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Ravenous - Its Bite Is Worse Than Its Bark

Tagline: You are who you eat.

I?ve always been a sucker for movies that are a bit outside the norm. Hell, who am I kidding? I love movies that are way outside the norm. Sure, most of them may be doomed to box office failure and critical ridicule, but they?re a nice change of pace from the mindless drivel Hollywood routinely churns out. Now, don?t get me wrong--I actually like some of the aforementioned mindless drivel, but variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It?s just like pop music. There?s nothing wrong with liking Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake, but, if you don?t occasionally broaden your horizons, you?ll end up with the intelligence of a stump (which might explain some of the people I see in my local Wal-Mart). And, as we all know, nothing will broaden your horizons like a cannibal film set in the 1800?s and featuring liberal amounts of black humor, gore, and David Arquette.

Did that last sentence get your attention? Good. Let?s proceed.

After receiving a promotion for bravery during the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is transferred to an isolated fort in California when his commanding officer realizes he?s not as brave as initially thought. Once there, Boyd meets the inhabitants of the sleepy outpost: Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), the bookish commanding officer, Major Knox (Stephen Spinella), the alcoholic second-in-command, Private Reich (Neil McDonough), a tough-as-nails soldier, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), the nervous chaplain, Private Cleaves (David Arquette), the soldier who likes certain herbs a little too much, and an Indian brother and sister named George and Martha (Joseph Runningfox and Sheila Tousey). As Boyd settles in, the fort receives a late-night visitor in the form of one F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), the near-death survivor of a doomed wagon train. As the terrified man tells his story, the residents of the fort are unwittingly drawn into a ghastly web of murder, deceit, and cannibalism.

Two quotes open the film. Both are fairly well-known, and each gives the audience a clue as to what kind of movie they?re about to see. The first is from Nietzche. "He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster." The second quote is attributed to an anonymous source. "Eat me." A simple but effective way to establish the darkly humorous tone which is to follow.

But make no mistake about it-Ravenous, for all its moments of twisted mirth, still has more than enough frights and gore to please the horror crowd. After all, this is a movie about cannibalism. Based on the myth of the Wendigo, the basic premise is that a person may steal another?s strength by consuming his/her flesh. And, trust me, that?s a theme we see explored over and over throughout the story.

Director Antonia Bird (who replaced the original director two weeks into production) and Editor Neil Farrell demonstrate an excellent understanding of pace and shot selection, allowing the movie to roll briskly along while creating scenes of remarkable tension. Take, for example, the scene in which Colqhoun tells his horrible tale to the residents of Fort Spencer, or the one where Boyd flashes back to being trapped under a mountain of his dead comrades- their blood and guts flowing into his eyes and mouth. These are scenes dripping with suspense and ones which would have been far less effective in the hands of someone else. They also serve to once again remind us just how important editing and scoring are to the finished version of a film.

Speaking of scoring, I?d be remiss if I didn?t mention the excellent soundtrack. The rustic, backwoods music drives the picture relentlessly and further enhances the feeling of inevitable doom. If Deliverance had been set in the 1800?s, this would have been the soundtrack.

A solid cast of actors were put together for the film, and this becomes obvious in the more over-the-top moments. Less experienced thespians might have really camped it up and ruined the overall tone of the film, but these fellows downplayed even the most gruesome moments, and, despite the outlandish subject matter, the restrained performances gave the picture a greater sense of realism and horror.

Jeffrey Jones is excellent as always, and the character of Colonel Hart allows him some room to stretch his acting muscles (something Jones, a veteran of comedic films, doesn?t always get a chance to do). Even when Hart begins to develop less-than-socially-acceptable-behavior, Jones convinces us that we should still like and care about the character. Guy Pearce is also solid, although he doesn?t really have a particularly strong role to work with. Captain John Boyd is an introspective sort of fellow who doesn?t utter a full sentence until about 25 minutes into the film. While he gets more dialogue as things get rolling, I couldn?t help but think that Pearce?s talents weren?t fully utilized by the Ted Griffin script. And let?s not forget about Robert Carlyle. I first saw his talents on display in the otherwise horrible Trainspotting, and I?ve been a fan ever since. His performance as Colqhoun is another fine moment in what?s becoming a very impressive career. From pitiful to sadistic, Carlyle gets a demonstrate a wide range of emotions as we peel away the various layers of his character.

On the flipside, I didn?t really care for Jeremy Davies as Pvt. Toffler. I don?t know if I?ve ever seen such a nervous and irritating character (well, there was John Leguizamo in The Pest). Having also seen Davies in Saving Private Ryan and Secretary, I suppose it?s just his style. But that doesn?t mean that I always have to like it. Viewing Davies is often like watching an addict trying to kick the habit--lots of mumbling, sweating, and twitching. Still, at least he?s original, and that?s more than can be said of many of today?s actors.

And, in a way, that might best sum up Ravenous- "At least it?s original." Sure, the film loses momentum around the halfway mark and becomes a bit generic. Sure, David Arquette plays another goofy jackass. And, sure, the final showdown is a disappointment. But you won?t find many films out there which are able to blend themes of cannibalism with wry, dark humor and actually pull it off. It?s got bite (insert cornball joke here), and that?s more than can be said of most films these days.