March 9, 2017
Last month, Cinema Fearité paid tribute to female filmmakers for Women in Horror Month by diving into Mary Harron’s American Psycho, Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary, and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker. Thanks to the untimely passing of Bill Paxton, we got a little sidetracked last week with our remembrance of Frailty. Well, better late than never; we’re back on track to wrap up Women in Horror Month by taking a look at Antonia Bird’s 1999 cannibalism movie Ravenous.
Set in 1847 during the Mexican-American war, Ravenous is about an American solider named Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce from The Rover and Lawless) who survives the slaughter of his unit by playing dead. While at the bottom of a pile of bodies, some human blood drips into his mouth, giving him the strength and fortitude to capture an entire enemy outpost by himself. He is promoted, but the cowardice that led to his triumph gets him re-assigned to Fort Spencer, a tiny camp in the middle of the Sierra Nevadas led by a soft man named Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
Soon after Boyd arrives, a stranger named F.W. Colqhoun (Trainspotting’s Robert Carlyle) shows up, claiming to be the last living member of a wagon train that got lost in the show and whose leader, one Colonel Ives, turned to cannibalism to survive. A search party goes out looking for more survivors, but are warned by their Native American scout, George (Joseph Running Fox from Geronimo), that one who tastes the flesh of another human becomes a Wendigo, cursed with an insatiable hunger for more flesh. When the troop gets to the wagon train’s last stop, they realize that Colqhoun is not who he claims to be, and that things are much worse than they initially imagined.
Antonia Bird (Priest) directed Ravenous from a script by Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven). The story switches gears throughout its course, but never feels schizophrenic or uneven. It goes from western to mystery, from slasher flick to supernatural horror movie, and ends with an epic climactic action fight scene, all held together with plenty of well-crafted expositional dialogue nuzzled in between the bloody parts. It’s a bit like The Revenant meets Cannibal Holocaust with snippets of My Dinner with Andre, if you can imagine that.
Interestingly enough, Bird was not the producers’ first, or even second, choice to direct Ravenous. Milcho Manchevski (Before the Rain) was the initial director, but he was fired two weeks into filming for constantly changing the vision of the film. Manachevski’s replacement, Raja Gosnell (Scooby-Doo), was short-lived as well, rumor having it that the cast itself rebelled against him. Having worked with her before, actor Robert Carlyle recommended Bird for the gig, and the rest is Ravenous history.
Ravenous has a female director, but the cast is very dude-centric. In addition to Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, and Jeffrey Jones, the camp’s denizens include rough-and-tumble guys like David Arquette (Scream, Bone Tomahawk), Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan), Neal McDonough (Captain America: The First Avenger), and Steven Spinella (Rubber). There is but one lone woman, the Indian tracker George’s Native American sister, Martha (Sheila Tousey from Lord of Illusions), who is essentially one of the guys, showing many times throughout the film that she’s tough enough to hang with the big boys. There are no virginal final girls or promiscuous slasher-fodder hussies in Ravenous; Antonia Bird had to keep a whole lot of testosterone in check on that set.
Set in the mountains during the dead of winter, it goes without saying that Ravenous is a very cold movie. It ranks right up there with The Hateful Eight and The Thing when it comes to making its audience feel the chill. It’s a Czech film, so the frozen Tatra Mountains of Slovakia stand in for the Sierra Nevadas, and they do it convincingly. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (Don’t Look Now, Candyman) embraces the snowy landscape and frigid climate by showing the characters in wide shots when they’re outside, letting the viewer see and feel the hard, snow-covered terrain. It doesn’t help warm anyone up that one of the characters, Neal McDonough’s manly Private Reich, toughens himself up by bathing naked in an icy river. Internal scenes use motivated light to look natural, so there’s still a frosty look to the picture, even when the characters are being warmed by a raging fire. Bring a jacket when you see Ravenous, because Antonia Bird and Anthony B. Richmond will make you feel it.
The music for Ravenous was composed by Damon Albarn (from the British band Blur) and Michael Nyman (Gattaca, The Piano). Rather than collaborating on the score, Albarn and Nyman split the duties roughly in half, with Nyman handling the traditional cinematic stuff while Albarn provided the more experimental, electronic bits. Nyman’s contributions to the score include everything from period fiddle-and-banjo pieces to percussion and Native American chanting. Albarn’s pieces, on the other hand, range from abrasive guitar-and-synth noise to almost 8-bit video game-like tunes. As strange as all that sounds, it all fits. Like the rest of the movie, the music in Ravenous doesn’t sound schizophrenic, even though it probably seems like it should.
Sadly, Antonia Bird passed away from cancer in 2013, right as she was about to start work on a segment for the all-female-directed anthology XX, so Ravenous is and will most likely remain her best-known work. It’s worth checking out, and not just during Women in Horror Month. In fact, don’t just watch female-helmed horror movies during February, the shortest month of the year…enjoy Women in Horror all year long.