Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of wandering off to the kitchen to make triple sure that the contents of your fridge and pantry didn’t magically change into something delicious that you’re craving in the last five minutes. Or perhaps you’ll still raid the cupboard because you really want to watch a movie and nothing goes better with a film than snacks, right? Well some reviewers who shall remain nameless are stuck in the position of having to pay extra attention to the dialogue and scenery and all manner of other things that usually don’t matter to someone who is just watching for entertainment value. Sadly, some of us are not able to enjoy that sacred tradition of eating while we watch because crunching food makes it impossible to hear crucial moments and fishing for crumbs can make you miss key action scenes. Yes, I’m salty about it. That said, I don’t know how much you’re going to enjoy that snack food while watching this week’s movie.
By now, I’m sure it’s apparent that while I enjoy all manner of horror films, I likes me the monsters and the supernatural best. It’s not that I don’t like other movies, like Silence of the Lambs or movies with dangers that are more grounded in reality. It’s just that I can read about all manner of real people who do horrible things throughout history. I mean, you can read about serial killers, watch films about the Manson family or listen to podcasts about true crime all day but none of them are going to feature a reanimated prom queen who kills people for fucking with her crown or a wolf that wanders through public transit in London eating people on their way home. If, on the other hand, you know of anything that does feature those things that’s supposed to be true, hit me up with podcast recommendations because I do listen to a lot of them. But back to the film of the week.
The supernatural. In films, this is where reality takes a bit of a break and lets us play in a world of pure imagination. In some films, that allows us to fight wars in space or fly on broomsticks and become champion of some game of sportball that seems completely uninteresting to me. In horror, on the other hand, it’s where we can blend the two and the closer they can come together, the more rewarding the experience can be. That said, this isn’t an easy feat, especially when we get down to showing the supernatural elements of a story. Usually it comes in rubber masks or CGI or monster makeup or something that signal that we’re dealing with someone that no longer belongs in the world as we know it. Even when a film is trying to ground itself in our world, the horror element strives to make it so that we know that someone is off and usually, it gets further and further into the realm of off until it falls into the pit of horror movie fairytale logic. Think movies like The Exorcist, where we have long stretches of the film trying to prove that this little girl isn’t actually possessed and all building to where we can’t deny it anymore and she becomes more grotesque and obviously something otherworldly. This element of showing the supernatural is, of course, kind of necessary because it lets us know that shit is going down and that is pretty crucial to the all consuming dread that good horror should have. So you can imagine how effective it is when there’s almost nothing to show the supernatural elements of the story and yet it’s clear, obvious and very dangerous.
Thankfully, you don’t have to imagine it because that’s exactly what this week’s movie, Ravenous, accomplishes. Released in 1999 and directed by Antonia Bird, Ravenous stars Guy Pearce as Captain John Boyd and Robert Carlyle as a mystery man with a deadly secret. Set in the 19th century, this film takes us along for the ride with Boyd, a military captain who stumbled his way into a “promotion” during the American Mexican war. It’s revealed through flashbacks that Boyd didn’t earn his higher status through honor and bravery so much as he suffered a crippling breakdown in the middle of a battle and in the middle of a PTSD break, he played dead and got dragged off the battlefield and buried under a not insignificant number of his fallen men. Literally drowning in the blood of the bodies piled on top of him, Boyd got a jolt of life from it and crawled out from under the gore to get the drop on an enemy leader. His superiors are furious that he essentially tried to quit the war in the middle and got a whole bunch of people killed but it didn’t change the fact that he was also responsible for bringing down the opposition from behind enemy lines. As such, to save face, they reward their disgraced captain by shipping him off to a remote post in the bowels of somewhere in California where they can officially forget about him.
At the outpost, Boyd finds himself in a remote area with a bunch of colorful characters, introduced by Colonel Hart, played by Jeffery Jones of Beetlejuice fame. (If you are familiar with Jeffery Jones’ background and that is something you’re not very comfortable with, rest assured, this is a bit part in this film and a role that, for the most part can be ignored.) Unlike what we find most of the time in the films I review, we actually have a few people that are interesting despite being given very few lines and mostly a scant background. There’s private Toffler, the nervous nelly of the group who is also supposed to be some kind of holy man, the ever stoned private Cleaves played by David Arquette, private Reich, who is the overzealous solider, and the ever drunken Knox, who plays doctor when he’s awake. The camp also has two Indigenous members, siblings named George and Martha. I admit that I paused at this part with some concern about how these two were going to be handled but the film doesn’t tread into the uncomfortable realm of “noble savage” or reduce the two into any kind of stereotype of bringing the best out of the white men around them. George doesn’t speak English but can still communicate with Colonel Hart, who has learned some of the language to get the context, and generally gets along with the rest of the group. Martha can speak better English and keeps to herself but is still part of the established group. Both act as guides and are described as having come with the fort itself but there’s a kind of connection with them in the group.
