1999 was a year of new beginnings for a great many directors of the cinema, filmmakers who used their 1999 offerings to launch their careers to greater artistic, as well as commercial, heights. Although we often forget, it was also the year of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, a film that ought to have launched her to new heights but somehow left her scrambling for an audience. In a year of openly defiant, exploratory films from many talented artists, Ravenous remains one of the most defiant and exploratory. Yet it never found an audience for itself or its director, likely because its defiance, experimentation, and exploration are all hidden. Even more-so, they are secret, and the film goes to great lengths to pretend it is nothing more than an everyday comedy-horror exploitation-film of the distinctly late ’90s post-Scream variety. It is a film where the experimentation is wholly submersed into subfuscous genre mechanics, a great devious trick of a film, and I can think of no more perfect nature for such a deliciously sinister exercise in cutthroat filmmaking.
An exercise that plays with plot, but is inherently more invested in atmosphere (always a harder sell, and a greater show of directorial talent for Bird). Set during the Mexican-American War, the film takes a peek into the dark hearts of masculinity and material military society. It begins with a duo of characters. The first is Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce), who plays dead during a battle and is carted off while the blood of another soldier drips on him (the fellow soldier is positioned above him in a meat wagon of sorts). Boyd swallows the blood, inextricably gaining power and besting his captors. For his cowardice in playing dead, however, he is sent to an out-of-the-way wintery fort where the men are dying on the inside if they aren’t dying (yet) on the out. The second man is the Reverend Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who wanders into the fort with a fellow tale of cannibalism and vampirism, explaining how he and his party had turned to human consumption to survive being trapped in a snowbound pass.
He soon convinces the soldiers (led by Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), who is amusingly droll and cordial in a dysfunctional, sinister way) to journey with him to rescue the others who are trapped, at which point a man-beast emerges and the soldiers find themselves in its path. Bird manages the tricky dichotomy of slowly, sinuously moving from the mundane to the uncanny whilst also briskly pushing forth so that he film doesn’t get stuck in the mire of exposition or leaden narrative. Ravenous recalls an early ’70s horror film, where horror is derived less from brutality than from the disorderly instability of the reckless and, well, ravenous narrative developments; the film often feels like a nasty-minded swashbuckler more than a conventional horror film, impulsively rushing between tones and moods and filmmaking styles and even interests at a moment’s notice. Not that it isn’t brutal, and a great many of Bird’s best tricks derive from clever, witty interstitial cuts and juxtapositions, such as flesh-ridden corpses and regimented, orderly military men in pristine suits devouring fleshy, blood-ridden, wonderfully squishy piles of meat.
An effect that makes Ravenous, like most of the best horror works, a very tactile film. We feel the terror in the sound effects, in the framing, and in the cuts. It doesn’t hold itself at arm’s length (except when it needs to). Instead, it comes right up to us and shocks us with our own brutality. Bird’s best work is location-based, utilizing a particularly dingy part of Eastern European as an alien stand-in for the tortuous, barbed land of early, supposedly “untamed” Western Americana. The snowy expanses and cluttered caverns recall an even more perverse version of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, where the thick, unruly expanse of nature seems primed to return humankind to the wild and fight back against our species for thinking we are so bold as to claim nature for themselves. What was weary in Altman’s film is so harsh here that it becomes animalistic, all the more-so when Bird plays with the serpentine caverns of the military encampment late in the film, after it has been warped beyond human recognition.
It isn’t all craft though. Like all the most formally inventive films, it finds craft and subject in perfect harmony. Not only does the wild filmmaking mimic the early, unsettled days of American history, but Bird criticizes ordered military masculinity by bringing a somewhat freewheeling, chaotic edge to her film that deliberately rejects order and sensibility down to its pure editing rhythms. The score, by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, plays with American folk music by discombobulating it with an influx of visceral hard angles and abstract aural spaces. Not all of it works, but you have to admire Bird for the charismatic way in which she pursues, for instance, a visual parallelism between a quiet military man and a carnivorous human beast. It isn’t necessarily the best film it could have been, but the unfulfilled potential in some spots helps it feel all the more vivacious and enticingly decadent nonetheless. Particularly when you introduce it to its fellow late ’90s horror company (arguably the worst time in horror film history), it rises above the pack. But Ravenous doesn’t need the benefit of comparison to thrive. It devours expectations.