse and even more intense. Griffin, who was constantly rewriting the film in the early stages of production remarked: ”At one point things were so bad, our cigarette intake doubled. We thought, ‘We may not get the movie made, but we will get emphysema.”’ Not only was Fox and Manchevski making his job harder, but the entire setting of the film had to be rewritten because Murphy’s Law was starting to begin in full. The snowy winter they had hoped for was replaced by one of the warmest on record, so warm that the grass was still green in January. At least the mountains had believable amounts of snow on them.
Pearce wasn’t a fan of how things were going down, either. In a Random Roles interview with the Onion AV Club, he recounted: “It was a really harrowing experience making Ravenous, because there was a whole lot of shit that went down that was awful to have to deal with.”
Reports surfaced that Manchevski would only allow crew members to talk to him, voice concerns, or even approach him either at lunchtime or, very specifically from 6:15pm to 7:15pm. Shooting kept going for three full weeks with Manchevski continually making everyone unhappy until Ziskin watched the actual dailies coming back from Prague. Pissed off and fed up for the last time, she personally flew to Prague to fire Manchevski in person, a decision that pleased the production team greatly but it was a feeling that lasted only very briefly.
For what it’s worth, Manchevski has his own view of the situation. Declining to even comment via his lawyer for the aforementioned Entertainment Weekly article (which admittedly includes numerous “unnamed sources close to the production” delivering quotes that I have omitted), he did comment on the story for the film’s UK release in September of 1999 to The Independent and why he has refused to work in Hollywood since:
“It was all about who’s got a bigger dick… Ziskin was micromanaging everything I did, vetoing technicians, casting even the smallest part. Yet it was me who put together that great cast. Every day I’d get notes on the rushes from her, saying the uniforms were too dirty, or there weren’t enough close-ups of David Arquette. Then one day she just got on a plane unannounced and came over…to replace me… You couldn’t make it up; it’s beyond satire. I have to say Hollywood is full of the most miserable, unhappy people I have ever met – and I’m from the Balkans!”
The problems were not done. Pearce explains:
“The first director was fired, then they brought in another director who we felt was highly inappropriate, so we had a mutiny, and they gave in and said, ‘Who do you want to direct this movie?’ And this went on for a couple of weeks…”
Ziskin didn’t fly to Prague alone. With her she brought editor turned director Raja Gosnell to finish the production without stopping or shutting it down. Gosnell to that point had directed only one film: Home Alone 3. He was about to start production on the Drew Barrymore romantic comedy Never Been Kissed, which would assuredly alleviate Ziskin’s concerns a film not having enough close-ups of David Arquette (who, seriously, wasn’t even that big a star back then despite the success of the Scream films and who was cast in just about the most useless role in the film). It was clear by this decision of essentially bringing in a perceived hack (who would go on to make big box office successes out of Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua) that Ziskin and Fox desperately wanted to cut their potential losses by steering the film in as commercial of a direction as possible.
Despite what the crew and executives thought of Manchevski, the cast knew that Gosnell would have ruined the movie and what it was supposed to be almost immediately. They flat out went on strike for almost two full weeks while not a single frame of film was shot. And at this point, almost two years into production and after filming had already been going on for three full weeks (and about a day or two under Gosnell, who laughably DID be sure to include close-ups of Arquette that somehow did make it into the final cut of the film without anyone knowing it except possibly Ziskin) I can finally get around to talking about Antonia Bird.
A vegetarian and former TV and theatre director from the UK, Bird had made waves internationally in 1994 with the controversial drama Priest, which would win the Toronto International Film Festival’s coveted People’s Choice Award and a special Teddy award for Bird at the Berlinale, an award given out specifically to the best films dealing with LGBT issues. Priest deals with a closeted gay priest (played by Linus Roache) not only dealing with his own sexuality but also with the burden of keeping secret the identity of a young woman who confessed to being sexually abused by her father. Naturally frowned upon by the Catholic church, the film was released by Miramax quietly in the spring of 1995 (on Easter weekend in either an incredibly ballsy or incredibly stupid move), bowing to pressure from conservative groups who found the material and the implication that the church would have anything to hide to be positively incendiary. The controversy helped somewhat, with the film making almost $5 million at the box office despite never playing on more than 154 screens at its widest point. Long since out of print on traditional DVD, the film is now once again available in the States – quite inferiorly, mind you – thanks to Miramax getting in on the “burning discs on demand” market that many studios have begun to do with their lesser films.
