Humor in horror is a tricky balance. Make it too much of a farce and all the suspense and tension is ruined. Be too scarce with the humor and it risks becoming a grim, hopeless downer. The most effective humor in horror movies relies less on jokes and more on reactions, line delivery, and the absurdity of the situation. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and EVIL DEAD 2 are perfect examples of this. They are both extremely funny movies, but the humor accentuates the horror rather than overpowering it. Even SHAUN OF THE DEAD, which is far more skewed towards comedy, respects the horror of the situation enough to produce a few genuinely disturbing and visceral scenes. On the more subtle side is 1999’s old timey cannibal tale, RAVENOUS.
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pierce) is celebrated as a hero of the American-Mexican War, even though his is really a scaredy pants coward. He is assigned to Podunk Fort Spencer in the Californian Rockies. There, he tries to fit in with the other weirdos stationed there: kind-hearted but absent minded Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), perpetually drunk Major Knox (Stephen Spinella), timid Chaplin Toffler (Jeremy Davies), gung ho Private Reich (Neal McDonough), and the David Arquette-esque Private Cleaves (David Arquette). Their days of tedium are interrupted when a half-frozen man stumbles into their fort. Once he is revived, the man, Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) explains that he has escaped the cannibalistic clutches of Colonel Ives, the man who led his pioneer party into the mountains and proceeded to eat them when they ran out of food. When Col. Hart hears there may be another survivor still in Ives’ cave, he organizes a search party to investigate. Before they leave, Boyd hears the Indian legend of the Wendigo, a cannibal that takes the strength of his victims, but is cursed with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. When the party reaches the cannibal cave, Colqhoun has a little surprise. He is actually Ives, looking to restock his larder. Ives gets the jump on the party, leaving Boyd hiding in a hole with a broken leg with Reich’s corpse. Starving, Boyd breaks down and has a nibble on Reich. The man-meat restores Boyd’s strength lickety split, and he returns to the Fort, only to find Ives has taken up shop. Ives has big plans, and he wants Boyd to be part of them. Does Boyd have the backbone to stop gnawing on other people’s backbones and force a cannibal confrontation with Ives?
RAVENOUS is an odd little movie. On paper, this quirky cannibalism-as-drug addiction parable shouldn’t work. It opens with a Nietzsche quote, followed by an anonymous quote of “Bite me”, giving it the impression it will be sillier than it is. For the most part, though, it is played straight. The pacing is deliberate, even meditative at times. Packed away in the (sometimes) snowy mountains, Fort Spencer has a pervasive atmosphere of isolation and doom. The humor comes from the collection of oddballs stationed at the fort. Col. Hart describes them as sort of an Island of Misfit Soldiers, a place where the Army sends those it doesn’t want mingling with the normal folk. Maj. Knox is an arrogant jerk who luckily spends most of his time stone drunk. Pvt. Cleaves is a giggly pothead. Pvt. Toffler is so meek he barely raises his voice above a mumble (Davies also played the coward in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for him). Pvt. Reich is a super intense alpha dog type. He’s introduced standing waste deep in a freezing river, screaming with masochistic relish. He aggressively nips at everyone else for their unprofessionalism, but it’s all fueled by a barely concealed self-loathing. He remains an asshole even in death, taunting Boyd with unblinking eyes and rigor mortis induced smile. The only normal people are the two Indian scouts, the mute George (Joseph Runningfox) and his no-nonsense sister Martha (Sheila Tousey). Martha is the smartest and most cautious of the batch, a frontier time final girl. The story's focus is on the damaged oddballs, though, Martha is the observer in the background.
It turns out that Fort Spencer is the perfect place for Captain John Boyd. He’s a strange one even before he goes full cannibal. Pierce plays him very quietly with introspection. this is not the typical portrait of a coward. Boyd isn’t sniveling, or skittish, or outwardly fearful. When he is in the middle of a chaotic battle with the Mexican Army, he calmly lies down on the ground and plays dead. When he and Reich get outmaneuvered in the woods while hunting Ives, Boyd simply tells the soldier, “I’m going back,” preferring to walk away rather than chase the danger. He has no problem owning up to his deficiency. He readily tells anyone who asks. It’s the ambitious General Slauson (John Spencer) who paints him as a war hero for political gain, then sticks him in the middle of nowhere.
