From June 11 – July 11, Lewton Bus is celebrating the voices of women behind the cameras in Hollywood, in film and television, who are gradually cracking the monopoly that men have held on power in the industry from its inception. In the age of #MeToo, in the midst of the most openly misogynist and bigoted US government in most of our lifetimes, it is more important than ever to recognize and amplify the contributions of cis and transgender women in an industry that touches the dreams of people all around the world.
Ravenous, Antonia Bird’s 1999 Western horror film, starts off with a quotation in white letters against black. This is pretentious to begin with, made more pretentious by the choice of quote. It’s Friedrich Nietzsche. “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.” Although that quote becomes pretty damn literal in Ravenous, this is the kind of self-seriousness that wouldn’t feel out of place in a clumsy film school project. However, it is shortly joined on screen by a second quote, accompanied by the sound of a wolf howling, which plays as a period-appropriate version of a rim shot. Set up. Punchline. “Eat me. – Anonymous.”
It’s a pretty gutsy way to start off a major studio release, and it establishes the tone of the film hilariously and efficiently. Or rather the tones of the film. One of the things that makes Ravenous distinctive in my mind (and frankly makes it one of my favorite films) is its handling of tone, which is somehow masterful and seemingly haphazard at the same time.
I’ll be honest, when I was first approaching this piece, my aim was to write something about how Ravenous is a comedy that is, barring those two initial quotations, devoid of traditional jokes. The idea of a comedy without punchlines is something that’s fascinated me ever since I first saw Paul Verhoeven’s satirical masterpiece, Starship Troopers. That film is a straight up comedy, but internally the movie doesn’t tend to realize it’s a comedy. Barring some over-the-top laugh lines in the “Would You Like To Know More?” segments, Starship Troopers generally plays it straight as a propaganda film. Funny as hell, but internally straight-faced. That was my angle going into this, but upon revisiting Ravenous I realized I was totally off base. Even if you think you know a movie from front to back, sometimes you need to revisit it if only to remind yourself of what makes it so great. The duo of black-on-white quotations isn’t an outlier, but pretty representative of the film as a whole. Ravenous is filled with jokes, but moves between those moments and drama and horror without effort.
It’s a film that could have easily been executed as a straight ahead period horror thriller, notable mostly for a solid cast of character actors,1 but instead it’s something much weirder. It starts off by subverting the “war hero” protagonist trope by introducing John Boyd (Guy Pierce) as a man who is defined by his cowardice. He’s been decorated for single-handedly taking an enemy headquarters during the Mexican-American War. However, that opportunity only presented itself after he played opossum in the middle of a losing battle and was buried under the dead bodies of his comrades by the enemy. After hours of his buddies’ blood seeping into his mouth, he gains new strength and manages to kick some ass.
After his ignominious act of “heroism” he’s transferred out of sight and out of mind to Fort Spencer, a remote military outpost in the Sierra Nevada; a place only there to support passing Americans drunk on the concept of Manifest Destiny. Not long after Boyd’s arrival to Spencer and meeting its crew of misfits, a starving man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into camp. After he’s been revived, he tells his harrowing, Donner Party-style tale of survival and cannibalism, centered around a villainous (and voracious) military jerk named Colonel Ives. The bulk of the fort’s skeleton crew, accompanied by Colqhoun, then head off on a rescue mission in search of potential survivors of Colqhoun’s wagon train.
The result is bloody. And funny. And involves the wendigo, a creature out of Native American mythology. A person who has eaten the flesh of another, and has thus stolen the strength of their victim. It’s werewolf mixed with vampire mixed with just plain human avarice.
This has the makings of a traditional “torture-porn” movie, tinged with the supernatural, but instead we have a film that is centered around a sense of humor. It’s not a film that is self-aware in the sense of being a spoof. It doesn’t ridicule itself or its ostensible genre. Instead it acknowledges the strangeness of its own premise and doubles down on it. It will have stretches of unbearable suspense and punctuate them with moments that are, if not quite comedic in the traditional sense, weird and off-kilter enough to be funny as hell. It’s a straight up horror film in a lot of ways, and one that will leave you feeling physically grimy after watching it, but you’ll find yourself laughing throughout, either from discomfort or, you know, actual jokes. It’s a delicate balance, and Ravenous nails it.
It would be impossible to write about Ravenous without commenting on its score, composed in an apparent non-collaboration2 between Michael Nyman (The Piano) and Damon Albarn (the band Blur). I have trouble thinking about how this film would work without its score, one of my favorites of all time, because it complements the larger work so perfectly. It shifts between ominous, thumping rhythms, strange, folk-tinged noodling, and some nearly elegiac, military-sounding brass. In one really notable moment, the score transitions abruptly from some really, dire, suspense-filled notes to old fashioned hillbilly music that is totally gleeful, and it shifts the tone of the sequence entirely. What in any other film would be a traditional chase scene becomes something almost ridiculous, but not ridiculous in a way that actually undercuts the goings on. This film walks a tonal tightrope, and never wobbles.
Ravenous is a miracle in that a film this strange came out of a major studio intact, and I have to wonder if it’s in part because of its remarkable score that we have what we have. It’s a tonal mishmash, going grisly and goofy, often at the same time, then barreling straight into broader philosophical ideas of morality and American colonialism. Would the film work without its incredibly nimble score tying it all together? I’m not sure. Bird’s remarkable direction, the wonderful writing, and the understated (until it’s carefully not) editing go a long way, but I think its a testament to how alchemical the art of film is that I might consider the score to be the element that ties it all together. Film is a collaborative medium after all, and the end result is a film that is fundamentally odd, but so tonally coherent that a big studio would see fit to put this monster in theaters. It just works.
Not at the box office, though. It made just over two million dollars on a twelve million dollar budget. Not surprising. Sad, but not surprising.
Ravenous is an underappreciated gem, and it’s available on Amazon streaming right now. If you haven’t seen it already, see it. If you have, see it again. It deserves a critical and popular reevaluation. And let us all raise a blood-filled glass to the memory of director Antonia Bird, a director who we lost way too soon in 2013. She made what should be considered a modern classic.