The notices, accolades, and attention that Priest initially garnered, led to Bird oddly enough getting noticed by the Walt Disney company (which at that point had a considerable controlling distribution agreement with Priest distributor Miramax), who were looking for a director for their teen romance Mad Love, starring Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell, over at their Touchstone subsidiary. It’s not a bad little film (especially from a decade littered with unforgettable teen films with similar bents) that finds a young man in love with a girl suffering from bipolar disorder and their running away from home so they can be together. It also boasts a great supporting cast, with good, early performances from Matthew Lillard and a really sleazy Liev Schreiber, as well as great work from Joan Allen (as Barrymore’s mother) and Kevin Dunn (as O’Donnell’s dad). While there isn’t a whole lot of information available as to why Bird would take such a seemingly standard studio flick, all that is known is that once filming was completed and the controversy surrounding Priest intensified, Disney executives freaked out over the film showing any potentially controversial depictions of mental illness that it was largely edited without any input from Bird whatsoever. The results (which are long since out of print on DVD) are an interesting kind of failure with tons of squandered potential, especially since its now atonal feel makes Barrymore’s character look even crazier and O’Donnell’s look like a buffoon. It’s still better than when Disney tried to essentially remake the same film several years later with the dreadful Jay Hernandez and Kirsten Dunst starring Crazy/Beautiful.
“The main thing I learned from Mad Love was how the Hollywood studio system works.” Bird said in an unenthusiastic interview with the Onion AV Club in 1999 around the time of Ravenous’ release. “I went into Mad Love as a European naïve. I had no idea. We do things a very different way in Britain. I came into the big Hollywood system—nobody warned me what it was going to be like—and I kind of blundered my way through it. I had a great time working with Drew and Chris, but it was quite difficult, because I really didn’t know what was happening. With this one, it was quite joyous, because I really did know what was happening. For a director, 80 percent of the movie has nothing to do with directing; it’s all politics and post-production. And I know how to [deal with that] now. I know that you have to be very clear about what movie you want to make, and that it’s an industry here. In Britain, it’s not really an industry. It doesn’t gain you as much respect in the business world. Making films here is fine, as long as you understand that; you’re making something that has got to go out there and make money.”
Following Mad Love, Bird went back to work in the UK alongside Ravenous actor Robert Carlyle, with whom she would create a production company and partnership that would last the rest of her life (one that also included Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh and noted cinematic academic Mark Cousins). Carlyle, who previously made a name for himself in Bird’s first non-TV based feature as the lover of the titular Priest, would star in the heist drama, Face. It was an unexceptional, late 80s set and vaguely socialist thriller that’s largely forgettable aside from great performances from Carlyle, Ray Winstone, and an early appearance by Lena Headey.
While Face wouldn’t make it to an American theatrical release despite being backed by Universal in the UK, it did establish the solid working relationship that would lead to her coming on board Ravenous to stop the cast from walking out and Fox having to take a write off on their already overbudget and behind schedule production. Carlyle, who thanks to Trainspotting and The Full Monty had made himself a minor name in the US, was about to be lost to the next James Bond film, The World is Not Enough, where he was due to play the villain. With Ravenous in danger of losing the one bit of star power they had left, Ziskin listened to Carlyle’s suggestion to bring Bird on board.
Bird wasn’t exactly busy at the moment she got the call to talk to Fox executives. She had just spent the preceding 18 months exclusively developing a Hollywood project for Richard Gere that the actor just simply walked away from and stopped caring about (something the mercurial Gere had been known to do for decades). She was contacted three days into the work stoppage on Ravenous, and seven days later she was on set getting things back into shape.
Although she was grateful for the work, Ravenous wasn’t exactly a project that was close to her heart. She also got the suspicion while she was on set that at least to some degree, Manchevski had been “stitched up big time.” She found the new shooting schedules and demands on the material that had been imposed by the studio to be “bonkers” and “manipulative.” For whatever it’s worth, though, she was able to defuse an almost unwinnable situation by almost immediately earning the trust of an already shellshocked cast and crew.
Pearce corroborates Bird’s story that she inherited an essentially doomed project:
“But even then, the studio really was trying to gear the film in a particular direction, which was not at all the direction that I understood it to be in the beginning, so it was a very tense time, which kind of spoiled—well, maybe it added to it, I don’t know. Maybe it added to the experience.”
