“I said no food. I didn’t say there was nothing to eat”
Ravenous is a 1999 black comedy horror-suspense film directed by Antonia Bird. The film revolves around cannibalism in 1840s California and some elements bear similarities to the story of the Donner Party.
During the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848), Second Lieutenant Boyd (Guy Pearce), who is fighting in the United States Army, finds his courage fail him in battle. He plays dead as his unit is massacred. His body, along with the other dead are put in a cart. This is hauled back to the Mexican headquarters (throughout this journey blood drips into Boyd’s mouth). However, in a moment of bravery, Boyd seizes the chance to capture the Mexican HQ. His heroism earns him a Captain’s promotion. But when General Slauson learns of the cowardice through which victory was achieved he posts Boyd into exile. He’s sent to Fort Spencer, a remote military outpost high in the Sierra Nevada.
Shortly after Boyd joins the seven-man garrison at Fort Spencer a stranger named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives. He describes how his wagon train became lost in the mountains. A Colonel Ives had promised the party a shorter route to the Pacific Ocean but instead had led them on a more circuitous route. This resulted in the party getting trapped by snow. People were reduced to cannibalism to avoid starvation. A rescue party is assembled to search for survivors. But before they leave they are warned by their Native American scout, George. He speaks of the Wendigo myth. Which is anyone who consumes the flesh of their enemies takes their strength. But that person also becomes a demon cursed by an insatiable hunger for more human flesh.
When the soldiers reach the cave where the party had taken refuge they come to realize that Colqhoun and Ives are one and the same. He had killed and eaten his five companions and is now set on trapping and killing them as well. Colqhoun succeeds in doing this one by one, including Colonel Hart, the fort’s commanding officer.
Boyd manages to escape the massacre by jumping off a cliff but breaks his leg in the process. He hides in a pit next to the body of a fellow soldier. Eventually he eats some of the man’s flesh to stay alive. When he finally limps back into the fort he is delirious and severely traumatized. None of the remaining soldiers (who did not meet Colqhoun) believe his wild tale. A second expedition finds no bodies or any trace of the man. A temporary commander is assigned to the fort and to Boyd’s horror it turns out to be Colqhoun. He is now cleaned up and calling himself Colonel Ives. The others still refuse to believe that Ives is the killer. Especially after they check his body and he bears no sign of the wounds inflicted on him during the fight at the cave.
What can Boyd do to convince the other men? Can he protect himself and others around him from Colqhoun/Ives or is it too late?
I loved this film, I thought it was excellent. Ravenous is a brilliant mix of cannibalism, gore, black humour and quasi-philosophy. Although the film starts off with a strange comedic vibe and there are odd characters included (such as David Arquette as Private Cleaves), it’s clearly intended to cut through the darkness of the film. Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle play off each other masterfully. Boyd is reserved and haunted, while Colqhoun/Ives ranges from unhinged and Charles Manson-esque to cultured and elegant. It’s amazing how Robert Carlyle can go from attractive gentleman to terrifying animal.
The twist is foreseeable, but honestly you don’t want to believe it. The truth of the matter is shocking because of the subject matter and it’s difficult to believe someone could follow through with such a plan. The ending cemented my enjoyment as it felt very familiar to some of my favourite films about vampires, which wendigos are very similar to.
Overall, beautifully shot, stunning locations and incredible acting.