Thursday, October 16, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 15 - Ravenous

#8 (Tie) - 6 Votes

I skipped Ravenous when it was dumped in theaters in the spring of 1999, received mixed-to-negative reviews (though Roger Ebert and a handful of others were fans) and quickly disappeared. A few years later, I caught it on cable and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The movie has built up a small cult following over the years; as is often the case with black comedies, Ravenous was difficult to market (check out the pretty terrible trailer below) and eventually found an audience appreciative of its peculiar charms through word of mouth. Mixing horror and comedy is always a delicate balance, and Ravenous has the added challenge of working as a period piece, but it works as well as it does because the setting, characters and performances remain credible even as the action grows increasingly loony.

Set in 1847, Ravenous stars Guy Pearce as Captain John Boyd, who is transferred to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas as punishment for an act of cowardice during a battle. Soon after Boyd's arrival, a settler named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) appears at the camp, near death and telling the terrifying story of his party being lost in the mountains and having to resort to cannibalism. The soldiers assemble a rescue party to search for survivors around the camp; I'll stop describing the plot here, because it's a pleasure to see the unexpected turns the story takes. Screenwriter Ted Griffin does a fine job of repeatedly raising the stakes throughout; every time we think the situation can't get worse for Boyd and his fellow soldiers, Griffin turns the screws a little tighter, all while maintaining a cheerful sense of gallows humor.

The production of Ravenous was famously troubled, with Antonia Bird taking over three weeks into production after the original director, Milcho Manchevski, was fired. So while the movie nods in the direction of playing as satire of American exceptionalism, it's probably best not to read too much of a personal signature into what was clearly a for-hire job. That said, aside from the anticlimactic final scenes, the movie doesn't feel like the product of a troubled production at all. Bird gets the tricky tone the material needs to work without losing sight of the sense of verisimilitude needed to keep it from veering into camp territory - it's a very funny movie, but moments like Jeffrey Jones' final scene are legitimately unsettling. Bird also gets strong performances from her ensemble cast - both leads are strong, and the ensembles cast, which includes Jones, Jeremy Davies and Neal McDonough, offers strong support, which is crucial in a horror movie that relies on an isolated setting. Anthony Richmond's gorgeous widescreen cinematography makes the most of the movie's locations (Slovakia makes a surprisingly good double for the Sierras). And, last but not least, the score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn is one of the all-time great horror soundtracks; not since Deliverance has a banjo sounded so threatening.

U.S. Release Date: March 19, 1999 (Also opening that day: Forces of Nature, True Crime, The King and I, I Stand Alone, The Book of Life, Sparkler)

What critics said at the time:

"The film is one of those accursed self-styled 'outrageous' comedies that play the horrific for broad laughs, with a comically inflated style of dialogue that's so hip one doubts it could have been conceived before 1997, much less 1847. It's 'Eating Raoul' in buckskins. But the movie is also coarse and bloody (blood seeping, splattering, gurgling, gushing or blackening into aspic in the sun, is the visual motif) and uses far too many horror movie tricks, like the shock of the mutilated body or the unexpected plasma squirt." - Stephen Hunter, Washington Post

"The screenplay, by Ted Griffin, provides nice, small moments of color for the characters (I liked the way Jeffrey Jones' C.O. seemed reasonable in the most appalling ways), and short, spare lines of dialogue that do their work ('He was licking me!'). I also liked the way characters unexpectedly reappeared and how the movie savors Boyd's inability to get anyone to believe him. And I admired the visceral music, by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, which calls attention to itself (common) but deserves to (rare). 'Ravenous' is clever in the way it avoids most of the cliches of the vampire movie by using cannibalism, and most of the cliches of the cannibal movie by using vampirism. It serves both dishes with new sauces." Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

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