Cannibals! I can’t say this confidently, because I have done the bare minimum amount of research, but without being too declarative, Rooster Illusion features more articles on cannibalism than any other film review blog ever. Cannibalism is what makes us special. It’s what sets us apart from the animals… well, from certain animals. From some animals. Between last week’s Tuesday Zone, in part about the most charming cannibal film of all time, Delicatessen, James’ semi-constant Hannibal recaps, and every other non-shark Sci-Fridays article, if we have one recurring theme, it’s cannibalism.
Cannibalism kinda gives me the heebie-jeebies, though. Granted, Danish Superstar Mads Mikkelsen can make it, and anything, look really attractive, but something about eating other folk just rubs me the wrong way. Let’s say that’s why I have yet to join the wonderful cannibalistic family that is Rooster Illusion, existing only as a tertiary character, a weird uncle who comes over for dinner on alternating fourth Sundays, but who only eats vegetables and bread. Well, after much contemplation, I have decided to hop on the band wagon in the best way I know how: with an odd 1990s movie I found on Netflix.
The Plot: Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is reassigned to a remote fort in Northern California following an embarrassing, but ostensibly heroic stint in the Mexican-American War. The fort is populated by oddballs: the overweight Santa-esque Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), the over-zealous missionary Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), the hyper-aggressive soldier Private Reich (Neil McDonough), the alcoholic Major Knox (Stephen Spinella), the rambunctious stoner Private Cleaves (David Arquette), and the superstitious scouts George (Joseph Runningfox) and his sister Martha (Sheila Tousey). Boyd quickly learns that this is where military careers go to die, as they are perfectly isolated, several days away from anything. One night, sure enough, a bruised and battered missionary named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) shows up on their doorstep, barely comprehensible, and telling maddening tales of cannibalism.
The brand of cannibalism that Colqhoun discusses is what we might consider the more excusable kind, clearly inspired by the Donner Party. He was part of a wagon trail heading west, but the snow trapped them in the mountains, and they turned to cannibalism to survive. Boyd, at this point, is suffering from some major PTS, and is highly disturbed by Colqhoun’s struggle for survival, especially considering Colqhoun’s religious role. Everyone else seems pretty understanding, except George, who shares with Boyd everyone’s favorite Native American legend: that of the Wendigo! Unfamiliar parties should spend some time on Wikipedia, or watch that one episode of Supernatural. Basically, Wendigos are undying monsters who rejuvenate by eating their enemies, absorbing their spirits. Sure enough, there’s… well, there’s something not quite right about Colqhoun, but the casting may have given that away, because there’s always something not quite right about Robert Carlyle, as much as I love him.
Though chiefly concerned with being a violent horror movie, Ravenous manages to ask some pretty thought-provoking questions. The most prominent among them is the timeless cannibal question: “What would you do?” If you had no other form of sustenance except your dead comrades, would you maybe start a-munchin’? Writer Ted Griffin and director Antonia Bird also manage to make some historical commentary, discussing the feverish or, to make an off-handed reference to the film, fervent preoccupation with Westward Expansion and the concept of Manifest Destiny, essentially making the somewhat nostalgic argument that American self-cannibalized until there was no frontier left. So, props to them for getting some substance out of this premise.
Bird and Griffin manage to produce an interesting and memorable film by avoiding all the big tropes. The setup is straightforward horror: it’s slow, deliberate, and full of wonderfully precise dialogue and countless layered references to eating. Once the scene is set and the horror starts happening, a lot of horror movies falter. Ravenous doesn’t falter, it just gets a little strange. As I said, it really doesn’t pan out the way you might expect. There’s a heavy burst of violence halfway through which (spoiler alert) results in the deaths of most of the characters. The filmmakers use the remaining fifty minutes or so to dissect Boyd’s suffering psyche, put him in extreme duress, and ask him, “What would you do?”
Now, this heavy burst of violence I mentioned is truly bizarre. It wouldn’t be, except for some reason Bird decided to set it to some jaunty hoedown music. It’s weirdly cheery, but sort of works, since most of this sequence is filmed alongside the killer, rather than the victims, and he’s having the time of his life. If you read into this decision, you realize that it serves a higher purpose towards the development of a character who would otherwise be a bland, inhuman monster. There’s a fair amount of this unnatural sense of humor in the first half of the film, and it’s jarring, but ultimately, yeah, it works.
Okay, so the other reason I’m recommending this movie is for the cast. Obviously, I don’t need to elaborate as to why you want to see a weird cannibal movie starring Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle. That should speak for itself. But it doesn’t stop there! You get a post-Scream David Arquette, answering the question that I’m sure was on everyone’s mind, “Hey, what have you been up to all this time?” And then there’s Jeffrey Jones, perhaps best known for his role as Vice Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And let’s not forget Jeremy Davis and Neil McDonough, who Justified fans will recognize as Dickey Bennett and Robert Quarles, respectively. They’re so young in this movie!
So yeah, Ravenous. If it’s a rainy day and you’re in the mood for a cannibal movie with a great cast, a puzzling soundtrack, some nice scenery, and character development, then this is the movie for you. If none of that sounds appealing to you, then you’ve just wasted your time reading a thousand words about a movie you’ll never watch. Kudos to you, sir and/or madam, but do you really have nothing better to do?