Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ravenous Review

Sup, delicious humans! 

I have missed every single one of you, as I hope you did me.  I beg you pardon my triple month disappearance, but I have been taking culinary classes.  I am currently perfecting my recipe for toddler tartar.  It’s coming along pretty well, though I must admit I am having a little trouble with the marinade.  If anyone is interested in following my chiefscapades, you will be glad to know that I will soon provide you step by step instructions on the preparation of my new dish.  That is, as soon as I manage to get my hands on a real kitchen, rather than a leftover hotplate I found in the depths of the closet. 

The series of events that stimulated my interest in the culinary arts unfolded after a private screening of the hunger pain inducing movie, Ravenous.  The movie is set in the mid 1800’s during the Mexican American war.  Lt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is granted a promotion after he single handedly captures the enemies’ fort.  However, Boyd’s superiors don’t feel he is worthy of his new post, since the methods implemented to accomplish his goal were embarrassingly cowardly.  You see Boyd really doesn’t have the stomach for violence.  Early in the battle he played possum, watching his company fight and die around him.  As he waited out the carnage, he accidentally sampled some blood from a dead soldier.  Upon consuming the blood he discovered that it had rejuvenative powers, enriching him with a newfound vigor. Pumped, he snuck out from under a pile of bodies and singlehandedly captured the enemies’ fort, winning the battle.  However, unable to let Boyd’s initial cowardice go unpunished, his commanding officers ship him to the remote Fort Spencer in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where they could be sure he would never see action on the battlefield again.  There, he meets his new unit consisting of such appetizing human actors as Jeffrey Jones and David Arquette.  

Soon after Boyd gets himself situated, a strange man collapses just outside of the Fort.  His name is Mr. Colqhoun and he is one of the last survivors of a lost caravan somewhere in the Sierra Mountains.  Once his party’s food supply disappeared, they were forced to eat their dead in order to survive.  They kept that going for as long as possible, but once their numbers dwindled to nothing, Colqhoun decided to flee from the party in hopes of finding help.  With this morbid story, Colqhoun successfully convinces everyone there is still a survivor in the woods eating the last of his party members.  Feeling obligated to help the poor souls; the soldiers and Colqhoun embark on a journey to save the lost survivors.  Unfortunately for them, they soon realize that they are actually the victims of a horrible trap.  So of course, culinary hijinks ensue.

(FYI, Colqhoun is pronounced: COLQ like COWL and HOUN as HOON like the word SOON). 

Three elements of the film really stick out at me as particularly well done: the choice of monster, the acting but most of all the music.  The scrumptious human Antonia Bird is the director of the film, and I am rather surprised at how good of director she is.  For a short while, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of her before, but then I learned she mostly directs British Television.  It’s hard enough to tap into the walls of the house I squat in and steal American cable from the Groves, so there is no chance in hell that I would ever have decent exposure to her work.  It was also surprising to see that Antonia’s genre of choice is generally not horror.  I have seen many other movies from people who have dedicated their lives to make horror pictures and still cannot pull together a good suspenseful piece like this, even in exchange for the key to the basement I locked them in (I’m sure Herschell Gordon Lewis will claw his way out of that rat trap some day).  This movie’s existence is rather refreshing to me, because it proves that really good movies can (and often do) slip through the cracks of mass audience appeal and/or exposure.   It gives me hope to continue digging through the annals of bad movies in hopes of finding those ever elusive hidden gems of the film world.  But most importantly, it makes me hungry.

The monster isn’t all that common in most modern horror movies.  Sure, we have all watched episode two of Supernatural, but besides that, I don’t right recall many horror movies about this particular cryptid (I am not counting the 2001 horror film Wendigo by Larry Fessenden…I want to save that discussion for another day).  In case you have never heard of a Wendigo, it is an Algonquin mythological beast that was once human, but has transformed do to the over consumption of human meat and possession by an evil spirit.  They behave like wild animals, prowling the night in search of victims.  Though the Wendigos in this film behave a lot more like vampires than wild animals.  They spend their time mingling with humans, but only as a ruse to cover their morbid actions more effectively and choose who their next victims will be.  The Wendigos powers are also vampiric in nature; eating human meat gives them a significant boost to their immune system and increases their strength and stamina.  With that said, why not make this a vampire film?  

