a Rebecca Keel review
I had the pleasure of seeing ‘Ravenous’ for the first time recently. This 1999 slow-burn horror film starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, and David Arquette surprised me in a lot of ways. I didn’t know much about the film when I sat down to watch it; I’d seen it recommended here and there on the Internet, and I had a vague idea that it was about cannibalism, but beyond that, the whole thing was an impressive surprise. The general consensus seems to be that it’s never gotten the attention it deserves, and while I definitely agree with that, it seems like its own quirkiness has been instrumental in keeping it a well-kept secret from the mainstream horror scene.
Cinematically, ‘Ravenous’ represents the collision of several elements which don’t typically walk around holding hands. Its pacing, character development style, and quite a lot of its cinematographic choices feel more like a classic Western than a modern horror film, and apparently I was far from the first to make this connection (Jacob Knight over at nerdbastards.com highlights the role of elements from the Western genre as being fundamental to the film: http://nerdbastards.com/2014/06/03/retro-review-ravenous-is-an-even-better-western-than-it-is-a-horror-film/ ). It’s also filmed in a retrospective style that often makes it easy to forget that it came out the same year as ‘The Matrix’. This combination of Western genre film construction and old-fashioned filming style successfully tricked my brain into repeatedly thinking I was watching a film much older than this one actually is. Meanwhile, the gore and makeup effects have an offhand realism that reminds me of sweeping, dramatic war films. The kind of horror story it presents is in tune with the film’s style: it’s constructed with fairly limited plot twists and instead of relying on cheap startle techniques, it tells a thoughtful tale which stayed with me long after I watched it, enticing my mind to play with the sharp edges of its implications.
The film’s setting was quite unusual as well. The Mexican-American War, which went down during the mid-1800s before the outbreak of the American Civil War, is far from a typical time period setting for any genre of film, and it seems even more bizarre as the backdrop for a horror flick. Yet the film’s writer, Ted Griffin, and its director, Antonia Bird, made good use of the features of the setting to generate genuine feelings of isolation and desperation which sometimes feel forced in horror films set in the Information Age. Utilizing Native American culture and legends gave the story an air of authenticity that was hard to dispel and made for convincing storytelling of a caliber I typically only associate with a few horror novelists (such as Dan Simmons, whose historical-fiction horror is some of the best in the field).
Yet it’s easy to see how fans of mainstream horror could lose interest in an artistic film like ‘Ravenous’. The film’s score is at times grating, though the effect seems intentional and helps drive home the events playing out on-screen, while at other times idyllic background music which seems like it would be more at home in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ has a jarring effect when taken alongside the foreshadowed events and the horrors that have already taken place. Such decisions can alienate viewers who prefer and expect a more conventional film score, though this technique is increasing in popularity (or at least acceptance) among mainstream viewers. The pacing of the plot’s revelations requires patience fans of films like ‘Saw’ and ‘The Grudge’ aren’t always willing to grant a film, and the lack of monster makeup might make it hard for some to swallow a film that is, frankly, set up to be a type monster movie. But for fans of old-fashioned horror, ‘Ravenous’ has a lot to offer. Many elements of the film would feel at home in a story by Lovecraft, Matheson, or Poe. And the film’s unabashed frankness and realism in the face of the supernatural leaves me hovering in that delicate space between belief and disbelief which is the hardest form of terror to shake off.