This seems to be a film that a lot people come across by accident and I was no different. It really is an under-appreciated gem of a film with a story that is refreshingly different from most films in the horror genre. It has a great cast especially Jeffrey Jones, Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle. The bleak mountain location looks both beautiful and deadly and really plays a vital role in the film giving a genuine sense of total isolation.
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is a decorated “hero” of the Mexican-American War under very dubious circumstances where his cowardice in battle allowed him to infiltrate enemy lines and take out an entire fort. General Slauson (John Spencer) tells him straight that his choice was to either shoot him or give him a medal and PR demands a medal. But he also wants Boyd out of the way so he has him posted to Fort Spencer high up in the western Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
In charge of the fort is Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) and under him is the constantly drunk Major Knox (Stephen Spinella) who is the closest they have to a surgeon and Hart warns Boyd that it would be better to not get sick than rely on Knox. The other men are Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) who is nervous and devoutly religious, Private Cleaves (David Arquette) who is constantly stoned on marijuana and peyote and Private Reich (Neal McDonough) who is the only person at the Fort vaguely like a real soldier, though he is a bit intense and humourless and he takes an instant strong dislike to Boyd. There are also two Native Americans at the Fort: Martha (Sheila Tousey) who seldom speaks and her brother George (Joseph Runningfox) who doesn’t speak much English.
Next day Hart sends Cleaves off with Martha to get supplies. That night after Knox has drunk himself into a stupor Hart nicks his drink and he sits down with Boyd for a talk and Boyd tells him about how he got his medal. Boyd had pretended to be dead even to the point of being buried in a large heap of bodies near the Mexican fort. Blood from the body on top of him went in his mouth and down his throat. This changed him and gave a feeling of strength which he used to take on the Mexicans by surprise.
While they are talking Boyd sees a figure out of the window. They find a man (Robert Carlyle) unconscious outside and they bathe him and leave Toffler to watch over him. When he recovers he tells them his name is Colquhoun and he was part of a party of six who were travelling west across the mountains guided by a man called Colonel Ives. Ives got them lost as winter snowstorms came and they were forced to take shelter in a cave. Soon they were trapped and first had to eat all their livestock. Then they fed on the body of a man who died from starvation. Even more time passed and Ives killed another man to eat and Colquhoun claims he left the cave at the point and wandered lost until he found the Fort.
After they have heard Colquhoun’s story Hart tells them that they have to go to cave to check it out in case there is anyone left alive. Next morning Hart, Boyd, Reich, George and Toffler all get ready for the long trek up there and a surprisingly fit Colquhoun joins them, willing to show them the way to the cave. George is very agitated and he shows Boyd and Hart a picture on an animal skin of a Wendigo and tells them the legend of how if a man feeds on another man he possesses his spirit and it gives him strength, but it also gives him a hunger for more human flesh. Reich ridicules this story but George brings out another skin with a picture of Jesus, pointing out that during a Christian Mass they eat the body of Christ.
During the very long walk to the cave Boyd talks to Colquhoun, asking him about how he felt after eating human flesh and Colquhoun admits to feeling a strange strength but he’s interested in how Boyd know seems to know about it. Further on Toffler gets excited about a bone he’s found but when he tries to pick it up the clumsy idiot falls down a hill and ends up with a large wound in his abdomen. Reich patches him up and they make camp for the night. Their rest is disturbed by Toffler’s screams when he wakes up and finds Colquhoun licking his bloody wound. Colquhoun tries to claim he was asleep and having a nightmare but that hardly reassures anyone so he demands that they tie him up. The next day they get to the cave and I won’t say what they find there but soon the rescue mission becomes a fight for survival.
I really enjoyed this film and I think it’s a pity that it isn’t better known outside of fans of the horror genre. It doesn’t rely on special effects but instead the story is driven by the characters which are really brought to life by an excellent cast. The story itself feels pretty fresh and I was never too certain where it was going to go but I‘m pretty satisfied with the direction it took. I also really liked the folksy feel to the music, written by composer Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn of Blur, which at times gives a light tone to some fairly dark scenes but at other times is appropriately moody and creepy, all performed on traditional instruments such as banjo and accordion, fitting in perfectly with the film’s period and setting. There is some gore which is unavoidable in a film about cannibalism but it’s never too gratuitous. If you haven’t seen this film then I highly recommend it
- Rotten Tomatoes
- TV Tropes
- ‘Ravenous’ is a movie you can really take a bite out of (examiner.com)