Ravenous Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)
Captain Boyd (Guy Pearce), a disgraced veteran of the Mexican-American War, gets quietly shipped out to Fort Spencer, an isolated Sierra Nevada mountain outpost inhabited by a motley crew of soldiers half-mad with boredom. But then a frozen stranger named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives, spinning a terrifying tale of settlers trapped in a cave and forced to eat one another. Using the pretext of survivors needing help, Colqhoun leads many of the fort's men into a deadly ambush, but Boyd escapes, wounded and delirious. Will he and the remaining soldiers be safe from the madman's hunger? (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
“Morality – the last bastion of a coward.”
High on my personal list of overlooked films is Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999). Twentieth Century Fox was perplexed by the film’s genre blending and disappointed by its lack of star power (Guy Pierce had only appeared in one popular Hollywood movie at the time, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, 1997), so they unceremoniously discarded it during the a run of 1999’s most high-impact blockbusters, including The Wachowski’s The Matrix, Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, and George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which Fox themselves distributed. With almost no advertising and a terrible March release date, Bird’s film made almost no money and was washed out of most theaters within a matter of weeks. It also had the misfortune of being released during one of the most transformative years in recent cinematic history and was forgotten in favor of future cult classics, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, David O. Russell’s Three Kings, and David Fincher’s Fight Club (which was also distributed by Fox, who struggled to sell it, but eventually pushed hard for it on home video).
Like most motion pictures that were dumped into obscurity by studios that didn’t want them, Ravenous was a troubled production from the onset. Accounts differ, but the behind-the-scenes strife seems to have stemmed from studio micromanagement butting against original director Milcho Manchevski’s artistic integrity. The Macedonian-born director had found massive critical success with his 1994 feature debut, Before the Rain – success that included Academy Award and Golden Lion nominations. Ravenous would’ve been his first English-language film, had he been willing to play along with his American producers. Manchevski’s chief adversary was Fox 2000 executive Laura Ziskin, who eventually fired him with the disastrous intent of replacing him with future family-film-specializing hack Raja Gosnell (Scooby Doo, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and The Smurfs). Recognizing the true horror of a Raja Gosnell-made dark comedy, star Robert Carlyle suggested his friend Antonia Bird, who had just directed him in the 1997 British crime thriller, Face (some sources claim that Carlyle sort of strong-armed her into the director’s chair). As a director for hire, Bird was willing to play ball with the producers, but was still flummoxed by mandated re-writes and other manipulations. Eventually, she even surrendered final cut and was not particularly supportive of the film in interviews. She wouldn’t direct another theatrical feature until 2012’s Cross My Mind and, most unfortunately, died of thyroid cancer in 2013.
Based on all of my understanding of industry conventions, Ravenous was destined for failure and it would be easy to accuse those that champion it (like myself) of amplifying its successes out of misguided pity. Without claiming it deserved an Oscar nomination or anything similarly grandiose (it should be noted that the Academy really dropped the ball on 1999’s nominations, regardless), I genuinely think it unfairly missed its chance at cult longevity and hope future generations will re-discover its many charms.
Ravenous is a high-concept, multi-toned fusion of genres – horror, historical drama, western, dark comedy, and even action – a messy process that may have actually been served by the fluid creative process and backstage power-struggles. The disparate creative personalities might’ve overwhelmed any comprehensive quality, had writer Ted Griffin’s screenplay been more anchored in horror-based, comedic, or dramatic thematic tropes. Normally, genre mash-ups suffer from a lack of conviction that washes out the value of any one tone and post-modern horror/comedy had certainly worn-out its short shelf life, following the success of Wes Craven’s Scream (which was released only three years prior to Ravenous, in 1996). Yet, Bird and Griffin successfully reference genre tropes without being intolerably ‘hip’ about it. Perhaps the insufferable cleverness of most Scream-fashioned postmodern horror films is masked by an unprecedented current of historical and mythological references – Griffin draws upon the infamous true stories of the Donner Party and Alfred Packer story, as well as the Algonquian Wendigo legend – but it’s more likely that the lack of winking and nodding at the audience makes the exercise tolerable (except when Colqhoun sits up giggling after feigning a fatal injury, one can’t help but notice that he’s aping unkillable slasher killers, like Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers).
