“It’s Lonely Being a Cannibal” – RAVENOUS is a Forgotten Gem

Artwork by Betsy Midnight and Justin Midnight

|Betsy Midnight|

Flash yourself back to 1999: the shiny Clinton years had fully dissolved into scandal, boy bands couldn’t be stopped, The Matrix came out, and everyone started wearing pleather trench coats with their platform flip-flops. Into this kooky transitional period in American culture, Ravenous––a surprisingly artsy, horror Western––poofed into theaters with a smirk. Sadly, no one noticed. Looking back, it was really the wrong time for this movie to come out. But in the 20 years since its release, the film’s unique combination of gore, suspense, and humor––with an eyebrow raised to the macabre underbelly of the human condition and a decisively stylistic flourish––has established a cult following that has grown slowly but with real commitment.

The film centers on the mythological Wendigo, a cannibalistic monster of insatiable hunger, and it is wrapped in the grimy filth and fear of the isolated fringes of the American West in the 1840s. This setting, right in the middle of the bloody Manifest Destiny massacre century, yet still a full 20 years before the Civil War, calls to mind Heart of Darkness as it plunges deep into a moment in American history that was already soaked in wildness and violence, a time that was getting darker and more gruesome by the day. It’s a perfect moment in history for a cannibal tale, laced with both the desperation of The Donner Party and the grotesque giddiness of Delicatessen. 

Far from the standard hero of the American Western, all guts and adventure and justice, our protagonist in Ravenous is a coward. We know little about Lieutenant Boyd (Guy Pearce) other than that he earned his exile because he decided to lay down in the dirt and pretend to be dead rather than fight alongside his dying comrades in the Mexican-American war. This isn’t a one-time thing with Boyd either. This isn’t a story about a coward who goes through a bunch of challenges and discovers his courage. Boyd is a scared guy, through and through, who is backed into a corner with a bunch of superhuman cannibals at the edge of the wilderness, trying to figure out how to survive. He is a man of few words who spends much of the film mumbling, staring into space, or cowering; at one point, he even gets so scared he jumps off a cliff! By contrast, Robert Carlyle’s Colqhoun is spritely and spirited, with a steady gaze, polished demeanor, and predatorial physicality. He clearly has every advantage in this showdown, and when his appetites flicker like candle-lit shadows over his features from time to time, it is genuinely frightening.

Though the conflict between the two main characters is strong, the fascinating strangeness of the filmis so much bigger than strong performances from its lead actors. As a whole, the movie feels like an accidental combination of very distinct but unrelated choices, likely thanks to studio mismanagement and creative team drama going on behind the scenes. The result should be disastrous or sloppy or incoherent––but miraculously, it works. The whole that these disparate parts create is cohesive and tight. For example, the film’s prologue––which quotes Nietzsche and “Eat me,” or the memorable first scene in which dozens of soldiers chow down on bloody steaks––blends the production value of a Hollywood historical drama with a dissociative mix of sound and visuals, similar to what you might find in an experimental or avant-garde film.

Perhaps the best example of this mash-up magic, however, is the film’s remarkable score, which combines the talents of two accomplished composers: Michael Nyman, famous for the emotionally sweeping orchestrals for films such as The Piano and Gattaca, and Damon Albarn, front-man of the Brit-pop band, Blur and principal songwriter for electronic/hip-hop animated band, Gorillaz.Throughout the film, a mystical motif of twangy, sparse sparks of plucked strings twinkles over layers of melodically dissonant flutes and compressed rhythms that pulse like a squeezebox filtered through a paper towel tube. This starting point flows just as easily into a goofy, Southern-style jig reminiscent of Yakety Sax as it does into the strained, tense strings of a traditional horror-suspense climax. Ravenous does both of these moves, and then it re-centers itself with a pulsing, methodical drone punctuated by twangy sparks to keep it grounded in the film’s 19th century setting. Albarn’s pop music acuity mixes with Nyman’s grandly sweeping cinematic instincts to produce an effect that is firmly planted in both Hollywood big-budget filmmaking trends and weirdo arthouse experimentation at the same time.

Thanks to a playful script and decisive direction, Ravenous skillfully nudges us to consider the allegorical implications of the hungry monster at its center without doing too much of the thinking on our behalf. Interestingly, Wendigo Psychosis is a real modern medical term grown from the myth, used to describe a condition in which a person has (and in some cases, acts on) an intense desire to murder people and eat them. Records of confirmed cases go back hundreds of years. Anthropologists and psychologists argued about whether this condition was a factual, historical phenomenon or a fabrication as recently as the 1980s. Hopefully they’ve put that argument to bed by now: whether or not you have human meat between your teeth, our species’ inclination to destroy others to feed individual appetites is definitely real. Heck, America was practically built on the idea.

