Tuesday 10 October 2017

We Don't Go Back – Guest Post: Ravenous (1999)

I've known Craig Daniel for a few years now as part of a loose collective of colleagues and friends who talk about games and politics. We were talking the other day about backwoods horror which Craig, who lives in rural North Carolina, naturally has strong feelings about. Too often, poor rural people are demonised and othered, and we were talking about films that might buck that trend. Anyway, Craig mentioned Antonia Bird's 1999 blackly comic cannibal horror Ravenous, to which I enthusiastically assented, but which I haven't seen for, oh, years. 

The 90s were a weird time for media. I think it was the first time that media really exploded, that you no longer had a hope of catching a general idea of the shape of pop culture. And at the same time, it was the birth of the internet, and I often feel that there was this assumption that people didn't necessarily archive and record things the way that they pretty much automatically do now, because they just assumed that it was, you know, on the internet. Does that make sense? I think that there's a lot from the 90s that's nearly forgotten, which, if it had been made a decade earlier or a decade later, wouldn't be, and Ravenous falls into that bracket. Which is a crying shame.

Here's Craig on Ravenous.

Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) is sometimes described as a comedy. It invites that description, when it starts out by displaying two quotes on the screen – the tired old Nietzsche chestnut about fighting monsters, and then “‘Eat me’ – Anonymous.” And it has its funny lines throughout. But at heart, it’s a horror film, built around a growing sense of dread and a very strong sense of place. And the gore is never played for laughs (Yes, Ravenous is a gory film. The production team actually ran out of fake blood, or the climax would have been even gorier).

The United States mostly doesn’t do folk horror. Our nearest common equivalent, which has come to be called “backwoods horror” and other names, I find detestable in most of its manifestations. I’m from the South and currently live, by choice, in a “populated place” (we’re not even officially a town) with a single stoplight. So when I see horror about rural America, I don’t have the same reaction as the city-dwellers it usually targets, or as anybody who’s never been here. The Hills have Eyes? Well done film, and yeah, it scared me – but it also disgusted me, not in a visceral way but in a philosophical one.

Backwoods horror in its most iconic form tells me that my chosen neighbors are monstrous. They should probably be ugly, and they probably eat any outsider who lets their guard down.

Ravenous is not a movie that falls into that trap. Set in the wilds of the American frontier, telling a story about the eating of human flesh, it nonetheless doesn’t dehumanize the people who define its setting or set up a locals-vs-outsiders dichotomy. The isolation of its rural mountain setting will define the plot, the bleak beauty of the filming locations (in the mountains of Slovakia) will define how we see the setting, and the carefully dissonant folk-influenced soundtrack will define how appealing we can find any of it. And because its characters are all so human, and its other details all so real, Ravenous invites us far more compellingly into its world than any other cannibal movie I have seen. The setting is presented as raw and gloomy, with snow that thaws and falls again and doesn’t ever look like the typical manicured Hollywood mountain; the music features simple and pleasant melodies with harmony that often deliberately clashes layered underneath, setting up tension. It’s beautiful, in a disturbing way.

It’s also vegetarian propaganda. Deliberately and unambiguously. We open on army officer John Boyd (Guy Pearce)’s promotion to the rank of Captain, in honor of his heroic acts in the Mexican-American war (it’s 1847). Boyd knows what happened better than anyone else present, of course - and we see it in flashbacks. He acted sufficiently to the benefit of the United States’ military cause that they pretended he did so in accordance with orders, when in fact, injured, he played dead until he found himself in a Mexican corpse-wagon. Unintentionally drinking the blood of a Mexican soldier along the way, he found it gave him the strength to singlehandedly defeat the entire Mexican garrison he was attacking. All of this is told in a flashback, while everybody at the dinner table celebrating Boyd’s promotion is served steak. Nobody is bothered by the steak bleeding, nor do they even seem to notice – nobody, that is, except John Boyd. The steak is ugly, and Bird puts it directly in opposition to the even uglier drinking of blood on the battlefield. Boyd reacts to both with disgust (eating, in fact, will always be presented with reference to cannibalism, and the only time a piece of meat in the movie looks appetizing is a shot of bubbling stew, right at the end. It isn’t beef).
Boyd’s superiors promote him for his success, but they also know he got that way by chickening out in battle and playing dead. “You’re no hero, Boyd,” he is told by a higher-up. “I want you as far away from my company as possible.”

All this happens not three minutes in, before the opening credits are even being displayed. Boyd is sent to a middle-of-nowhere posting at Fort Spencer, in the Sierra Nevadas, where he doesn’t belong. It isn’t clear anybody could belong. Everyone already at Fort Spencer is maladjusted. That might be entirely a result of the environment in which they are stuck. Or it might not – we can reasonably assume that the other half dozen of them have equally interesting reasons for being in this remote hellhole of a post.

Central to the rest of the plot is a variant of the wendigo legend (which, it should be noted, is not part of any tribal culture found in or near California): eating human flesh gives you strength, heals your injuries, cures your illnesses, and makes you feel more alive. It also makes you crave more.

The cannibal film so frequently divides the world into disgusting rural people who eat, and heroic lost urbanites who are eaten. Ravenous refuses. Cannibalism here is addictive, and it is that addiction which defines both the gentlemanly Col. Ives and the cowardly Capt. Boyd, the only two people who unambiguously don’t seem at home at Fort Spencer. But one is the villain, constantly plotting for his next meal and willing to murder to get it (he was probably already sociopathic before his first taste; he killed the man who told him about it because “I just had to try.”) The other is the only person in a position to stop him. Capt. Boyd is a coward, a cannibal, an addict - and our hero.
Boyd has a constant sense of disgust, throughout the movie, with Ives’ cannibalism. But he’s also tasted blood, felt its power, and begun the path toward becoming what Ives already is. Several times he’s presented with the chance to experience it once again. And, yes, he goes for it. He eats the dead, because he has to to survive – but then, he’s an addict; that would be the solution to his troubles that comes to mind. Boyd spends the second half of the film struggling to stop his addiction from taking over and sending him to some very dark places, all while Ives tries to drag him there. It never quite feels like his will is going to fail in the end (this is primarily a story about Boyd vs. Ives, not about Boyd’s internal conflicts), and the story might have been stronger if that had seemed a more pressing threat - except, at times, he does fail.

He eats. Of course he does.