Saturday, February 20, 2010
#79: Ravenous (Antonia Bird, 1999)
I really like this movie. Antonia Bird's 1847-set vampire/cannibalism/western horror film shares some affinities with other films I greatly admire, including John Carpenter's remake of The Thing and, oddly enough, Robert Altman's western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It's a story of (mostly) men, isolated in the wilderness, stalked by something strange they've unwittingly invited. (Of course, Altman's movie doesn't have any horror elements, but it's set in the same time period and includes wintry isolation, psychological torment, and encroaching death.) All three films contain plenty of humor as well, and some starkly beautiful shots of the landscape. It's the McCabe & Mrs. Miller of cannibalism movies! Feel free to use that on the poster.
Ravenous, one of the unfortunately few horror films directed by a woman, had a successful debut at the Sundance Film Festival before being stupidly marketed as a parody comedy by the geniuses at Hollywood, USA, marketing division. It flopped. The film is definitely funny, but it's a dark humor, and the copious gore and eerie tension probably turned off audiences who thought they were getting Dracula: Dead and Loving It 2 or Hot Shots, Part Trois. I have little sympathy for either the movie studio distributing this film or the misguided initial audience, but I wish the filmmakers had received a better shake. At any rate, the movie exists and all that other stuff is ancient history.
Ravenous opens with Guy Pearce getting a demotion to a third-in-command position at an isolated northern California outpost. Without giving too much away, I will say that Pearce's demotion is a tricky business. He showed some initial cowardice but his eventual bravery caused a victory, so the bigwigs in the military aren't quite sure what to do with him. The outpost is populated by other military undesirables who aren't quite undesirable enough to be discharged. There's a bookish, practical, and humorously cynical first-in-command (Jeffrey Jones), an alcoholic veterinarian acting as the outpost's doctor (Stephen Spinella), a young minister who's a little slow and a little nuts (Jeremy Davies), an overly gung-ho soldier (Neal McDonough), a peyote and peace-pipe freak (David Arquette), and a brother and sister who are members of the region's native tribe (Joseph Runningfox and Sheila Tousey). Into this orbit comes an emaciated, disoriented Scottish settler (Robert Carlyle), who tells them a disturbing story about how he ended up lost in the wilderness. Freaky, unexpected, and awesome things happen after this, and I don't want to give any of them away.
What sounds like an annoying collection of "quirky" characters is mostly excellently and naturally underplayed by the fine cast. Davies and Arquette are the weak links, with Davies doing his usual horribly mannered schtick and Arquette doing his usual not very good actor thing. Fortunately, they are sparingly used. Carlyle, Pearce, and Jones get most of the attention, deservingly. Jones is dry and funny, Pearce effectively manifests his character's multiple physical changes, and Carlyle is just awesome.
I have a soft spot for period piece horror movies, but Ravenous succeeds on its own terms. The cast is mostly solid, the characters are fleshed-out (har-de-har) and interesting, the movie is genuinely scary and funny, the genre and sub-genre elements (horror, vampire, cannibalism, western, black comedy) are skillfully handled, the atypical electronic score by Michael Nyman and Blur's Damon Albarn sometimes ratchets up the tension and sometimes distances itself from the action, and the whole thing is just fun to watch. There are a couple of ridiculous exposition-heavy scenes, but mostly director Bird does everything right.
Bird, a British director, inherited this project when original director Milcho Manchevski was fired. Mostly a veteran of British television series and TV movies, Bird has directed three other features besides Ravenous: the Catholic Church-baiting drama Priest, the Chris O'Donnell/Drew Barrymore vehicle Mad Love (huh?), and the crime thriller Face. Somebody give her another horror film, please.
Fun fact: Though this film is set in northern California, it was actually filmed in Czech Republic.
Another fun fact: This movie will make you want to eat people! Eleven thumbs up!