Though this movie would have been just fine as a vampire flick, making the monsters Wendigos with vampiric traits allows the audience to instantly sympathize with the unfamiliar monsters in a familiar way.  For the past twenty five years, the market has been over flooded with content about those pasty faced lust buckets, usually written for prepubescent human twats.  I feel confident in saying that when it comes to vampires, we want to see something very new; Anne Rice filled the quota for whiny vampires for the next half a century (Someone forgot to inform Stephanie Myer).  Using a different monster opens the doors for old topics to be made fresh without the conflict coming off as too old hat.  There is little Wendigo content to dispute the nature of the beast, that it is ok to incorporate new ideas without pissing off your average Wendigo fan and still managing to captivate a massive audience (once again, somebody forgot to inform Stephanie Myer).  We can discuss such topics as addiction, the natures of good and evil, and of course, the morality of survival tactics without leaving the audience yawning the ever famous mantra while leaving the theatre, “John Carradine did it better”.  While the film sadly didn’t succeed in captivating a mass audience at the time of its release, using an unfamiliar monster at the bare minimum provided the film with a hint more originality than it’s standard blood sucking compadre.  But what is a really original monster without a good cast to help bring the creature to life?

A good ensemble cast requires good talent, just as a delectable Shepherds Pie requires a sweet, juicy carcass.  The casting of Ravenous is one of the movie’s finer sweet spots to be sure.  The delicious human actors Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle work off each other so well, playing characters that have completely polar opposite senses of morality.  

Boyd is a pragmatic pacifist, who adheres violence, unless under the threat of bodily harm.  Though, because he is a soldier and killing is his job, his desire for self-preservation frequently causes others around him to get hurt, which is why he is often labeled a coward.  This is seen by his initial action of playing dead during the Mexican American war.  It is also seen as he tries to run away, even when Cl. Ives has just killed his fellow soldiers outside of the cannibal cave (I’m not really spoiling much, this happens too early on in the movie to ruin).  I must admit I have never seen another Guy Pearce movie, and I am glad to have this be my introduction to his work.  His ability to internalize the conflict and project the pain it causes his character onto his face generates a great deal of sympathy.  I also enjoy watching his frustration grow as he fights to convince his fellow soldiers that Ives is in fact a man-eater.  Even more enjoyable is the look he gets every time he is mortally wounded and must either eat human flesh or die horribly.  You can almost see the back and forth going on in his head up to the very second he decides, “fuck it” and finally digs in.  It gets me every time.  

To noms, or not to noms.
Cl. Ives (Robert Carlyle) on the other hand plays a complete Nihilist; he feels no remorse for his insatiable appetite and even embraces it as his nature, which he would gladly sate at any point.  Carlyle plays the part with such an unapologetic dispensation that you can’t help but fall in love with him.  You even begin to sympathize with him as you learn about the unfortunate events that brought him to choose the life of a Wendigo.  His actions aren’t justified, but the appeal of watching him is seeing how Carlyle makes Ives feel justified for eating people.  Hmmm…Understanding the monster to a point that you humans may finally know why we do the things we do.  What a novel idea.  Take a note, human horror film makers; I want more of this.  If I wanted to watch boring, one dimensional, teenage characters face poorly written conflicts, I’d watch Glee.

Despite the talents of our two leads, my favorite two human actors by far are Jeffrey Jones and David Arquette.  

This film proved to be one of the last of Jeffrey Jones’ acting career of the millennia (he followed up with Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow).  Though I can’t condone anything he may have done for his presence to significantly diminish from the Hollywood circuit, his performance in Ravenous is a bittersweet reminder of how much his talent is missed on the big screen.  Jones plays Col. Hart, Boyd’s superior officer at Fort Spencer.  He is a crippled and sickly old man who takes a shining to Boyd, as he is one of his few fellow soldiers with a tortured past and conflicted disposition to match his own.  Hart was once a mountain of a man, but in his old age grew sickly and frail.  He loves to read philosophy (he quotes Benjamin Franklin and Aristotle) and eat walnuts.  Despite his overqualified credentials, he has resigned himself to the glorified position of father to a bunch of drunken and “overly medicated” ninnies working beneath him at this baron way station.  You see him crave his youth, as he smashes a handful of walnuts with a thick heavy book, even though he was once strong enough to squeeze the nuts free with his bare hand. All the while he watches his life slink slowly down the drain of mediocrity and thankless employment.  Actually, Col. Hart is one of the main reasons why I keep coming back to watch this movie.  He goes through such an interesting character arc so Faustian that I can’t help but love the on and off screen drama of this character.   Jones seamlessly slips into this performance, playing a resigned man to his midlife misfortunes and his loss of control over his own faculties.  Actually, reflecting on this can be very eerie on dark and stormy nights.  It is tough not to notice the similarities in tone of Cl. Hart’s frustration and Jones’ own current real life situation.  One wonders if Cl. Hart’s Vonnegut esque (“so it goes”) attitude on life is not too dissimilar to Jones’ about his status as a Hollywood celebrity.  I suggest you read up on the man, watch this movie, and heed my words.  You may enjoy the frosty chill of celebrity misfortune.