Boyd actually fits in nicely with Jeffrey Jones’ similarly unfit for command Col. Hart. He’s no coward; he is quick to lead a dangerous rescue mission when he believes an innocent woman might be still alive, but he is no battle hardened military man, either. He’s more academic than authoritarian, preferring to maintain a quiet patch of civilization behind forgotten wood walls rather than lead men into war. Jones plays him as a sad, regretful man trying to make the most of his depressing circumstance. When he is [spoiler] coaxed into the cannibal fold by Ives, he struggles to reconcile his congenial nature with his new found blood lust. As he explains to Boyd, “It’s lonely being a cannibal, tough making friends.”
Ives, on the other hand, has no qualms at all about dining on his fellow man. He is rocking the cannibal lifestyle, in fact. The curse of the Wendigo is clearly the best thing tthat ever happened to him. Eating the flesh of his travel companions has cured his tuberculosis, given him preternatural strength and virility, even cured his depression. The fact that he must murder to sustain his high doesn’t seem to be a drawback for him. Robert Carlyle’s lunatic transformation outside the cave from the timid Colqhoun into the charismatic and brutal Ives is fantastic. At first it seems like he is being possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo, hooting and clawing at the ground, but I think it was really an act to distract Hart and totally freak out Toffler. He’s just playing with his food.
It’s never really explained how Col. Ives manages to hoodwink Gen. Slauson into appointing him as commander of Fort Spencer in Hart’s (and Boyd’s) absence, but it doesn’t really matter. Ives is charming and confident, Slauson is vane and easily manipulated, it just happened. I got the feeling that Ives was waiting for Boyd to stumble back to the fort just so he could torment him. The relationship between Boyd and Ives is so entertaining in this period. Boyd is the one acting like a madman, twitching like a rabbit and clutching a carving knife at all times. He actually managed to out-crazy David Arquette’s character, which is saying something. None of the people left at the fort ever saw Colqhoun, so they think it’s Boyd that has become the Wendigo (or at least a dangerous nutball). Ives savors every moment of Boyd’s confusion and anguish the same way he later savors the stew made of Major Knox.
It’s brilliant the way the movie stubbornly refuses to make Boyd the hero. He is completely under Ives’ thumb from the moment they meet. The best scene is when Boyd, mortally wounded by Ives, is offered the choice to eat the Knox stew or die. Boyd tries to resist, but Ives so seductively pressures him to acquiesce (there are some very sexual undertones here) that he breaks down and takes a bite. It’s only when Boyd realizes the scope of Ives’ plans (to turn Fort Spencer into a cannibal buffet of Gold Rush pioneers) that he gets the resolve to stand up to Ives. The resulting Wendigo-on-Wendigo violence is pretty grueling, with each opponent trading enough stabs, chops, and bashes to put down a normal person three times over. The end [spoiler] is appropriately grim, Boyd and Ives literally locked in a final embrace between the jaws of an enormous bear trap. Ives, in perfect character, tells Boyd, “If you die first, I’m definitely going to eat you, but the question is, if I die, what are you going to do?” The movie teases out the answer until the last moment.
Obviously, the movie’s premise that human flesh is a miraculous panacea for whatever ails you is complete fantasy. Or… is it? I’ve never personally eaten anyone (non-euphemistically), so I can’t say for sure. There are some anecdotal accounts to back it up (Leatherface), but I don’t believe there have been any large scale studies devoted to this theory. Now, I’ve read the guidelines for scientific ethics, and they strongly discourage the feeding of human remains to test subjects (even to rats, if you can believe it), so we may never be able to entirely disprove this claim. Not until they begin marketing Soylent Green, but that won’t happen for at least another decade.
RAVENOUS was directed by Antonia Bird, who picked up after Milcho Manchevski was given the boot two weeks into shooting. Most of her work was in British television, and this was her last theatrical movie before returning to the small screen. It’s a pity, since she displayed a deft touch with both horror and satire in this movie. We need more female horror directors, and more female directors in general. A large part of the film’s quirk comes from the off-beat soundtrack from composer Damon Albarn. He uses a lot of traditional American instruments like banjo and dulcimer mixed with synth, orchestra, and Native American chanting. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond composes some very striking widescreen shots, which are unfortunately marred by the cruddy 1990's film stock (not even the Blu Ray can save that shit). That's not enough to sour me on this weirdo folk tale, though. With such an unusual script and sense of humor, it could have easily turned out a disaster (and not the kind that I like), but ultimately all the strange elements mixed together to form a very satisfying cinematic stew. Mmm, stew.