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ravenous antonia bird ravenous robert carlyle

Remembering Ravenous

Written by Joel Harley

19th Century period piece. Horror Western. Gory cannibal movie. Jet-black comedy. Female-directed in a time of self-styled male horror Mavens. Antonia Bird's Ravenous is a lot of things, but rarely gets the recognition it deserves for any of it.

Disgraced war coward Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is 'promoted' to a position at the remote Fort Spencer, Nevada, third in command to an outfit of weirdos and misfits. When mysterious stranger Colquhoun (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into the camp, suffering from severe frostbite and weaving a tale of cannibalism in the woods, Boyd and his men investigate. But is Colquhoun all that he claims to be? And is his version of events to be trusted?

Directed by Bird and written by Ted Griffin, this ambitious comedy horror film is one of the most unusual genre pieces of its time. Or any time. The late nineties may have been dominated by Wes Craven's Scream franchise and its imitators, but it was also a good period for highly entertaining B-movie schlock. Lord of Illusions; Lake Placid; From Dusk Till Dawn; The Frighteners; Sleepy Hollow; the late nineties were far more than just self-aware slasher films and The Blair Witch Project. For my money, turn-of-the-millennium shocks don't get much better than those of Ravenous.

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A pre-Memento Pearce leads a strong cast as Captain Boyd, with David Arquette, Jeremy Davies and Neal McDonough propping up supporting positions in camp. Regrettably, Jeffrey Jones is there too, but we don't talk about that. Thankfully, there's so much more to discuss elsewhere, especially with Carlyle devouring the scenery (amongst other things) as villain Colquhoun. And it's Carlyle who suggested bringing in Bird as director, after the studio's original choice – Milcho Manchevski – was replaced during the first few weeks of shooting.

Like much of Bird's oeuvre, Ravenous is not easily categorised. Its tone veers from grisly slasher film to goofy comedy, exemplified by the polar-opposite performances of its leading men. Where Guy Pearce is dour and humourless, Carlyle goes big, and he goes camp; Trainspotting's Begbie meets Hannibal Lecter. The film's impressive sense of permeating, percolating dread is similarly confused by a thinly-disguised flavour of homoeroticism. Never has one man trying to eat another been so... sexy. This confusing tone did not sit well with the critics of 1999, who were left unsatisfied by its unwillingness to be pigeon-holed.

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While Ravenous isn't to all tastes, for my palette, it's one of the best. Visually, it's a treat, making tremendous use of the cold, craggy climes of Slovakia and Mexico (where it was shot, on location). A precursor to The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, it's the best Civil War movie and a great cannibal one (and a fun preview of what 2015's Bone Tomahawk would have to offer – Arquette and all). Although on opposite ends of the spectrum, the chemistry between Pearce and Carlyle is delicious, and their game of cat-and-mouse makes for one of horror cinema's most interesting pairings.

It's not difficult to see Bird's frustration with the studio and the system in the final showdown between Boyd and Colquhoun, in which the Captain is forced to make the ultimate choice: eat or die. Like Boyd, Bird would chow down on the worst Ravenous could throw at her (in a “horrible” and “manipulative” shoot) to get the job done, but would ultimately never work with Hollywood again.

The resulting film may be described by some as 'flawed' – but I wouldn't change a thing about it (aside from, ahem, Jeffrey Jones). It lets David Arquette and Jeremy Davies play loveable weirdos, and Neil McDonaugh a badass who finds himself unprepared for the extent of the madness ahead of him. It features Guy Pearce in his best genre role, and a great villain performance from Robert Carlyle. The gore is extreme, the violence unsettling. It sounds incredible too, featuring one of horror's all-time greatest soundtracks in its score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman. As the story and visuals jangle the nerves, so too does the music, perfectly at home with the similarly unconventional cast and director.

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Under Bird's eye, the act of cannibalism becomes more than just the consumption of human flesh – a metaphor for greedy, all-consuming America. And, with it, Hollywood. Ravenous was Bird's only horror film, and also one of her last features – with the director passing tragically in 2013.

This strikingly original, delightfully unhinged, terrifically disturbing horror film is a lot of things. To some at the time, it may not have been enough of any one thing, but to me, it remains one of the most deeply satisfying movies I've ever seen.

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About The Author
Joel Harley
Staff Writer
Haribo fiend, Nicolas Cage scholar and frequently functioning alcoholic. These are just some of the words which can be used to describe Joel Harley. The rest, he uses to write film criticism for Horror DNA and a variety of websites and magazines. Sometimes he manages to do so without swearing.
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