Ravenous [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (4th July 2014).
The Film

“It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.”

There are few films—perhaps, no other films—quite like Antonia Bird’s “Ravenous.” In simplest terms, it is a bleak, but darkly comedic, horror-western hybrid about a disgraced military man (Guy Pearce) driven mad in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the latter days of the Mexican-American War. It is a pastiche of genres—one of which, the Western, was long dead by the late winter of 1998, when the film was shot in Mexico and, of all places, Eastern Europe—and it is quite unusual, if interesting and even somewhat impressive all the same. But it’s more, in that it explores existential crises, in both identity and self acceptance, by way of cannibalism and hoary, gory horror cliches. And, in a way, the whole thing is just a means to deconstruct how stories and myth are born.

The production was fraught with issues, and “Ravenous” was not a success upon release in March of 1999, barely making back about a tenth of its not particularly extravagant $12 million budget. Though, really, the failure is on the studio, which didn't market the film effectively—or at all—and yank it from theaters as quickly as it appeared. But Bird’s film took flight, and has since found a fierce, and some might even say rabid, fan base on home video, even through for years the best version of it available was a non-anamorphic DVD that looked like crap. At least in theory, this creepy, indisputably odd, but also effusively effective cult film with a shoddy release history is a prime cut candidate for the folks at Shout! Factory, who've now acquired the rights from 20th Century Fox and released a Blu-ray edition through their horror-skewing Scream Factory imprint.

“Ravenous” opens with a quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” This is directly followed with another, much more droll musing, attributed to anonymous: “Eat me.” Pearce’s character, John Boyd—a cowardly captain in the United States Army, who only survived a bloody battle by hiding among the lifeless bodies of his fallen comrades, and beat the enemy with the element of surprise—empties his stomach essentially on the title card. After awarding the captain a medal for bravery, his commanding officer (John Spencer) sends Boyd away, to take up a post at a fort in the desolate wilderness of the West. As Boyd departs, unknowingly for a sort of Dances-with-Cannibal-Highlanders story, and rides across plains much too green for the dead of winter, the oddest and most unsettling score of any film released in 1999—perhaps one of the strangest of all time—plucks along on the soundtrack.

With startling economy, this opening sequence establishes much. The baseline of Boyd’s backstory, to be further filled in later. The character’s complicated, conflicted, sense of self, and shame for what he’s done, which will haunt him like phantom hunger pains on an unsettled stomach for most of the film. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the peculiar blend of off-kilter production touches that find their way into every corner and frame of the film. The music, the title card musings, and the marvellously disorienting edits of a blurring flashback structure should immediately clue anyone in that “Ravenous” is not a conventional western, nor the usual horror film, and any humor served at the table will be the bleakest, blackest kind.

With an effectiveness similar to the opening sequence, in a series of successive post-title scenes establish Boyd’s fellow outcasts at the mountain top outpost. There’s Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), a devoutly religious loon. Major Knox (Stephen Spinella), a drunk ex-veterinarian who plays doctor, but it’s 1847 so doctor is just a fancy term for leg-hacker anyway. Private Reich (Neal McDonough) is a no-nonsense soldier with a sense of duty to his country and unwavering loyalty to his commander, a colonel called Hart (Jeffrey Jones). And then a band of lesser players: the perpetually perplexed cook, appropriately named Cleaves (David Arquette), as well as Martha (Sheila Tousey), a mute indian woman who tends to the men, and her spiritual, peyote-smoking brother, George (Joseph Runningfox), the soldier’s guide and interpreter.

Shortly after Boyd’s arrival, a man calling himself Calhoun (the irreplaceable Robert Carlyle, giving a wonderfully manic performance) staggers into the fort telling tale of his doomed wagon train. In his journey westward, the man and his fellow travelers were stranded in the snows of the high mountains and forced to starve—but not before one of their own turned on them, murdered several, and then started feeding on human flesh. With little to do than otherwise twiddle their thumbs, Hart, Boyd, and the others quickly set out to investigate his story, following Calhoun back to the scene of the supposed crime. What awaits them is far more harrowing than the crafty Calhoun’s original tale. I won't even attempt to explain much more of the plot, except to say that the arrival of Boyd’s previous commander, and that Carlyle plays a sort of dual role, are among several of the twists and turns in the second and third acts that make “Ravenous” so fun.