Ravenous is in the same movie family as:

  • Dead Man
  • Anthropophagous
  • Deliverance
  • The Road
  • Delicatessen

… and is playing at the Trylon from October 25 to October 27. Tickets and more information are available at trylon.org.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

A Geographer’s Guide to the Hills

|Finn Odum|

Movies are nothing without their environments. A location can dictate a film’s context, its characters’ values, and the movie’s tone. As a geographer, I’m trained to see the world in terms of place. I ask questions such as, how do people come together and interact in this space? What power dynamics are in play in this location? These questions are applicable in film analysis too, where setting functions within a genre. Horror movies rely on location as one of the genre’s conventions; a specific setting informs audiences of what’s going to occur, based on the setting’s atmosphere and past trends in film.

A cabin in the woods transforms into a bloody battleground in Friday the 13th and The Evil Dead. An unsuspecting city morphs into a monster’s stomping grounds in Godzilla and Cloverfield. And then there’s one of the most recognizable horror settings: a house in suburbia. Psychotic killers haunt the home space in Halloween and Black Christmas, along with pretty much every other mainstream slasher film.

Some of the most well known slashers come from the mind of director Wes Craven. The majority of his movies take place in cities or suburbs. A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream both insert dangerous serial killers into suburbia, while his first work, The Last House on the Left, is a gory look at a suburban family’s revenge on their daughter’s murderer. This makes The Hills Have Eyes an anomaly in Craven’s filmography. The brutal 1977 cannibal film unfolds in the desert of Nevada, a far cry from the paved roads of his former films.

Unlike Craven’s other films, the audience doesn’t get the warm comfort of a home at the start of Hills. At the beginning, the director treats viewers to a wide panning shot of the titular hills. Don Peake’s opening score fills the vast desert with foreboding piano notes and coyote howls. When we finally get a sign of civilization, it’s not a picture-perfect house but a beaten-up gas station, surrounded by dust and debris.

When the Carter family, the film’s foolish protagonists, first roll up to the gas station, Fred the gas station attendant warns them it’s safer to stay on the road. Patriarch Bob Carter wants to leave the beaten path in order to find a silver mine.) While Fred is trying to protect them from the cannibals—the eyes in The Hills Have Eyes—the Carters’ first real obstacle is the desert itself. During an ill-fated attempt to find the mine, the family veers off the side of the road and crashes its vehicle. The Carters are lost in an unfamiliar environment with little food and water. The desert is dry, desolate, and foreign to the Cleveland natives.

If the Carters feel unsafe in the dry Nevada scenery, their enemies feel right at home. Unlike a home-invasion horror story, in which the killer enters the protagonist’s domain, The Hills Have Eyes leads the protagonists into the domain of the killers. The film’s cannibals have learned how to live in the desert with few supplies—albeit while eating other people—and can navigate the hills without a map. In Hills, the villains don’t just have murderous intent; they have home-field advantage.

In the Carters’ first interaction with the cannibals, brother Bobby tries to climb up a rocky hill in search of his missing dog. One of the cannibal brothers has lured the dog out and brutally beaten it. As Bobby attempts to climb the hill, his enemy scales it with ease and vanishes with nothing more than a bloody handprint. Throughout the sequence, the brother has used his familiarity with the desert to hide from Bobby. Setting isn’t just the backdrop here; it shows viewers just how vulnerable these people are.

The Hills Have Eyes is made whole by its setting. Although Tobe Hooper, a contemporary of Craven, told a similar story is told in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the desert plays a heavier role in The Hills Have Eyes. The dry, barren hills drain the audience’s hope for the heroes’ survival. They also take away the comfort that the audience could get from a city or a suburban setting—or even that of a small town with more than a gas station.

The Hills Have Eyes reminds the audience that sometimes they don’t get to be comfortable. Anyone could be part of the family whose car gets stuck on the side of a deserted road. Anyone could land in an unfamiliar setting, with no resources for miles. You might not run into a family of ravenous cannibals, but you’re only as safe as where you’re standing.

The Hills Have Eyes screens from Friday, October 25 to Sunday, October 27 at the Trylon Cinema as part of a cannibalistic double feature with Ravenous. Get tickets and learn more here.

Edited by Greg Hunter.

Get Ready for BRAIN DAMAGE

Artwork by Betsy Midnight

|Betsy Midnight|

In a memorable Brain Damage scene, a junkyard security guard, quietly and unseen, observes a nice young man in ecstasy, so transported by the mind-blowing, euphoria-inducing spectacle of a dirty pile of smashed-up cars that he can’t help but proclaim his rapture to the stars.

