Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ravenous (1999)

The Movie: Second Lieutenant John Boyd (Guy Pearce of the Hurt Locker and the 2002 Time Machine Remake) is at a major dinner in his honor to celebrate his promotion to captain and award for bravery during a battle of the Mexican-American War. However, his reaction to the rare steaks being served (puking his guts out) indicates to the arrogant General Slauson (John Spencer of the Rock) that something is wrong. When questioned, Boyd explains to his superiors that he actually acted out of extreme cowardice during the battle. Seeing that his regiment was badly outnumbered and outgunned, Boyd just lay down and played dead while all the rest of the men were slaughtered. Loaded up on a wagon with the dead, Boyd spent some time with his superior officer’s blood falling into his mouth and down his throat. Suddenly, he felt a rush of bravery and courage; which prompted him to jump out of the wagon and singlehandedly capture the enemy command.

Boyd’s superiors decide to promote him anyway. As they point out, they could shoot him; but as he singlehandedly captured the enemy command, they fear it would set a bad precedent. Boyd is then assigned to Fort Spencer, a fort in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that’s a stopover point for one of the wagon train routes. However, as the mountain paths are blocked in the winter, it only has a skeleton staff. Due to this, Fort Spencer is used as a holding pen for individuals the army doesn’t have a use for.

Boyd has seven co-inhabitants at Fort Spencer. Colonel Hart (Jeffry Jones, who you’ll probably recognize from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Howard the Duck, among many other movies), the fort commander, is a good natured intellectual; the kind of person I would love to have as a superior, but definitely not fit for military life. Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) is a religious fanatic who is severely lacking in speaking ability. (Incidentally, on my latest viewing of the movie his behavior reminded me greatly of a particular individual I have to work with at present; and that realization came with a very inappropriate glee at his demise. Probably best not to dwell on it any further.) Private Reich (Neal McDonough of Minority Report and the most recent Captain America movie) is the fort’s “real soldier” and a loose cannon. Major Knox (Stephen Spinella), Fort Spencer’s second in command “never met a bottle he didn’t like.” Private Cleaves (David Arquette, of Scream and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie) isn’t much different, except that he prefers local drugs. Finally, George (Joseph Running Fox) and his sister, Martha (Sheila Tousey of Lord of Illusions), are Fort Spencer’s resident Indians and serve as its housekeepers.

Just as Boyd starts to settle into the routine at Fort Spencer, an obviously starved and exhausted stranger (Robert Carlyle of Transpotting and 28 Days Later) stumbles in. He introduces himself as the Reverend Colghoun, who was traveling to California with a small wagon train guided by one Colonel Ives. Unfortunately, Ives was a horrible guide and got the travelers caught in the mountains just as winter began. When the food quickly ran out the travelers first ate all the animals, then their belts and shoes, and then the first of their number to die of starvation. That’s when the real horror began; Ives discovered that he loved the taste of human flesh and began to kill and devour his fellow travelers one by one. Colghoun left when he realized that only he and a woman named Mrs. McReady were left.

Unfortunately, the job of Fort Spencer’s staff is to protect the wagon trains through the pass, and Hart has no choice but to organize a search party. However, Colghoun’s story triggered something in George. He tells Hart and Boyd about the Windigo, a local Indian legend. When a man eats another man’s flesh, he also absorbs a bit of his soul as well, making him stronger. However, it also makes him insatiably hungry for more; ever consuming, ever growing stronger and hungrier. Hart dismisses George’s story, but Boyd pays more attention. After all, the only act of courage in his life came after he had consumed the blood and flesh of a much braver man.

Sure enough, Colghoun’s behavior grows more disturbing the closer the rescue party gets to the cave where the travelers took refuge. Boyd and Reich discover, too late, that there is one more body than Colghoun’s story indicated, and Colghoun springs his trap. Boyd finds himself the only survivor; trapped in a pit for a significant amount of time with a broken leg and the body of Private Reich. However, Boyd finds that eating helps his wound to heal faster…

When Boyd finally makes it back to Fort Spencer, it’s bad enough that not only will nobody believe him; but that they think he’s somehow responsible. It’s much worse when he is introduced to Hart’s replacement, a very familiar man who now goes by the name of Colonel Ives. But on top of all this, Boyd’s own hunger is starting to grow…

The Review:

Funny thing; you escape the world, you wind up here, then you turn right around and try to escape this place. Frightening thing about escape, though; chance you might wind up someplace worse."
-Colonel Hart

I can remember when Ravenous made its short theatrical run around the middle of my high school years. I was caught by the poster with its tagline “you are who you eat;” and I got to see a preview for it which further wetted my curiosity. A few years later I finally checked it out from the video store, and I found it a decent little film. However, over the years I have found Ravenous to be one of those movies that I can appreciate much more than I did upon first viewing.

