Friday, May 30, 2014

Ravenous: Blu-ray review

Once upon a time the big movie studios would occasionally make a risky film - sometimes with a bunch of money, and other times with just a little bit. Either way, it was an artistic gamble, and sometimes it would pay off, and other times it wouldn’t. This never seems to happen anymore, where all such choices are made only after myriad polls, research, and analysis, rather than from the gut. These days the risky fare is showing up on TV in the forms of shows like Hannibal (as perfect an example as any for this particular review). I’ve always wanted to meet and shake the hand of the Fox exec[1] who greenlit Ravenous - a period black comedy-horror western about cannibalism, in which the central character, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), doesn’t even speak a complete sentence for the first half hour. 

The modestly budgeted film ($12 million) tanked something fierce upon its release in spring of ‘99. Despite opening on over a thousand screens, its B.O. take was only around $2 million. But, as many movies of quality do, Ravenous lived to see better days, and over the years amassed a pretty hardcore cult following (undoubtedly aided by the increasing popularity of its two stars, Pearce and Robert Carlyle).

In the midst of the Mexican-American War circa 1847, Boyd, having been branded a coward by General Slauson (John Spencer), is sent to Fort Spencer in the remote, wintry Sierra Nevadas, where nothing ever happens. The Fort is staffed by a motley collection of military misfits played by Jeffrey Jones, Neal McDonough, Jeremy Davies, David Arquette, and Stephen Spinella, as well as a pair of Native siblings, amusingly named George (Joseph Runningfox) and Martha (Sheila Tousey, the only female in the picture). The trend of isolated boredom is bucked by the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Colqhoun (Carlyle). Starving and near death, he tells a tale of survival involving Colonel Ives – a member of his party who resorted to cannibalizing the rest of the expedition when the food ran out.

And little more should be said about the plot to the uninitiated. Knowing much else about Ravenous would spoil its manic twists and turns. The script’s unpredictability is one of the film’s numerous strong attributes. Despite its gruesome, graphic depictions of humans dining on each other’s flesh, the film has been called by many (including yours truly) a vampire movie in disguise. There are aspects of its story that echo the relationship of Louis and Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, yet on this viewing I found myself not wanting to acknowledge the vampiric parallels – as if they might somehow take away from the uniqueness of the movie, which actually bases its extensive chowdown on the Algonquian Wendigo myth. Maybe back in ’99 we needed to make such connections and conditions in order to accept a movie that revolves around such an unsettling topic, but today we’re living in a world in which a network series like Hannibal has been granted a third season. There’s no longer any reason to romanticize or qualify Ravenous to those who aren’t in the know, for if you’ve dined on Hannibal for thirteen weeks straight, this 100-minute movie should be a walk in the park (albeit a pretty twisted park).

Behind the lens, Ravenous was directed by the late Antonia Bird, a last minute replacement after the film’s original director, Milcho Manchevski, parted ways with the production after shooting began. Bird was brought onboard at the insistence of Carlyle who’d worked with her on two previous pictures, Priest and Face. Though Priest ruffled a few feathers upon its 1994 release, and met with a fair amount of acclaim, it might still be fair to say that Ravenous will be the movie for which she’ll ultimately be most remembered. The moody cinematography was accomplished by Anthony B. Richmond, and while recent credits of his aren’t particularly impressive, he once upon a time helped give a number of Nicolas Roeg movies - such as Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth - their distinctive looks. The screenplay was the debut of Ted Griffin, who’d go on to co-create another hailed concept that failed to find an audience, the recent one-season FX TV wonder, Terriers.

But perhaps the most exceptional layer of Ravenous is its score. I’ve often heard it said that the best movie scores are the ones you don’t notice, an assertion I take great issue with. To me, the best scores are the ones that stick in your mind – hopefully along with the rest of the picture – for weeks after having experienced them. Michael Nyman had created many such scores for the films of Peter Greenaway, though perhaps his most famous score was for Jane Campion’s The Piano. Here Nyman is, curiously, paired with Damon Albarn, who is nowadays best known as the mad genius behind Gorillaz. Together (or rather apart; they allegedly made their contributions separately), Nyman and Albarn composed and created a work that stands on its own, ranging from quirky tonal sounds to full on majestic orchestrations. The now out of print Ravenous soundtrack goes for pretty big dollars these days, which itself is something of a testament to its quality. Let the menu screen of this disc spin for a while in the background, and the central theme will undoubtedly hypnotize you.

The print used for this Blu-ray had some noticeable dirt on it, but after a bit it either disappeared or, caught up in the movie and I was, I ceased to notice it. While nobody will ever accuse Ravenous of having a varied color palette, the movie looks fair here, but not stellar; inconsistent would probably be the best word to describe it. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track fares considerably better, in all the right places.

Blu-ray Extras: The very best DVD/Blu-ray extras are often produced years after the movie itself, once the actors and/or crew have gained some perspective on the proceedings, or when there’s no longer any danger of offending co-workers or executives or what have you. This Scream Factory Blu-ray offers up a recently shot 20-minute interview with Jeffrey Jones entitled “The Ravenous Tales of Colonel Hart,” in which he, as a history buff, discusses the implications of manifest destiny as presented in the picture and candidly dishes on the firing of Manchevski and the hiring of Bird. For the Ravenous buff, this is outstanding stuff and a welcome inclusion.

The rest of the extras are, I believe, all ported over from the original DVD release. There are three, count ‘em three, commentary tracks: Bird and Albarn, Griffin and Jones, and finally Carlyle flying solo. There are also deleted scenes with optional commentary by Bird, a theatrical trailer and TV spots, and two galleries of stills detailing the costume and production design. As with many Shout/Scream discs, the artwork can be flipped over to reveal an alternate cover that matches the original Ravenous movie poster art (pictured).

[1] While I can’t find a definitive answer, it appears that the late Laura Ziskin, who headed the arm of Fox (Fox 2000) that produced Ravenous, may have been the culprit.

Portions of this review were lifted from an earlier Rued Morgue article entitled Five Great Movies You May Not Have Seen...But Should.

Screenshots were taken from Vagebond's Movie Screenshots.