Tuesday, June 17, 2014

RAVENOUS (1999) Blu-ray Review

Ravenous (1999) d. Antonia Bird (UK)

“It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.” Heaping helpings of black comedy and gory carnage are served up in this hilarious and edgy slice of period-piece horror. Set in the waning days of the Mexican-American War, cowardly Army captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is stationed at a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas where daily routine is stultifying dull...until a bedraggled survivor from a failed wagon train expedition (Robert Carlyle) staggers in from the wilderness with tales of survival that would turn the hardiest soul into a vegetarian.

A clever combo of mysticism, vampirism, and cannibalism that allows the superb cast – which includes Jeffrey Jones, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, Jeremy Davies, John Spencer, and Neal McDonough – to lick their lips and devour Ted Griffin’s script with gusto. Antonia Bird, who assumed the director’s chair two weeks into shooting after Milcho Manchevski (Before the Rain) was given his walking papers, brings a surprising amount of elegance, intelligence, and humanity to what could have easily been an enjoyable but disposable schlockfest.

With Slovakia’s Tatras Mountains (standing in for the Pacific Northwest) and the outskirts of Czechoslovakia providing the picturesque exteriors, seasoned cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond lends an invaluable amount of production value, drifting between muddy fields, gorgeous tree-lined clearings, and snowbound peaks. (Richmond’s plentiful genre credits include Candyman, Don’t Look Now, Old Dracula, Tales from the Hood, and Cherry Falls.) But the unusual and elegiac music score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman deserves equal attention, blending Native American chants with traditional folk tunes and accenting sweeping orchestral pieces with discordant honks and squeals.

Shout! Factory’s recent BR upgrade doesn’t add much in the way of supplements over 1999’s original 20th Century Fox DVD, but that’s no reason for dismay – the materials ported over are ridiculously bountiful, while simultaneously providing a time-capsule look into the early days of the shiny silver disc when studios were eager to load them up to lure consumers into buying the new format. Three commentary tracks, deleted scenes with and without Bird’s commentary, still galleries exploring the costume and production design, plus TV spots and theatrical trailers. The sole original addition to the S!F package is a delightful 20-minute interview with Jones, charming and gregarious as he imparts numerous previously unheard stories from the tumultuous but tight-knit set.

Speaking of stories, it’s a minor miracle that within the trio of feature-length audio tracks, rarely are any anecdotes repeated; each commentary is chock is full of its own singular observations. Bird shares the mike with Albarn, and their hushed, low-key conversations are laced with weary triumph over the many obstacles overcome – matching the changing seasons, for example – as well as the wistful regret that the film hadn’t found a wider audience. That the home-video format was still in its formative stages becomes evident as Bird expresses reticence over speaking while her actors are uttering dialogue onscreen, which only adds an extra dose of charm.

Griffin’s track with Jones is more lighthearted but equally informative, discussing how he was inspired to write the script whilst reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, wherein Nick Charles regales a guest with the tale of notorious Rocky Mountain cannibal Alfred Packer. Jones is reserved and thoughtful throughout, and it’s particular amusing to note Griffin’s attempts to compliment the actor and his compatriots on their altered and improvised lines after the scribe had left the set. The final commentary has Carlyle on his own, and again we note that many were not yet well-versed in the supplemental material game; the Trainspotting and Full Monty star is content to sit through nearly half the movie without saying a word, seemingly only comfortable commenting on his own scenes!

A shockingly underrated and subversive flick, all the more so considering it came from a major studio during a time when the genre was struggling to regain its full-blooded legs. In retrospect, it’s unfortunate that such a well-wrought, many-layered, and complex adult yarn was messily mismarketed such that it failed to register with its target audience who were already tiring of the multitude of Scream clones flooding the marketplace.

Even with the star power of Pearce, Carlyle, and Arquette, the mix of gallows humor and political commentary (the titular hunger extends not only to the fanciful flesh-eating, but to the U.S. policy of cultural domination and homogenization) was lost on the mainstream viewer. Happily, it continues to be championed by those in the know, most recently in Rue Morgue’s excellent 200 Alternative Horror Films You Need to See, so hopefully more fervent fans will soon become better acquainted with the lip-smacking campfire tale of F.W. Colqhoun and the notorious Colonel Ives.

Ravenous is now available from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:


--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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