Our review of Ravenous in 2014 was a bit pants, so we’ve redone the post and released it here again as we want to praise this brilliant, if flawed, darkly humorous horror film cult classic which 20 years ago entered into its difficult production. Directed by Antonia Bird, and released in 1999, it’s loosely based on the Donner Party Incident of 1856 and features a freezing cold, claustrophobic sense of isolation. It was forgotten and disregarded in 1999, but has developed a cult following ever since and is now considered something of a flawed gem.
It stars Guy Pearce as an anxiety-ridden army officer who is sent off to a remote army outpost in the Sierra Nevada. There he meets Robert Carlyle’s mysterious F.W. Colqhoun, who has a disturbing story to tell, which happens to involve cannibalism. From there, a quirky story of urban legends emerges with excellent performances, a highly innovative and stunning soundtrack, plus some terrific action scenes. So! Here’s the story of Ravenous, a great film which is heading for 20 and deserves a celebration.
Let’s get straight to the point: Ravenous is a brilliant and inventive film. 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 the remote Fort Spencer army outpost in the Sierra Nevadas. Here he finds a bunch of social misfits who guard the post, such as the peculiar Private Toffler, drunken Major Knox, amiable boss Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones – our theory is his character is gay, as he takes a liking to Boyd), and rambunctious but highly competent Private Reich (Neal McDonough on terrific form with his piercing blue eyes). All are at this dilapidated post due to unexplained misdemeanours.
The latest addition is Private John Boyd (Pearce). He’s clearly struggling with PTSD from the Mexican-American war, but is labelled a coward by his superiors and bunged off to Fort Spencer to rot, essentially. However, the sudden arrival of Caryle’s “servant of God” F.W. Colqhoun sends many at the outpost on a dangerous rescue mission into the mountains, which soon becomes chaotic.
The first 60 minutes are riveting – there’s a glimpse above, although be aware there’s spoilers in that! Prior to the above scene, with its spectacular mountain jumping closing shot, there’s an even more riveting cave scene which is surely one of the best moments in recent cinematic history – a visceral, thunderous, bizarrely joyous culmination of all of the character’s actions.
Ravenous does have its flaws, though, which are all in its second act. After Boyd makes his jump above, there’s a tonal shift in and more of the dark humour kicks in (which does, and doesn’t, work depending on the scene). The first hour is exceptional stuff, genuine classic cinema, but the plot loses its way and stagnates with a clumsy collection of scenes.
Thankfully, there’s a thunderous final 10 minute section of excellence which rejuvenates it to ensure this is a cult classic which simply demands to be remembered, but we do wish they’d done something a bit different after Boyd’s jump. A tense cat-and-mouse type affair between Boyd and Colqhoun could have worked. As you’ll see below, though, it’s simply remarkable the film was made (and to such a high standard) at all!
Before we discuss the production problems, we should mention Ravenous is perhaps best known for its exceptional soundtrack. 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, drums, and folk songs.
The brilliant cave scene is particularly memorable thanks to the music – it relies on thundering percussion to hammer up an incredible sense of impending doom and tension, with the dramatic Private Reich unearthing a shocking secret as the music swells. This is simply one moment in a selection of inspired compositions which complement the film perfectly.
The film flopped, unfortunately, both commercially and with the critical reaction. 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 cinema-goers, 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 in places, particularly 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, though, but it’s surprising to see many cinema-goers still don’t get it. Checking online forums, such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, 19 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 in 1999 Ravenous’ quirky mix of humour, horror, 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, so it’s now being considered in a different light.
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 almost 20 years on from his first viewing it’s fantabulous to see the film finally receiving a reappraisal. With a DVD release and its appearance on the likes of Netflix, 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 was also made available. This time out the critical reaction was one of acclaim, with many 4/5 reviews across the board. Hurray, it’s a miracle! As much of a miracle as what Antonia Bird did for Ravenous and it’s her we have to thank for a brilliant cult classic.