Finally, I feel the need to talk about the performance of the human actor David Arquette.  He plays Cleaves, a low ranking private in Col. Hart’s regalia.  Cleaves spends the majority of his free time smoking marijuana and eating peyote.  Despite my initial low expectation of this performance, I am happy to report that Arquette far exceeded my expectation.  The stereotypes of the drug fiend have become so familiar that most portrayals tend to be more of a parody than an authentic emulation.  However, Arquette depicts the attitude of a reckless but loving adolescent rather than a Ninja Turtles Stereotype.  But Arquette’s real shining moment is during a grizzly dream sequence, where Boyd stabs Cleaves and goes to town chomping down on his liver.  As Cleaves slowly dies, he laughs antagonistically at the sight of Boyd giving into his darkest hunger.  The scene only lasted for about half a minute, but this one performance reminded me of another actor well versed in the portrayal of bit creepy parts, the late and great Dwight Frye.  Specifically, what comes to mind is Frye’s performance as Renfield in Carl Laemmle’s Dracula.  Renfield begins the movie as a straight man, with no particular substance to him other than his desire to sell some property in London to Count Dracula.  But after Dracula submits him to obedience, Renfield becomes a twisted nutcase with a morbid hunger for insects.  The transformation between these two very different personalities is seamless and makes the character intimidating, since his personality shifts so abruptly.  It is an art to give a side character substance and diversity, especially when that character has so little on screen time.  But for Aruqette to win me over, it only took a laugh.  For This performance, I offer Arquette a blood-curdling scream of approval.

The music is very peculiar in this film.  The tasty human composers, Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn did a fantastic job creating a series of haunting melodies, which alone are eerily beautiful, but juxtaposed to the gorgeous cinematography, make for some fascinating content.  The gritty composition really puts you into the world of this 18th century military fort in the Sierra Mountains.  The music sounds like it was written and recorded a long time ago by some primitive backwater jug band, yet the music itself would translate beautifully if performed by a philharmonic orchestra.  The awkward playing of the musicians and the off key instruments they played on created a foreign and unsettling atmosphere, giving character to the beautiful scenery portrayed throughout the movie.  In this way, it mirrors the gritty music often used to set the stage for such period pieces as “Once Upon A Time In The West” and “A Man For All Seasons”.  It’s that grizzled and dated edge in the music that really helps capture the flavor of the setting and set the mood for this piece.  It also sticks out to me as the most identifiable aspect of this movie.  It just goes to show you how much a good score can affect your film.  

If you are looking for a brilliant and rare horror movie, Ravenous comes highly recommended by yours truly.  The monster is original, but incorporates familiar character traits of other monsters to keep it fresh.  Also, every character and performance is authentic and distinct.  But to top it all off, the haunting composition draws you in and keeps your ass planted firmly in your seat from start to finish.  At the end of the day, these details are simply that; details.  But these details make this movie one of my favorite period horror films ever made.  So grab your walnuts, slice your wrists and poor yourself a glass of that ol' Jesus Juice.  Because if his is good enough to drink every sunday, then surely yours is good enough for the rest of the six days of the week.

*Just a quick note about Vampire films.  I don't think vampires are on their way out.  I am only saying that they are embedded much deeper into the mainstream than Wendigos are.  Thus, making an original Wendigo movie is a lot more easy than an original Vampire movie.  

**By the way, expect a lot more content from me this year.  Jeffrey is stepping out to paint the town with buckets of Babies' Blood.