Add to that Bird having little say over the final cut of the film, which an increasingly skittish Fox simply wanted to be over and done with and was in full on damage control mode after the story of the film’s troubled production was blasted all over the trades. (The previously mentioned Entertainment Weekly article also brought up troubles on Fox’s Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones starring action thriller Entrapment, which had also recently fired future Training Day and Olympus Has Fallen director Antoine Fuqua two weeks into shooting, as well as MGM’s legendary troubles on the big-budget sci-fi bomb Supernova.)
Bird’s biggest complaint was that Fox was finding new ways to dumb down the film for American audiences, adding superfluous bits of narration (that were added in ADR that neither Bird nor writer Griffin knew existed until they saw the film) to explain how Pearce’s character was a coward rather than taking it on faith that the film could actually convey that point without spoon feeding it to the audience. Also particularly grating to Bird was the film’s opening that included a pair of quotes that no one had okayed that she felt just gave everything away. One from Nietzsche: “He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Right below it, and appearing with a zinger styled sound effect, the words “Eat me,” attributed to Anonymous.
“There’s this disease of thinking your audience is stupid – and they’re not.” Bird said in her part of the interview in the previously mentioned piece for The Independent. “You can go out to the poorest little town in the Mojave desert and sit in a trailer park talking to people who are smarter and brighter than you are. They happen to be bagging groceries and we’re supposed to think that they’re stupid. But they’re not stupid.”
The dumbing down of Ravenous continued with the film’s bizarre and misguided marketing campaign, that included a nonsensical poster that gave no real indication what the film might be about outside of the tagline “You are who you eat!” and a trailer (unavailable online now) that included the ultimate Hail Mary pass of only including one-liners and the most badass moments of the film set to White Zombie’s cover of “I’m Your Boogieman.” Knowing none of this would work and that Fox had much bigger films coming later in the year, the executives figuratively flipped the table on their way out of the room, dumping the film with as little fanfare and promotion as possible in March of 1999.
So after all of the 4,220 words that I just wrote about how Ravenous was one of the most doomed productions in the history of doomed productions can I say it was one of the most unjustly dismissed horror films of the late 90s and one of the best films of the often cinematically heralded year of 1999? Well, first off, the early part of 1999 was absolutely abysmal in terms of films of any real quality, so by March Ravenous didn’t have very much competition.
Second, Bird had always found in her theatrical features ways to rise above material that was already somewhat suspect to begin with. She only directed four theatrically released features in her entire career. She would retreat to TV directing after Ravenous’ failure, subsequently spending trying to get her next collaboration with Carlyle financed –a Burke and Hare styled illegal organ trader crime thriller (penned by Welsh and due to co-star Colin Firth) titled The Meat Trade – for over a decade. Still, while her unproduced projects might have yielded great works audiences never got a chance to see, she still made four well made films out of questionable material, with Ravenous emerging as the best out of all of them.
A lot can be said about how Priest was groundbreaking and boundary pushing during a time when allegations of wrongdoing in the Catholic church were just about to come out, but little is often said about how painfully and shamelessly manipulative and on-the-nose writer Jimmy McGovern’s screenplay is. It nearly sours the whole production, but instead of treading heavily into the kinds of clichés McGovern seems to be wallowing in, Bird scales things back dramatically, letting her cast act naturally and subtly in direct opposition to grandstanding material (regardless of how progressive said material is today or was at the time).
The most frustrating thing about Mad Love is that at every turn there’s a clear effort being made to produce a film about mental illness and young, foolish love that isn’t pulling any punches, but while this film comes with the best script she’s been given to work with (courtesy of fellow UK writer Paula Milne), it also clearly bears the most scars of studio tampering, even more so than Ravenous does. For every flash of vitality, it feels like a film that was test screened into oblivion and reedited to a point where people probably lost count of how many different versions of the film ended up existing (not one of which will probably ever be seen now, even after Bird’s death).
As for Face, it’s easily her weakest theatrical film with the weakest screenplay she’s been given (courtesy of Public Enemies writer Ronan Bennett), but her way with actors shows through, and the way that’s she’s able to play up the socialist tendencies of Carlyle’s leading thief adds a layer of interest that at least elevates the proceedings to a dull roar.
So what makes Ravenous so great and admirable of a film? The screenplay here by this point in the production has become such a pockmarked, redacted, and rewritten mess (through no direct fault of Griffin’s really, since I have no clue what the first draft of this looked like) that Bird is able to simultaneously make several kinds of movies at the exact same time. All great horror films that will stand the test of time offer a degree of thoughtfulness that sticks with the viewer, and Bird is able to create several different theories about her film that could all equally work and be defended without necessarily being wrong.