Although Carlyle clearly makes the most of his role, with every gleeful, glib and sarcastic remark, hamming it up as the film’s ostensible villain, the cast is really an interesting rag-tag group, not just because the characters are well sketched in a short amount of time or that the actors generally embody their roles respectably. Pearce—who was at the time “Ravenous” production and release was relatively unproven, and had previously only been seen by most in the American audience as Edmund Exley, the lamest member of the “L.A. Confidential” (1997) trifecta—is tasked with a difficult and thankless job of playing the mild-mannered straight-man for most of the film, only really getting a meatier part in the second half of the picture as his mind begins to unravel with the twisting plot; each reveal making him question not just his sanity but his whole sense of self. Much like their lead, several supporting names would gather greater meaning with bigger roles in later years by playing similar types. Jeremy Davies’ mild-mannered nut is a different kind of man-of-books than “Lost’s” (2004-2010) Daniel Faraday, but of a similarly skittish mold. McDonough’s righteous Reich is an early, 19th century, form of solid soldiers like Buck Compton in “Band of Brothers” (2001) and Dum Dum Dugan in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thankfully, Arquette, as an anachronistic giggling stoner, is an infrequent sight.

Ted Griffin’s script is an masterful mashup of Native American mysticism and Judeo-Christian belief in Manifest Destiny. He blends the myth of the Wendigo—a cannibalistic man-beast popular in Native folklore that eats the flesh of a man to live forever—with less fabled, although equally fatalistic stories of pioneers of the American frontier who became stranded in the snow-covered mountains in the dead of winter and were forced to eat each other to survive. Think The Donner Party, or famed Colorado cannibal Alferd Packer (or for that matter, even Trey Parker loose riff on the Packer legend, “Cannibal!: The Musical” (1993), although not at all musical nor nearly as funny, if at times just as strange). Compounded on top of the history, myth, and tropes of one genre is that of another: horror. Griffin integrates, among other things, a sort of fascinating subversion of the standard slasher, by casting Boyd in the typical scream-queen role, which makes all the talk of man-eating, inherently-phallic penetration imagery, and the character’s reluctance give into his desires (for flesh), take on a definite queer subtext. Am I Reaching? I really, really don't think so; especially not with the looks Carlyle and Pearce seem to be giving each other in the final climactic battle, which, of course, revolves around a lot of close-faced grunting while they’re each stabbing each other… with knives.

But what makes the film even more intriguing beyond its subversive craft and potential subtext is knowing that the cast and crew faced numerous obstacles just to get the film made—the original director was fired two weeks into shooting, which means Bird inherited a troubled picture already on it’s way to completion—and ultimately persevered. They toiled through bad weather (first too hot for a winter-set feature where blizzards are supposed to have the men blocked indoors; then actually exactly that cold), meddlesome studio executives demanding rewrites, and a host of other issues, to produce a film that is not at all the mess it could have been. The lived-in production design, and dusty, diffused cinematography convincingly turn pockets of Eastern Europe into the high altitude Old West. And the clever, if at first deliriously disorienting editing rhythm does what the best horror should: leave the most gruesome to the imagination. “Ravenous” is a film that isn't easily stomached—not for its explicit gore, but rather the uncomfortably implicit acts of cannibalism—and even less easily categorized. It is, however, one of the most interesting cult films of the last 15 years and definitely worthy of rediscovery.

Video

Wow. Really, just… wow. And not in a good way, sadly. Where to begin? I guess by not just discussing the Blu-ray but the piss-poor non-anamorphic DVD Fox released in 1999. “Ravenous’” R1 DVD offered a disappointing standard presentation even in its day, and is now an unwatchable, edge-enhanced, noise-ridden mess on modern high-def screens. It’s precisely because of that terrible DVD that I had high hopes for the Blu-ray release and the many wrongs I expected it to right. The good news––really, the only good news concerning the otherwise massively disappointing 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded high-def transfer on the new Blu-ray release of the film—is that the image has expanded to the full 2.35:1 width on widescreen displays, and is a postage stamp no more. The bad news: there’s still edge enhancement, although it is not as aggressive; rampant (and oddly random) noise; soft, indistinct details; and Scream Factory’s transfer is sourced from one of the messiest masters I've ever seen “upgraded” to Blu-ray.

