Ravenous – this is the 1999 Antonia Bird film, not the recent Canadian Ravenous by Robin Aubert. Aubert’s movie is about zombies, and they also tend to eat people (or bits of them), but this one is about people eating people, a more pure form of cannibalism. Except that there is still a supernatural aspect to this: the cannibalism comes from the mythical wendigo, a creature or spirit from Algonquian folklore, who possesses humans and turns them into cannibals.
The film draws inspiration from two of America’s favourite cannibalism stories: the ill-fated Donner Party and the story of Alferd Packer. At least, it involves pioneers, snow, hunger and, of course, cannibalism. Guy Pearce plays Lieutenant Boyd of the United States Army, who plays dead in battle as his unit is massacred by the Mexicans. His body, along with the other dead are put in a cart and hauled back to the Mexican headquarters.In a moment of bravery, Boyd seizes the chance to capture the Mexican HQ. His heroism earns him a Captain’s promotion but General Slauson (the last film role of John Spencer, who went on to play Leo McGarry on The West Wing) learns of his cowardice and posts Boyd into exile at Fort Spencer, a remote military outpost high in the Sierra Nevada.
A stranger named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle from Trainspotting, Full Monty, etc) arrives and describes how his wagon train became lost in the mountains. A Colonel named Ives had appeared and led them on a circuitous route, resulting in the party getting trapped by snow. People were reduced to cannibalism, he tells them, to avoid starvation. Before the soldiers leave for the rescue, they are warned by their Native American scout, George, of the Wendigo myth: anyone who consumes the flesh of their enemies takes their strength but becomes a demon cursed by an insatiable hunger for more human flesh. They also become almost invincible: if wounded, a bite of human flesh is – well, very invigorating.
Anthropologists love to divide their supposedly cannibalistic studies into endo- and exo-cannibals, i.e. those who eat their enemies and those who eat their friends. In both cases, they claim, the eater believes they will take on the courage, strength and virility of their meal. The wendigo has another advantage – the people he bites (as long as he doesn’t go overboard) will heal and become wendigos themselves. You’re never alone if you’re a wendigo cannibal.
The curse of cannibal studies is that eventually the audience will want to know: how did the cannibal get that way? Explaining the psychological / social / starvation causes often reduces the mystique of the act and the eater – many critics were furious when Hannibal Lecter turned out to be a traumatised survivor of WWII, for example. But the wendigo is good value: there is no particular reason he/she/it chooses anyone, in fact a simple bite from a person already bitten is sufficient – there, explanation given, let’s move on to the gore. So, we’re kind of back to the modus operandi of the zombie (and vampire) – open the mouth and spread the love. But zombies usually restrict themselves to brains, vampires to blood. Cannibalism is so much more environmentally sustainable.
The late Roger Ebert gave the film a decent review, 3 stars out of 4, and said it was “the kind of movie where you savour the texture of the film-making, even when the story strays into shapeless gore.”