The Film: 4/5
To the men of the U.S. Army fighting in the Mexican-American War in 1847, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is a portrait of heroism and virtue for having single-handedly captured an enemy outpost after the decimation of his unit. But his commanding officer General Slauson (John Spencer) knows that Boyd is nothing but a pathetic coward who wussed out as his fellow soldiers fought and died. Unbeknownst to everyone Boyd only managed to accomplish the heroic feat that earned his promotion by accidentally drinking the blood of a fallen comrade and gaining his strength. Not wanting to create a public outcry Slauson sends Boyd packing to Fort Spencer, an isolated Army way station in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Shortly after the new captain's arrival the fort receives a strange visitor in the form of Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who claims to have been part of a group of travelers lead by the evil Colonel Ives who were forced to take shelter in a cave somewhere deep in the mountains during the winter and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.
Fort Spencer's commanding officer Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) and Boyd form a search party with Colqhoun himself in tow to lead the way. When the company arrives at the cave expecting a confrontation they find a chamber of horrors and bloodied human remains stripped to the bone. Colqhoun goes on a vicious killing spree that leaves Boyd the only survivor, but the two of them will become reacquainted when the real Colonel Ives arrives at Fort Spencer to take command, and he looks a lot like Colqhoun. "Ives" has adapted cannibalism as his new gospel upon discovering the increased strength, agility, and regenerative powers gained by those who consume human flesh and he intends to spread the good word from sea to shining sea.
It was probably when Rob Zombie's solo cover of "I'm Your Boogie Man" kicked in during the first trailer for Antonia Bird's criminally underrated 1999 historical western-horror-comedy Ravenous that I realized 20th Century Fox didn't have a single clue of how to market this film. Had it been a hit at the time of its release it would have joined a modest company of motion pictures that managed to overcome the handicap of a confused advertising campaign to reap great rewards and be the toast of the town for a weekend or so. But for Ravenous it was not to be. This particular (and I say that as a compliment) feature would be forced to suffice with scratching and clawing its way into the hearts and minds of viewers who ignored it during its truncated theatrical run through video rentals and sales and pay cable channel broadcasts.
I recall seeing it for the first time during its cable premiere on Cinemax one Friday evening in September 2000, about a year-and-a-half after it vanished from cinema screens without a trace after two agonizing weeks of playing to empty theaters across the nation. I loved it, but then again my taste in film usually ran to the daring and polarizing - I'm one of the few people who will openly admit to enjoying Southland Tales - and I also understood why it flopped at the box office despite having a director beloved by the arthouse elite, an eclectic cast packed with critical darlings, and more blood and gore than your averaged Friday the 13th sequel.
Ravenous just isn't traditional Hollywood filmmaking made with mass audience appeal in mind. Its hero is a callous coward who only finds the inner strength to become a force for good by giving in to his worst instincts, while its villain may possibly be one of the ultimate cinematic embodiments of the time-honored philosophy of eminent domain. The supporting cast is an unguarded mental institution of drunks, stoners, walking hard-ons, surly Washoe Indians, and worst of all....devout Christians. I can't even mention the only character deserving of any sympathy for that would constitute a major spoiler. The music score is unorthodox and hypnotic when it isn't throwing you for a loop with its dissonant harmonies. Hell, you can't even find any relief in the conclusion, which is grim but appropriate for the story given that every moment has lead up to those final moments. Even if Fox's marketing department had figured out a good angle for Ravenous' theatrical campaign I doubt it would have barely made back its production budget let alone make a hefty profit. By the way, that budget was only $12 million. In 1999 dollars. Hardly a risky investment in my opinion, but then again I'm no student of Hollywood economics. Nor do I desire to be one. I'd rather study Scientology.
All kidding aside, Ravenous is a grim and gleefully demented genre hybrid with plenty of gut-ripping adventure to compliment its pungent gallows' humor. It has the courage to rip into its crazy plot and embrace each and every one of its lurid trappings instead of bowing to conventional storytelling. On the surface this is a pretty conventional tale of good opposing evil, but screenwriter Ted Griffin (the 2001 Ocean's Eleven remake) and director Antonia Bird (Priest) are far more interested in crafting a multi-layered narrative that transforms cannibalism into a metaphor for the American exceptionalism of the mid-19th century. The United States was still a young nation at the time and the rag-tag government was still in the midst of its bloody campaign to expand westward into territories held by the Mexicans and various Indian tribes. Ravenous is set against the backdrop of this shameful episode in American history when diplomacy was shunted aside in favor of violent conquest and genocide. The film makes the not entirely absurd argument that a savage exists in even the best of us, so why should there be any shame in succumbing to that dark nature if the rewards are greater than we could have ever imagined?
The material could have been played as total schlock, but Bird, a sensitive British filmmaker who specialized in thought-provoking dramas about complex people, was smart enough to direct Ravenous with gritty realism that wasn't completely devoid of humor and a fondness for authentic texture. Nearly every character sheds blood at some point in the film. Buildings are crudely constructed from splintered logs and rope and lit by fireplaces and lanterns with rusted hinges. The winter air of the Sierras (played here by the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia) is thick and billowing with visible frost. Interior sequences were filmed at Prague's fabled Barrandov Studios - which most recently hosted the productions of Blade II, The Bourne Idenity, and Casino Royale - but the production design by Bryce Perrin (Dungeons & Dragons) looks and feels so accurate that you would be hard-pressed to differentiate the Czech locations from the actual Sierra Nevada mountains, an illusion made even more possible by the enriched cinematography of veteran shooter Anthony B. Richmond (The Man Who Fell to Earth).