The look on that guard’s face––a kind of delighted, hypnotized stupor––is very similar to the look I had on my face the first time I saw this movie.

Essentially a horror-comedy about addiction, Brain Damage follows Brian––a perfect prototype of a late-80s-white-guy-creature-feature-protagonist––as he navigates the complexities of his troubled relationship with Elmer––an ancient, slug-like parasite who lives in the bathtub and eats brains. Even though Elmer is a manipulative, disgusting, veiny monster whose single aim is to murder people by eating their brains, he has a couple qualities that make him hard for Brian to quit: he’s very charismatic, has a great singing voice, and has the devil-may-care attitude and friendly demeanor of your favorite uncle the game show host. And perhaps more significantly, he is the sole source of a highly addictive drug that induces such a perfect combination of body high and transcendent mind-state that Brian would rather sign on as the long-term partner of a gruesome serial murderer than get clean.

But it’s a struggle for him, and lead actor Rick Hearst really commits. Brain Damage was his first job out of drama school, his first opportunity to use his classical training to inhabit the reality of this guy Brian, who, from the moment we meet him, is under the thrall of a phallic turd monster. We don’t get to learn much about Brian, really––we know he lives with his brother, has a girlfriend named Barbara, has his own room, and might be into punk (there’s a brief shot of a Siouxsie and the Banshees poster in his apartment). Does he have a job? Is he a student? No one knows.

But the integrity with which Hearst immerses himself in Brian’s grimy, vomit-soaked, hallucinogenic reality gives the character more depth than any amount of expositional detail could. Throughout the film, Brian is caught in a psychological standoff between his conviction that murder is wrong and his desperate need to get high. This is perhaps most evident in the scene that shows Brian’s withdrawal from Elmer juice: we see him writhing on the floor, sweating blood in his own filth as he watches himself pull his own decaying brains out of his ear. It is intense, grisly stuff, not brought on by the usual horror movie culprits of haunting or demonic possession, but by plain old everyday addiction. Brain Damage,this bizarro 80s cult film, is on to something true and disturbing about humans’ overwhelming desire for pleasure, and it may make you squirm in your seat.

So it’s all the more jarring that Elmer himself is so goofy. Not because the effects are sloppy–– quite the contrary, the makeup and practical effects are fantastic––but because his entire character design is just silly. From the moment he appears, peeking out from behind Brian’s head with a friendly “Hi!,” Elmer is exactly the opposite of what you expect. With cartoonish eyes, an innocent grin, and a refined voice thick with wisdom and life experience, Elmer sings a jaunty song from his perch in the sink as Brian plunges deeper and deeper into his own personal hell. Elmer is so charming that he’s almost cute, which is extraordinary, since the film’s talented effects team were clearly emphasizing the similarities between Elmer and a poo-stained, penis-bodied leech.

Make no mistake, though, this leech is a hunter. By promising Brian hits of “his juice,” Elmer compels him to wander through the dangerous streets and back alleys of New York City during the drug-fueled crime wave of the late 1980s. This reality saturates the film, especially given the fact that most of the movie was shot in a studio built by the filmmaking team in a particularly rough NYC neighborhood. High as a kite and feeling no pain, Brian wanders through landscapes pulsating with synth beats and a maze of decaying infrastructure and forgotten corners washed over in neon light, ferrying Elmer to his next victim, whose brain he devours in increasingly creative ways.  Writer/director Frank Henenlotter didn’t have quite enough material for a full 90-minute feature, so to go the distance, he stretches out each shot, each scene, ever-so-slightly to fill the time––a technique that becomes more and more disconcerting the stranger and more demented Elmer’s attacks become. Once you see the scene in the alley behind Club Hell, I’m confident you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Strip away the layers of strangeness and the psychedelic punk-rock aesthetic that make Brain Damage so bombastic, and you’ll find an anxious downward-spiral-addiction-parable at its core that is riveting. However, Brain Damage‘s spirit is emphatically fun, almost joyful. I left the theater after my first late-night screening bubbling over with things to say, enthusiastically gushing, surprised, energized, inspired.

Not unlike Brian freaking out in the junkyard, actually.

Brain Damage movie family members include:

  • Bad Milo
  • Trainspotting
  • Basket Case
  • Valley Girl
  • Evil Dead

… and it is playing at the Trylon from Friday, October 11 to Sunday, October 13. Tickets are available at trylon.org. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy this psychedelic splatterfest in a theater with friends!

