It’s no surprise that Ravenous didn’t land with audiences upon its initial release in 1999. Production was problematic from the beginning, with Fox 2000 executives reportedly micromanaging the project. Screenwriter Ted Griffin was constantly being asked to provide rewrites, while original director Milcho Manchevski was dropped three weeks into production. His proposed replacement, Raja Gosnell, was allegedly rejected by the cast and crew. Finally, Antonia Bird was brought in. Although not entirely satisfied with the experience, Bird completed the film as she was hired to do. Ultimately, the $12 million production flopped with a paltry $2 million at the domestic box office.
Even if Ravenous’ production had gone smoothly, it would still be a difficult film to sell. The eccentric effort is part gory horror movie, part period drama. Furthering the marketing nightmare, its disturbing subject matter is approached with a pitch-black sense of humor. Despite the odds stacked against it, however, Ravenous is a damn fine film. Audiences may have missed it on the big screen, but they have been discovering the hidden gem on home video over the last 15 years. With a Blu-ray release via Scream Factory, Ravenous is sure to gain even more fans in its corner.
Ravenous is a tale of cannibalism inspired by the real-life story of the Donner party. It takes place during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. Guy Pearce (Prometheus, Memento) stars as John Boyd, an Army captain who is sent to Fort Spencer, an uneventful weigh station in California. While there, he and his fellow Army men discover an emaciated man by the name of Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle, 28 Weeks Later). The man tells of a savage Colonel Ives, who turned to cannibalism after his party was lost in the harsh winter.
It becomes apparent that Colqhoun enjoyed the cannibalistic tendencies more than he lead on. Although the plot up to this point could have been expanded into a feature on its own, it’s merely half of Ravenous. When the clever Colqhoun later becomes Boyd’s superior, Boyd must stop him from eating even more people. It’s no easy task, as – like the Wendigo myth warns – cannibalism possesses curative powers.
I’m not sure Pearce has ever put on a poor performance, and Ravenous is only further proof of that. Like the film itself, his role runs the gamut from shock to drama to dark comedy. Carlyle is at the top of his game as well, bringing to mind the cunningness of Christoph Waltz. Jeffrey Jones (Beetlejuice) also provides a stand-out performance. David Arquette has a surprisingly small (considering the success of the Scream series at the same time) role as a stoner soldier. The excellent cast of character actors and recognizable faces also includes Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan), John Spencer (The West Wing), Stephen Spinella (Rubber) and Neal McDonough (Minority Report).
The talent behind the camera is just as impressive as the actors. Ravenous marks Griffin’s screenwriting debut, paving the way for his later work on Ocean’s Eleven and Matchstick Men. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond’s (Candyman, Men of Honor) careful eye captures the striking imagery of vast, snowy landscapes (with Prauge standing in for 19th century California). Although there aren’t any particularly elaborate special makeup effects, the film is more gruesome than you might expect. And you can’t discuss Ravenous without mentioning its quirky, versatile score. The pairing of talented songwriter Damon Albarn (vocalist of Blur and Gorillaz) and minimalist composer Michael Nyman (The Piano) proved to be a winning combination.
Believe it or not, Fox’s original DVD release of Ravenous (from 1999!) wasn’t too shabby in terms of extras: three separate commentary tracks (one with Bird and Albarn, one with Griffin and Jones, and another with Carlyle), deleted scenes with commentary by Bird, and galleries of costume design and production design. These features are ported over, along with the trailer and a TV spot. All three commentaries are worth listening to, offering a wide spectrum of perspectives on the film overcoming its troubled history.
In addition to the existing supplemental material, Scream tracked down Jones for a brand new, 20-minute interview. Despite being known for his comedic roles (including his turn in Ravenous), he gives a rather insightful, well-spoken take on the film and its themes. The new, high-definition transfer looks great as well, especially when compared to the non-anamorphic DVD we’ve been stuck with all these years.
Sadly, Bird passed away last year, but she lived long enough to see her effort be appreciated. Ravenous is a movie that isn’t brought up often, but when you come across another genre fan who has seen it, there’s a moment of glee. Thanks to Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release, that cult following will grow exponentially as the film is put in front of more people who will understand, embrace and champion its unique tone.