I do want to make a small note here that this would not have been a realistic version of events in history, this is not the worst depiction of Indigenous characters that I’ve seen. If I had to guess, the use of the English names were probably more out of convenience than anything. I will say that while it would have been nice if the filmmakers actually tried to research more about what to name them, I am glad that they didn’t go the route of giving them made up names that sounded almost like they might be Indigenous to the white ear. I’m also glad that they actually cast Indigenous actors for the parts instead of pulling the card of hiring white actors who just happen to tan nicely. It’s true that there could have been more about these characters, given the major monster of the story, but I still kind of defend this because, for one, they are never made to look stupid. While they are bit characters at best, they are never played for comic relief and they are never shown as being anything other than part of life at the camp. They also don’t come across as being ignorant or in need of saving. In fact, if anything, Martha is pretty done with your shit and won’t be taking any of it and George is pretty good friends with Cleaves. When trouble arrives at their door, George is the first to recognize it and warn them. He knows what he’s looking at and so does Martha. And speaking of Martha, she is never given a sexual role in this at all. At worst, she is kind of a bit of a nanny for Cleaves, who is basically just a permanently baked idiot put in charge of the food. Even then some, when George does die, her grief is expressed not through exotic rituals or anything stupid like that. Instead, she leans into her friendship with Cleaves and still defends the others of the camp when she believes they are in danger. And speaking of danger, let’s get to that actual monster.
I have to put it out there that Robert Carlyle is an absolute gem of a villain. From the second that he shows up, he grabs the attention of everyone and no matter what he’s doing, you know he’s going to be interesting to watch. And he makes a rather dramatic entrance in this film. Carlyle plays a stranger that arrives at the camp in the night and collapses on their doorstep, half frozen when they find him. Once he comes to, he delivers a frantic and chilling tale of how he and a group of others were travelling across a Nevada trail, when they were caught in a winter storm. The story he tells is gruesome as he details how they slowly began to starve, eating first their travel animals, their shoes and belts and then, when one of their number succumbed to the conditions, each other. As the others were killed by their party leader, the stranger was one of the last left alive along with the wife of a man who had died a few weeks before. The stranger admits his cowardice for leaving her but feared for his life and this puts the camp in the unenviable position of now having to find out if she’s still alive, that being part of their job at the outpost. As much as most people enjoy the prospect of tracking down a dangerous cannibal in the woods, the search party is warned that something much worse is likely to be lurking out there too. As mentioned, as soon as the stranger gets to the part where he confesses to having eaten human flesh, George warns Boyd and Hart about this man. He explains as best he can what a wendigo is and remains wary of the stranger as they make their way out to find out if there are any survivors of the travel party. It’s too bad that no one listened as the search party, consisting of Reich, Toffler, Boyd, Hart and George, follows the stranger back over a trail to the cave and notices that their newcomer starts exhibiting some disturbing behavior. It’s only when Boyd and Reich find their way to the cave from the mystery man’s story that shit gets real and we see what was barely lurking under the surface of this character.
From here, I feel I need to talk about Boyd as a character because this is a weird but welcome one. In a lot of films like this, we would see this man as the reluctant or even the flawed hero. The one who should have risen to the challenge but something didn’t click at the time and he fell short. That is not who Boyd is. The very first part of the film establishes that he is a coward. The film never really takes a side on whether he is suffering PTSD (which he totally would have been) or if he’s just too weak to be a leader that he was forced to be but more than once, it shows him trying to abstain from the battle. When Carlyle’s character goes on the attack and he and Reich are the only ones to give chase to try to save Toffler, he actually tries to go back to the cave. He wanted to hide. When confronting Carlyle in all his insane glory for the first time, instead of trying to fight with him, he jumps off a fucking cliff! He genuinely attempted suicide in favor of the idea of fighting back and this is what makes him so much more interesting. A rise tale where the character is destined to become the better man and save the day is something we’ve seen forever because it’s a tale as old as dirt. A coward forced to confront the elements and something a lot more feral and strange than himself is a lot more challenging to watch but it’s also a lot more interesting because you just never know what to expect. When he finally does step up to plate, it’s still a wonder if he’s going to win at all and the film keeps you guessing until the last second of the showdown between Boyd and Carlyle’s monstrous mystery man.
You might have noticed by now that I haven’t given the name of Robert Carlyle’s character. Part of this is because if you haven’t seen the film, there’s kind of a huge spoiler in it. It’s not that you don’t know that Carlyle is the villain, even though there’s some doubt when he first appears. He comes to the camp, tells his horrible story and seems normal enough at first but there are moments when he just seems a bit off. It doesn’t take long before you get that sense that he’s not all that he appears to be and it’s not a surprise when he launches his first attack. That said, you really only have to watch the trailer or see the box art. If you hadn’t figured it out from that, Robert Carlyle plays the villain. He kills and eats people but, unlike figures like Hannibal Lecter, there’s more to it. Carlyle’s official name in the film isn’t all that important because of what he actually is. George even calls him out on it twice when it becomes clear something’s wrong with their newcomer. Because of his transgressions, he embodies the wendigo. It doesn’t matter who he is anymore because he has become a monster within that looks like a man.
