I do not judge movies by their box-office take, and anyone who does should reconsider their approach to film. Just because something makes buckets of cash does not mean it’s quality (see: every Transformers movie). The same goes for a box office flop. If a film fails to perform at the box office it doesn’t automatically make it bad, it could just mean the film failed to find its audience.
However, if we were here to judge a film by its box office intake, 1999’s cannibal horror/dark comedy Ravenous would be an embarrassment. The film had a budget of “reportedly” $12 million. Here’s a secret: not always, but often, when a film’s budget is listed as “reportedly,” it means it cost much more than the studio is willing to let on. So with the “reported” budget of twelve million dollars, how much did Ravenous take in? $2,062,405. It’s opening weekend, it finished in eighteenth place. Eighteenth place, in box office lingo, is tantamount to: “that movie shouldn’t have even bothered to be released.”
Most critics were mixed on the film, with the late Roger Ebert being one of the few positive reviews. And then Ravenous faded away. After time, it began to build up a slow cult following, and these days it’s fairly well respected as a cult hit. Scream! Factory just put a long-awaited Blu Ray for the film, to boot. But even with its cult status, the film is still woefully unknown by most–and those unaware are really missing out.
So what happened with Ravenous at the box office? I’ll be the first to freely admit this is not a film for everyone, but for it to bomb so badly seems almost like an injustice to me. Of course, the true nature of any cult classic is that the film was not a success with mainstream audiences, but with a very vocal minority—that’s what makes it a “cult” movie. Still, I can’t help but feeling Ravenous could’ve done just a tad bit better when it was released. Part of the films failure lies in advertising: when you have a film this weird and different, studios do not quite know how to sell it.
The marketing department’s over-reliance on David Arquette was problematic. Arquette became relatively popular amongst horror franchises in 1996 when Scream successfully breathed new life into the slasher genre. I remember several trailers for Ravenous featuring seemingly endless scenes of Arquette’s dimwitted character laughing like a loon while smoking a peace pipe. And while this is in the movie itself, Arquette’s character is so minor that if he were cut entirely from the film it wouldn’t effect things one iota. His constantly stoned Private Cleaves seems like an anachronism in the film, and I wish they had re-thought this character before including him, especially because seeing Arquette giggling annoyingly in trailers don’t exactly sell the movie that well.
Ravenous is a horror film about cannibalism, and there are not many movies in the genre that deal with that particular topic. There are of course the Hannibal Lecter films, but even there, the cannibalism is more in the background; it’s more like a character trait for Hannibal rather than the force driving the narrative (although the excellent TV show Hannibal has made a lot more use of the cannibal themes). Ravenous’s cannibalism is steeped in myth and stylish flourishes; eating another human being isn’t just grotesque in the film—it actually gives the eater a sort of superhuman, otherworldly power, and is akin almost to vampirism.
Set in the 1840s, during the days of the Mexican-American War, Ravenous is the story of Army Lieutenant Boyd (Guy Pearce). Boyd is a coward, plain and simple. While in the midst of a battle, he literally plays dead, laying down on the ground while his men around him scream his name for help. The film does an excellent job of establishing all of this as flashback mixed amongst “current” goings-on. Boyd is being decorated as a hero, and is in the middle of a huge banquet when he begins to have traumatic flashbacks to his cowardice. The very act of eating is presented here as something disgusting. Director Antonia Bird (who sadly only made one more film after Ravenous—2012’s Cross My Mind—before dying in 2013 from thyroid cancer) instantly proves how stylish a director she could be; never before have I been so disgusted by the sight of people eating meat. We haven’t even gotten to the cannibalism yet, but the very act of seeing several soldiers dig into some extra bloody steaks is played up in a horrifyingly hilarious manner. The sound editing and quick cutting between the blood-soaked steaks and the extreme close-ups on human mouths chewing away is enough to make even unapologetic meat-eaters like myself consider taking up vegetarianism. (I should also note that director Bird was a vegetarian, which is probably why she does such a great job making meat look so disgusting).
During this feast, we learn how the cowardly Boyd was crowned a hero: after his stunt of playing dead, his “dead body” was taken behind enemy lines, and real corpses were stacked on top of him. The blood of his (former) commanding officer drips down into Boyd’s mouth, and just like a vampire, Boyd finds new strength within. He’s able to single-handled capture the Mexican command. Boyd’s heroic status is short-lived: his current commanding officer General Slauson (the late, great John Spencer) sees through Boyd and sends him into exile. Boyd is now stationed at Fort Spencer in the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains, which is home to seven other people, all of them outcasts and failures like Boyd. There’s the bumbling Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) who is in charge; the constantly drunk Major Knox (Stephen Spinella); Private Reich (Neal McDonough), who takes being a soldier very, very seriously; the frail, annoying, super-religious Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), and the complete idiot Private Cleaves (David Aqruette, who is without a doubt the weakest link the film). There’s also two Native American’s living at the fort: George (Joseph Runningfox) and his sister Martha (Sheila Tousey).
Despite Boyd’s exile to the dreary fort, he finds himself getting along fairly well with Colonel Hart, and seems ready to settle into his new bleak existence. Things change rapidly, however, when a mysterious stranger name F.W. Colqhoun arrives. Played by Robert Carlyle, Colqhoun is near-death and recounts his story to the soldiers: much like the real-life Donner party, Colqhoun was part of a wagon train that got lost in the mountains, mostly due to a terrible guide named Colonel Ives. They all take shelter in a cave, and before long, with no more food to speak of, Colqhoun’s fellow travelers are resorting to cannibalism to survive. First they are only eating the people who have died of natural causes, but it’s only a matter of time before they all begin turning on each other and resorting to murder for more meat.
