It's not too surprising that a film like Ravenous, a morbidly dark horror-comedy about cannibalism in the snowy expanses of 1800s California, might suffer from some production issues while under studio control. Cycling through directors while undergoing casting issues and dissatisfaction with the day-to-day output, it's probably a minor miracle that director Antonia Bird rallied the troops enough to get this thing out for the public eye, despite the many hands -- including the studio's -- dragging it in different directions. Even more remarkable is the fact that Ravenous, perhaps by a stroke of luck, ultimately ends up being a oddly mesmerizing piece of work that brushes against the fabric of morality and mortality, reveling in an outlandish tone as it takes a few twisted, albeit predictable, turns through the Sierra Nevada wilderness. Its raw, unsettling personality overcomes a host of imperfections and evidence of creative differences, justifying the cult following it has developed since its disappointing critical and commercial reception upon release.
After a not-so-valiant commandment decision during the Mexican-American War leads to him being both celebrated for his actions and reprimanded for his lack of mettle, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce, Animal Kingdom) finds himself essentially "exiled" to the remote, depressingly frigid Fort Spence in the California mountains. A skeleton crew keeps the rusty compound running, filled with troops who can barely manage their duties: a wobbly young priest (Jeremy Davies), a veterinary doctor (Stephen Spinella) as their physician, one overzealous soldier (Neal McDonough) ... and, among others, David Arquette (Scream) as a baked and giggly lout. One evening, shortly after Boyd arrives, a starving and skittish man, F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle, Trainspotting) stumbles onto their doorstep, spinning a tale about his group of travelers that ends in starvation, violence, and ultimately cannibalism out of desperation. As they get to know the wanderer a little better, however, traveling with him to his campsite while timidly discussing the Algonquin mythology of the Wendigo, they soon learn that he's not a lick of what he's made himself out to be.
From the moment Boyd, brooding and wide-eyed, cautiously steps into Colonel Hart's (Jeffrey Jones, The Devil's Advocate) office to report for "duty", Ravenous establishes an strange, off-kilter atmosphere that's built on how the shell-shocked captain adjusts to the isolation and oddness of Fort Spencer's troops. The photography from Don't Look Now cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond eerily tracks the soldiers' movement around their rickety, inhospitable surroundings, while a twisted and tonally complex score from Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman gives Boyd's acclimation to his new circumstances a playfully ominous attitude. Merely walking the grounds of the fort gives off a certain vibe even before Colqhoun arrives, but the outsider's tale of consuming human flesh quickly spikes the blood-curdling mood, leaving you uncertain of what to think of the self-proclaimed cannibal and what he'll do in the presence of living men. That tension escalates as they venture into the forest, setting up a quick increase in the film's horror as the music teases those watching with its tone, such as when upbeat folk music plays during a harrowing death.
Unsettling and macabre twists happen early on in Ravenous, making it a little tricky to discuss beyond a certain point to preserve its semi-surprises. It's relatively safe to say that Boyd himself ends up in his own state of desperation while fleeing from cannibalistic threats, where the film descends into raw horror as he, an insecure soldier and sad excuse for a war hero, stumbles through the Sierra Nevada as prey. It's around this time, too, that the story takes an overtly supernatural and somewhat unexpected turn given the practical setting, materializing the film's interest in the fable of the "wendigo" -- cannibals who magically absorb the strength of the beings they eat -- into a mystical plot shift that's reminiscent of the metaphysical territory of vampirism. The script from Ted Griffin doesn't solely use the other-worldly physical benefits as a device, though: once it's introduced, the characters who partake directly address the moral boundaries (and religious comparisons) in delightfully overwrought dramatic scenes, even if they're not really unlike something you'd find in an Anne Rice novel.
While Ravenous presents Guy Pearce in his first big role after emerging on the mainstream Hollywood scene with L.A. Confidential, and only a few years before his "star-making" role in Memento, Boyd's purpose becomes to stoically react and mold to Robert Carlyle's intense, almost-grandiose projection of Colqhoun, leaving him mostly as a hollowed-out background observer at first. Carlyle takes his character's gruesome monologues and elevates then with piercing, alert glances and a distressingly confident tone, which can look appealing in the destitute surroundings of Fort Spencer, especially in the eyes of a soldier who endured a demoralizing and cowardly event in a war. It's only later on, after enduring the pursuit through the mountains, that Pearce gets the chance to unleash his own frenzied talents as Boyd plummets into justifiable paranoia. While there's an air of predictability and unlikelihood about the scenario -- namely, whether people could recognize a man simply without his beard -- the film becomes captivating once the prospect of eating human flesh gets dangled in front of a tortured Boyd's nose.
That energy between Pearce and Carlyle lingers all the way until the film's ending, continuing in the fort's halls with its grisly musings about morality and the hunger for power, while tapping into a vein of exceptionally dark humor where even the sipping of a stew might make your stomach turn while being amused at what's going on. Ravenous does reach a few points that stretch the boundaries of suspension of disbelief with the magical enhancements of the Wendigo Diet: rapid and seamless healing, resistance to trauma, and the ability to fend off death opportunely keep things moving along with an elevated pulse. They also add spice to the story as it approaches a tense finale, though, notably within a brawl between two wendigos and a window for Boyd to get redemption for his missed opportunity at bravery during the war. It's a bizarre and well thought-out blend of good-time gore and straight-faced contemplation, ultimately leading this troubled production into much more intriguing territory than it probably had any right to be in.
