Films That Haunt Me: RAVENOUS

As December approaches and the air grows cold, it’s time to start talking about those chilly horror classics best consumed in front of a fire while the wind howls outside. What better time to talk about the Wendigo? This elusive and freakish beast is little scene in film, which is unfortunate – it appears to great effect in one of the more unique horror offerings of the last 20 years, Antonia Bird’s RAVENOUS.

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Like an unfortunate number of 90s films, this one got misrepresented by its marketing team. While trailers make it look like an action-packed gore-fest, Bird has actually created a bizarre but terrific mix of pitch-black comedy and ruthless horror. The film follows a U.S. soldier who, disgraced during the Spanish-American war, is sent to a remote California post where nothing happens… until an unknown man stumbles in from the wilderness, half-frozen to death and terrified. He claims that his traveling group got lost in the mountains and had to resort to cannibalism – an act that possesses the eater with an ancient vampiric evil. When the soldiers go to search for the man’s crew, they realize the story is truer than they expected… and far more hideous.

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There is a veritable melting pot of genres in “Ravenous.” It’s a war epic, a vampire movie, a bloody slapstick routine, and a grand horror story straight out of Blackwood. This may have been what drove many critics and audience members away – but for those who are open to the originality, Bird mixes the genres amazingly well. It’s one of the most original films to come out of that era of horror – and possibly one of the bloodiest. When it isn’t busy being a riotous satire, it actually gets pretty frightening – there were more than a few scenes that unsettled me to my core.

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It’s fascinating, too, for its brilliant evocation of American legend. The images of the army fort and its ragtag team of soldiers are straight out of “Dances with Wolves,” but far more interesting, as Bird soaks them in gallons of guts. The Wendigo myth – something pilfered from Native American culture as a symbol of starvation and desperation – is used to comment on the nature of the American Dream: devour before they devour you.

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Sure, this theme is drawn a bit too boldly in the film – they say various versions of the above about twenty times – but it pairs the overt message so powerfully with brutal images of man eating man. The film is so ironically masculine, loud and proud about its violence, that it ends up tearing down those ideas in the same way that characters rip each other apart. Whatever patriotism the film might have had is mauled, slaughtered without mercy. It may be one of the more honest depictions of the pioneer myth. These soldiers are animalistic, and they kill like animals.

If this all sounds too crazy, then this film isn’t for you. But its gory humor and horrific statements about Americana are worth exploring. Especially as the winter sets in and the snow seems to call out, scratching hungrily at the window, begging to be fed.

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