In his review of the 1993 cannibalism-for-survival drama _Alive_,
_Entertainment_Weekly_ critic Owen Gleiberman called the moment when the
plane crash survivors finally decide to eat the remains of the dead
passengers "truly disgusting." In these eyes, it was an undoubtedly
discomfiting but rather tame moment, with most of the grisliness left to
the imagination; it only got as bad as seeing arms moving as if cutting
into something and the slices of, um, meat.
If that's Gleiberman's idea of "truly disgusting," I'm interested in
hearing what he has to say about _Ravenous_, which opens with a table full
of hungry 19th Century army men voraciously digging into extra-rare slabs
of meat, which leads one soldier, John Boyd (Guy Pearce), to lose his lunch
and just about any other meal he's ever had. OK, so they're not eating
humans--they're eating beef. But it gives one a fair inkling of how
graphic the "food" consumption gets once the cannibalism theme takes over.
After narrowly escaping death in a battle in the Mexican War, Boyd is
assigned to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas manned only by Hart
(Jeffrey Jones), the commanding officer; Toffler (Jeremy Davies, doing the
soft-spoken thing yet again), the religious leader; Knox (Stephen
Spinella), the hard-drinking doctor; no-nonsence Reich (Neal McDonough);
and Cleaves (David Arquette), the over-medicated cook. Entering their fold
one night is the mysterious loner Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who tells a
horrific tale about how his now-dead settling party turned to cannibalism
in the wilds. In due time, the human flesh diet starts to gain popularity
with this group.
_Ravenous_ is definitely not for the squeamish. Director Antonia Bird
pulls no punches as far as gore is concerned; one especially graphic scene
between Pearce and Arquette is certain to send some viewers racing to the
restroom, and a climactic bloodbath of a fight scene really pushes the
limits of an R-rating. But Bird's tongue is often in cheek during the gory
proceedings; the over-the-top nature, while sure to offend many, is
actually the big factor in keeping one from taking it overly seriously.
Screenwriter Ted Griffin is also in on the joke, offering some amusingly
self-aware lines ("It's lonely being a cannibal. It's tough making
friends.") But his script accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of
being overstuffed and undercooked at the same time. He offers a mystical
explanation for all the cannibalism, which then launches into metaphors
about addiction and the quest for eternal youth--this all in addition to
trying to be a down-and-dirty horror film. But then there's the matter of
characterization, which there is little of; with only schematically
developed personalities onscreen, there's no real audience investment as to
who ends up being the diner or dinner.
I cannot say that I was ever bored by _Ravenous_; the actors and its
deliciously disgusting subject matter always keep it watchable and--dare I
say it--amusing. There's nothing wrong with that, but in attempting to be
something more, _Ravenous_ ends up offering even less to chew on.