One of my absolute favorite films of the 1990s, the late Antonia Bird’s darkly comic western/cannibal flick, Ravenous, seemingly came out of nowhere to despite its director’s pedigree (Bird helmed 1994’s critically acclaimed and hugely controversial Priest), and an amazing cast led by Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle. Thanks to strong production values, great performances by the film’s leads, and an absolutely amazing score, it’s the rare “horror film” that’s managed to transcend the genre, and has earned itself a remarkably eclectic following since its release fifteen years ago.
After an act of cowardice leads to an unearned promotion (he was the sole survivor of a battle because he hid beneath the bodies of his fallen comrades only to emerge and catch the enemy off guard when the hiding became too much to handle) Captain John Boyd (Pearce) is sent to Fort Spencer, a distant outpost, as a sort of quiet punishment during the Mexican/American War. When a stranger stumbles into camp identifying himself as F.W. Colqhoun (Carlyle), the lone survivor of a group headed west under the guidance of a madman named Colonel Ives. It seems that the Colonel had gotten the group lost, went mad, and then resorted to cannibalism when they ran out of food. The modest compliment of the fort's troops accompany Colqhoun back to the cave from which he escaped, but when they arrive it becomes obvious that Colqhoun is hiding something.
The camp's commanding officer, Colonel Hart (Jones) orders Boyd and Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) to investigate the cave, and, deep within its confines, they discover the remains of several bodies, including what appears to be Colonel Ives. Before they can warn the others, Colqhoun attacks the remaining soldiers outside, tearing them apart with beastly ferocity! Boyd and Toffler emerge only to hear the distant screams of one of their mates being chased by Colqhoun into the woods. Boyd becomes instantly terrified while Toffler gives chase, ending in both of them plunging from a cliff where Toffler dies and Boyd breaks his leg. After lying in the pit for days, Boyd finally gives into his primal instincts and carves off chunks of Toffler's flesh and eats. Boyd feels oddly energized from this shameful act, heals up quickly, and returns to the fort where he tells everyone the tale of Colqhoun. When the army arrives to investigate, they return with a new interim commanding officer; Colonel Ives.
Since Boyd is the only survivor of the massacre by Colqhoun, he is the only one who knows that the man sent to take charge of the camp is a killer and cannibal, but when Ives senses that Boyd has developed the taste for blood, he hopes to enlist him in his personal army, using the Fort as a cover for picking off unknowing settlers heading out west, turning some into cannibals while storing others away for "future use".
Ravenous is a hybrid western/cannibal flick with an amazing cast, wonderful direction from Antonia Bird and a truly mesmerizing and appropriately quirky soundtrack written by Damon Alburn (of Blur fame), Stephen Foster, and Michael Nyman. I stumbled across this film during a late night run on cable television a few years back, and it just completely blew me away. It’s a film I’ve returned to at least once a year since, and, when it was announced that Scream Factory would finally be bringing it to Blu-ray, I was unsurprisingly elated.
Presented in a 2.36:1 1080p transfer, Ravenous’ Blu-ray debut is something of a mixed bag. While the image is fairly vibrant and sports solid contrast (especially important given the film’s oftentimes shadowy aesthete), I found the image lacking in terms of crispness and fine detail. I decided to compare it to my aged Fox DVD release, and, while, as a whole, this new transfer is an improvement over its standard definition counterpart, I did find that Scream’s transfer seemed almost too clean, as if much of the cinematic grain evident on the DVD was digitally scrubbed away, resulting in a much softer image, especially in close-ups. On the other hand, the film’s sweeping vistas and wide shots look fantastic, and Anthony B. Richmond’s lush photography of the Slovakian mountain range (standing in for the Sierra Nevada) has never looked better.
Scream Factory gives us three audio options here; a 2.0 DTS HD Master Audio track, a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, and a 2.0 DTS HD Master Audio isolated score/effects track. As I’m used to seeing the film in 5.1, I opted to give the 2.0 track a whirl, and found it surprisingly rich and well-mixed, but the 5.1 track wins out due to a much more immersive implementation of surround effects and the film’s score, which makes full use of the wider sound field.
Bonus features include 3 audio commentary tracks carried over from the old Fox DVD release, my favorite of which features the late Bird with Damon Albarn, especially given that the film’s score – especially its main theme, Boyd’s Journey – is something that seemingly plays on a loop in my head whenever I’m anywhere near the wilderness. Albarn’s dissection of the score is fascinating stuff, as he discusses the use of period instruments, the disarmingly upbeat nature of the aforementioned piece of the score, and how the film’s characters inspired his approach to writing.
The other two commentaries – the first with writer, Ted Griffin, and actor Jeffery Jones, and the second being a solo commentary by Carlyle – are solid listens, but neither offer nearly the amount of information Bird and Albarn provide in their track as the former is more a conversational piece between Jones and Griffin while the latter features a remarkably sedate Carlyle, who seems less than enthused with the prospect of talking about the film.
Also carried over from the Fox release is a collection of deleted scenes (HD), as well as a photo gallery (HD). New features include a lengthy interview with Jeffery Jones (HD), as well as the film’s theatrical and television trailers.
Ravenous is one of the most entertaining and unique films I've ever had the pleasure to see. While I’d be lying if I didn’t say I found the transfer, here, somewhat disappointing, it’s still an improvement over the DVD for the most part. My major issues lay with the overly enthusiastic removal of grain, but I’ve seen far worse examples of DNR abuse (Predator, anyone?). While it doesn’t completely make up for the uneven transfer, the new audio tracks are superb, and the inclusion of most of the DVDs supplemental features (as well as the addition of a few new ones) earn this release a recommendation, however it’s not as enthusiastic an endorsement as I would have liked to give.