The Test of Time: Ravenous (1999)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY ANTONIA BIRD

STARRING GUY PEARCE, ROBERT CARLYLE, JEFFREY JONES, JEREMY DAVIES, DAVID ARQUETTE

Say, what’s your all time favorite cannibal flick?

If you asked me, other than THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (which hardly counts), I’d surely bow to the marauding sensorial finale of Ruggero Deoadato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and the gorgeous Riz Ortolani score its set to, but honestly, that one has way too much gratuitous animal cruelty to ranks as an actual #1 favorite. More like Animal Holocaust, right? Not cool. Instead, I’ll answer it this way…

Antonia Bird’s RAVENOUS is an absolute masterpiece. Indeed, the late great London filmmaker, who easily could have made the cut of our Top 10 Female Horror Directors a couple weeks back had she made just one more horror film (we had a two-film qualifier going), left us with not only one of the most vicious and viscerally memorable cannibal joints ever assembled, but RAVENOUS doubles and perhaps triples as one of the best period-set-war-horror flicks, as well as one of the all time best Native American wendigo horror pictures. Simply put, it’s multifaceted A-list horror flick. And guess what? RAVENOUS was released in theaters 20 years ago yesterday, on March 19, 1999. You know what that means. Yup, we’re fixing to chew off a large slab of this raw bastard and see how well it tastes two decades later. Is RAVENOUS rancid nowadays? A bit stale? Or has it aged like finely salted jerky over the past two decades? It’s RAVENOUS vs. The Test of Time below!

THE STORY: Believe it or not, RAVENOUS was the first produced screenplay written by Ted Griffin (OCEAN’S ELEVEN, MATCHSTICK MEN). Even more incredible is how Antonia Bird actually replaced original Yugoslavian director Milcho Manchevski (BEFORE THE RAIN) two weeks into shooting. When Fox wanted to replace Manchevski with Raja Gosnell (HOME ALONE 3), the cast stubbornly (and quite wisely I might add) staged a mutiny to keep the man away from set. It wasn’t until star Robert Carlyle, who’s done some of his best work under Bird’s direction in FACE and SAFE etc., called Bird up directly and asked her to take the reins of RAVENOUS and shepherd the sumbitch to glory. I can’t reiterate how impressive this is, to replace a director two weeks into a shoot and still mount a mother*cking masterpiece. Simply astounding! Now, as for the actual story, word is Griffin loosely based his tale on an old episode of The Thin Man, with the Donner Party serving as another semi-inspiration.

Amid the Mexican-American war in 1847, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) receives a promotion for defeating an enemy battalion. Sent to the western Sierra Nevada Mountains in California during the winter, Boyd joins a small ragtag crew of soldiers guarding an outpost called Fort Spencer, where he’s placed third in command. First in command is General Slauson (the late great John Spencer), second in command is Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), with the other camp inhabitants including demure Chaplain Toffler (Jeremy Davies), brutal warrior Private Reich (Martin McDonough), doped-out Private Cleaves (David Arquette), drunk-ass Knox (Stephen Spinella), and two Native American siblings, George (Joseph Runningfox) and Martha (Sheila Tousey). As this motley crew freezes their asses off in the frigid Sierras, everything changes with the arrival of a famished beggar named F.W. Colqhoun (Carlyle).

Colqhoun is welcomed in and given a hot meal, at which point he relays a harrowing story of escape. He claims a madman named Colonel Ives savagely cannibalized his entire company, and that he was lucky enough to make an escape. Later that night Colqhoun wildly suckles at Toffler’s wound, informing us – and Boyd – that the man has an insatiable penchant for human blood. Shortly after, George and Martha (perhaps a reference to Washington and his regiment of Native American patricide) explain the mythic lore of the wendigo – a creature that eats human flesh, steals its power and absorbs its spirit, perpetuating this cycle as it grows hungrier the more it consumes. Boyd takes note, and when it turns out that Colqhoun is really Ives in disguise, Boyd must avenge a sneakily savage search-and-trap ploy exacted by Ives that leaves Boyd’s crew shredded in gory tatters. Most compelling is the moral conundrum Boyd finds himself in: unwilling to eat flesh to grow stronger himself, except to mount enough strength to battle Ives, but also unwilling to allow Ives to inflict any more carnage moving forward. Cue the kickass showdown and that brutal-ass bear-trap!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Straight the f*ck up, masterpieces don’t age, they appreciate. And yes, RAVENOUS is an undoubted masterpiece in my view, so to me, very little about its whole does NOT hold up these days. That said, there are clearly a number of factors that make the movie as memorable today (if not more) than it was in 1999, and they starts with the high-caliber of acting and brilliant combination of the players cast. Because the movie plays as a compelling straightforward drama first and foremost, with the horrific elements naturally unfolding out of the drama, there’s little surprise the quality of the script attracted this quality an acting troupe. Pearce, Carlyle, Jones, Davies, Spencer, McDonough, and Arquette…these cats were either top-tier stage and screen vets or at the absolute pinnacle of their careers by the time they took on RAVENOUS. Every single actor brings their own unique sensibility to their character, rendering each one as memorable as the last.