Edited by Michelle Baroody

“Werewolves Killed My Platoon”: Neil Marshall’s DOG SOLDIERS

|Justin Midnight|

Artwork by Betsy Midnight

After a director like Neil Marshall releases a critically beleaguered and problematic film like 2019’s Hellboy, he becomes a kind of pop culture punchline for a time. Of course, this is often a consequence in the game of putting yourself out there, but the wealth of negative attention can sometimes tend toward zealotry when the subject matter is known and beloved. All this is to say that I think it’s nice that The Trylon is giving us the opportunity to appreciate Marshall’s early work this October.

Dog Soldiers, which began script development in 1996 and is the product of an obvious labor of love for Neil Marshall and company, is loads of slippery, slobbery, and explodey fun. Without spoiling the plot, which has its share of spoilable moments, I’ll say it’s a very Scottish film about Scottish soldiers running a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands who end up on the wrong side of a governmental snafu and a pack of lycanthropic Scottish nasties. What initially feels like a straightforward action flick, with soldiers swapping gritty stories while gratuitously tossing guns to each other and performatively cocking them, gradually morphs into a claustrophobic creature feature with excellent practical effects and surprisingly huge pyrotechnics.

With no U.S. theatrical release, genre fans began to discover this werewolf gem on video store shelves in 2002. I fondly recall my first watch, which came highly recommended from a fellow video store employee who had scooped it off the new release wall. It was an informal practice of ours to work our way through the direct-to-video B-stuff that came in while we combed the catalogue for classics like The Last Wave and Roar. Wading through cine-sewage from the early aughts was perilous at times, but connecting with authentic independent filmmaking in a project like Dog Soldiers always made it worth the slog.

What struck me initially about Dog Soldiers was its sense of fun. It manages that rare and heroic indie horror feat of pulling you in without cheap gore, nudity, or schlock, without ever taking itself too seriously. It’s clear the cast and crew are having fun with light improv and self-aware gags, and Marshall’s canted vision of a soldier movie that also happens to feature 12-foot-tall werewolves remains focused on killer close-quarters action. They also really blow the hell out of some set pieces. I watched this DVD with a good number of friends back in 2002 and was pleased to find it held up nicely to multiple viewings.

Clever, economical storytelling and a dark sense of humor set Dog Soldiers apart from the action horror pack, and some brilliant casting choices of journeyman actors like Sean Pertwee (Event Horizon), Kevin McKidd (Trainspotting) and Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) see to its solid delivery. This isn’t a horror flick with a couple of cheap laugh lines, it’s actually quite funny straight through the end credits. Pair this with characters who don’t pee their pants and forget their training when the baddies show up at the side door and you don’t only have a monster movie, you’ve got an all-out war with the unknown. Plus, you’ve really got to appreciate the way Sarge rallies after being thoroughly disemboweled in the first act.

A cursory glance at Marshall’s resume reveals his well-developed penchant for the “small cadre of elite something-or-others find themselves in a crazy bind” subgenre of action horror. Doomsday, Centurion, and The Descent (screening as a double-feature with Dog Soldiers) are all meditations on this concept, but it started here, and it’s never been better. Marshall’s commitment to the bit included opting to shoot in Luxembourg on 16mm so that he could stretch his 2 million dollar budget to cover the costs of excellent practical effects. One can imagine this was something of a controversial decision, and has indeed followed this film across the sea of time on message boards and reissue reviews. Sure, it’s a bit grainy in its brighter moments, but you don’t let that bother you when you watch 28 Days Later, so just relax and pretend it was shot on early digital and I promise it will all be fine––fun, even!

Dog Soldiers is in the same movie family as:

  • Predator
  • Jarhead
  • The Thing
  • Cabin in the Woods
  • The Final Terror
  • Severance

and is screening at the Trylon Microcinema on Friday, October 4, 5, and 6 with Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Tickets available at trylon.org.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

A 10th Anniversary Reminiscence

|John Moret|

From the moment I first walked into the Trylon nearly 10 years ago, I was enamored with it. It screamed a love of movies more than anything else. At the time I was working for a corporate movie theater chain, and the Trylon was refreshing in every way. Ticket prices were low and there was no upsell on concessions. But the real reason I loved the Trylon from the get-go was that it was about movies. There was  no bar or restaurant. There were no shot glasses with the Trylon logo on them. The volunteers, projectionists, and patrons were all talking about movies! The Trylon was everything I was hoping to find. 

I began going to the Trylon every chance I got. Because I was working in a movie theater and had to work during some of the best stuff, I missed so much during those first few years. The only film of the 1970s Jack Nicholson series that I caught was THE LAST DETAIL, which blew my mind. I completely missed the race car series, Color Me Gone—VANISHING POINT on 35mm included. I regret to this day that I didn’t quit my job to make time for that one. 

