In the era of burgeoning mega-budget films with over-the-top effects, superfluous explosions, car chases, and disaster sequences, along with more CGI than one could stand in a lifetime, it's refreshing to take a step back with a film like Ravenous.
(R) - horror, thriller, comedy, history, western
A no-frills period piece utilizing more nature than built sets for its backdrop, Ravenous is a testament to how much thrill and intensity a film can deliver without the need for automatic weapons, 3-hour monster makeup jobs, or hundreds of millions of dollars in budgeting.
Splicing ancient cannibalism legends with the lust and power of vampiric tendencies, we get a story of greed, transcendence, and survival of the fittest among men, displayed in one creepy, mysterious, supernatural plot hybrid.
It is 1847, post Mexican-American war, and Lt. Boyd (Guy Pearce) finds it impossible to enjoy a rare steak dinner in celebration of his heroics during a pivotal battle. This is of no matter to the General, who greatly disapproved of his tactics, and thus strips Boyd of his ranking.
Demoted to Captain, Boyd's ass gets kicked down to Fort Spencer, a rickety, backwater outpost in the Sierra Nevadas, where he'd be out of everyone's way and only third in charge at his new station.
Miserable at the rag-tag company of losers and military rejects that surround him, Boyd is alone with his thoughts, consisting of flashbacks on his behavior at the front lines that fateful day, hearing the screams of his men calling his name as he fell down into the sand in shock and exhaustion.
Apparently unable to cope with the horrors of war, he had decided to play dead on the battlefield, simply trying to shut out the desperate cries of his men as they were shot or cut down around him.
As a result, the Mexicans threw him on a wagon along with the other deceased high-ranking officers, where he continued to play possum while ingesting the blood that ran down his throat.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Boyd had felt a sudden burst of energy and drive, crawling out from the stack of corpses and getting the drop on the enemy, holding the last of them hostage until the cavalry could arrive.
Although a brave turnaround, the General considered events on the whole cowardly and leaving a "bad precedent", landing Boyd in a no-man's land.
Boyd doesn't take too well to the personal jabs and general level of disrespect the men at Fort Spencer have for him, but tries his best to pop out of his depression over a brandy with Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), an aging, weak, and out-of-shape man better suited for a warm family cabin than at a military base.
However, Boyd gets an idea on the team of soldiers he's stuck working with from Col. Hart, and each seem to be there as a result of their own demons and transgressions:
Pvt. Reich, a testosterone-infused big shot deemed too aggressive and
outlandish for typical duties;
Maj. Knox, the drunken veterinarian recruited to take on the role of Doctor;
Pvt. Toffler (Jeremy Davies), a mentally slow man with a speech impediment that
stays on as Chaplain and Emissary due to his love of the Lord and Bible;
Pvt. Cleaves (David Arquette), the absent-minded child-at-heart who usually
makes the trips out for supplies, when he's not getting stoned with...
George (Joseph Running Fox), a local Native American who hunts for game and
knows the lay of the land, just like his sister...
Martha, the near-mute who does the cooking and proves a good guide.
With Cleaves and Martha on a run for food and sundries, and Toffler being pushed out of the room rudely by the Colonel, the two are enjoying a nice chat and a drink by the fire when suddenly, out the window, Boyd is shocked to notice a strange man looking in at them.
Racing outside, they take the now-collapsed wanderer in, seeing that he hasn't suffered frostbite and gathering around to hear his story when he finally awakens.
He (Robert Carlyle) claims his name is F.W. Colqhoun, Sovereign of God, and details a Donner party-like story about how a Col. Ives led him and several others on a supposed shortcut through the Sierra Nevadas. It turned out to be an impassible route, and by wintertime, they all had to move into a cave, where they had no choice but to kill and eat their horses, oxen, and dogs for survival.
Eventually, one of them had died, and Colqhoun found the others were cooking him! After that, a sort of insatiable hunger took them all over, driving them to start offing each other until only he, the Colonel, and a woman remained. He took off running, where by some miracle he survived long enough to make it to the Fort.
Packing up their gear, Col. Hart orders that they all get ready to traverse the landscape in order to rescue the woman from this devious Ives. The sense of duty is shared by all, except for George, who instantly detests this man and warns the Colonel and Boyd that he is a Windigo, a creature from Native legend.
The Windigo is one who eats another's flesh for the purposes of absorbing their strength and spirit, growing in power as it flows through their veins. Unfortunately, a Windigo cannot control their lust for the effects, and their hunger inevitably becomes a ravenous greed. The more a Windigo consumes, the more he wants to, until he can no longer live as a mere mortal, becoming a dangerous predator with unsurpassed unnatural powers.
Though urgent, Col. Hart blows off George's complaints and the team sets off. Colqhoun insists on traveling with them, where Boyd finds it necessary to ask him about the feelings he incurred when eating human flesh.
When Toffler finds human bones scattered around, the guys prepare for the worst. Boyd is stuck going into the cave with Reich, while the rest stand guard at the entrance. Colqhoun suddenly goes batshit insane, and the rest figure he's simply that petrified of what lies within.