For years, I considered the film’s success to be a product of Griffin’s strong concepts and characters, but upon re-watching Ravenous for this Blu-ray release, I realize that the tight editing plays a vital key as well. During her audio commentary, Bird verifies that she was contracted to deliver a movie that ran no longer than 100 minutes. Priest was also a tightly-wound movie, but Face overran its welcome by several minutes, so it is conceivable that the studio mandated runtime might have been a blessing in disguise. By all accounts, Griffin’s original script was more epic and included some ambitious battle sequences during the first act. Bird claims that these battles were shot and reduced to brief flashbacks during editing – a decision that allows the audience to leap directly into Boyd’s coward-to-hero character arc without worrying about the unnecessary specifics of his military disgrace.
In fact, the entire first act is an impressive example in sizing down exposition to its bare essentials for the sake of efficient storytelling. We know everything we need to know about every character in a manner of seconds thanks to a few well-placed words from Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones) and fleeting images, like Pvt. Cleaves (David Arquette) and George’s (Joseph Runningfox) pot-induced giggles and a smash cut to Pvt. Reich (Neal McDonough) standing, screaming in a frozen river. Would Bird and editor Neil Farrell have made these same choices had they been given the freedom of a full two-hour-plus runtime or was this efficiency born out of the necessity of that 100 minute limit? The tight editing robs the final act of some impact (it feels truncated and rushed, rather than tightly cut), but otherwise ushers the audience very smoothly through a labyrinth of mythology and characters.
Ravenous is an ensemble piece, but boils down to a battle of wits between Boyd and Ives/Colqhoun. Boyd is, at his base, an inert character. He’s good at surviving crisis situations, but is rarely an active participant. His arc, coupled with Guy Pearce’s demure physical presence would, under different circumstances, be embodied by a woman (it should be noted that Pearce achieves a lot with the thankless role of a coward for most of the film). He is, in essence, a period male remix of Halloween’s Laurie Strode (the original Final Girl) and Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling. His male genre equivalents are similarly victimized, like Interview with the Vampire’s Louis – another character that would be played by a woman in a more conventional film. In turn, Boyd’s antagonist, Ives*, has elements of Michael Myers, Hannibal Lecter, and the vampire Lestat. After his evil is revealed, he exploits Boyd’s weaknesses in hopes of recruiting him for his new cannibal utopia, which will be establishing in Fort Spencer, where he can have his pick of human cattle on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Ives tries to seduce Boyd with his twisted version of Manifest Destiny, a development that plainly illustrates the film’s historical subtext. Carlyle’s performance is spectacular. He skips effortlessly between the timid falsity of the Colqhoun identity, the impossible friendliness of the good Ives, and the camp evil of the real Ives, including a number of monologues and one-liners that would seem trite in lesser hands.
* Though I assume we are meant to think that Ives is the character’s true identity (i.e. the uniform fits, Col. Hart refers to him as Ives after his resurrection, and the Army seems to recognize him) and that he has taken Colqhoun’s identity for the sake of the ruse, he’s such an unreliable narrator that the opposite is also a possibility. This may have been a mistake on the filmmakers’ part, but I appreciate the ambiguity.
Given Fox’s disinterest in Ravenous since it flopped at the box office it’s not unfair to assume that they would hand Scream Factory a less than perfect transfer. I also don’t think anyone expected Scream Factory to spend the money on a full-scale remaster, but that’s because most of us probably figured that a major studio release from 1999 wouldn’t require the same treatment as, say, The Burning (1981) or From Beyond (1986). Well, something has gone terribly wrong with this 2.35:1, 1080p image and I’m not sure what it is. Details are obscured by fuzzy digital noise, the more subtle colour variations are muddy, bright whites (like snow) bloom, and edge enhancement is pervasive. These issues are pretty consistent throughout wide-angle shots, which is a major bummer for Anthony B. Richmond’s gorgeous photography of natural mountain vistas. Close-ups fare better and dark shots benefit from the higher contrast of black shadows, but, even here, cross-colouration, edge haloes, and general noise are a problem. At some point during Ives’ ‘manifest destiny’ speech the image clears up a lot (still not great, but definitely better) and, considering the original US DVD release is non-anamorphic, this Blu-ray is still, technically, an upgrade. Based on the file sizes, the problem doesn’t seem to be over-compression during authoring (the movie file is about 28 GB) – it looks more like a full-scale HD ‘upconversion’ of a standard definition original. It doesn’t look like any kind of DNR or over-sharpening issue, either, despite some early claims to the contrary.