When I started volunteering, it was mostly so that I had a reason to be there as often as possible. With a shift to cover, I could make twice as many screenings, most of which were Trylon Premieres, expertly programmed by Kathie Smith. Though the new movies weren’t really my passion, I knew that whatever I saw would be excellent. And, indeed, I caught some unforgettable films. One that has really struck me and comes to me sometimes in my dreams was LEVIATHAN from 2012. It was a little seen “documentary” that put you in the bowels of a commercial fishing ship, punished by the waves and bludgeoned in the cleaning room. It was a bloody, wet, sensory overload. I could never have seen it without sitting in that little room with a few other fortunate souls—all of us stunned by the experience. 

After being hired as film programmer, there have been so many unforgettable, indelible moments I have had a hard time choosing which ones to point out. Fragments of moments stand out—a silent crowd at a sold out show of TOKYO STORY, the crashing of wood as we took down the old screen surrounded by dedicated volunteers, the sound of the projectors changing over, my 3 year old boys running in the dirt pit that would become the bottom half of the auditorium, secret moments of devastation shared with Barry during construction, the excitement of reopening… the list goes on. 

In celebration of the last ten years, it seems appropriate to share a few in detail. 

In September of 2012, I had a rare Friday off and my wife was out of town. It was warm and I was busy with something or other and was not paying attention to the time. I looked up and saw that it was 6:40pm, just barely enough time to make it to the 7pm show of LIFE OF OHARU (1952)—a film I’d been looking forward to seeing for a long time. I remember that I felt I didn’t have enough time to put on socks, so I went without—which I find repugnant and do not recommend. Coming in from the heat, the cold temperature of the auditorium was refreshing, reminding me I had no socks on. It was a tiny crowd and I sat in Terry’s blue seat and leaned against the pole. The lights went down and I was very excited. Hoping to see a small masterpiece and treasuring the experience by myself, I was wrapped up in the moment. Though the pacing was plodding, the 35mm print was gorgeous and I was enthralled. I left the auditorium moved and struck, stepping into the now cool evening and thought of the film the whole way home, not even minding the sockless shoes.

A different but memorable movie-going experience was the first film in the short-lived All-Star Video series—a product of a small group of friends programming a series that took place late-nights after Trash Film Debauchery. We went with only shot-on-video oddities from the video store era—films that never had a proper release (including home video in some cases) but found themselves on the shelves and seared into people’s minds anyhow. The first film in this series was SLEDGEHAMMER (1983). We were determined to make it a special night with playbills, essays and the like. The show was sold out and I’ve never laughed so hard before. My chest hurt at the end of the show. I was weirdly proud of introducing all those people to that little movie, it was as if I had shown them all HALLOWEEN for the first time. 

One particular film experience that continues to stand out in my mind is a screening of THE HIRED HAND from April of 2018. This is a film that I care deeply about and was within a series of films I had put together on Warren Oates. I was incredibly proud of the series and had high hopes. Unfortunately, admissions-wise, it turned out to be one of the bigger flops. Minneapolis was on the verge of the biggest April snowfall in years. It was “snowmageddon” coming for us. I was determined to see that print that I had been so excited about. When I arrived it was a small crowd. I found a friend who was there and had never seen the film. We sat in silence, the anticipation of the film and the snowstorm looming created a unique kind of excitement. The print came on-screen and it was lovely, with beautiful color and in great condition. That Bruce Langhorne music washed over us and I was transported. As the film ended on a melancholy note, I wandered out into the falling April snow and was in the perfect place. 

Though there are too many other memories to share—seeing HUSBANDS, STRAIGHT TIME, 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, SECRETS AND LIES and HARAKIRI on 35mm—and those torturous, and amazing, Horrorthon nights…

It’s worth pointing out that these past ten years have been possible because of the many lovely people who have put their blood and sweat into this place. Barry Kryshka, our Executive Director, worked for free for 9 years and is the bedrock of the organization. Nikki Weispfenning, our lead projectionist and theater manager, is as professional and thoughtful as people come. You’ve seen so much of her work on screen and can attest to it as well. Nicole Pamelia is our incredible designer, who has spent countless hours laying out our programs, working on our website and organizing poster designers. Mark Sherman and Kathie Smith, both amazing projectionists in their own right, have volunteered their time every other Saturday night to project films for the last 10 years. Beyond that, our box office volunteers have been so incredible. 

This is a personal thank you to all of you. You have made this place so special and it means so much to me. 

I’ll leave it at this: I can’t wait to share the next ten years of memories with you. See you at the movies.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michael Popham