Thursday, January 12, 2017


It's great to have Albert Muller return once more to Stranger With Friction! Last time he was here he contributed to our filmography series with the excellent and in depth piece on John Carpenter in the 80s. You can find more of Albert over at Daily Grindhouse and you can follow him on Twitter @aj_macready ...and you should!

"It's lonely being a cannibal," a character says late in Antonia Bird's 1999 RAVENOUS. "Cold, too," he could have added, for the players in the story we see unfold are surrounded by one unforgiving Mother of Nature that would have no compunctions about ending their lives in a particularly miserable fashion -- if they didn't get eaten first.

You see, RAVENOUS follows one Captain John Boyd (the great Guy Pearce) who has been sent to a
remote Sierra Nevada outpost during the Mexican-American War of the mid-1800s, ostensibly a hero but known to his superiors (and us) as a coward. His destination, Fort Spencer, is a place just like other soldiers like him; fuck-ups, basically. The supporting cast handling these roles is just excellent, from Jeffrey Jones as the nominal leader to Neal McDonough as the way-too-into-being-a-soldier Reich (with special attention being paid to the resident weirdoes Jeremy Davies & David Arquette, playing characters they more or less own a patent on). Boyd settles in as best he can among the outcasts in the middle of nowhere when screenwriter Ted Griffin (creator of TERRIERS, a show I will regret being canceled until I shuffle loose this mortal coil) springs his inciting incident upon us: a starving man close to death staggers into the camp. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle, superb as ever) tells the men a story that sounds suspiciously similar to what we nowadays refer to as The Donner Party; a small group of settlers traveling the wilderness were stranded, began to starve, and resorted to cannibalism to survive. Upon hearing that there may yet be survivors, the unit gears up on a rescue mission, Colqhoun leading the way to the cave of horrors where his people did unspeakable things to survive -- or WAS it only to survive? Did some of them fall prey to an awful hunger, one the film introduces by having a Native American character tell the legend of the Wendigo; essentially the idea is that a man who eats the flesh of another absorbs that man's strength and power. RAVENOUS uses this idea as a jumping off point of sorts that takes your typical cannibal fare into something resembling vampire territory, and damn if it isn't entertaining for an audience who loves this sort of thing.

First off: it's most important, when discussing RAVENOUS, to acknowledge the tone of the film. One would think it'd be blatantly, almost comically obvious from the two quotes the movie literally begins with before we ever see a frame of footage but apparently some don't quite get where the flick is coming from. RAVENOUS is, at heart, a horribly dark comedy that at times approaches satire. There's an element of Manifest Destiny examined as a metaphor of a burgeouning country's insatiable appetite for growth and the like, but it's only touched upon so much. Mostly, the flick is content to illustrate the jet-black humor in Griffin's script, and does a fantastic job of it. 

Rather than film on location in the forests and mountains of California, RAVENOUS was shot in Slovakia and the Czech Republic and let me tell you, that shit looks seriously cold. Snow covered mountains surround Fort Spencer and blanket the ground in a dirty white, the actors' cheeks burn red throughout roughly 65% of the film, and overall it just looks like a miserable place to be. No fun at all, is what I'm saying, and that's BEFORE motherfuckers start getting served for dinner. The isolation the characters experience only serves to further the ability of the story to go to some pretty insane places and is ultimately highly effective. As stated before, the cast is comprised of some fairly heavy-hitting character actors and they are all fantastic in their roles, with special mention being made of leads Pearce and Carlyle. Carlyle tears into his role with gusto and is clearly having a ball chewing the scenery as joyfully as he does co-stars and does both with equal aplomb. Pearce has the more difficult role, as it's almost entirely internal in nature (in fact, the man goes almost 20 minutes of screentime before he ever utters a complete sentence); I've seen some criticize his performance for being too bland but I don't think that's the case at all. Boyd isn't a cipher that we in the audience project things upon -- even if he does represent our terror/disgust/revulsion at the events that occur -- rather, this is a man being consumed by inner demons that he is struggling to overcome, one not given to loud proclamations or speeches. The conflicts he experiences play out upon his face, and Pearce does his usual remarkable job of expressing that with skill and subtlety.

I'm a big fan of this one, and have been ever since I was lucky enough to catch it when it played in
theaters (it still kinda blows my mind that such a strange and decidedly non-mainstream story with such unpleasant and violent goings-on was financed and released by a major American studio). It's almost gleefully gory in spots, which warms this horror fan's dark little heart, and fully hilarious in others. Again, the sort of humor in this flick is "I laughed, realized how sick what I was laughing at is, and then laughed again at the whole wrongness of it" and it fits the story like a glove. The score by Damon Albarn (of the band Blur) and Michael Nyman is as odd and unique as the rest of the flick, especially a horror flick, but it's utterly stellar (which it would need to be, considering how much attention it calls to itself) and very memorable, helping to give RAVENOUS its own, quite distinct identity. Griffin's script is a real treat for genre fans looking for something different -- even if some of his more outlandish elements, such as the villain racing through treetops as he chases his prey were cut before filming. The haunting vibe throughout is peppered with atmospheric moments that come close to some sort of psycho Gothic Western hybrid ambience, and the effect it has on me is palpable.

To sum up: RAVENOUS is by turns creepy as fuck, violent as hell, and funny as shit. There are definitely worse films to warm yourself up by campfire on those chilly nights, and I can't recommend it more highly to the discerning horror fan. If you haven't seen it, you really should.

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