Ravenous is a cult classic that’s slipped into obscurity. Its troubled production began in 1998 and it hit cinemas in 1999 with a quirky mix of black humour, bizarre supernatural legends, and an outstanding soundtrack from Damon Albarn and Michael Nye.
But it tanked in cinemas, despite its heroic director, Antonia Bird, transforming the production from a disaster into a flawed gem. 20 years on, we remember this quirky masterpiece that dared to mix horror with existential angst.
Ravenous is about Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), who has been sent to a remote outpost in California, 1840s America, after an act of cowardice.
After the heat of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), he’s sent to the Sierra Nevada – his generals decide not to execute him as it might “set a bad precedent”.
Travelling to Fort Spencer, he finds a dilapidated outpost home to social misfits. As he attempts to settle in, whilst clearly struggling with introversion and anxiety, ravaged survivor F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) emerges from the wilderness barely alive.
He recalls a story of an extreme fight for survival in the wilderness involving cannibalism (this part was based in the Donner Party Incident). It emerges some of his part may still be alive, so out into the wild head the assortment of Fort Spencer’s troops on a rescue mission.
Filming began in Slovakia at the Tatra Mountain range. Three weeks in, the first director, Milcho Manchevski, left the production after a series of bitter differences with Fox 2000. Raja Gosnell was touted as a replacement, but the cast rejected him.
With the entire film in jeopardy, Carlyle went on to suggest British director Antonia Bird. There’s more on what she did below, but in the space of a week she transformed the production from a disaster into a production with real worth.
To her immense credit, the result is an excellent film that has a quite brilliant first hour.
There’s a riveting, now famous scene at a cave you can find above, but the steady build-up to this pivotal incident features a mixture of introspection, humour, horror, and quirky asides.
Whilst Bird also criticised the circumstances of the shoot (Fox 2000 was accused of micromanagement and other manipulative efforts that seriously undermined the project), she managed to deliver a quirky coda in cinematic history.
Bird, unfortunately, passed away in 2013 at the age of 62. She was a producer and director of incredible talent and tenacity. Working across film and TV, her notable big screen work included Safe (1993), Mad Love (1995), and Face (1997).
Carlyle later recalled the scale of the problems Bird was up against when she was brought on board. With time of the essence, she worked several miracles to get Ravenous back on track.
Despite her sterling efforts, magnificent direction, and sense of nihilistic horror, Ravenous was considered a failure. Critics at the time failed to comprehend its unusual mix of horror and jet black humour.
Adding to its endless list of problems was a terrible marketing campaign that failed to grasp any of the themes of the film. Pitched as some sort of tongue-in-cheek Deliverance rip off, trailers and posters from the time show marketers just didn’t get it.
Two decades on and things have changed. With a DVD and Blu-Ray re-release, this new era of critics has been able to reevaluate Ravenous. The result this time out has seen a much more appreciative amount of feedback.
Sure, the second half of the film is a disappointment in comparison to the first hour, but those 60 minutes are what filmmaking is all about. It’s classic cinema.
Not even the critics of the era could ignore it—Ravenous’ soundtrack is phenomenal. Composed by Damon Albarn (yes, of Blur and Gorillaz fame) and Michael Nye, it’s something of an all time classic.
There’s a quirky focus on a plucking banjo, orchestral themes, folk, driving percussion, and farcical jaunts (used to highlight Fort Spencer’s disastrous nature). It complements the film perfectly – innovation was such a major part of the production.
After the cave scene, Carlyle’s character is involved with a chase and there’s an upbeat, raucous banjo melody to accompany what would, normally, be accompanied by a bombastic, predictable score in an attempt to convey something threatening. Perhaps this is what the critics didn’t get about the film.
Such moments convey the thoughts and feelings of the antagonist, not the protagonist. It’s a fantastic shift away from cinematic conventions, with the unfortunate result of it leaving some viewers unhappy.
Whilst the film has fun with breaking industry topes, Bird doesn’t shy away from challenging the grittier moments with chilling realism. Take the above musical moment, for instance. This is from a pivotal scene that puts Colqhoun in a different light.
When you watch the scene, it’s a reminder of what a fantastic actor he is. But Bird’s pacing is also perfect—the music heightening the moment to ensure the film doesn’t become a goofy farce. It’s terrifying.
But the soundtrack adds to Ravenous’ growing legend. Despite its failure at the box office, its cult following grows year on year, it has already enjoyed a revival of sorts thanks to its re-releases.
It hit cinemas in March of 1999, so here’s hoping the 20th anniversary brings with it yet more glowing reappraisals.