Colqhoun claims he fled for his safety, leaving behind Ives and another woman. The soldiers at Fort Spencer decided they need to investigate, and plan to set out to find the cave. George, however, is wary: all this talk of cannibalism had reminded him of the legend of the Wendigo. The Wendigo is a character that horror movies have sadly not made the most of, which has always baffled me. There’s so much rich material there to fashion a fantastic horror story, and yet it’s never been put to good use. There’s some good exploration of it in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, but almost all mentions of the Wendigo are excised from the film adaptation of the novel. The long and short of the myth states that if someone eats the flesh of another human being, the evil spirit that is the Wendigo possess them, turning them more monster than man.
Soon the soldiers have reached the cave, and what a mistake that turns out to be, because this entire thing is a trap set by Colqhoun, who it turns out really is the villainous Colonel Ives he was talking about in his story. He kills everyone in the party, except Boyd. Boyd continues to reveal how much a coward he is, because when he’s face to face with Colqhoun/Ives at the edge of a cliff, rather than fight the cannibal, Boyd throws himself off the cliff. He survives the fall, but suffers a compound fracture on his leg, and ends up trapped in a pit with the corpse of Private Reich. Boyd’s survival instinct eventually kicks in, and to finally escape from the pit, he resorts to cannibalism. The cannibalism miraculously helps heal his wounds and he’s able to eventually make it back to Fort Spencer. His problems aren’t over though, because now he has an almost unquenchable taste for human meat, and Colqhoun/Ives returns to the fort, now fully embracing his Colonel Ives identity and acting as the new commanding officer. All of the soldiers who met Ives when he stumbled into camp are now dead, so no one believes Boyd’s story, and soon Boyd and Ives are locked in a battle to death as Ives plans to turn Fort Spencer into sort of a 19th century cannibal fast-food joint, where settlers expanding across the country under the belief in Manifest Destiny will be turned into easy meals. The last half of the film is an endless, bloody, brutal and often hilarious fight to death as the two cannibals lay waste to each other.
Ravenous is a weird movie, plain and simple. It has an almost gleefully dark tone mixed with broad, goofy humor. I can understand that this alone might be enough to turn people off; watching the film, some may wonder, “What kind of movie is this? Is it a comedy? Is it horror? What the hell is going on? Why is the music so weird??” Ravenous isn’t interested in declaring what type of movie it is. It’s content to be anything it wants to be. There’s also no discernible character to root for in the film. Boyd is our main character, so we identify with him, but his cowardice makes him unlike your traditional movie hero. He never even really overcomes this; the only way he’s able to be more confident and successful is by eating other people, so that’s not exactly something we the audience can strive to. This is all part of what makes the film so unique and wonderful.
Whereas Boyd is conflicted with his newfound hunger for humans, Colqhoun/Ives relishes every second of it. Robert Carlyle is clearly having a ball with this character, and while there are a few occasions where he goes over-the-top, it all works perfectly in tune with the character. Watching Pearce and Carlyle play off each other is a treat to behold, and the climactic battle between the two is delightful in its absurd brutality. Since both men have been made, more or less, unstoppable by their cannibalism, they are able to inflict insane amounts of damage to one another without really slowing down. Apparently, the ending fight was scripted to be much more elaborate, with fire burning around the two men as they fought on rooftops. But the two actors instead came up with the idea of just beating each other mercilessly, to the point that the prop department ran out of fake blood. It’s that type of gleeful abandon that sets Ravenous apart from most movies.
Cannibalism may not be an enjoyable subject for the average viewer, but the way Ravenous treats the act of eating others is in a darkly humorous manner. These characters may be cannibals, but they have a sense of humor about their cannibalism, with cute little lines like, “It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends…” The mystical approach to the cannibalism also makes it more palatable (easy with those puns!). Eating people gives these characters superhuman strength and healing powers–sort of like Wolverine, if he ate people. There’s even a nice tongue-in-cheek (does that count as a cannibal pun? sure, why not) reference to Christianity’s cannibal parallels, where, when George finishes telling the story of the Wendigo and cannibalism, he’s asked: “People don’t still do that, do they?” George answers: “White man eats the flesh of Christ every Sunday.”
As for the other aspects of the film, the soundtrack, by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman, is just as unrestrained and different as the film. Full of weird, experimental sounds and tones, it expertly conveys the type of movie we are watching, and feels almost like a character unto itself. The film’s 19th century setting also plays a big part in the uniqueness of the film. I don’t know of many modern horror movies set during this time, especially taking place within the confines of the army. The cinematography, framing the snowy mountains and the endless landscape, is breathtaking. Fort Spencer is portrayed in such a lovely, lonely manner; the isolation feels real. The acting from the two leads is pitch-perfect. Robert Carlyle is clearly having a blast in his role, and Guy Pearce plays Boyd with a quiet understated-ness that is slowly peeled away the more hellish his circumstances get. A part of me wishes this film had launched a franchise, because I could watch Carlyle and Pearce battle each other for several more films.
Ravenous is a horror film that feels as if it would be perfect for both horror and non-horror fans. The horrific elements are all in place, but the tired tropes that dominate most horror movies are not present. There are no jump-scares to be found here; there are no real “scares” of any sort—the horror is more psychological, mixed with the occasional gore and grossness that, while graphic, is never done to the point of excessiveness. It’s the type of film worth introducing people to. I’m always a little thrilled when I meet someone who doesn’t know about this movie; I urge them to seek it out and give it a try—even if they don’t like it, there’s bound to be something about the film that intrigues them just a little bit. Ravenous is underrated, and it’s worth seeking out immediately.