March 22, 2018 This Week In Horror Movie History – Ravenous (1999)
This week in Horror movie history, on Friday, March 19, 1999, humanity’s guilty fascination with cannibalism was abruptly reawakened. Since time immemorial, the eating of human by human has repulsed, aroused, intrigued, and in some cases, sustained. The religious condemn it, the erudite study it, the morbid fantasize about it, and the depraved participate. Director Antonia Bird prodded this dormant, shameful curiosity into a stirring and violent period satire called Ravenous, which has since enjoyed a place at the table among the most beloved and underrated Horror films in the history of the genre.
Ravenous only recouped approximately $2 million of its estimated $12 million budget in box office sales, but Heyday Films and 20th Century Fox produced a picture that is beloved to Horror fans, against all odds. It retains a timeless, photogenic quality due to its historic setting and production design. Though largely shot in the pristine woods of Slovakia, it is not difficult to imagine the resemblance to old, uncharted America. Screenwriter Ted Griffin was inspired by the stories of 19th century cannibal prospector, “Alferd” Packer, as well as the ill-fated Donner wagon party, whose legends are captivating even to this day.
The story is unique in that it follows a character who initially would not deserve his story told. If it were not for the events of the succeeding 95% of the film, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce: Memento 2000, Iron Man 3 2013), lucky coward of the United States Armed Forces in the Mexican War, would die in virtual anonymity. He would be crudely memorialized, if at all; the grave site would quickly be overgrown and, like his memory, his marker would disappear into the strata.
However, that was not to be his fate: Boyd is reassigned to a distant frontier outpost in California called Fort Spencer. There, he meets a detachment of odds-and-ends soldiers who, like Boyd himself, the Army cannot discharge but won’t prominently display to proper company. They are essentially a placeholder—a sloppily-written bid in the silent auction for mid-19th century America. Fort Spencer is populated by drunks, addicts, religious objectors, Native friendlies, and cowards. In short, they are easy pickings for what comes next.
A man known as F.W. Colqhoun, played by a brilliantly wild-eyed Robert Carlyle (28 Weeks Later 2007, Once Upon a Time series), arrives, weather-worn and catatonic, at the gates of the Fort Spencer. After he is revived, he regales the unit with a bleak tale of despair, cowardice, and eventually cannibalism. Sensing a duty to confirm Colqhoun’s story and rescue any survivors, the commanding officer of the fort, Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 1986, Sleepy Hollow 1999) assembles a group and they set out to that cursed place where Colqhoun’s story took place.
Upon arrival, Colqhoun’s story instantly unravels as it is revealed that he ate his entire wagon train party, leaving only bones. From there, the film spirals into a turbo-violent frenzy of deception and anthropophagy on the western front. It culminates in one of the most brutal and clumsy fight scenes ever between Boyd and Colqhoun, who have discovered life’s profane cheat code: consume the flesh, consume the power.
Original director, Milcho Manchevski, who prior to 1999, directed Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Before The Rain (1994), was tapped for Director and promptly submitted a handful of rewrites that slightly delayed production. He eventually detached himself from the helm after Fox Studio Executive, Laura Ziskin, virtually picked his production apart with casting and technician rehires in a volley of backroom ballyhoo. Raja Gosnell (Scooby Doo 2 Monsters Unleashed 2004, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2008) stepped in to take over, fresh off the heels of Home Alone 3, but the cast and writers, who were emotionally invested in the film, protested sharply. Gosnell was replaced finally by frequent-Robert Carlyle collaborator, Antonia Bird. After returning the script to its former glory with a few rewrites of her own, Bird finished the film on one week’s preparation and later conceded that the hiccups in production were mainly from the studio, who were all but trying to sabotage the film, and not Manchevski.
Among her numerous plaudits, Bird possessed a sort of synesthesia when it came to putting music to film. Her ability to pair sound with sight to create an underlying tone was “extraordinary,” according to her friend and collaborator, Steven Mackintosh. She employed the aural stylings of minimalist Composer Michael Nyman, as well as those of her friend Damon Albarn, of Gorillaz and Blur fame, to add an uncanny layer to the film that a less sonically-adept director would have certainly foregone for a more boilerplate feeling. The result is a score that is more iconic than the film itself.
The threadbare banjo, violin and squeeze box used in several compositions are immediately placeable and belong indelibly and exclusively to Ravenous. Song to song, the juxtaposition of ‘jaunty’ and ‘haunting’ provide a sonic personification of the film itself, which remains a testament to Bird’s immeasurable skill in film-making.
Though it did not make a tremendous splash in the minds of the general population, the hurdles that Ravenous had to leap in order to be made were not in vain. It has dug itself with dirty, bloody nails into the hearts of those who have witnessed it and has become a quiet slice of macabre Americana. It is a golden nugget nestled deep in the stream of Horror cinema that audiences may have missed at first, but it is well worth panning for. Bon appétit.