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Twenty years after the Italian exploitation industry served up one indigestible and contemptible cannibal holocaust after another, the volatile subject matter now enters the mainstream with Fox's prestigious black comedy Horror stew. Quite the strangest movie to come down the pike in a long while, Antonia Bird's Ravenous will bewitch some, bother others and bewilder most people as they strain to get a handle on what exactly the Face/Priest director is up to.
Cannibalism would hardly seem to be a topic to take lightly, yet that's precisely what the film-makers here continually do as graphic gut-spilling gore jostles with Carry On style banter from a brilliant ensemble cast. Hook on to the touchy tone of Bird's art-house Horror and you'll be rewarded with a thought-provoking and highly disturbing rendition of the Wendigo Indian legend. Resist her mock shock modus operandi and Ravenous will leave you as cold as the climate in the Sierra Nevada mountains where the story, loosely based on the infamous Donner Pass Disaster of 1847, is set.
In the same year, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is assigned to a remote army outpost in that unforgiving terrain after his supposed heroism in the Mexican War is discovered to have been based on absolute cowardice. At these barracks, he shamefacedly takes his place amongst a motley assortment of other outcasts: amiable commanding officer Hart (Jeffrey Jones), nervous priest Toffler (Jeremy Davies), drunken doctor Knox (Stephen Spinella), permanent peyote-smoking cook Cleaves (David Arquette) and macho tyrant Reich (Neal McDonough).
Then a mysterious stranger staggers into the fort. The starving and frost-bitten Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) tells a horrendous story about how he was leading a group of settlers through the mountains when a storm trapped them in a cave. After months of starvation hardship, some of the band became cannibals to survive, but he escaped to get help and hopefully save the remaining victims from ending up on their menu. Naturally, Hart springs into action and urgently takes his men into the mountains to investigate. But it's a trap laid by the flesh-hungry Colqhoun himself to get extra human provisions... and that's where writer Ted Griffin's startling steel-trap saga, containing as many surprise twists and turns as Scream, truly begins.
What makes Ravenous so riveting is the way Griffin allies the act of cannibalism to an irresistible addiction. Once you've tasted human flesh, he says, you're hooked, and the slightest sniff of blood can cause the urge to become over-powering. Hence Colqhoun licking Toffler's stomach wound as the priest lies sleeping in one of the more outrageous moments to grace Bird's unique fable. Colqhoun wants more people to share his blood-thirsty obsession if he's to survive and thrive and this plot strand cleverly conjures up the whole vampire ethos too.
But it's the Wendigo myth brought into full metaphorical force which evocatively posits the notion that by eating the flesh of a man, you gain his strength and spirit. One of the major jolts revolves around this theory and reveals how much more cerebrally orientated and smart Ravenous is compared to all the other softer genre options around at the moment The old hippie mantra 'You are what you eat' takes on a whole new macabre meaning here.
Robert Carlyle is wonderful as Colqhoun and etches the strongest cinematic portrait of pure evil since Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Matching him every step of the way is Guy Pearce who takes Boyd on the most enormous character arc and reveals his staggering acting range in the process. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, LA Confidential and now this - Pearce is absolutely amazing and eventual Oscar glory is surely not too far off. He also has one of the best stunt sequences you'll witness outside of a Bond adventure and that's just another surprise in an off-kilter chiller-diller chock full of them. The terrifying twosome's cat-and-mouse finale will also leave you limp from laughing and screaming.
My favourite moment in Ravenous belongs to Carlyle. As winter turns to spring and he spies a small group of people in the distance heading towards the military compound, he smiles and utters, "Breakfast, lunch and reinforcements". This one you have just got to see because it's original, funny, ultra-gory, provocative, imaginatively scored (by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn) and as entertaining as hell. Bon appetit!
9 out of 10
Ravenous picture copyright Fox
'The terrifying twosomes cat - and - mouse finale will also leave you limp from laughing and screaming'
Producers, Adam Fields & David Heyman. Executive producer, Tim Van
Director, Antonia Bird.
Screenplay, Ted Griffin.
Music, Michael Nyman & Damon Albarn.
Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer, Stephen Spinella, Neal McDonough, David Arquette, Joseph Running.
100 mins. Cert R/18.
Released America: March. Britain: July.