Of course, the two towering turns come courtesy of Pearce and Carlyle, both of whom were coming off scene-stealing turns in equally bona fide modern classics (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and TRAINSPOTTING). Pearce gives a riveting, near-silent performance as a man of morality who, despite being the only way to survive, will not resign to his cannibalistic urges. The only time he eats flesh on his own (Reich), he grows weaker and more ill, whereas the others who consume human flesh grow stronger, healthier and more virile. The inner-battle Boyd fights disallows the wendigo from penetrating his spirit and overtaking his body. Ives on the other hand is a craven maniac who has used the healing powers of the wendigo to overcome tuberculosis. If Pearce is the equable Jesus-like figure, then Carlyle neutralizes the goodness with his own Mephistophelean manifestation. And just like the characters, both actors kill the shite!

Also deserving of applause are the sights and sounds captured in RAVENOUS. The crisp snow-dappled cinematography by BAFTA winning Anthony Richmond (DON’T LOOK NOW, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, CANDYMAN) is simply beyond reproach. So often in a period piece it’s easy to spot the artifice, and when that happens, it immediately takes you out of the story. RAVENOUS feels as authentic as possible, yes because of the acting, but also the how genuine the visual representation of 1847 feels. The candle-light, flickering fires, warm exteriors and frigid exteriors, the dangerous mountain crags and tumbling timberline…they all help to establish a believably lived-in world without a shred of fakery. As for the genuinely unique score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman, of which there are about a dozen different compositions and assorted instrumentations, I’ve rarely heard anything as wildly disconcerting. The cave-searching scene in particular has some of the strangest and most discordant sounds I’ve ever heard, which somehow plays into the spiritual aspect of the wendigo subplot. The sounds of nature are bent, distorted and synthesized into something altogether new and downright mortifying. It's one of the most eclectic horror scores ever!

Last but not least is the actual violence. For a movie that isn’t reliant on modern technology, very little about its aesthetic has aged, and this certainly goes for the barbarous bouts of abject carnage as well. I love the way in which Bird plashes thick streaks of grue down the faces of various victims, often in close-up and without warning. Ives’ fiendish licking of Toffler’s leg-wound kicks things off, but when the crew gets to the cave and witnesses the sick savagery inflicted by Ives – glistening skeletons hanging upside down with freshly stripped flesh – is about as gnarly as one could conjure in a goddamn nightmare. Or how about Toffler’s gouged-out chest cavity later on? shite's no joke! It’s only outdone by Hart’s double homicide, first catching a hunting knife to the naval and simultaneous axe-to-the-back, then in a throat slashing ceremony in the third act when he pleasantly returns. What I really love is how Bird escalates the violence as the movie progresses, culminating in the commensurate double-kill of a medieval bear-trap in the end. We're talking timeless terror!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I got nothing. All I can muster in terms of complaints nowadays is how darkly humorous the movie starts out, only to sort of ditch the tone a bit toward the end. I mean the flick opens with a Nietzsche quote, and rebutted with the contemporary slang term “eat me!” Following that is a hillbilly musical score that connotes silliness rather than seriousness, a dynamic that is totally flipped by the end. Again, this is the most minor of whinges, and does not alter the overall standing of the movie today. Besides, there’s still a thread of dark humor laced throughout the flick, even up to Colqhoun's cheeky final words.

THE VERDICT: Yup. Having just re-watched it again, I can say with brimming confidence that RAVENOUS has not only held up unthinkably well over the past 20 years, it’s actually gotten better in many respects. And it damn sure proved itself yet again to be my personal favorite cannibal horror flick (sorry C.H.U.D.) A great story, fantastic acting, pinpoint directorial vision, top-tier photography, original soundscapes, and some of the bloodiest onscreen eviscerations ever captured…these are what make RAVENOUS forever appetizing!

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Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

5371 Articles Published

Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie.