Distributor: Shout! Factory/Scream Factory
Release Date: June 03, 2014
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Movie: A / Video: D / Audio: B+ / Extras: C
Antonia Bird’s Ravenous is a B-movie through and through. Set in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, the film’s period costuming and wilderness photography is almost immediately interrupted by blood-red title credits that whoosh in and out of the frame. Its most epic images, of a great and vicious battle, are confined to scattered flashbacks in the first act, nothing more than fragments of backstory that reveal the cowardice and hapless achievement of the simultaneous praised and despised John Boyd (Guy Pearce), who receives a promotion for taking a Mexican stronghold but is quietly exiled to a remote, wintry California fort to serve out of sight.
The ragged gang he meets there seems more fit for a movie about an independent bookstore than a mid-19th century military installation. The commander, Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) is a pleasant but quiet sort just collecting a paycheck. He presides over Major Knox (Stephen Spinella), a drunken vet shanghaied into human medicine, pious and meek Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), ever-stoned Private Cleaves (David Arquette) and gung-ho soldier Private Reich (Neal McDonough), whose enthusiasm is played at a pitch more worthy of Blackadder than even the light absurdity that settles over John Ford pictures with similar setups.
Impressively, that comic streak continues when a man going by the name of Colquhoun (Robert Carlyle) enters camp half-frozen, spouting tales of cannibalism among his wagon train and gradually revealing darker motives beneath his veneer of victimhood. Colquhoun’s predatory impact merely shifts the film’s tone from humorous to macabre. Building off an early juxtaposition between a military banquet of rare steaks and Boyd remembering hiding under the bloody corpses of his brethren, the film’s second and third acts get morbid chuckles from the onset of murder and consumption. The burst of bluegrass that leaps into the speakers when Colquhoun merrily gives chase to Toffler darkly hilarious, as is a converted cannibal late in the film sitting down to a glass of bourbon and a special stew and sighing, “Isn’t this civilized?”
Bird came onto the production during shooting to take over for the fired Milcho Manchevski, and it is obvious that Ravenous is not the wholly conceived passion project of an auteur. But her direction has a punchy, unpretentious quality that perfectly suits the material. Cursed with an unseasonably warm Slovakian winter that mucked up some of the snow-stranded, Donner Party-esque original script, Bird nonetheless manages to convey an atmosphere of chilled isolation, broken up by antic but never chaotic inserts of gore and fire to convey the growing bloodlust of those who bend to temptation.
The supernatural element introduced into the plot, that of the cursed but curative properties of eating human flesh, are handled with clever edits that dance around any expensive and time-consuming effects: when a mortally wounded Boyd caves and takes a few bites, for example, the image immediately leaps from his spoon-wielding hand to a close-up of his previously bloody face fully restored.
Bird’s spare, B-movie direction is matched by the pulpy commentary of the screenplay, which posits the hunger that cannibalism provokes as a metaphor for American Expansionism, an all-consuming greed that will not cease. People mention Native-American wendigo myths, and in a sense Ravenous feels like a “gone native” movie with its descent into madness in the wilderness. Yet it is a going native movie in which the natives have already been all-but-completely purged (Joseph Runningfox and Sheil Tousey’s sibling scouts are the only two Native-Americans seen in the entire film). Ravenous is delightfully creepy and funny, yet its greatest trait is its gruesome illustration that the principles of Manifest Destiny won’t stop, can’t stop, just because the concept has been achieved.
Despite some advance criticism, I was unprepared for how bad Scream Factory’s Blu-Ray looks. Minor print errors like debris and scratches abound, but far more troubling are the immense number of compression artifacts. Non-existent detail flattens the image, edge enhancement rings everything, flesh tones lack consistency and sunlight turns every face into wax. Even some of the opening credits look hazy! This does not even look to have been struck from a negative but from the master used for the previous DVD; in fact, you can see how little difference there is between the two here.
Audio is thankfully much better, offered in both 5.1 surround (the preferable option), or a solid 2.0 track. You can even listen to an isolated score track, something that normally seems superfluous when offered but here calls attention to Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman’s truly odd soundtrack, a blend of classical orchestration, folk and electronic effects that is not like Neil Young’s squalling Dead Man score but shares its avant-garde genre application.
A batch of deleted scenes come with or without commentary, though what appears on the disc seems inconsequential compared to the complaints Bird and others voiced about what they felt was missing from the final cut. Still galleries, TV spots and a trailer are also included. Scream Factory also included three commentary tracks: one with Bird and Albarn, one with writer Ted Griffin and Jeffrey Jones, and one with Carlyle. All three commentary tracks are pause-laden, but Carlyle’s contains so little material it hardly rated inclusion, or at least not without being offset as scene-specific commentary. Nonetheless, the combined input of the commentaries offer a portrait of a little film that could, an oddball movie that came together by sheer miracle and exists, however compromised, as a unique and demented mid-budget picture before such a thing became extinct over the next decade and counting.
Ravenous is a raw, morbid B-movie that offers a fresh take on both atmospheric horror and the Western, and it deserves better treatment than the indifferent video transfer of Scream Factory’s release.