1999 is considered one of the strongest years of cinema in living memory. There will no doubt be countless articles in 2019 marking the 20th anniversaries of that year’s greatest hits and examining their impact and legacy.
But this column isn’t about those movies. This column is about the overlooked gems from 1999 — the weird, ungainly, or unjustly forgotten films that don’t usually get listed alongside the established classics, but which are just as deserving of their own retrospectives.
Ravenous opens with not one, but two epigraphs. The first comes from existentialist philosopher Frederick Nietzsche: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster. For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
The second, credited to Anonymous, reads simply: “Eat me.”
As this one-two punch makes clear, Ravenous is as much a comedy as it is a horror film, although it’s not quite what you would call a horror-comedy. Its specific brand of humor is of the darkly satirical bent, not unlike another blood-drenched period piece that would come out almost exactly one year later — American Psycho. Indeed, these films would make for an excellent double feature given their shared sense of humor and thematic overlap: Whereas Psycho uses the wanton carnage on display to look deep into the empty, black heart of capitalist consumerism, Ravenous makes literal the devouring frenzy of American settlers during the period of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. The same destructive appetites drive both films’ central monsters, and each in their own way represent certain murderous impulses inherent to the American experiment.
Set during the Mexican-American War and taking inspiration from the real-life horrors of the Donner Party and Alfred Packer, as well as the ancient Algonquin myth of the Wendigo, Ravenous follows the doomed course of John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a captain in the United States Army who single-handedly scores a victory against the enemy during a major battle, one he only survives by playing dead. Because his achievement comes as the result of an act of abject cowardice, his superiors have the option of either hanging or promoting him. They decide on the latter, as it makes for better propaganda.
Boyd is sent to a remote outpost in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain region, where he and a skeleton garrison — which includes bookish Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), stoner doofus Pvt. Cleaves (David Arquette), brutish but brave Pvt. Reich (Neal McDonough), and neurotic clergyman Pvt. Toffler (Jeremy Davies) — while away their days in boredom until one night they are visited by a starving, half-dead stranger named Calhoun (Robert Carlyle). Calhoun tells them the terrifying tale of his flight from a lost wagon party stuck in the surrounding mountains after they resorted to murder and cannibalism to survive the harsh winter.
Several members of the garrison, including Boyd, set off on a search and rescue mission, only to discover that Calhoun hasn’t told them the whole truth. Things take a wild turn from here, but to say any more would be to spoil the pleasure of the film’s many twists. Suffice to say, if you’re going into this one cold, don’t try to get ahead of the plot, because you won’t succeed.
It’s fitting that a film about a waylaid wagon party should itself have been similarly waylaid by disaster. Ravenous was an infamously troubled shoot; original director Milcho Manchevski was fired three weeks into principal photography and replaced first by Raja Gosnell, and then Antonia Bird. The Australian Bird (who was brought on at the behest of Carlyle, with whom she was a frequent collaborator) oversaw the vast majority of production, so credit for the finished film belongs to her (although she has gone on record about the interference she suffered at the hands of producers).
It’s no surprise that a movie with such a troubled production would get unceremoniously dumped in theaters, just as it’s equally unsurprising that, given its odd tone and heady content, it would be ignored by audiences and dismissed by critics. Ultimately, Ravenous opened in 18th place at the box office, grossed a North American total of $2,062,405 (from a budget of $12 million), and currently holds a critics score of 45% on Rotten Tomatoes (although Roger Ebert did give it a rave review.)
Ravenous has steadily amassed a small cult following, although it remains mostly forgotten, even within the horror community. Hopefully, the renewed attention given to it on its 20th anniversary (which includes a number of screenings being held at repertory theaters throughout the United States) will lead to a new appreciation of the film, because holy hell, does it ever deserve it. Rewatching Ravenous for the first time since it was in theaters (at which point 13-year-old me had no idea what to make of it) I expected to find it a disjointed but enjoyable cult oddity. What I found instead was that it’s a minor masterpiece.
From the utterly unique, haunting-yet-jaunty score from composer Michael Nyman and Blur frontman Damon Albarn, to the top-shelf work done by both leads as well as the supporting cast (Jeffrey Jones has rarely been better, and there’s a responsibly sparing amount of goofy Arquette), to the remarkably detailed costuming, makeup, and set design, to the script’s tight plotting strewn with literary flourishes, everything on display combines to give Ravenous an aesthetic complexity more often associated with the golden age of ‘70s-era New Hollywood than the slick, corporatist output of the late ‘90s.
Most remarkable is the way that Bird expertly balances disparate tones in order to produce something that feels fresh and original. The movie doesn’t oscillate between terror and comedy so much as it maintains a consistent pitch of hilarity (the nexus point between the two) throughout; the rictus death smile that one of its characters wears during a major turning point serves as the perfect symbol for the film as a whole. As the story proceeds, it also takes on a noticeable dramatic heft, ultimately leading to a showdown that, despite its small scale, feels appropriately epic in its emotional force and moral implications.
Ravenous is a truly singular effort. Of all the overlooked films from 1999, it may be the most criminally neglected. The time has come for it to be given its proper due.