ABCs of Horror 2: "R" Is for Ravenous (1999)

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ABCs of Horror 2: "R" Is for <i>Ravenous</i> (1999)

Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?

From the time of the earliest horror fiction, the frontier and the untamed wilderness have always been a natural setting for the most unspeakable actions to play out. It’s a function of the lawlessness of the regions that exist off the edge of the map—the lack of society’s safety net, coupled with the presence of those people who choose to live unconventional lives, and are thus distrusted by the society they left behind. So too are these settings classically crawling with beasts, monsters and ghouls in horror fiction—denizens of the dark places who would be rooted out and exterminated if they ventured too far into man’s domain. And yet, the frontier also calls with the potential of undiscovered, unclaimed rewards for the brave and the capable … while luring the less valorous (or the unfortunate) to their deaths.

At the same time, though, there’s also a fear that the true wilderness, the places beyond all help or knowledge of polite society, might also have a corrupting effect upon the human soul, pushing us toward desperation one could never truly know even as an anonymous city dweller in an uncaring society. If pushed far enough, and stranded in a place inhospitable to human life on every level, who knows what one might be willing to do to survive? No one can honestly say where they would turn for succor until that moment genuinely arrives. We’d all like to think that we live by an unbreakable moral code, but let’s see what condition your code is in when the campfire is dwindling and the food has run out. Those are the moments when we find out who we really are, and it’s the beating heart of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous.

Described too simply as a “cannibal horror” film, Ravenous is much more than its dust jacket descriptor. It shares next to nothing in common with the tawdry Italian “cannibals in the jungle” genre of the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, intending not to titillate so much as awe its audience with the elemental power of its surroundings and the burning intensity of its characters. The narrative may be concrete and easy to follow, but Ravenous displays a definite arthouse streak, only amplified by its truly unique soundtrack, scored by the prolific Michael Nyman but also featuring contributions from Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn. Jangly at times and staccato at others, the score mirrors and supports the heart-pounding suspense of several of the film’s key moments of confrontation.

Loosely based on the ill-fated Donner Party, Ravenous takes place around an isolated military fort high in the Sierra Nevadas, where cowardly officer John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is tucked away as punishment with a collection of dejected soldiers and broken, would-be comrades. The toil of their pointless, banal existence is shattered by the arrival of the frostbitten Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who weaves a tale of a doomed expedition that became trapped by snow and ice, forced to eventually cannibalize each other to survive. As he leads the soldiers back to the scene of the massacre, it becomes clear that they are all likely stepping into some new kind of supernatural charnel house—one that empowers acts of violence with superhuman ability.

This horrifying twist is loosely tied to the native American myth of the Wendigo, a creature of insatiable hunger and limitless evil that is said to possess the spirits of men and drive them to consume each other. Ravenous, however, hardly seems convinced that some supernatural creature is necessary—the lust for domination and power over others seems a perfectly valid motivator for these sorts of atrocities.

In terms of setting, soundtrack and themes, the film is already memorable, but it’s truly the performances that secure a position for Ravenous in the all-time horror pantheon. Robert Carlyle was seemingly born to play a role exactly like this one—his Colqhoun has such a mad glint in his eye that his small stature takes on mythic proportions. The face-off between Carlyle and Pearce on a mountain cliff calls to mind the closing moments of The Last of the Mohicans, except considerably more terrifying, as Carlyle bares his bloodstained teeth and inexorably advances, shrugging off what should be deadly blows. The film never truly attempts to explain the root of these supernatural feats powered by the consumption of human flesh, but it’s far more disturbing for the fact that we don’t understand how Colqhoun perseveres in his insane pact with damnation. We only comprehend that he must be destroyed.

Most “cannibal horror” films simply use the theme of cannibalism as a means to an end, one taboo designed to grab attention in a film full of salacious imagery meant to sate the bloodlust of the inveterate horror geek. Ravenous, on the other hand, truly considers the elemental horror of why cannibalism is such a taboo in the first place, and how terrifying those people might be who believe they can rise above the natural order in order to become a gore-streaked god.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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