Face-Off: Ravenous vs. Bone Tomahawk

I've always loved the idea of movies mixing the horror and Western genres together. Unfortunately, it's not something that happens all that often (and when it does happen, the results aren't always of the highest quality), but the thought of stories about monsters and maniacal murderers being set in the Old West is fascinating to me. This weekend's release of the Western remake THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN gave me the excuse to take a look at a pair of horror / Western mash-ups that both feature impressive casts that include David Arquette, cannibal villains, and a quirky sense of humor - Antonia Bird's RAVENOUS (1999) and S. Craig Zahler's BONE TOMAHAWK (2015).
America, 1847. An act of cowardice during a Mexican-American War battle gets Army soldier Boyd exiled to the mountain outpost Fort Spencer. After the survivor of a group of travelers who got trapped in a cave and had to resort to cannibalism shows up at the fort, the Native American Wendigo legend turns out to be very true - those who eat human meat absorb the essence of their fellow man. With cannibals planning to use the fort as a way to trap and feed on more travelers, the cowardly Boyd will need to work up the bravery to thwart their schemes in this oddball tale.
America, the 1890s. When a criminal drifter who has desecrated the graveyard of a tribe of cannibals shows up in the small town of Bright Hope, it's not long before he gets wounded by the local sheriff and locked up in a jail cell. The cannibals follow close behind him, snatching him from the jail and taking a deputy and a doctor's assistant with him. A four man search and rescue party is assembled and heads out into the desert to find the tribe and retrieve the captives from their clutches. A harrowing journey builds up to an exciting, violent climax.
Intriguing characters played by the likes of David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, Stephen Spinella, Neal McDonough, Joseph Runningfox, and Sheila Tousey come and go at Fort Spencer, but the hero we're stuck with is Guy Pearce as Captain John Boyd, a coward who only gains some intestinal fortitude once he has consumed human meat or blood. Boyd is a rather ineffectual fellow, so useless it can be frustrating at times. It takes until the film's final moments for him to finally step up and become a character worth rooting for.
The search and rescue group is an interesting bunch brought to life by an awesome cast. Kurt Russell delivers a reliably badass performance as Sheriff Hunt; Richard Jenkins is hilarious as his dim-witted, elderly deputy Chicory; Matthew Fox is vain and arrogant Indian hunter Brooder; and Patrick Wilson's O'Dwyer pushes through the excruciating complication of a broken leg to save his wife Samantha, the doctor's assistant. Relative newcomer Lili Simmons also makes a great impression as the knowledgeable Samantha.
Although others partake in human meat over the course of the film, the primary villainous cannibal in this film is Robert Carlyle as Colqhoun (or is it Ives?). This guy is a master manipulator who can get most around him to believe any yarn he spins and a devilish figure who tries to lure others into becoming cannibals. Colqhoun/Ives is a great character and Carlyle is captivating in the role.
Described as troglodytes, a "spoiled bloodline" of Native Americans, inbred monsters who rape and kill without discrimination, the tribe of cannibals in this film is strange and terrifying. They are quick and capable beyond expectations, almost wiping out our heroes in one attack before they're even seen. Everything about them is appalling, even the way they breed is horrific.
There is a strong, dark sense of humor running through RAVENOUS from its opening moments, when Nietzsche's quote about staring into the abyss is accompanied by another quote: "Eat Me" - Anonymous. Whether it's incongruous music, clever dialogue, the behavior of David Arquette's perpetually stoned character, or the goofy sight of Boyd falling to the floor and cowering at the sight of Colqhoun/Ives, there are a lot of laughs to be found in this film. It's not outright comedy, but it knows the material is absurd.
The humor in BONE TOMAHAWK comes through character interactions, particularly those involving Chicory: he uses his age as an excuse for forgetfulness, he ponders how to read a book in the bath, he believes a flea circus is real. Brooder also provides some laughs through his uppity attitude, my favorite moment being when he says he's the smartest person in the search party because he has never been married. Intelligent men don't get married, even if women regularly invite them over for dessert.
A lot of people get killed, cooked, and eaten as this story plays out, allowing for some good moments of gore. There are shootings, knifings, sword slashings, and falls off cliffs, all building up to a brutal climactic fight between two characters infused with the essence of people they have eaten.
When violence flares up in BONE TOMAHAWK, it is hard-hitting and often bloody. There are gunshots aplenty, slashings, guttings, arrow wounds, and unconventional surgical procedures. A scene in which the cannibals are preparing their next meal offers a gory effect that ranks up there with some of the worst things seen in the Italian cannibal films of yesteryear.
I have been a fan of RAVENOUS for seventeen years now, but when it's put head-to-head with BONE TOMAHAWK I have to give the win to TOMAHAWK. While I love the quirky strangeness of Bird's film, I find that Zahler's movie has the better characters overall, people that you care about more than Boyd and his cohorts, which makes their plight all the more engrossing. One takes the victory over the other in these categories, but RAVENOUS and BONE TOMAHAWK are both great films that I highly recommend.

Do you think BONE TOMAHAWK is the tastier treat here, or do you prefer RAVENOUS? Leave a comment below letting us know your thoughts on these two films and on horror/Western mash-ups in general. If you have any suggestions for future Face-Off articles, I'd be glad to hear them. You can send me an email at [email protected].



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