The very first time I heard of the oft-forgotten 1999 cannibal-Western Ravenous, it was completely by accident. I happened to pass by the left-on TV in the living room as Ravenous was playing to no one. Intrigued, but unsure of what I was watching, I turned it off but made it a point to try to make sure I could catch it from the beginning as soon as possible. When I finally did, I was totally unsettled but I didn’t really know who or how to talk about it until I got to high school and started exploring horror with my friends. Even then, my friends and I were ill-equipped to fully grasp the horror of it. We watched and discussed it a few times together, but most of our analysis was very surface level. We thought, mostly, that Ravenous was the story of how the isolation of nature and the fight for survival against elements you’re not prepared to battle can make human beings feel disconnected from one another and turn them against each other. Certainly, this isn’t totally left-field in regards to what the film is actually commenting on but when I think back to us trying to figure out the puzzle, I can see how we were eschewing some of the more horrific commentary present in the film. As I’ve grown up and made different friends, Ravenous has never been far out of my mind when conversations on horror films come up. For some reason, though, I rarely talk about it. Unlike the other horror films we discuss a lot — the Halloween franchise, the various works of David Cronenberg and Guillermo Del Toro and M. Night Shyamalan, Scream — I can feel Ravenous in my gut.
Ravenous isn’t a horror film in the traditional or formulaic sense. Actually, it’s often referred to as a horror black comedy or just a black comedy with horror completely taken out of the equation. You’d think that the cannibalism performed in the film is what pushes it from period drama to horror’s edge, but that’s not exactly the only reason why it belongs in the genre. There’s gore, for sure, but it’s not overtly or exploitatively gory. There’s rumination in the film on morality and bravery and the morality of courage that doesn’t usually happen in the genre but then, there’s the pressure building, the tension of the atmosphere, the feeling that something is about to pop off at any second. There’s a “bad guy” and a “good guy,” technically, but also, maybe there isn’t. Maybe no one is “good” here because how can they be? It’s a disorienting mish-mash of tone that will have you uncomfortably laughing at cannibal joke after cannibal joke until the last thirty minutes when you realize Ravenous puts into perspective just about everything — and I mean, everything — that is fucked up and wrong about the existence of the U.S.
The central plot revolves around Second Lieutenant John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a veteran of the Mexican-American War, who faked his death during battle in order to survive it. Suspecting him of cowardice, his commanding officer assigns him to be second in command at a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California called Fort Spencer. Only seven other people live at Fort Spencer: a jaded and exhausted commander named Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones); the outpost pastor, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies); the drug-addicted cook, Private Cleaves (David Arquette); an alcoholic Major Knox (Stephen Spinella); the outpost warrior, Private Reich (Neal McDonough); and two Indigenous people named George (Joseph Runningfox) and Martha (Sheila Tousey) who “sort of came with the place.” Shortly after Boyd arrives, a sickly and frostbitten stranger going by the name of Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) appears at the outpost semi-conscious and looking for help. When Colqhoun is nursed back to health, he tells the crew at Fort Spencer about the caravan he was part of led by a man named Colonel Ives (also Robert Carlyle) who promised to get the caravan to the Pacific. The caravan never made it, and they ended up lost in the woods without the resources to survive for over three months. Starving and afraid of what might happen to them, the people of the caravan resorted to cannibalism to survive, but eating people made Colonel Ives hungrier and hungrier for human flesh, which led Colqhoun to escape the cave where they were hiding.
As a result of his harrowing story, Colonel Hart decides they must trek into the mountains to find the violent and bloodthirsty Colonel Ives and see if anyone in the caravan is still alive. Before they go, George warns Colonel Hart in the presence of Boyd about the myth of the Wendigo as a warning against trusting Colqhoun’s story. According to the myth, anyone who consumes the flesh of another person will inherit their strength but will also crave the taste (and high) of consuming human flesh. Soon after accompanying Colqhoun to the cave he claimed to be staying with the caravan, Boyd, Private Reich, Colonel Hart, Private Toffler, and George figure out that Colqhoun is actually Colonel Ives in disguise and that the trek back to the cave was a trap to ensnare the group and eat them. Boyd and Private Reich are the only ones who survive the attack by Colqhoun/Colonel Ives and end up chasing him deep into the surrounding woods. When Private Reich is killed by Colqhoun/Colonel Ives, Boyd throws himself down a cliff where he ends up severely injured and trapped in a ditch with the now dead Private Reich. Forced to do the unthinkable (to him), Boyd eats from Private Reich’s body in order to regain some strength to get back to Fort Spencer where, upon his arrival, he finds that everyone thinks he’s out of his mind and Colqhoun/Colonel Ives has now been put in charge of the outpost. In a private moment between Boyd and Colqhoun/Colonel Ives, we learn that Colqhoun/Colonel Ives has big plans for the future of the outpost: It’ll become his own personal feeding ground where he’ll slaughter travelers making their way out West so he’ll never have to search for food again. This sets off a chain of events that lead to Boyd having to take matters into his own hands to ride the outpost of Colqhoun/Colonel Ives, but not before Colqhoun/Colonel Ives forces him, once again, to partake in a meal of human flesh. Toward the end, Boyd asks Martha how you stop a Wendigo, and she explains you can’t stop a Wendigo — a more powerful Wendigo will come and stop/eat you instead.