Bad word of mouth began to spread, following the appearance of comparison caps on Caps-A-Holic.com, which eventually prompted Scream Factor to issue the following statement:
We saw a lot of talk about it this weekend unfortunately and we haven't been ignoring it. (Quite frankly, this is our first day back in the office and its [sic] been quite busy – Sleepaway Camp and House in the Alley both releasing today, amongst other projects in the works.) We asked FOX about it, who supplied us with the HD transfer, and their response was as follows:
"This was transferred directly from IP and 2 track stereo comp sources. There is no indication that noise reduction was employed, however some sort of DRS/VIP clean-up was used"
This doesn’t answer the more pressing question as to why Scream Factory hadn’t notice these problems before finalizing the disc, of course, but also sounds like a brush-off from Fox. Is the IP (interpositive) really in this bad of shape? How was it transferred? Was it scanned at 2K or was this the same ‘transfer’ Fox used for the SD releases? What is “DRS/VIP clean-up” if not the same thing as DNR (I guess it stands for something like Digital Restoration System/Visual Improvement Processing – all terms I’ve never personally heard in conjunction with digital restoration). The plot thickens when one accounts for the number of non-digital, print damage artefacts. The first 10 or so minutes are rife with flecks of dirt and the DVD is fuzzy enough that these may have just been obscured, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t there, which means Fox did, in fact, rescan the film for Scream Factory (slight changes in the framing between releases provide further verification). But that still doesn’t explain how the scan went so badly. As far as I know, Fox doesn’t make a habit of botching scans.
In better news, Ravenous is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and the new track is a substantial upgrade over the Dolby Digital DVD original. The moderately priced production covered a lot of its budgetary constraints with hyperactive sound design. The most aggressive non-musical sounds spring from Boyd’s memories and hallucinations, which include all the explosive war-based footage and subjective hallucinations. Natural ambiences and well-centered dialogue is heightened by almost cartoonish incidental effects, especially the sounds of punches, chops, and stabs. Even the viewers that haven’t been won over by the film’s strange charms must admit that its musical soundtrack is remarkably unique. Co-written by Michael Nyman (The Piano, 1993) and Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz fame – who also appeared in Bird’s previous film, Face), the score blends driving, dread-caked electronic motifs with traditional American folk instrumentations. The main title theme perverts an otherwise gentle bluegrass hymn with two incessantly plucked, off-tempo banjo notes and encapsulates the music’s unique beauty. On a few occasions, specifically during Ive’s narration, the music settles more quietly beneath the dialogue than it does on the DVD’s compressed track. Like the original DVD, this disc includes a 5.1 music and effects track.
Fox might have screwed up Ravenous’ theatrical release and non-anamorphic transfer (it seems we can at least partially blame them for this transfer as well…), but the original DVD did have a fair share of extras, all of which have been included here.
Commentary with director Antonia Bird and composer Damon Albarn – Bird is candid about many of the production’s problems, but doesn’t outwardly complain about the situation, nor does she name many names. Her discussion concerning her cinematic inspirations and the major changes made to the original script are quite valuable. Albarn pipes up to ask Bird questions and anytime a new musical theme is introduced. The track runs out of steam about halfway through, but is plenty charming.
Commentary with screenwriter Ted Griffin and actor Jeffrey Jones – This is a particularly low-key and low-volume track. Griffin’s information overlaps with Bird’s a bit, but, as the one guy that was with the film from the beginning, he’s also able to cover the time before she came onto production. Jones is more or less along for the ride, but does engage on occasion.
Commentary with actor Robert Carlyle – Carlyle's track is for completists only, as he mostly watches the film in silence, piping up almost exclusively to discuss his performance.
Deleted scenes with optional commentary by Antonia Bird (12:10, HD) – The deleted scenes appear to have been rescanned in HD along with the film.
Interview with actor Jeffrey Jones (20:40, HD) – The disc’s one brand new extra is an interview with the supporting actor, who has fond memories of the film and its many meanings.
Two still gallery slide-shows (2:50, SD) – Costume Design and Production Design
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.