Like many of Shout Factory's releases, Ravenous arrives from the studio as an entry of their Scream Factory line with reversible artwork, with the flipside (and the disc design) resembling the film's original poster artwork. Everything else is standard fare, down to the sturdy Blu-ray case.
Video and Audio:
Ouch. Fans of Ravenous are going to dig the fact that it has finally been presented in a widescreen-enabled transfer for this region, and that the film's overall visual tempo is conveyed through the rich, grim demeanor of its photography. Contrast and lighting in and around Fort Spencer remains fairly stable -- though dark and detail-intrusive at times -- allowing the grayish blues of clothing, warm-ish but responsive skin tones, and grimy brownness of decomposed skeletons to come through, mostly those in brighter settings. Positives, however, are exceedingly slim under the surface in this 2.35:1-framed 1080p AVC transfer: dust and debris crop up throughout, unruly grain and compression artifacts also show up (especially against snow and skin tones in bright sunlight), and there's an inbuilt smoothness from start to finish that frequently hampers standard range of motion. The image's depth often becomes flat and unsatisfying, appearing hazy and rarely latching onto fine details: clustered tree branches, facial hair, and other environment aspects are problematic, though the contour of eyewear frames, the surfaces of books, and the texture of blood and skin can be marginally clean. You have to look really close to find something truly appetizing here, though, rarely getting above the level of an upscaled standard-definition disc.
The 5.1 Master Audio track serves a much more palatable dish of high-definition delight, though the quality occasionally makes Ravenous sound a tad older and more constrained than it likely should for a film of its vintage. The good news is that the signature score comes through pretty fantastically, with its peculiar twang of infused instrumental effects creating nice separation across the front channels, stretching its legs to the rear where needed. Understated sound effects like the metallic rattle of artillery and the sliding of a knife blade through a military uniform, flickers of controlled fire in the background, and the wind blowing across the silent snowy mountains are pronounced, if a bit thin. Deeper echoic effects in footsteps on wood, gunfire, and verbal delivery -- from normal conversational rhythm to Robert Carlyle's theatrical shifting accents and Neal McDonough's memorably polar-plunge yell -- remain smooth and balanced with only rare moments of distortion at peak volumes, nicely touching on bass levels based on who's speaking. Overall, the sound design gets a just, wholesome treatment that does quite a bit to engage the audience. A potent 2-channel Master Audio track is also available, but only English subtitles.
Ravenous' growing cult following will also appreciate that Shout Factory have included a slate of previously-available extras on other editions, including the three Audio Commentaries with various individuals involved with the process. Two of them are quite good: one with Director Antonia Bird and Composer Damon Albarn keeps a steady rhythm of honest insight as they explore locations and cultural context, rearranging and rewriting the script based on the film's demands, and production developments; and another, with Screenwriter Ted Griffin and Actor Jeffrey Jones, reveals a lot about the actors themselves and the breadth of Jones' surprising knowledge and fondness for the production. There's a third with lead actor Robert Carlyle that, bless him, really isn't worth the effort waiting for him to finally chime in with his limited insights. All of these are accessible in the Audio portion of the menu, along with a Music and Effects Only Track in 2-channel Master Audio.
Along with the reused Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary with Antonia Bird (12:06, 16x9 HD), the Theatrical Trailer (2:00, 16x9 HD), TV Spot (:32, 16x9 HD), and Costume/ Production Photo Gallery, Shout Factory have also included one brand new special feature: an Interview with Jeffrey Jones (20:42, 16x9 HD), and it'll really surprise those watching precisely how on-top of this film he is. From historical context to knowledge about Native American culture and the film's metaphorical side, spliced between applicable clips, it's a great watch from start to finish.
Ravenous is this disturbing and woefully overlooked slice of comedic horror about eating human flesh, the moral boundaries of seeking power, and the landscape of mid-1800s California, a film that some might be quick to dismiss due to its subject matter and its reliance on fantasy to keep it going. It's flawed, yes, and the creative indecisiveness at its core peeks out at times, but the final product gets enough right in Captain Boyd's brush with cannibalism -- and in the warped perspective of Robert Carlyle's deliciously demented Colqhoun -- that it's worth experiencing its bizarre humor, philosophically clever meditations, and queasy provocations. Which makes it all the more frustrating to discuss this Blu-ray: it's a strong-sounding and widescreen-enhanced presentation, a new experience for region-locked fans of the film, that comes with a slick new twenty-minute interview with Jeffrey Jones, a cluster of intriguing deleted scenes, and a trio of commentaries (with two that are really worth the time). The problem? The transfer is, in so many words, disappointing to the point of distraction. Fans will likely pick this up regardless and ditch their archaic DVD (and the uptick in sound and new interview would keep me from stopping them), but I'd suggest a Rental of the Blu-ray for everyone else, simply to experience the film and enjoy the extras.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site