This Thanksgiving, Feast On RAVENOUS

The cannibal comedy that could.

The weirdest thing about Ravenous isn't in the screenplay - it's the fact that it has a Fox logo at the top. Not Fox Searchlight, not even Fox Atomic (remember them?), but regular old Fox, who can place the film alongside Phantom Menace, Entrapment and Never Been Kissed for their 1999 releases. Obviously, a cannibal comedy (a period one at that) wasn't quite as commercial an endeavor as those movies, and Fox isn't exactly known for releasing too many risky movies (which is why they have those boutique labels in the first place), so I'd love to find out exactly how its creative team managed to get a greenlight THERE, of all studios.

I think the key element to Ravenous' creative success is something that's usually a red flag - everyone appears to have wandered in from different movies. Hero Guy Pearce barely speaks, which is fine because it lets the incredible supporting cast have all the good lines and stand out even more. Robert Carlyle is dry and cool, typical villain stuff but with a twinkle that lets you know he's having fun. John Spencer (RIP) is the straight man right out of any military movie, as is Neal McDonough, albeit without the weariness of Spencer's character. Jeffrey Jones (RIP) practically seems like he's from another planet entirely, and Jeremy Davies does his Jeremy Davies thing, which is to mumble a lot and barely rise above a whisper, making his classic "HE WAS LICKING ME!!!" even more momentous. The movie is a comedy without many laugh out loud moments, but the eclectic cast will leave you smiling for most of its 100 minute runtime.

And yes, it's 100 minutes but it feels like only 60 every time I watch it, which isn't often enough. The movie has an unusual structure; the first act sets up Pearce's coward character and sends him off to the isolated fort that serves as the movie's primary location, but he's not there long before Carlyle shows up and tells his survival tale, which kicks off the second act, a hybrid men-on-a-mission/chase movie. This section decimates most of the cast, paving the way for the Pearce/Carlyle standoff that makes up most of act 3. Since it keeps switching gears and racing through plot points (but not in a way that feels rushed or sloppy), it's always surprising you and keeping you wondering just where it will go next, which is why it tends to race by even on multiple viewings.

The score also helps immensely. I was never a Blur fan, but I could listen to Damon Albarn's score (with Michael Nyman, a more traditional composer) all day long. The main theme is the best, and I truly appreciate that they revise it a bit each time it's reused in the film, so you don't get sick of it. The other cues are solid too, but that main theme... man, I want that as a ringtone. Of course, then I'd probably never pick up my phone, I'd just listen to the score play out for as long as I could. It's THAT GOOD.

Sadly, few have probably even seen it. The film was a resounding failure at the box office; despite a budget of a mere $12 million, it only grossed $2m by the end of its run in March of 1999. I couldn't even contribute to that take, sadly; at the time our theater chain had some tiff with Fox that resulted in several of their movies never playing on their screens (even bigger releases like X-Files: Fight The Future were relegated to the smaller theaters). Office Space and Firestorm ("Action goes LONG!") were also victims of this temporary standoff, which was seemingly resolved later that spring when Entrapment opened. I doubt that this one area in Northern Massachusetts would have reversed Ravenous' fortunes, but I've often wondered if this was the cause of these film's smaller releases (Ravenous only opened on a little over 1,000 screens - the average at the time was twice that) - was Fox fighting with other chains at the time as well?

Sadly, director Antonia Bird never made another theatrical feature, only TV projects until her death from cancer last year. She was not the original director; Milcho Manchevski was originally in that role, but was fired after a few weeks after constantly butting heads with the Fox execs (over issues like "Not enough closeups of David Arquette"). The replacement was originally Raja Gosnell, of all goddamn people (what about Home Alone 3 led Fox to believe he'd be the ideal candidate to direct a dark comedy about cannibalism?), but apparently the crew vetoed this, leading Carlyle to bring Bird on board. She didn't love the experience either; apparently the voice-overs and Nietzsche quote at the top of the film were not her ideas, so I'm not sure if that made her retreat to TV on her own, or if she was put in "director jail" as a result of the film's failure (her second in a row after Mad Love). I just hope she realized before she passed that the movie had found its following on video and is pretty great as is, voice-over or not. I mean, the movie's title comes up over the hero puking! That's an A+ credit sequence, automatically!

If you haven't seen it yet, I highly encourage you to do so. It's a perfectly good viewing option for today (the scheduling of this post was not coincidental); you can grimace with disgust at the cannibalism moments and then gorge yourself on a helpless bird before heading out to fight people for a cheap TV. Scream Factory recently re-issued the film on Blu-ray to make up for the terrible non-anamorphic DVD that Fox put out in the US (I guess we should be happy that they put it out at all, and with multiple bonus features to boot, considering how much of a dud it was), so that was nice of them. 1999 was a fairly solid year for horror, and the film's box office failure unfortunately results in its being overlooked when people look back at the year's genre offerings (which included Sixth Sense, Blair Witch, Stir of Echoes and Sleepy Hollow). It's been 15 years - let's start fixing that.