Taking a step back from the perhaps disproportionate, devastating disappointment, I suppose I can concede that the disc has moments where its not terribly unwatchable, and that at least some of the hazy softness could as easily be a result of poor focus pulling, stylistic choices and lenses, lighting and shooting conditions—flaws not introduced by the Blu-ray transfer but inherent to the original photography. Colors appear stable, although the film is largely cast in a depressing dust of blues, browns, and grays, while interiors are bathed in some warmer lamp-light yellows. Sporadic splashes of green (scenes shot outdoors before the snowfall) and a deep crimson pop, although never shifting the palette away from the depressive, dour dullness.

Still, there something about this transfer that recalls a dated telecine, done at low resolution, in the early days of DVD. Could it be just that? The overall image is soft and occasionally smeary. It almost appears as though there's digital noise reduction in play, but Shout has stated they didn't use any. (The question is, did Fox? They supplied this master.) Regardless, there’s a disappointing lack of fine of detail—with far too many mushy and indistinct textures, in facial hair and costumes especially. In fact, the Blu-ray looks disquietingly similar to standard definition much of the time. In place of genuine 35mm grain, there's blanket noise, which to my eyes looks like the type introduced by a failing film scanner, made even worse by compression artifacts aplenty. Sometimes the artifacts are only in part of the frame, to the point where shadows are comparatively spotless. Except, of course, when they're not and the black portions of the frame are suddenly awash with all kinds of irregular anomalies. In addition to the numerous other issues, although Shout has stated there was a DRS “dust-busting” pass performed on the transfer, there's still a considerable amount of dirt and scratches on screen. While debris is less intense after the first fifteen or so minutes, it’s still hair—sorry, here—and there throughout.

Is this just a case of a good transfer of poor film elements? I don't think so. First of all, troubled production or no, I doubt the original negative is in such terrible shape that this is the best that can be done. Second, considering the harsh electronics of the transfer, I doubt the original negative factors in at all. Are we dealing with an ancient, filtered, DVD master ported to BD without much care? Probably. Was there additional tinkering done to this dated, poorly done DVD master ported to BD, and it now has additional issues from a botched compression job? Most likely. In the end, the specifics matter little. “Ravenous” looks ugly and often downright horrible on Blu-ray, and I just want to know why... and most of all, why Shout even bothered with an HD release after they saw the source they were dealing with, which is really, no exaggeration, imperceptible to an up-converted standard definition DVD most of the time.

Audio

The disc’s English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track (48kHz/24-bit) is much more satisfying than the troubled video transfer. I really have no qualms about the mix. Dialogue has reasonable clarity, is always intelligible and even when hushed has strong prioritization. Dynamic range is a little clipped, without much deep end bass to speak of, but surrounds are active, especially during an feasting scenes. The opening banquet sequence, which offers clattering plates, squishy knife-cutting of meat, and grotesque gnawing and chewing sounds that approach and sort of disgusting animalism, is a highlight. The mix also completely supports the curious score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman—which somehow manages to fittingly blend the Blur and Gorillaz frontman’s experimental electronic pop sensibilities with the period sound and classic composition of Nyman’s inherent minimalism, by using unusual instrumentation, including banjos, the accordion, and Jew’s harp, with more usual strings and guitar. The Blu-ray also includes an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo down mix and optional English subtitles.

Extras

Shout/Scream Factory’s supplemental package is far from a bountiful feast yet plenty filling, offering no less than three audio commentaries, an isolated music and effects track, a newly produced retrospective featurette with actor Jeffrey Jones, deleted scenes with optional commentary with director Antonia Bird, the film’s original theatrical trailer, a TV spot, and a concept art gallery.

The first audio commentary features director Antonia Bird and composer Damon Albarn who provide an intermittent but interesting commentary. Bird drops plenty of anecdotes about the film’s troubled shoot in Eastern Europe, while offering some technical details of how certain scenes were conceived and shot (and how the entire structure was reshaped in the edit suite). Albarn discusses the Appalachian-folk influence of the score and dissects certain pieces of music throughout. In one mildly amusing aside, Albarn notes that—like the director—he’s a dyed-in-the-wool vegetarian (suppose that’s an inappropriate choice of words?). There are numerous gaps in the track, with some rather long stretches of silence, but the comments are overall enlightening enough that they'll hold attention of those absolutely in love with this very weird and kind of wonderful film.

