The Sierra Nevada mountains, 1847. A bedraggled stranger (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into Fort Spencer, claiming to be Colquoun, a settler who has been trapped in a mountain cave by a snowstorm. He reports that his fellow cave-dwellers have been reduced to cannibalism and that he was lucky to escape with his life. Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) and his army colleagues accompany Colquoun back to the cave, only to uncover a far more grisly version of events. With a score by Michael Nyman and Blur's Damon Albarn.
In the history of exploitation cinema, one unusually distinct and particularly disturbing subgenre gained some popularity for a short while: the cannibal genre. As an offshoot of the Mondo film, these types of movies released during the 1970s and into the late 80s pushed the boundaries of the taboo and propriety, taking sensationalism and on-screen gore to the extremes of acceptability. Italian filmmaker Umberto Lenzi is often credited as the man responsible for creating the genre while Antonio Climati ('Sweet and Savage,' 'Primal Rage') is believed to have effectively brought it to an end in 1988. What made these movies unique was not only their subject matter as central to the plot, but the explicitly gruesome and sometimes almost realistic carnage shown purely for shock-value.
What does this bit of minor history have to do with 'Ravenous'? Well, since the late-80s and until this particular 1999 production, there were very few if any movies that used cannibalism as the central plot point. Granted, many did feature the subject matter in some form or another after Climati supposedly heralded the end of the genre. However, some treated it as a side dish to the main course, like 'Silence of the Lambs,' 'The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover' and 'Fried Green Tomatoes.' Others saw it as the source of humor or outrageous comedy, such as 'Parents,' 'Delicatessen' or 'Cannibal: The Musical!,' which coincidently also takes inspiration from Alferd Packer's true story as does this film. Then, of course, there's Frank Marshall's biographical survival drama 'Alive.'
A few smaller productions will remain nameless because the point is 'Ravenous' was a pleasant surprise going into the 21st Century. Unlike those just mentioned, Antonia Bird's film uses cannibalism as the central plot with deadly seriousness, essentially making it fit nicely within the aforementioned subgenre of exploitation films. Like others from the grindhouse era, the script, written by Ted Griffin ('Ocean's Eleven,' 'Matchstick Men'), imagines a secluded, uncivilized and considered savage territory where characters' will for survival is tested. Admittedly, the on-screen violence is comparatively tame and restrained, but it's a deliberate tact where the conversation and thought alone is disgusting enough, giving the audience's imagination free rein to conjure their own gory details. This is particularly true of a scene where Guy Pearce is made to eat a hearty beef stew with Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones.
Set at the disheveled army post in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just a couple years shy of the historic California Gold Rush, the ragtag group of soldiers at Fort Spencer receive two unexpected guests, both with a rather nauseating stories and some peculiar tastes. Captain John Boyd (Pearce) is sent to the post as punishment for his cowardly victory during the Mexican-American War, and the agitated stranger Colqhoun (Carlyle) arrives with repulsive tales of murder. Colonel Hart (Jones) leads the investigation along with Privates Toffler (Jeremy Davies) and Reich (Neal McDonough), only to discover the gruesome truth of what happened to a wagon-train party of settlers. The truth is not much of a surprise and either is it really meant to. Instead, the joy of this major turning point is the absolutely delightful way the sequence is composed and handled.
In fact, the real beauty of 'Ravenous' is the exciting camerawork of Bird and cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, the rhythmic editing of Neil Farrell and the deliciously captivating score of Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn. Griffin's script already treats the subject of cannibalism as a weirdly fantastical reality of human nature, taking inspiration from parts of the Donner Party legend and Packer's story of survival mixed with the Native American myth of the Wendigo. Ingeniously, Griffin also saturates conversations with thoughtful, penetrating dialogue that hints on the ideologies of Westward Expansion and America's insatiable appetite for natural resources. Added to that, Nyman and Albarn's paradoxically upbeat and weirdly haunting music adds a tinge of irony and absurdity. Because of this, those with a morbid, twisted sense of humor can also relish in the carnage as if it were a black comedy. But however one chooses to enjoy 'Ravenous,' fans of cannibal movies can satisfy their voracious appetite for the genre with this the criminally underrated gem.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Ravenous' to Blu-ray under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the normal blue case. At startup, the disc goes to a generic menu with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
As a long-time fan of Antonia Bird's ironically twisted black comedy, I'm sad to report that the film's Blu-ray debut is ultimately not much of improvement over its DVD counterpart. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode were struck from the same master since it shares several suspicious similarities. Namely, and possibly most disappointing, is clear evidence of artificial sharpening, generating some distracting ringing effects around the edges of many objects and creating some unsightly halos in various exterior shots. Granted, it's not as bad as the DVD, but it makes for a rather unattractive presentation.
As for the rest of the 2.35:1 image, the majority of the video is fairly soft and blurry, with the exception of perhaps a few decently sharp sequences. Then again, those same moments suffer from the glaringly-obvious use of edge enhancement. Contrast falls on the lower end of the greyscale, making much of the picture appear flat and dull, yet whites consistently bloom and are near clipping, making almost every outside scene with snow a bit uncomfortable on the eyes. Black levels suffer as well, sometimes looking accurate and clean but also reaching the point of crush while shadow details are engulfed by the darker portions of the frame. Colors, for the most part, benefit the most, though they don't exactly appear bold and rarely give the impression we're watching in HD.
Not only am I a fan of the film, but I also love the hauntingly distinctive and oddly creepy score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn. With that said, I am once again disheartened to say that the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack offered on this Blu-ray edition seems to be, for all intents and purposes, identical to its DVD counterpart. This is both good and bad, with the good mostly being that it could be worse.
Vocals are stable and generally well-prioritized, but depending on the scene, I noticed a slightly change in decibels. Sometimes, conversations come in louder than the music while other times, the music makes dialogue just a hair difficult to make out. Weirdly, the awesome score remains consistent with decently good clarity in the instrumentation. Overall dynamic range feels flat and uniform, rarely exhibiting any movement into the upper frequencies, but when it does, a tad of distortion is apparent. Low bass is more exaggerated and pronounced than natural or appropriate. The rears are almost never employed, except for a couple moments when the score bleeds into the back, but it doesn't happen often. All in all, it could be worse, but it could also be so much better.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'Ravenous,' Shout Factory simply ports over the same collection of supplements from the previous DVD release.
Fitting nicely in a subgenre of exploitation films that ended a decade earlier, 'Ravenous' uses cannibalism as a central plot theme in a well-made and executed horror feature. Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones, the film is delightfully stylish, wickedly fun, ironically gruesome and a criminally underrated gem. The Blu-ray from Shout Factory arrives with a disappointing picture quality, an average audio presentation and supplements ported from the DVD. As much as I would love to recommend the film, the overall package is sadly not worth the asking price, and the curious should wait til it hits bargain bins.