Deep inside the recesses of the cave, Reich comes across pay dirt - cards, clothing, shoes, tools,... and skeletons!! Hanging in a row, stripped of their flesh. However, the party had consisted of 6, and there are 5 skeletons present, one of them having the long hair of a woman. Presumably, Ives should still be alive... and not only is he not in the cave, but Reich spots his uniform lying among the dead's discards...
It was a TRAP!! Dropping his lantern, Reich and Boyd race for the entrance, screaming for Col. Hart to take down Colqhoun, who killed everyone before leaving for civilization.
However, they were already too late. In the span of 10 seconds flat, Colqhoun retrieved a buried knife, and rushed the Colonel, taking him and everyone else outside down by the time Reich and Boyd even emerged. He even ran out of bullets when trying to shoot poor Toffler, so he took to playing with him before gutting him like a fish. An awesome scene.
Enraged, Reich leads Boyd to a cliff so they can "kill that bastard", where Colqhoun, newly revitalized after eating part of Toffler's entrails, pulls a magical act of sorts, disappearing and reappearing, leaping from treetops, and leaving Boyd with no choice but to take his chances jumping off the side. Another great scene.
Colqhoun considers Boyd dead, and since Reich had fallen off the cliff as well, he drags his latest victims back at the cave inside for a party feast. In the meantime, Boyd is holed up in small area at the base of the cliff, still alive thanks to branches breaking his fall. However, he's stuck with a compound fracture and the cold corpse of Reich lying next to him, after the bastard actually tried to strangle him following their plummet.
A few nights within the small space, and Boyd is about ready to go insane. Taking the plunge, he decides the only way he can survive, let alone make it back to the Fort, is to eat from Reich's body.
So he does, just barely enough to get him up and walking, where he trudges back alone. Yet upon his brave return, the last members of the camp are convinced Boyd was the one responsible for the loss of the team, especially considering his sudden spiral into neurosis, due to what he has seen, that they're not sure if they should believe.
A General Slauson and his men, from the nearby town, are brought to Fort Spencer in order to take an official report from Boyd. Naturally, they think he's completely nuts after he recounts details of the excursion. It only gets worse when Gen. Slauson introduces him to their new interim Colonel, by the name of Ives...
"How's the leg?"
It's Colqhoun! or rather, Ives may be his real name, with the Emissary identity a ruse since he ate the original man and took his outfit for travel to the Fort.
At Boyd's insistence, the General asks Ives to show him his shoulders, as Boyd had shot him and refuses to back down on his account of events. When no wound is present, Boyd takes it upon himself to protect the rest of the camp, securing a knife and keeping a constant watch on Ives, who acts cool as a cucumber and plays into the game he has no idea who Boyd is.
Of course, none of this is in Boyd's head. Ives confronts him privately outside, explaining that once upon a time, he was a weak man suffering from tuberculosis, depression, and mental illness. But when a Native told him of the Windigo tale, he murdered immediately, finding all his ailments had vanished.
Ever since, he'd been traveling across the southwest, searching for men to kill and consume. The wagon train in the Rockies were his last victims before meeting Boyd, who he knows has felt the powerful effects of such blood lust, and asks him to join him as a murdering Windigo, to gain unending power and immortality.
But Boyd finds it disgusting, refusing Ives' proposition, resulting in the man reverting to his game of pretend. This only infuriates Boyd more, and his behavior, lack of sleep and hygiene, paired with vivid fantasies of slaughtering Cleaves to eat his guts, raises his paranoia to the point where Martha and Knox have to intervene, chaining him up in his room and away from their new Colonel.
What really causes him grief, though, is when Martha reports someone had slaughtered all of Knox's precious horses, along with murdering Cleaves and stashing his corpse on the roof.
Immediately, Martha heads out at Knox's insistence to bring back General Slauson, leaving just Boyd, Knox, and Ives alone in the camp. Refusing to listen to Boyd's warnings leads to Knox's demise, though, as he's cut down by an ornamental sabre and Boyd's door is thrown open to reveal... Colonel Hart!!
Ives had nursed him to health and new vitality back at the cave, so long as he would join him on his bloody crusade. Now happy he can smash walnuts with his bare hands, he leaves Boyd to have a chat with Ives, who claims Manifest Destiny is bringing thousands of new travelers westward every year. Fort Spencer would be the perfect area to gain new food and recruits to their private community, and more importantly, he wants Boyd by his side.
Again, Boyd staunchly refuses the proposition, so Ives forces an ultimatum on him. Stabbing him in the gut, he and Col. Hart patiently sit around a stew they've made from Knox's carcass, with the dying Boyd given the choice to eat or die.
With Boyd now in good health, he contemplates how he's to get rid of Ives and the Col. and get away. But apparently, the battle will be one-on-one, since Col. Hart wishes to die instead of living his life for death. Ives sees the bludgeoning through a window, and thus begins an interesting fight between he and Boyd, consisting of one or the other crashing through walls, sustaining repeated stabs with pitchforks and knives, and finally sandwiching each other in a gigantic bear trap.
"If you die first, I am definitely gonna eat you..."
The two die with each other, just as the General arrives with Martha, who comes by just in time to watch Boyd take his last breath, before hightailing it out of the fuckin' crazy-ass camp.
film (c) 1999 Barrandov Studios