The second audio commentary features screenwriter Ted Griffin and actor Jeffrey Jones are likewise a little sporadic in their comments, but once again quite interesting. Griffin charts the film’s production history through his early days as a hungry young writer working on spec, the many troubles the crew encountered during production, and The Donner Party influence; Jones offers an actors perspective, but also attempts to spin the conversation—and Griffin—into more abstract areas, including the history of the time period in which the film is set and the mystical-horror aspects of the story.

The third audio commentary features actor Robert Carlyle comes in quite late, unannounced, and heavily accented. Flying solo, Carlyle’s commentary is dead air for the first 15 minutes, and his first comment is about the shooting date of a scene, which he remembers because it was done on his birthday. I’m quite confused why this wasn’t edited into one of the other conversations, or at the very least streamlined into a select-scene track. Carlyle offers little insight, the huge gaps between comments are bothersome, and his brogue is sometimes impenetrable. Skip this commentary.

The disc also includes an isolated music and effects track, encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and gives all that twangy banjo and squeezebox goodness even further chance to confuse with its strangely effective oddness.

The menu lists the disc's lone featurette under the bland title “Interview with Jeffrey Jones” (2.40:1/1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 20 minutes 42 seconds). The on-screen title—“The Ravenous Tale of Colonel Hart”—is better. Jones recounts numerous details of the troubled production, recalls what initially interested him in his character, and reveals what’s always fascinated him about the particular era of American history in which the film is set.

Ten deleted scenes (2.40:1 widescreen, 1080p, upconverted from 480i; 12 minutes 6 seconds) are viewable with or without optional audio commentary from director Antonia Bird; her comments are brief. The scenes are playable only in a single, all or none, reel. The content of the scenes isn’t specific enough to detail. The deletions mostly amount to extended sequences deemed nonessential and cut for time. Bird laments the loss of one particular elaborate scene, a long take on steadicam of the men readying for their journey with Calhoun, which was rather complexly choreographed but ultimately didn’t progress the story. Although technically encoded in 1080p high definition, the material is obviously up-converted from poor standard definition sources. Several scenes appear near VHS quality.

The theatrical trailer (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p, up-converted from 480i; 2 minutes) and a TV spot (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p, up-converted from 480i; 32 seconds) also look pretty haggard, although perhaps not quite as awful as the deleted scenes.

The menu dubs the final supplement “Photo Gallery: Costume Design and Production Design” (1080p; 2 minutes 47 seconds), but it is less an viewer-advanced image gallery (mostly sketches, not photos) and more a short video piece of concept art, including drawings and explanatory text, set to Albarn and Nyman’s score.

Packaging

“Ravenous” rides onto Blu-ray under the banner of Shout Factory’s horror-skewing imprint, Scream Factory. The disc is locked to region A, and housed in an Elite keep case. Per standard operating procedure for Shout/Scream, the dual-sided artwork includes a standard, floating head one sheet with the reverse sporting a more stylized alternative cover based on the film’s original, abstract, poster art.

Overall

“Ravenous” is a weird and sort of wonderful western-horror hybrid with some absolutely fascinating elements lurking underneath the surface. The film was little seen upon initial release, but its reputation has grown on video and become a veritable cult favorite, which, at least conceptually, made it an ideal addition to the Shout/Scream Factory family. I cannot express how excited I was—I suppose, yes, hungry or even ravenous—when first presented with the chance to feast upon the film in high definition. Or how utterly disappointed I am that the Blu-ray is such a spoiled and unsatisfying dish. Often looking no better than a mediocre standard definition up-convert, and plagued by artifacts galore, what’s truly frustrating is this is likely the only release “Ravenous” will ever have in high-def, unless another enterprising cult distributor in another other region gets their hands on the film. Even then, such a release would only merit attention if whomever handled the transfer was able to create a new master from the source materials (if that’s even a possibility; Fox would have to grant access to the 35mm elements). And… I hate myself for saying this, because the transfer really is an ugly affront to all things holy in high def glory, but… Shout/Scream Factory’s package is otherwise pretty respectable, offering a multitude of audio options, including an eerily atmospheric DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, a lossless isolated score, an appetizing selection of ported DVD extras. I suggest seeking the film out through other means first if you're not familiar with it. It’s quite unique, and I think worth watching if you're in the mood for a stylish and offbeat western with gory, horror overtones and strange and subversive under ones. But the video transfer… ugh, it’s absolutely awful, and overall this Blu-ray of “Ravenous” is a day-ruining disappointment.

The Film: B+ Video: D- Audio: A- Extras: B- Overall: C

 


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