Jumping off from the obvious opening quote, the film begins in 1847 during the Mexican-American War as John Boyd (Pearce) is about to be awarded with a medal, a promotion from lieutenant to captain, and a hero’s dinner filled with bloody, rare, stakes with giant marrow filled bones in the centre. He’s disgusted by the plate in front of him, but he has equally disgusted his superior officers who know the truth about Boyd’s promotion and the dinner itself is a sham.
While watching his fellow soldiers getting slaughtered on the battlefield, Boyd becomes catatonic. He freezes, drops to his belly, and plays dead. He’s thrown into a pile of dead American soldiers (“The blood of my superior officers trickling down my throat”) in the film’s gristliest overall image. Awakened by the power of the blood, Boyd finds the strength to climb out from under the bodies stacked atop of him to singlehandedly take control of the Mexican held outpost.
The military dinner is a disgusting sight to behold, one that cheekily leads to Boyd leaving the table to vomit just as the film’s title appears. The meat is filmed as being as unappetizing as possible, even more unpleasant than the gore that will run down Pearce’s face in the flashback sequence that almost takes on the appearance of a candy apple-like glaze. The early point seems to be that the real gluttony to behold in Ravenous will be that of the people in power, and not of the people who are simply coming to see the film to have a gory good time, furthermore playing into Bird’s already well established and proud leanings as a somewhat socialist and subversive filmmaker. The actual violence of Ravenous is slick and cartoonish in the Grand Guignol tradition, but any meat based product being filmed while being prepared or in a bowl, human or otherwise, looks as grotesque and unsanitary as possible.
Not wanting to seem ungrateful for Boyd’s efforts, but knowing damn well that he let hundreds of innocent soldiers die, his superiors promote him and promptly ship him off to the lowest possible outpost of American military civilization at the very conclusion of his thank you dinner: the dreary outpost of Fort Spencer, California.
Nestled at the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, Fort Spencer is a rest area of sorts for the weary traveller that has just made the treacherous cross towards the west. Fort Spencer runs a skeleton crew of only 8 people in total, of which Boyd would be third in command. The kindly, but openly bored Colonel Hart (Jones) takes the lead command. His second, the chronically drunken Major Knox (Spinella) is thoroughly useless, but also happens to be the doctor. The resident man of the lord, Private Toffler (Davies) is twitchy and eager to please, but arguably the most helpful and competent person there. Resident alpha male soldier Private Reich (McDonough) isn’t exactly the most personable guy around. The cook, Private Cleaves (Arquette), is a peyote and weed addled basket case. Finally, there’s a pair of native locals, Martha and George (Sheila Tousey and Joseph Runningfox) who assist in daily upkeep, hunting, gathering, errand running, and general operations so none of the officers except for Cleaves ever have to do anything strenuous.
Fort Spencer makes for the perfect horror movie setting because it’s ultimately where all real life horror movie archetypes would pretty much go, anyway. Hart is nice, but obviously too ineffective to lead in any sort of combat capacity. Knox and Cleaves have too many vices to function properly. Reich is too hardcore to be anything but foolhardy. Toffler is too skittish to even be an effective preacher. That leaves Boyd, the coward, and the two natives who know more than the white men will.
Shortly after his arrival, a dishevelled, frightened, and malnourished man appears at Fort Spencer. Nearly dead, the solders take in the injured man. When he’s well enough to speak, the man introduces himself as F.W. Colqhoun (Carlyle), a Scottish traveller. His is a tale of woe: his wagon train was stranded nearly four months. Much like the narrative spun by Alferd Packard, the shell shocked Colqhoun tells the story of survivors forced into cannibalism to survive after eating all of the oxen, dogs, and leather goods that they had with them. He speaks of an evil Colonel Ives, the man who was to lead them, growing mad with power and hunger for human flesh. Colqhoun nearly escapes with his life, but leaves a woman behind with Ives, a decision he says he feels terrible about.
Finally seizing upon the first time the unit has been useful in months, Colonel Hart brings Boyd, Toffler, Reich, and George up the nearby mountain to the cave where Colqhoun said the final two survivors were staying and to bring Ives to justice. Feeling somewhat better and suggesting he is the only person who can lead the unit to the cave, Colqhoun agrees to go along, as well. It’s not before an admonishment from George about the Wendigo myth that they set out, which leads into the first really interesting theme of the film: people expanding into places where they don’t belong.