About here I should also go over what a wendigo is for the uninitiated. This is a creature from Indigenous legends (Algonquian comes up in research but what I found is not exhaustive and there are likely more examples in different tribal legends), and from what I have read is an evil spirit that would possess or develop within human beings who were exceptionally greedy, especially in times of need. The thing that comes up the most, however, is that big big BIG taboo that one shall not cross which is, as you can guess, eating other humans. This doesn’t seem like a big deal to us now, where it’s weird to live in places where you can’t find a grocery store near you, but it does make sense when you understand the frame of mind that one has to be in when one is in danger of starving to death. Here in Canada and in certain areas in the US, getting caught out in remote areas in the winter can lead you to dire situations faster than you might think possible. Getting caught in these situations is still a possibility today despite our best efforts to stay on the right track through things like GPS. So imagine how much harder it was back in the 19th century when you’re on horse back or in a wagon. The elements are a lot closer to home when you’ve got nothing to cover you from them and you find out very fast in winter that nature is a pretty nasty mother and one you don’t have any power to talk back to when shit gets real. Because of this, a lot of Indigenous life revolved around community and the sharing of resources to make sure that everyone was taken care of. This is absolutely apparent when you visit any museum where you get to see the trappings of their life before the settlers arrived but when you live in cold climates, you know that survival depended on being able to work and live together and that you could rely on the people around you to do what they could to help you all. This is a very simplified version of events but you get the picture and you can also guess from here where the wendigo comes in. In this kind of reality, in harsh environments where everyone has to pull their weight and contribute to keep these dangers at bay, the wendigo is the spirit of man that will not give but will take everything for itself. It is the embodiment of greed and the curse of eternal hunger than can never be sated.
Our film wendigo doesn’t make its first appearance with Carlyle, however, but with Boyd. When Boyd is piled into the cart with all the other carcasses, I wasn’t kidding when I said he was literally drowning. Their blood covered him and he was still playing dead so he couldn’t stop from swallowing it. This was his first taste of the forbidden and one that scared him to death but also ruined meat for him. He is hungry for it now, haunted by both the trauma of what happened around him and his want to taste it again. Because he’d been given this taste once, he was both disgusted by and curious about Carlyle’s character. In turn, Carlyle is curious about him, sensing from his questions that they are similar. This common bond between them is something that Carlyle wants to foster. He enjoys the hunger that rages within him and wants Boyd to embrace it. What’s interesting (and ever so slightly inaccurate to the legends) is that when our monster eats, he starts to become well again and he looks fit, trim and like he’s the picture of health. While in the legends, the wendigo is said to become stronger and more powerful when it consumes the flesh of people, it also says in many of them that the creatures become lanky and thin with fetid breath, presumably because it’s atrocious diet. It is, after all, the monster that consumes endlessly without ever being satisfied. Boyd definitely does look like a man being destroyed by his own transgressions and the things that has done to stay alive but Carlyle does not. Though this does lose some points for ignoring the physical traits of the monster, it still gets a pass in my book for what it represents.
Carlyle might not look like the monster of legend but his vicious, callous and remorseless hunger is all you need to see. He makes it frightening to think of how little it takes for him to turn you into dinner just because you happen to be there. Even his last line is delivered with the promise that if Boyd dies first, Carlyle will eat him. It might be tempting to call Carlyle the only monster here but Martha rightly calls out Boyd when she recognizes what he’s becoming too. Despite being the sympathetic character, you get the other end of the hunger that he suffers through his own transformation and the fight that he is putting up to stop himself from giving in to it. You feel the tension with Boyd as the camp turns on him when they think he is to blame when the others died on the search party and as he mulls over the terrible truth of what it means to be fostering this hungry spirit. The clash between the two is genuinely satisfying to watch as you wonder which is going to win and if, with the two leads both possessed of this awful spirit, if there is going to truly be any winner at all.
Overall, this is an excellent film and one you should really check out. That said, if the things I’ve mentioned before about Jeffery Jones are a deal breaker or you aren’t comfortable with this depiction of the Indigenous characters, despite the fact that I think this movie is underrated, I would suggest you maybe pass on it. I really think that Robert Carlyle and Guy Pearce give amazing performances and that this film really does play out more messages about white greed (especially given the ending and the resolution to everything) but as good as I think the message is, given the current climate, it might hit a bit close to home for a lot of people. If, on the other hand, you are curious or these things aren’t going to play on you while you watch, the film is a good one and does an incredible job of making people scary. I highly recommend it to those of you who are wanting to give it a try.
And with that, thank you for joining me again for another Friday Nightmare Review! Join me again next week for the end of my impromptu Cryptid(ish) month of movies where we take a look at something that shouldn’t be all that scary but it tends to bring a lot of unhappy things with it. And if you’re still itching for more horror content, join me on Monday for the story updates of Hello Dolly, the tale of a horror hostess and her monstrous friends who try to survive both on the internet and against some strange and deadly creatures. And for the more literary types, join me on Wednesday for the last book of the February is for Love(craft) list! If any of you are interested in more content or early access to any of these updates, check out my Patreon through this link. Otherwise, until next time, here’s hoping that you keep warm and well fed and may all your meals be well done!