“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.