Ravenous: A Cinematic Feast for the Senses

         Ravenous was directed by Antonia Bird and starred Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle. It was produced by Adam Fields and David Heyman, and distributed by 20th Century Fox in 1999. The script was written and revised by Ted Griffin. Filming locations included the Czech Republic; Slovakia; Poland; and Durango, Mexico. The score was a dual composition between musician Damon Albarn and composer Michael Nyman. The film was massacred at the box office, redeeming only one sixth of its supposed original budget; but it has since become a sort of cult classic in the genres of horror and thriller/drama alike. It is one of my favorite films dealing with the vampire, cannibal and wendigo legends depicted in the horror genre, owing much to the superb writing, acting, and the fantastic scoring.

         Ravenous, in my opinion, is not the cookie-cutter horror spectacle that one expects to see these days. There are no blond bimbos running about idiotically, always in the wrong direction, screaming until hoarse, only to have their heads chopped off with some rusty tool of mayhem in the end. In fact, the film was male dominated; only one woman was written into the script, and her character, Martha, was the sanest of the entire bedlam bunch. Blind violence was not the aim or marrow of this film, either; though blood necessarily played an important role, and violence was the stream through which the narrative flowed. I would say that the violence was appropriately depicted—it was not over the top, nor was it underplayed for the sake of censorship. The film actually focused on the development of the characters, their metamorphoses, and it also sold a message.

         Interestingly enough, though it does not become apparent until much later in the narrative, the film is a critique on the American dream and the American sickness, the addiction, and essentially the bloodlust of its politics. This entire theme is summed up in the villain’s, Colonel Ives, second longest speech on manifest destiny, divine providence, and the like number of excuses the colonists used for their plowing over and through the American continent with insatiable appetite and thirst for land and personal wealth. In this way, cannibalism becomes the metaphor of the film, and not necessarily the reality. The subplot of the film was just as unique, and stands to its own merit. The writer plays with some interesting taboos in this film, not only with cannibalism and serial murder, but also with the sexual attraction that exists unspoken but implied between Captain John Boyd and Colonel Ives (or F.W. Colqhoun, as he is also referred to). The nature of the relationship arises, as it often does in such films, from the supernatural nature of the characters themselves—Boyd and Colqhoun are wendigo, an all-American brand of the vampire, which feeds on flesh as well as blood.

         I was highly impressed with the film, which was shot as equally on location as on sets, which were built on location. The director’s visual techniques and composition were excellent, as well as the pacing and continuity. The film never lacked drive, nor was it overdriven. I especially liked Bird’s use of intellectual montage in the scene where Boyd is trapped in the pit with a broken leg, trying to keep himself from eating his fellow soldier. Bird shows his inner confliction between his belief that cannibalism is wrong, though it would give him the strength to escape his predicament, and his overpowering hunger and survival instinct by intercutting shots of a bloody steak being sliced-into (taken from an earlier sequence in the film) and grainy, dirty shots of hell fire. This shows Boyd’s utmost desire, his recognition that said desire is sinful, and his ultimate fear of punishment. It also reveals his feelings of being tainted from within. My other two favorite visual aspects of the film were the end fight sequence between Boyd and Ives and the closing crane shot that rises up and away from their lifeless bodies.

         The choreography of the fight sequence was worked out solely between the director and the two main actors. It was so well blocked and framed that every hit made contact from across the screen and could be felt by the audience. Of course, the characters did a great job of pain acting as well, adding to the scene’s preternatural credibility. The scene made me cringe; and, as the director said, it was the sorest in the entire film. As for the second crane shot at the end of the film, I really thought it cinched up the film emotionally. It produced a very nostalgic effect, and made me realize my regret that either character had to die. Visually, the film was very naturalistic, with simple, rustic sets and a great deal of emphasis on the wide open natural surrounding, suggesting the vulnerable, open state of the Americas at that time period. The costuming was also apt.

         It was very muted, used to draw all possible attention to the actors themselves; and I thought the costumers did an excellent job of weathering the attire of the characters as the film progressed. Robert Carlyle’s getup was the most important of all, as he had to play two characters, which were two sides of the same coin, where both were symbolically significant. Colqhoun was portrayed as a kind of frontier evangelical Christ figure with very long hair, a beard, and a crucifix; while Ives was the well-dressed, attractive devil in sheep’s clothing with slicked-back hair and a cheroot between his teeth. The crowning feature of the film, however, was by far the musical score. Without it, the movie would never have had the same impact.

         Pairing an indie/alternative rock songwriter and a classical, minimalist composer to write the score to this film was not something I would expect to go well, and yet it did. I can definitely tell which tracks are Nyman’s and which are Albarn’s, but they tend to complement each other and work together to heighten the emotion and clarify the tone and sentiment of the film. The viewer would not feel so much for Boyd in the scene where he is dragging himself back to the fort if the violin section in “Boyd’s Journey” were not driving and pushing them there. Colqhoun’s scene where he chases Toffler through the woods would not feel quite so nerve-wracking if the fiddle were not so comically out of place. The most important musical theme of the entire film, however, was an integral part of several tracks on the album, and is found in “Boyd’s Journey” and “Saveoursoulissa”—the theme of a beating heart, blood flowing, or dripping, or what have you.

         In in the first mentioned track, a banjo is played in a plucked loop with a deeper, slower drum hammering underneath. It produces a very metallic, red sound, synesthetically speaking. It is the musical equivalent of the beginning of an adrenaline rush, or a bleeding wound. “Saveoursoulissa,” on the other hand, is the equivalent of a heart that is failing, slowing down. This track signifies the coming climax and denouement of the film. The sound is again metallic, with a dulcimer fluttering intermittently; but it is also thick, lethargic, and darker, suggesting congealment. The ebbing heartbeat is effected with a piano droning on the lower scale filtered through a synth recording to make it sound like the track has been recorded on an old, dilapidated and slightly scratched record. This is accompanied by another low-voiced percussion loop that pounds and echoes off in the bottom register, which strengthens the pulse theme. Music that can evoke imagery this clearly, playing on so many synesthetic levels, is rare. The score was written after the film was shot, so without the film the music would not exist; but if the music had been changed or omitted, the film would be worth much less than it is, with the music wrapping it up nicely in little emotional chords of bleak panic and desperation.

         Overall, the film was, in my opinion, beautiful; though the nature of the story would seem to contradict that sentiment. All art that touches an emotional or psychological hot spot is in some way aesthetically pleasing. I can only say as much for this. I look forward to more films such as this one that transcend genre and play upon synesthetic perception through montage and musical scoring. That is my kind of film.

Kathleen Burnham

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