It’s pretty obvious from the backstory behind the production of Ravenous that a great deal of hatred to the Los Angles and Hollywood way of doing things somehow made it to the screen. In interviews, Bird described the city as one of the most cannibalistic cultures in the world. Griffin was also cognisant of this and even describes it in the film’s production notes as being the “ultimate gold rush city.” Of course the exploration of Manifest Destiny – the driving force behind the American Westward expansion that looked upon spreading the country’s borders as one of divine right – on film or in literature is nothing new, but disguising the film within a cannibalism narrative makes Ravenous an interesting addition to the canon of movies on the subject.
The film opens with a condemnation, not a celebration, of American militarism. The feeling at the hero’s dinner is positively barbarous and bullying; rabblerousing in the most simplistic and horrifying of fashions. Is Boyd really disgusted by the meat itself or by the system that forced him to eat the meat to survive in the first place? On the battlefield, Boyd’s actions are undoubtedly those of a coward, but it’s hard not to sympathize with him given his place in history. He’s completely unaware that if he doesn’t lay down his arms, he will die and that for the first time this character is seeing just how fruitless his efforts have been. He’s been sent on a fool’s errand and the thousand yard stare on his face just before dropping to his knees suggest not a man bent on self preservation, but of someone embracing fate on their own terms. If he’s going to die, it’s not going to be in one of America’s most widely criticized and even more widely forgotten about wars. Cowardace, perhaps. But it’s also a very intriguing look at one man’s refusal to become a martyr. Although given what is about to befall him in life, maybe martyrdom would have been preferable.
The only person that’s initially mistrustful of Colqhoun is George, but thanks to his status as a native and his inability to speak English, the most attention he’s able to get comes half heartedly from Boyd. George might play into the American cinematic stereotype of being the “wise Indian” (at least he isn’t mystical in any way), but his admonishment and stinger at the end of his statement when questioned by Hart as to why a cannibal could exist in polite society sells one of the movie’s major points: that the white man feasts upon the body of Christ every Sunday.
In that one moment, all of divine providence for an American Union splitting at the seams is torn asunder. The westward mission seems a hypocritical, self-fulfilling prophecy perpetrated by a barbarian horde that can’t seem to understand that the biggest challenges to their power are going to come from within. Keep in mind, as well, that this film takes place prior to the start of the American Civil War, one of the bloodiest instances of a country cannibalizing itself in world history.
On their way up the mountain, Toffler is injured and Colqhoun is suspected of licking the chaplain’s open wound, in the first tip off to the mysterious stranger’s true nature. Upon finding the cave, all hell breaks loose. Reich and Boyd look inside the cave, with Reich descending into the depths. Hart and Toffler wait outside with a now tied up Colqhoun, who is growing more agitated by the second, looking more and more like a wild beast. Inside the cave, Reich discovers the strung up skeletons of Colqhoun’s party, stripped almost completely to the bone of flesh and organs. Upon the horrific discovery, Colqhoun frees himself, stabs Hart, kills George, chases after Toffler, and eventually forces Reich and Boyd into a potentially deadly plummet. When it’s all said and done, Colqhoun has eaten Toffler and George, while Boyd remains at the bottom of a cliff with Reich’s body.
Boyd is faced with a choice. He knows that eating the flesh of Reich could help him survive and escape death once again. He also has no idea what he would be returning to. He acquiesces and returns to Fort Spencer with hopes of setting things right once again and reporting of the murders committed by Colqhoun. His return this time is less than heroic. Everyone who could corroborate his story has been killed and eaten. The local military man in charge, General Slauson (Spencer), doesn’t believe a word of it, and Knox, who stayed behind, was too drunk to even remember what Colqhoun looked like. Cleaves is useless and Martha doesn’t believe the outlandish story, either. Boyd, instead of being heard out, is remanded into custody to meet his new commanding officer at Fort Spencer… Colonel Ives, who it turns out was Colqhoun all along. (Or maybe Colqhoun adapted Ives’ persona. That part isn’t made entirely clear, but it’s also relatively immaterial for the twist reveal to work.)
At this point Ravenous abandons all shots of gorgeous mountain vistas and expansive meadows (gloriously shot by Anthony Richmond) and even the glorious score from Blur and Gorillaz founder Damon Albarn and composer Michael Nyman (a pairing that wasn’t a collaboration, but once again a matter of compromise once Bird, who was friendly with Albarn, took over. Only three compositions in the film are entirely Nyman, while another six are Albarn’s, and the remainder find Albarn simply remixing and looping work already done by Nyman.). Ravenous briefly becomes a claustrophobic two man drama anchored by a pair of exceptional performances.
