Not long ago, Ryan Murphy claimed to have invented the concept of horror/comedy. This might be the first time a TV writer has ever tried to take credit for evolution. The prevailing thinking is, determined by studying our closest primate relatives and showing them Will Ferrell movies or something, is that laughter is done to relieve tension. A chimp sees something that might be a snake, but when he finds that it’s just a stick, the laugh is the signal for all the other chimps to be little Fonzies. Comedy is funny specifically because it subverts expectations — that’s why old jokes aren’t funny anymore. Horror is also about subverting expectations, because they spring from the same place. So when Ryan Murphy thought he created horror/comedy, he would have had better luck saying he invented verbs. Because that second one happened later.
Horror and comedy are also inexorably linked because they are the most subjective genres. I mentioned Will Ferrell above because while he owns the address to my funnybone, some people find him obnoxious and loud. It’s not like they’re wrong, either. If something’s not funny to you, it’s not funny. There’s no right or wrong about it. Unless you think Airplane! isn’t funny, then it’s time to quit the human race because you’re clearly not good at it anymore. Setting out to make a horror/comedy has a degree of difficulty numbering in the insane, like a gymnast deciding to do her floor exercise while simultaneously eating a deep dish pizza and being attacked by ninjas. The balance is nearly impossible, so when it’s done well, such as with Behind the Mask, or Ghostbusters, you end up with a legitimate classic on your hands. This week’s movie, Ravenous, has dodged the burgeoning cult of the former and the universal acclaim of the latter, but it richly deserves a second life.
The film opens on a pair of quotes, which lets us know what sort of movie we’re going to watch. Nietzsche lingers on screen first, to make everyone but high school-aged douchebags roll their eyes, then following it up with something from Anonymous (not the hacktivist collective): “Eat me.” Presenting something allegedly high-minded and then instantly undercutting it is the movie’s playbook. The quote turns onto war hero Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) getting a medal for valor for his service in the Mexican American War, then instantly revealing via flashback that he only survived by playing dead. General Slauson (John Spencer, in his final film role), the man pinning the medal on Boyd, even knows the man is a coward. It’s the classic refuge: reward a bad thing to avoid punishing it and thus looking even worse. Slauson dispatches Boyd to Fort Spencer a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas where Boyd won’t cause any more trouble.
It looks like the Army has been using Fort Spencer as a dumping ground for all its undesirables. There’s the commander, Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), an overweight nebbish who would rather eat walnuts and read books than do anything militarily, Major Knox, the hopelessly alcoholic second-in-command, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) who is maybe the Jeremiest Daviesest character he’s portrayed in a career full of them, Private Cleaves (David Arquette), the fort’s stoner, Private Reich (Neal McDonough), the violent one, and George and Martha, a pair of Native American siblings. Of the group, really only Reich and Martha — it’s funny that despite them all being in the Army, Reich is the one Hart refers to as “our soldier” — are apparently useful.
The fort is shuttering for the winter, the skeleton crew of burnouts, discipline problems, and goldbrickers waiting around for the new wave of pioneers in the Spring when a bloody and exhausted man collapses on their doorstep. He claims to be a traveler named F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), and he tells a harrowing tale. Along with five others, he was crossing into Oregon when a snowstorm stranded his party in a mountain cave. Led by the evil Colonel Ives, they resorted to cannibalism, and Colqhoun only barely escaped. Because Ives was left alone with a woman, Hart considers it their duty to go rescue her.
Before going, George attempts to warn Hart about the legend of the wendigo. Essentially, cannibalism gives you superpowers, but at the price of your sanity. You turn into a heroin addict who is also Wolverine. Unlike the trailer, I’ll leave off the synopsis here only to say that George’s warnings are not lightly fucking given. Wendigo are bad news.
The film strikes its balance between cannibalistic horror by acknowledging the ridiculousness at its core. As soon as your food has a name — “Mmm, this is good… who is this?” — there is comedy to be mined. The movie also plays with mood dissonance with the score co-written by Blur’s Damon Albarn. At times its a lonely frontier melody with the twang of a single guitar, while at other times, it’s a banjo-pickin’ flesh-eaten’ carnival of sound. As the film goes on, and more and more characters either fall to the curse or to the cooking pots, the superpowers kick in. During the final battle, when the living wendigo attempt to find something heavy and sharp enough to kill each other, the production actually ran out of fake blood. That in itself is funny, and at a certain point the goriness of the battle tips from intense to unlikely then to flat-out hilarious.
The best Yakmala films are those that wear their hearts on their sleeves. Troll 2 was made by people who hated vegetarians to the point that the only way to express their rage was to make a nonsensical movie about it. Horror is the same way, in that we are better at expressing our own feelings of fear and disgust, and the skill comes in making those accessible to those who don’t share our pet peeves. Ravenous was made by vegetarians and stars a vegetarian, and yes, Guy Pearce chowed down on actual meat for some shots (he spit it out later, but still, that’s rough for them). The medal ceremony is followed by a steak dinner, and these slabs of beef look like they were held up in front of the grill before slopped on the plate. It’s a long table digging into nearly-raw still-bleeding meat making the animal sounds of an active banquet. When Boyd vomits in response, it’s the filmmakers underlining what they think of meat. This disgust fuels the rest of the film, and while it never turns into a polemic, the purpose is crystal clear.
Ravenous never concerns itself with good and evil. Morality is central, but the contrast exists between cowardice and survival. How far every character is willing to go directly informs everything about them and often authors their fate. Since that is the ultimate source of the vast majority of opportunistic cannibalism, it’s the perfect contrast on which to hang a movie.
Ravenous is a rare treat, no pun intended, a period piece horror/comedy with an incredible cast and a righteous yet subtle point of view. Just don’t watch it with dinner.