Directed by Antonia Bird
Written by Ted Griffin
Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, Stephen Spinella, Jeremy Davies, Neal McDonough, David Arquette, and Joseph Runningfox
Cannibals are one of the lesser horror monsters. Since 1977 they’ve primarily been mutants, hillbillies, or mutant hillbillies, but throughout the history of film they’ve been refined gourmets, restauranteurs, ghouls, zombies, and even middle-class Americans. One seldom-used take is based on the Algonquian legend of the wendigo, a powerful being may once have been human. An interpretation of this creature is the basis for Antonia Bird’s remarkable horror movie Ravenous.
The movie starts just after the Mexican-American war, so call it 1848. Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) has just been promoted for capturing officers behind enemy lines, but he’s also being punished for having played dead and hidden within a mound of his slain compatriots. His new post is Fort Spencer, a former Spanish mission in the mountains of California. There he will serve under the philosophical Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) and the drunken Major Knox (Stephen Spinella). There are only a few other soldiers and staff around, as the mountain trails are impassable during the winter. The story kicks into gear with the arrival of F.W. Calhoun (Robert Carlyle) after the Fort has been isolated by the buildup of snow.
Calhoun stumbles into the Fort during a snowstorm, and he’s in bad shape. Once he recovers enough to talk, he tells about an expedition that got lost taking a shortcut. They ran out of food in November and ate all the animals. Then they ate the first person who died. After that, their hunger became worse. Calhoun had fled when the murders had begun. Energized by the horrific tale and the unknown fate of the woman traveling in Calhoun’s party, Col. Hart mounts a rescue party and heads out at first light. It is, of course, a trap. The rest of the movie is a battle between the disgraced Capt. Boyd and the wendigo that is eating his way through the Fort’s personnel.
One of the things that I love about the film is that it trusts the viewer to make connections without a lot of exposition. While he’s being introduced to everyone at the Fort, Boyd sees a character use a massive book to crack open a walnut. Through the course of the second act it becomes apparent that people who eat human flesh become monstrously strong. So when he later sees the same person casually break a walnut with one hand, Boyd and the audience realize that the character has now himself become a wendigo.
There’s also a macabre sense of humor to the film. On the way to the cave of the cannibal, the priest Toffler (Jeremy Davies) falls and is badly injured. He awakens everybody that night screaming because Calhoun is licking his wound. This is the first strong indication that the survivor is not what he seems, and after that he remains under the watchful eye of Private Reich (Neal McDonough). It’s a disturbing moment, but the reactions and Calhoun’s attempts to excuse the act make it weirdly comedic, like a Monty Python sketch played as horror.
I love this movie. Captain Boyd has a great arc, struggling against his shame and revulsion to become the hero he hadn’t actually been. It’s enclosed and claustrophobic because of the snow, but the threat is broad: infiltration of the U.S. military at the highest levels by cannibals. The major players are all terrific, and even some of the minor characters are memorable — particularly Neal McDonough’s Pvt. Reich, who’s everything Boyd is not. Throw in some good set pieces and just enough gore, and Ravenous is quite the pleasant treat.