Ravenous – we’re here to praise this brilliant, if marginally flawed, darkly humorous horror film cult classic. Released in 1999, it’s loosely based on the Donner Party Incident of 1856 and features a freezing cold, claustrophobic sense of isolation. It’s been forgotten and disregarded over the years, but we’re eager to redress the balance!
It stars Guy Pearce as an anxiety-ridden army officer who is sent off to a remote army outpost in the Sierra Nevada. Here he meets Robert Carlyle’s mysterious FW Colquhoun who has a rather intriguing story to tell – one involving cannibalism. We’ll leave the synopsis there as we hate spoilers, but the film’s top-notch entertainment, but sadly met with a muted response from critics. Here’s the story of Ravenous, the great film that has only just been recognised as great.
We don’t often behave in a sincere way on the Professional Moron blog. Today is an exception. We’re doing an honest cinema review of one of our top 10 favourite films. We’re surprised it’s taken us over two years to bring this film up as we do love it very much indeed.
Let’s get straight to the point: Ravenous is a brilliant and innovative film with an excellent set of performances complemented by a wonderful soundtrack. It features a quirky blend of violence, humour, and existential dismay, helped along by tremendous acting from Pearce and, in particular, Carlyle (fresh from his remarkable turn as psychopath Begbie in Trainspotting – 1996).
It’s a dastardly tale of cannibalism which sees Carlyle’s character arrive at a remote army outpost in the Sierra Nevadas. There is a quirky bunch of misfits who guard the post, evidently sent there due to a misdemeanour of some sort. The latest addition is Private John Boyd (Guy Pearce), who is clearly struggling with PTSD from the Mexican-American war but is labelled a coward by his superiors.
This sets the scene for all manner of tense antics, as Caryle’s “servant of God” F.W. Colqhoun leads the outpost’s troops on an increasingly dangerous rescue mission into the mountains, where his motives soon become questionable. The first 60 minutes are riveting, with what should be considered the legendary cave scene surely one of the best moments in cinema history – a visceral, thunderous, bizarrely joyous culmination in all of the character’s actions.
We’re not mindless sycophants who fail to see fault in things we love, though. The film has flaws which we shall address early on in this retrospective review – they’re all in the film’s second act. The first hour is exceptional stuff, genuine classic cinema, and then the plot loses its way and stagnates a bit, before a bombastic final 10 minute section of excellence rejuvenates it to ensure this is a cult classic which simply demands to be remembered.
The film is perhaps best known for its exceptional soundtrack – really, why can’t all movie soundtracks be this brilliant? Damon Albarn (of Blur fame) and Michael Nyman composed it, with heavy emphasis on the Western time period. Instruments include the banjo, but with rhythmic loops, elements of electronics, looped percussion, and folk songs.
There’s the brilliant cave scene in particular, which relies on thundering percussion to hammer up an incredible sense of impending doom and tension, with Ravenous’ dramatic Private Reich (Neal McDonough) unearthing a shocking secret as the music swells. This is simply one moment in a selection of inspired compositions which complement the movie quite wonderfully.
Why Did Ravenous Fail?
Critics at the time didn’t understand the film at all and many panned it. The unusual mix of violence, cannibalism, unconventional music, and dark humour didn’t swing for the world of 1999. Unfortunately, this negative response fed down to cinemagoers, and few saw the film.
It was never going to be the box office hit of the year, but why did it fail so badly? Why did critics lambaste a film which is obviously so excellent, particularly in its first hour? It’s not a standalone case, of course, there are plenty of excellent films which arrive and are then promptly ignored. In the case of Ravenous, however, its failings can partially be traced back to its marketing.
Whichever marketing team got behind the film used corny, clichéd language: “You are who you eat” and “Prepare for the ultimate food scare”. There are a few sentences in the film which rely on this type of language, but to make this a central point of the trailer gave the film a hammy, corny, awkward horror flick. This type of cheesy humour is rarely in the film.
To be fair to all involved with Ravenous, the whole production was beset with problems. The first director quit two weeks in, leaving Robert Carlyle to desperately suggest Antonia Bird as a replacement. She took the job, and turned a near disaster into a flawed gem – in one week she turned everything around! Robert Carlyle explains her brilliant contribution below.
Sadly, the combination of problems mentioned led to Ravenous bombing at the box office, and it kind of disappeared without a trace. Over the years it has attained a cult following, but it’s surprising to see many cinemagoers still don’t get it. Checking online forums, such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, 15 years on we’ve identified some of the criticisms.
A lot of anger (and we mean genuine vitriol – online users get VERY ANGRY) is aimed at the really rather brilliant Damon Albarn soundtrack and its unconventional use. In one scene, not giving away plot details, one character has massacred a group of people. He then proceeds to chase a terrified individual with a knife as a jaunty folk ballad plays.
Cinema conventions would normally place a bombastic orchestra beating out the horror of the scene, so many people (and journalists) who watched Ravenous couldn’t comprehend it represented the murderer’s delighted perspective.
Innovation can often fall flat when people expect the norm, unfortunately, and Ravenous’ quirky mix of humour, horror, poignancy, anxiety, claustrophobia, and lack of cinema conventions failed to connect with bemused hacks and audiences. Thankfully, in 2014, its release on Blu-Ray saw it receive something of a resurgence.
Luckily for Mr. Wapojif, back in 1999 his sister (Miss. Wapojif) saw it at a cinema in Manchester. Mr. Wapojif soon saw it himself on video (he was too young to see it in the cinema, it’s an 18). Yes, we mean video. VHS. Those big awkward tape things that we were all lumbered with for two decades. Way before DVDs and online streaming was even a consideration.
Since then, Mr. Wapojif has seen the film many times, and 15 years on from his first viewing it’s fantabulous to see the film finally receiving a reappraisal. With a DVD and its appearance on Netflix UK briefly, it’s found a new audience, its cult status has grown, and more people are aware of its excellence.
Sadly, director Antonia Bird died in late 2013, but a Blu-Ray release for Ravenous has just been made available. This time out the critical reaction has been one of acclaim, with many 4/5+ reviews across the board. Hurray, its a Christmas miracle! As much of a miracle as what Antonia Bird did with this film, and it’s her we have to thank for a brilliant cult classic.