In the mood for a 19th century frontier horror-comedy about a cannibal cult in the U.S. Army, made by an English art-film director? Thought so. Well, I'll just crawl out on a limb here and suggest that "Ravenous" is the best such film ever made. Actually, if you have a strong stomach for this sort of thing -- I'm sorry, but the jokes are inevitable -- "Ravenous" is an extraordinary movie by any measure. I'm not quite sure how Antonia Bird wound up with this assignment; she's best known in this country for "Priest," her rather spinachy 1994 drama about clerical homosexuality. But this hyperkinetic, bloodthirsty, bravura performance should dispel any notion that she's one of those decorous costume-dramatists next in line to adapt "Northanger Abbey."
Evidence of the original vision behind "Ravenous" comes in the very first scene, when Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a decorated hero of the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, becomes violently ill from watching men eat meat at a banquet in his honor. Bird's loving close-ups of the gristly, bloody steaks, the amplified sounds of sawing, slurping and chewing, are of course but a foretaste (zoinks!) of what is to come. Boyd's "heroism," as it turns out, is really the byproduct of cowardice; feigning death in terror during a battle, he found himself buried alive behind enemy lines and had to fight his way out in a near-psychotic frenzy. Horror-movie convention demands that a woman -- usually a girl, in fact -- be the vulnerable protagonist battling evil, and as my companion observed, Boyd is the girl in "Ravenous." A conspicuously emasculated man who is certain of nothing, especially not his own strength and courage, Boyd is exiled into hostile terrain, in this case a remote Army fort along the Gold Rush trail, high in the Sierra Nevada.
With his wounded, sensitive face and air of constant introspection, Pearce (who in fact played a drag queen in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") has a tough time standing out amid all the showboat acting and tour-de-force direction of "Ravenous," but he provides the movie with a quiet center it badly needs. His arrival at the desolate outpost in a spectacular alpine meadow -- the movie was actually filmed along the mountainous Czech-Slovak border, but you could have fooled me -- plunges him into an acid-drenched nightmare that is part Donner Party, part "Hogan's Heroes." From the beginning, the fort is a crazy-making environment: The commander (Jeffrey Jones) is a beef-red incompetent who puts on worldly airs but has given up all pretense of power, and his men include a permanently drunken medic (Stephen Spinella), a gibbering religious fanatic (Jeremy Davies) and a cook (David Arquette) who has discovered the herbal therapies the California wilderness offers in abundance.
As oppressive as all this is, and as vividly as Bird and her production team capture the filth, sweat, paranoia and freezing cold of the isolated American frontier, things don't really go nuts until a half-dead Scotsman named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into camp with a horrendous tale of a traveling party starving to death in a distant cave. Hearkening to the dimly heard call of duty, the commander insists that his band of misfits blunder after Colqhoun into the far reaches of the high Sierra. There are certain indications that this isn't a good idea -- Colqhoun has a distressing habit of licking the men's wounds, and the local Indians speculate that he may be the legendary cannibal-demon called the Weendigo. Suffice it to say that dinner is served.
It's not easy to explain how Carlyle can use the same set of devilish, cocksure mannerisms to come off like a charming ne'er-do-well in "The Full Monty" and like Charles Manson's crazier brother in "Ravenous." Colqhoun is probably the most enjoyable horror villain since Hannibal Lecter, veering from insane, uncontrollable bloodlust to supremely devious self-confidence. The "manifest destiny" of the cannibal, he assures Boyd in a grandiloquent speech late in the film, is westward expansion from sea to shining sea. I don't want to give away too many of screenwriter Ted Griffin's imaginative twists and turns, so I can't explain exactly why it's hilarious when Jones sits down at table to exclaim, "Well! Isn't this civilized!" But after a pulse-pounding, vertiginously exciting battle in the forest -- this film is quite a showcase for cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, a neglected veteran who shot many of Nicolas Roeg's films -- Boyd and Colqhoun survive to meet again in surprisingly altered circumstances.
If you don't tolerate movie violence well, don't even consider "Ravenous"; it's right up there with "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and "Salo" among the most gruesome films ever made. For me, at least, there was never a question that the movie's highly realistic gore is as necessary to its theme and subject as the creepy chattering of Michael Nyman's score. Whether you want to view "Ravenous" as a subversive fable about the brutal settlement of the West, or just as an exceptionally well-made and atmospheric shocker, it's an original, even dazzling, work. It takes an excellent eye and a first-rate intelligence to keep a bloody-minded suspense plot aloft, set at the most extreme margins of human experience, while straddling the boundaries of satire and farce. Even if you don't see "Ravenous," keep your eye on Antonia Bird; maybe her next project will be, um, more to your taste.