While I wouldn’t exactly call Ravenous a classic in the horror canon, it has achieved some cult status among film buffs and critics and has generated a ton of possible interpretations of the plot’s messages. Due to the fact that it’s almost all-male cast led by female director Antonia Bird, some have posited that Ravenous is a commentary on the white, patriarchal system of dominance and its bent toward destruction and annihilation — of others, of themselves. Some see a broader message, one about the ways our illusions of humanity and civilization can be broken down so easily when threats to our survival seem imminent and impossible to overcome. Some agree with my teenage friends and my initial observations of the film and the role of isolation in the eventual destruction of the characters of the film. There are queer interpretations, too. Because of the focus on morality, the myriad religious symbols, the direct references to Christianity, and cannibalism — you know, the actual melding of two bodies into one in the most “forbidden” of ways, fans and critics have also posited that it’s a commentary on repressed homosexuality and homosexual repression in the U.S. in the 1990s. Think how The Crucible’s witch trials were actually an allegory for the McCarthyism of the 1950s. You can find evidence for all of these possibilities in the film without a problem, but it’s not exactly what makes Ravenous difficult to digest.
On its face, Ravenous is most obviously about Manifest Destiny and colonial expansion in the U.S. in the 1800s. It’s about consumption and the power of consumption and how that power turns in on the people doing the consuming, how it makes them unable to control their appetites, and how they’re unapologetic about it. It illustrates, in perhaps the most taboo and most visceral sense, what Manifest Destiny actually looked like: humans, specifically white humans, consuming others in a genocidal land grab. The plotline, the script, and the direction of the film are all critical of not only the colonialism of the early U.S. settlers, but also of the U.S. military, of the Christian church, and, of course, of the masculinity of those who think participation in any of these things makes them more righteous than anyone else. More contemporarily, Ravenous is also critical of the system of racial capitalism that deems some human bodies more expendable than others. Everyone at Fort Spencer is a misfit in their own way, and therefore, less worthy of a full and fulfilling life. They’re sent there because, if they die of hypothermia or tuberculosis or frostbite, no one will come looking for them and no one will care that they’re dead. And like racial capitalism, the insatiability of Colqhoun/Colonel Ives’s hunger for human flesh, his need to consume, produces endless violence with an enormous human toll.
But there’s something else, too. When the film is nearing its end, Boyd has a flashback to his time in the war where he pretended to be dead in an attempt to survive. As Boyd’s body is topped with the bodies of other men presumed dead, we watch as the blood of one of the men drips down his face to his mouth and he accidentally swallows. In the next scene, we see Boyd stronger and more fearless than ever, plucking off enemy soldiers as if it’s nothing. It’s the “Wendigo myth” come to life, but Boyd didn’t know it. He had no idea it was the blood of the man on top of him that made him capable of surviving this battle. The flashback shows him — and us — that he’s been part of this system of consumption all along. In fact, he benefited from it. He beat his enemies, he survived the war, he got commended for his bravery. Colqhoun/Colonel Ives was driven to eat human flesh as a result of something that felt inescapable: his incurable tuberculosis. He had a problem that needed to be solved, and he was willing to solve it by any means necessary. He found more than a cure in the solution though. He found power. And it’s that power that keeps him locked into the cycle of consumption and destruction. In this way, Ravenous levels the playing field between both the explicit exploiters of capitalist power and domination and the complicit benefactors of the system’s durability and adaptability. And the film isn’t hopeful about us being able to resolve the evils of this system anytime soon. It’s a discomfiting position for an audience to be in. To be reminded of the fact that no matter how much we try to avoid the most disturbing and appalling aspects of the capitalist system, we’re still inevitably both actors within it and implicated by its most grotesque aspects. There is no “good guy” here because you can’t be “good” in this situation. You can only consume in a way that might be less damaging than the people you think of as “bad.”
At the end of the film, Colqhoun/Colonel Ives and Boyd have finally beaten the shit out of each other and are at a point where they’re both on the verge of death. The camera is focused on Colqhoun/Colonel Ives’s face. His eyes are a little averted from the camera but it feels as if he’s talking directly to it and he says, “If you die first, I am definitely gonna eat you. The question is, if I die, what are you gonna do?” The scene cuts to the arrival at Fort Spencer of the same commanding officer who sent Boyd there in the first place. He takes a look around the living area and takes a slurp of a soup Colqhoun/Colonel Ives concocted with the body of Private Knox. We cut back to Colqhoun/Colonel Ives’s face and he says, “Eat or die.” It cuts again to the commanding officer unknowingly eating the Knox soup. Colqhoun/Colonel Ives dies. Boyd dies. The cycle continues, and no one — individually — is powerful enough to stop it.
Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.