Ravenous' most unique attribute is the gloriously baroque music score composed by longtime Peter Greenaway collaborator Michael Nyman and Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn. Though the two accomplished and lauded musicians never directly worked together on the score (Nyman claimed Albarn composed 60% of what is heard in the film, while he took care of the rest) their mutual appreciation of classical music and vintage Americana meshes beautifully to create a warped symphony of nightmarish harmonies and motifs. Alternately traditional and experimental, Nyman and Albarn's esoteric soundtrack remains one of my personal favorites.
Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) is ideally cast as the would-be hero of Ravenous, Captain John Boyd, as he proves quite adept at playing the character's dueling natures with the stoic conviction he would return to for John Hillcoat's bravura Australian western The Proposition. Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) matches him every step of the way as both the meek, feral Colqhoun and the darkly charismatic Colonel Ives. The stand-out of the supporting players is Jeffrey Jones (Ed Wood) as Colonel Hart, a reasonable man devoted to his duties to his men and his country. The rest of the cast is comprised of small-but-noteworthy turns from Stephen Spinella (Rubber) as the perpetually drunk Major Knox, Jeremy Davies (Solaris) as the annoyingly spiritual Private Toffler, David Arquette (Scream) as the stoned company cook Cleaves, Neal McDonough (Captain America: The First Avenger) as the consummate trooper Private Reich, the late John Spencer (The West Wing) as General Slauson, and Joseph Runningfox (Porky's II: The Next Day) and Sheila Tousey (Lord of Illusions) as Fort Spencer's resident Indian scouts. Tousey's performance in particular develops additional significance during the third act that repeat viewings help to clarify.
When Shout! Factory picked up the distribution rights from Fox, who apparently never had any plans to give it a proper high-definition release, to give Ravenous its Blu-ray debut I was understandably excited. Only after I popped the disc in and gave the film a watch did my initial excitement quickly fade into nothingness. I was certainly expecting a better restoration job than what we were given, but it appears as if Shout! simply took Fox's 15-year-old non-anamorphic DVD transfer and upscaled the picture quality to 1080p without performing any additional repairs or touch-ups. The only improvement made for the HD transfer is that the film can now be viewed in anamorphic widescreen. The picture is framed in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and for the most part the quality is decent but unexceptional. Grain is present but not intrusive and colors and skintones look muted without seeming drab, but digital noise reduction seems to have been overused in certain areas creating a distracting smudging effect. Given how this is one of the more recent Scream Factory Blu-ray releases the elements had to have been readily available to perform a top-quality HD upgrade. Unfortunately this looks to be another case of Shout! half-assing a transfer in order to make a release date, which makes me worry about their highly-anticipated future titles.
The disc fares much better in the audio department by providing Ravenous with English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. The 5.1 track is a real delight if you want to enjoy the movie's unnerving sound mix in all of its glory, with solid volume levels for the music score and atmospheric effects and a stunning lack of distortion and soundtrack damage. Only the dialogue requires manual volume adjustment during the first two acts, but once the action kicks in during the final half-hour the actors speak pretty loudly for the most part. If you have an undemanding sound system the two-channel track would be your best bet as it features all of the virtues of the 5.1 with a slightly higher volume pitch. English subtitles are also included.
Another disappointment. The only new extra feature of substance produced for this release is a retrospective interview with actor Jeffrey Jones (21 minutes). Fortunately this feature is a damn good one as Jones discusses the film's themes and places the fictional events in historical context. He also shares a few stories regarding how he won the role of Colonel Hart and his time on the production, but the interview gets really interesting when Jones starts to talk about how original director Milcho Manchevski was fired and co-star Carlyle demanded that his friend and business partner Bird took over the job. The actor mentions how the studio originally wanted to install another director who would have made Ravenous into a broad comedy rather than a violent black comedy, but stops short of naming said director (it's Raja Gosnell, the director of Big Momma's House, Scooby-Doo, and freakin' Beverly Hills Chihuahua). As much as I would have enjoyed a lengthier cast and crew reunion documentary that expanded on Jones' colorful and detailed production stories, at least what we received instead is surprisingly good value and the definite highlight of this disc.
The rest of the features are ported over from Fox's 1999 DVD release and kick off with three audio commentaries. The first pairs director Bird with co-composer Albarn, the second teams screenwriter Griffin with Jones, and the third and final track has Carlyle flying solo. Naturally Carlyle doesn't have nearly enough to talk about to fill an entire commentary so you can expect a lot of dead air throughout, but what he does talk about makes for worthwhile listening. The first two tracks are better because the participants on each were recorded at the same time and share a good rapport with each other. Bird and Albarn's track leans heavily on the technical side but divulge much about the troubled production and the creation of the unique music score without slip sliding into gossip territory, while Griffin and Jones talk at great length about the physical production and the development of the script among other things. Shout! also offers a fourth alternate audio channels, an isolated music & effects track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, but I would have preferred a music-only track.
The supplements also include a reel of deleted scenes you can only view as one uninterrupted reel (12 minutes) without the benefit of individual selection. The cut footage comes with optional commentary from Bird providing sensible explanations for their deletion. The original theatrical trailer (2 minutes), a vintage 30-second television spot, and a photo gallery containing various costume and production design stills complete the package.
Hollywood may have been lost when it came to selling it to thrill-hungry audiences in the slow months before the release of Star Wars Episode I, but the years since have shown Ravenous to have mighty staying power. Even better, no one had to be killed and devoured to make it happen. Neither a lost classic or a deservedly ignored bomb, Ravenous is simply vicious horror entertainment with a rich vein of biting humor that bursts like Old Faithful once tapped. Shout! Factory could have done a much better job with their high-definition release when it comes to the video and audio presentation, but the sheer quality of the film along with the informative accompanying supplements go a long way towards making up for the haphazard restoration. Highly recommended.