Roger Ebert once joked that a vampire is merely a cannibal with good table manners, an assertion I’m sure the good Dr. Lecter would take umbrage with. As it is, cannibals in genre fiction tend to be stuck somewhere between the refined romance of vampires and the mindless carnage of zombies. It’s the most inexcusable and obscene kind of gluttony, the ultimate abomination of humanity that makes even the strongest stomachs churn. So, it’s not a hotbed for comedy (although once again, Hannibal’s pun game would disagree). Luckily, we have Ravenous to offer a delightful combination of flesh-munching and jokes.
The late Antonia Bird got her start directing television in Britain before moving onto socially conscious dramas like Priest. She wasn’t the natural choice for a movie about cannibalism on the American frontier, but then again, she was never supposed to direct Ravenous in the first place. The original director, Milcho Manchevski, left complaining of micromanaging from Fox executives. Raja Gosnell was brought on set as an immediate replacement for Manchevski, but the cast vetoed his hiring. Eventually, actor Robert Carlyle suggested Bird, his friend and frequent collaborator, and she was given one mere week to prep her production. She would later express sympathy with Manchevski and agree that the circumstances he'd been forced to work under were unfair. However, Bird got to work, with screenwriter Ted Griffin around for constant rewrites, and the end result is delightfully against the grain. It wasn't what Fox wanted and it's all the better for it, although they still made final changes that the director disapproved of.
Inspired in equal parts by the Donner Party, the story of Alferd Packer (of Cannibal: The Musical! fame) and the legend of Sawney Bean, Ravenous follows Second Lieutenant Boyd (Guy Pearce), a soldier whose cowardice during battle in the Mexican-American War led him to inadvertently be labeled a war hero. To prevent further embarrassment, he is sent to join a tiny garrison of men at Fort Spencer, a military outpost in the mountains of California. Their mundane peace is soon spoiled by the frantic arrival of a mysterious man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who confesses to cannibalism after his party of travelers became lost in the wilderness. A rescue party to retrieve the remaining living team members goes as well as you can expect when a primal Scotsman who favors flesh is on your side.
Ravenous blends the blackest of black comedies with historical drama and grindhouse horror. There are elements of classic creature feature buried beneath the skin of a claustrophobic survivalist tale and a scathing satire on both whitewashed American history and the myth of the great mountain man. Managing all these disparate tones would be a nightmare for any director, but Bird somehow manages to let the freewheeling style blend well with the trappings of a more traditional studio movie. At times, the mood veers wildly from tense to hilarious, and Bird is happy to let the audience buy into both. When you’re scared, you instinctively laugh to ease the tension, so why not go all the way?
Bird let her actors find their own way around the characters as well as the style of the story, which Carlyle says proved confusing for the American cast members who expected a more traditional form of direction. Carlyle, who had worked so well with Bird in the past, clearly had a ball with this approach and delves into giddy mania like a starved man chewing on a femur. The rest of the cast eventually caught up to Bird’s method and got on board with Ravenous’s frenzy.
The heart of the mythology in Ravenous is the Algonquian folklore figure of the Wendigo. Hannibal fans will be familiar with the tales of men who have become monsters through their consumption of human flesh (the iconic Ravenstag of the TV series was heavily influenced by this myth). Ravenous takes a less fantastical approach. Nobody sprouts horns or claws. Indeed, becoming a wendigo just seems to make these gentlemen more of what they’ve always wanted to be. Eating human flesh makes them stronger, cures what ails them and focuses the mind. It’s also a handy way to dispose of enemies.
In some Indigenous communities, wendigo psychosis is connected to destructive greed, and here, cannibalism is the ultimate representation of Manifest Destiny. In order to claim every step of nation before them, the original settlers to America decimated both the landscape and its native residents. They didn’t do it just because they could; they did it because they felt they had the God-given right to do so. In that context, eating your fellow man in search of the ultimate mastery of your domain feels like a logical conclusion. Ravenous is just smart enough to connect the dots and show a discomfiting truth, that a lot of people had way too much fun devouring what wasn’t to be touched. When Colqhoun declares, “Eat or die,” it carries far more weight beyond the mere consumption of flesh. Sadly, not enough focus is put on the distinctly Native American aspects of this mythology; while there are Indigenous actors in the cast, the lion’s share of the action is focused on the white men.
On top of some dazzling camera work, including one well-choreographed scene down the side of a wooded mountain, Bird blends the story with a score that seems both perfectly in place and utterly baffling in its choices. Minimalist legend Michael Nyman, whose most famous work appeared in Jane Campion’s The Piano, teams up with Britpop icon Damon Albarn of Blur (yes, really) for a bluegrass drone that mixes era-appropriate instrumentation with classic symphonies, spirit-rousing ragtime, and Beverly Hillbillies-style getaway music. It’s almost too esoteric for the movie but how else was a mere score supposed to keep up with all these themes and moods?
Ravenous received mixed reviews upon release and barely made back a fifth of its budget at the box office. Perhaps audiences just weren’t ready for a British woman’s nihilistic story about America’s giddily violent history made literal in the most stomach-churning way. A historical Western horror-comedy about the greed of the original settlers and the havoc they created on their adopted homeland was maybe a bit too much for audiences who just wanted a few scares. Fortunately, Ravenous has found its true calling as a cult film. Sadly, Antonia Bird died in 2013 at the age of 62. Ravenous was her final feature film as director, and it stands as the peak of her filmmaking skills. A director with one week to prep a film under the crushing thumb of meddling studio execs and a cast with no idea what to do under their watch could have fallen apart at the seams. Thankfully, Antonia Bird was there to offer a fine feast for audiences.