Ravenous uses the legend of the Wendigo, also known as Windigo and by many other names, a being that appears in the legends of many of the Native American groups of what are now Canada and the northern United States. Obviously there are many cultural variations on the legend, and there have been further mutations as more recent artists of various kinds have gotten a hold of it. However, at its core the Wendigo is a personification of hunger, starvation, and the horrors of winter. Even at its most benign the Wendigo is an inhuman, unpredictable being; and in most sources it is an evil and ravenous monster. And according to many of the old legends, there are various ways to change one into a Wendigo, or at least bring possession by it; the simplest and most disturbing being the consumption of human flesh.

For obvious reasons, the Wendigo provides a good monster for a horror story. Ravenous makes great use of the various potentials for horror the creature provides. On the visceral level, with one exception, the movie is effectively scary when it needs to be. The soundtrack, while unconventional, mostly conveys the needed emotion effectively. Ditto the shots of the snow-covered mountains and forests; at times it’s very easy to believe that a hungry monster lives in this wilderness.

Ravenous also works on the level of psychological and moral horror. Our hero, Boyd, is a cowardly man who is suddenly presented with everything he’s ever wanted. He, too, can be strong, brave and healthy; all he has to do is something unconscionable. Added to this is the fact that Boyd is constantly in a position of weakness due to his refusal to indulge in cannibalism; and that there is a part of him that actively craves it despite his misgivings. Ultimately, the tension hinges just as much on Boyd’s ability to make the right decision as it does on whether or not he can stop Ives. “If you die first,” Ives tells Boyd in the climactic struggle, “I’m definitely going to eat you. But I wonder; if I die first, what will you do?”

Thirdly, Ravenous also uses wendigoism to make a sharp satirical point by equating it with Manifest Destiny. For those of you who slept during history class, Manifest Destiny was a philosophy during the middle of the 19th century that maintained the United States had a god-given mandate to possess and dominate all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was the rallying cry of western expansion, and the reason nearly all the native cultures were uprooted and/or wiped out.

I’m not just reading the equation of the Wendigo with Manifest Destiny into the movie either, there are several parts that rather blatantly do just that. In the scene where George tells Boyd and Hart about the Wendigo legend, Hart responds “nobody does this now, do they?” George’s response is to point out that the white man eats the body and blood of Jesus Christ every Sunday. Later on, Ives gives a truly wonderful little monologue where he describes Manifest Destiny in terms of wendigoism. Finally there is how Ives’ plan for his position at Fort Spencer uses the westward expansion for his own ends, and the implied fate of General Slauson.

The thing is, the Wendigo is an apt metaphor for this time in America’s history. It is something that devours, and gains strength from what it eats, but can never consume enough. At one point Ives quotes Benjamin Franklin: “eat to live, don’t live to eat;” with the supreme irony of him using that quote being that Ives does exactly that. The land greed of the U.S. at the time could rightly be viewed the same way; the drive to claim it solely to claim it.

And it could actually fit into modern culture as well. All throughout its history the U.S. has had an undercurrent of greed for material possessions and conspicuous consumption running through it; and in the past few decades that undercurrent has become an overcurrent. “Greed is good,” the Reagan Era philosophy that currently energizes the Right; or “trample the weak,” as Ted Nugent put it when addressing one of their political events. “Windigo never gives, he only takes,” Martha tells Boyd when he asks; and I would say that’s a pretty apt description of our economic system as it currently stands. Look at our culture today; our economic system depends entirely upon the public’s hunger for useless crap that they don’t really need, a tiny elite benefits most from it, and the weak get devoured by the system. Hell, Ives’ plan is as good a representation as any of what the 1% is doing, except that I don’t think they’re literally eating people. Yet.

In regards to acting, the cast as a whole runs from good to amazing. However, the three standouts are Pearce, Carlyle and Jones. Pearce does wonderfully as the flawed, conflicted Captain Boyd who is our hero. Carlyle does equally good as a villain; terrifying, genteel, or charmingly sinister in turn. Finally, Hart is always very fun and likeable, even when… nah, not going to spoil it. Also, Carlyle and Hart get the lion’s share of the movie’s best lines, and they deliver them perfectly.

Overall, Ravenous is a great movie; but I can still find three major flaws. Firstly, the dialogue frequently has major anachronisms; although they may not be as noticeable if you’re not a history or language nerd. Secondly, there is one scene where the soundtrack is all wrong; cheerful banjo music during one of the horror scenes that undermines it. Finally, during the opening credits; where they start with a quote from Nietzsche, and then “eat me,” as quoted by “Anonymous” suddenly pops up.

This last one is a flaw because it could give viewers the wrong idea; make them think they’re watching a screwball comedy. Ravenous is not a comedy. It is a very funny movie at parts, and has a very definite and clever sense of humor. However, Ravenous is first and foremost a horror movie; and once the horror starts the humor is carefully placed aside.

Still, for its flaws Ravenous is ultimately a well-made and enjoyable movie. It’s well made, even more so when you consider that this was apparently put together by a novice director and first-time screenwriter. Ultimately we wind up with a well made, intelligent, movie that is in turns funny and scary, and that boasts an experienced and talented cast. So come on, try the stew. I promise you’ll be hungry for more…