Everybody has at least one favorite movie that they feel has been unjustly ignored by film buffs and consumers of popular culture alike. Sometimes, audiences and critics just weren’t ready for a film’s take on certain themes and emotions, or maybe the filmmakers just had the rotten luck of dealing with fickle distributors and unfair release dates, ending up with a product that no one watched. Whatever the case, it’s unfortunate that so many great films are forgotten without ever having had the chance to shine for general audiences. To me, Antonia Bird’s darkly comedic Ravenous is one of these poor movies, which was neglected despite being one of the best cannibal thrillers of all time!
Ravenous stars Guy Pearce in one of his best roles as Second Lieutenant Boyd, a cowardly soldier of the Mexican-American war who’s exiled to a remote northern outpost. As he begins mingling with the strange garrison holed up in the desolate settlement, Boyd and the others learn of an ill-fated caravan that became trapped in the wilderness and turned to cannibalism in order to survive. As the group sets off to search for survivors, they become involved in a supernatural pursuit featuring the Native American legend of the Wendigo and an extremely suspicious Colonel Ives, played to menacing perfection by Robert Carlyle. To spoil any more of this bloodthirsty plot would be a disservice to potential viewers, so suffice to say that things turn ugly fast.
Inspired by the literary works of Dashiell Hammett, Algernon Blackwood and the real life tragedy of the Donner party, Ravenous’ story is a deeply satirical commentary on the limits of human civility and the concept of manifest destiny. Ted Griffin (now known for his work on Ocean’s Eleven) was responsible for this peculiar script, though the final product is apparently immensely different from his original vision. The script sometimes devolves into a mess of tangled plot threads, but it still ultimately works. This chaos is mostly due to some behind-the-scenes drama that almost accidentally gifted us with such an original movie.
Though it was released in 1999, Ravenous had an extremely troubled production that only settled down shortly before the film hit theaters, making it a miracle that such an underrated classic (let alone a coherent film) exists at all. The original plan was to have the project be lead by Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski, with a promising original script penned by Griffin . However, Manchevski left the production three weeks into shooting, after dealing with constant rewrites, scheduling disputes and studio interference. Eventually, Robert Carlyle recommended that his close friend and collaborator Antonia Bird take up production of the film, and she led the team to a new, darkly humorous vision that takes more inspiration from Looney Tunes than conventional period pieces and horror movies. This ushered the way to a mesmerizing movie that may not be entirely consistent, but is always compelling.
Hell, even the film’s profoundly bizarre and memorable soundtrack was subject to controversy, as composers Damon Albarn (yes, the co-founder of the popular animated band Gorillaz) and Michael Nyman were forced to compete for credit due to increasingly confusing production demands. Nevertheless, this unintended collaboration resulted in a phenomenal selection of music, and possibly one of the best movie soundtracks of all time. Nyman and Albarn juxtapose silly banjo compositions with epic instrumentals as the tracks attempt to keep up with (and enhance) the film’s wildly fluctuating tone, greatly contributing to the experience. I still frequently listen to these versatile tracks, especially as background music for writing, and have even used to them to set the mood for tabletop RPGs! It’s just that good.
Music isn’t the only impressive part of Ravenous, as Bird’s deliberate pacing and camera placement take a decidedly offbeat approach to what could otherwise have been a straightforward slasher movie. This weird balance of campy action and genuine tension are what make Ravenous such a unique experience, though it’s also what made the film so off-putting for viewers back in 1999, as the movie was both a critical and commercial failure. Of course, over the years a few critics have claimed that this is one of the best undiscovered classics of the 90s, but not that many people have watched it since its original release.
Either way, the movie is still an exceptionally human and atmospheric take on the myth of the Wendigo, despite not featuring a traditional incarnation of the Native American monster onscreen. Though supernatural cannibalistic forces are definitely at work, the Wendigo here is more of a metaphor than a flesh and blood ghoul. That’s why, despite the humor, this snowy thriller still boasts some deeply disturbing themes and imagery, and would satisfy any horror hound looking for some substance with his visual meal.
Now, you can’t discuss Ravenous without bringing up the surprisingly solid performances from the entire cast, not just from Pearce and Carlyle (though the interaction between these two is certainly the heart of the film). Both David Arquette and the late John Spencer have notable roles in the film, and almost every minor character is at the very least interesting, which is a rare instance in horror movies in general. Despite its flaws, the script also does a great job at characterizing these unfortunate victims, as there’s more to the people than meets the eye.
If you can stomach this brutal yet witty tale of a primitive, dog-eat-dog America, you’ll be rewarded with a chilling yet entertaining gem that serves as proof that it’s more important for a story to be consistently interesting than traditionally “good”. It may be flawed, but all these qualities suggest that Ravenous contained a burst of creative lightning that likely won’t happen again, especially when you consider the muddled backstory behind the production. This is the kind of film that compels you to love it and its faults as well.
And that, my friends, is why you should watch Ravenous. Luckily for you, it’s streaming on Netflix right now, so what are you waiting for?