Ives could kill Boyd, but yet he decides against it once the General leaves. Boyd desperately wants to kill Ives, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Once again, the pacifist and vegetarian wrestles within himself, pushing closer to the breaking point where he might also become as addicted to flesh as Ives. Carlyle does a far more believable job as Ives than he did as Colqhoun, slipping far more easily into the role of a masterful manipulator that’s essentially the devil himself. He tricked the innocent and the wicked alike into believing he was harmless and without a moment of hesitation he slaughtered them all. Ives has one driving force: survival of the fittest; an unchecked fight or flight response.
In the film’s most chilling sequence, and one that doesn’t involve a drop of bloodshed, Ives sits down with Boyd privately to discuss their shared knowledge of the pleasures of the flesh. Carlyle, with hints of relief showing as the only emotion he can muster, explains how Ives was dying of tuberculosis and was driven by a “suicidal ambition,” but how the more flesh he consumed the better he was able to feel. He knows that Boyd has experienced similar feelings of strength, but he can’t understand why Boyd doesn’t give in. Boyd claims his is the cause of true morality. Ives mocks that “Morality is the last bastion of the coward.”
And yet, the film has positioned itself quite wonderfully on a treatise that suggests that cowardice can actually work as a just reason for not going through with any potential atrocities blindly. Ives wants to break Boyd down, to make him part of the new community that will populate Fort Spencer. “We won’t kill blindly.” Ives states. “We don’t want to break up families.” Boyd has taken the divine right of the American people to inhabit all that they see and take it even further than the incestuous roles the Europeans did. What he’s talking about is eugenics in the extreme, something underlined by a throwaway line delivered by Carlyle about the cheekily, forward future, Nazi referencing named Reich being “tough to eat. But then again, a good soldier ought to be.” He has sent for Martha to go and fetch the General once more to court marshal Boyd, but what he really wants is another strong leader to bring into the cannibalistic fold.
But why exactly does Ives want to keep Boyd around if he’s a coward? He’s a coward that knows the truth about the forward progression of America. He’s a coward with analytical reasoning skills and the kind of skepticism that Ives would need to implant and bring stability to his new world order. A God can reign, but the skeptic and the doubter can make God a legend. He’s not keeping Boyd around to become a martyr or to bear witness or testify, but rather to make sure that anyone else below rank knows that they can question whatever they want about the system as long as they don’t question where the power comes from (the flesh).
Bird and Pearce throughout wisely suggest that it’s a lot harder for Boyd to resist the offer of a healthy existence in an inhospitable landscape than it might appear. There’s a very clear struggle going on, and Boyd grows increasingly weary as a result. It’s the same kind of pressure faced by someone who doesn’t drink or someone who doesn’t eat meat faces to join the hordes of imbibers and carnivores. Boyd has weighed the pros and the cons and he can’t come up with an answer that satisfies him as to why he should do something potentially immoral for the betterment of his situation and of his country. His journey is heroic every step of the way, but the film is all about perception. Was lying down the right thing to do? Maybe not, but look where it led him and how it ultimately informs his final decision. He is the virginal final girl of this scenario because of his ability to resist corruption after having already sipped from the cup of life giving, immoral decadence.
The waters get muddied a bit towards the end as the bodies continue to pile up (did you really expect a nearly mute David Arquette to survive to the end?), Hart resurfaces for seemingly little reason other than to aide Ives after going cannibal himself, and it culminates in a pretty standard horror movie showdown. But by that point, Bird has created enough of an investment to warrant having a spot of fun i a horror film that was getting off more on wits than bloodletting. It’s also fun to watch Pearce and Carlyle go at it like a pair of deranged movie monsters in a final fight that involves swords, bear traps, pitchforks, and at one point almost literally dropping a house on someone.
It’s a wildly fun note to end on considering how the rest of the film is more intellectually stimulating than it is a visceral exercise in pure terror, but even during the climactic final showdown, Bird still manages to show a fleeting shot that proves the film’s ultimate thesis about American expansion perfectly correct. A shot of General Slauson returning to find a stew prepared from the flesh of the murdered Major Knox that he unwittingly sips from, managing to smile for the only time in the film. No matter how the rest of the fight ends between lower ranking officers Ives and Boyd, Bird very satirically suggests that the view from the top has never changed.
Should we be celebrating it: I just spent 7,691 words on this. Yes. I can’t wait for the Scream Factory Blu-Ray later this year. It will be in heavy rotation.
Next week: We stay in California (now established and in the 1980s) to look at the flipside of comedic capitalism, but not cannibalism. There will be cookies, though.