Bon Appetit: ‘Ravenous’ and the Beast Inside

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Ravenous
Written by Ted Griffin
Directed by Antonia Bird
USA, 1999

Ravenous is a film that is deceitful above all things. Almost from the outset, and certainly from the trailers, it portrays itself as a horror comedy in the vein of perhaps Evil Dead II or Cabin Fever. However, as the film comes together, the viewer quickly begins to see it for the maddening Frankenstein’s monster it truly is.

Ravenous tells the story of two outcasted men. The first is a disgraced former soldier, Calhoun, struggling with his “heroic” past, while the second, Ives,  is the sole survivor of a wilderness trek. Both mens journeys ended bad and bloody, and because of this, there is a kinship among them. They seem to know and understand one another.

Oh, and one other thing, they’re both cannibals.

And so, in the quiet California snow of the 1800s, we find these two monsters inhabiting a peaceful and pedestrian place called Fort Spencer. The only difference between them is that one is slowly resisting his desire for human flesh, and the other is thoroughly embracing it.

After a shocking twist midway through the film, this tension becomes the main thrust of the narrative, as the two men tempt, taunt and maim one another in hopes of obtaining victory, even if there ideas of victory are very different. While Calhoun wants Ives dead so he doesn’t have to be tempted anymore, Ives has a simpler motivation: he just wants a friend. After all, as another character remarks later in the film: “It’s lonely being a cannibal.”

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Lonely is an interesting word here. It’s been suggested that the cannibalism in the film is actually a metaphor for homosexuality, and it’s hard not to see it once the idea has been brought to your attention. Ravenous is certainly palpable with homoeroticism, and the chemistry between Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle (both doing their finest work ever, in this writer’s humble opinion), makes it difficult not to argue that this is indeed the case. The constant religious symbolism and the talk of morality and philosophy, right and wrong, only further cement the relevance of this interpretation. After all what better metaphor than the consumption of flesh? Isn’t this the essence of lust, the hunger for it, simply magnified?

When seen in this way, Ravenous takes on a whole other dimension. But whether looking at it simply as it is, or seeking a mirror for the monster, the point remains the same: one man is denying his hunger, while the other is actively embracing it. One man hides in shame and revels in guilt, while the other lives with joyful zest, only seeking like-minds to share his vision of a better future for outcasts like himself.

It makes for a brilliant re-imagining of the monster inside, as seen in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson all those years ago. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde examined the idea in yet another way, and yet Wilde, a known homosexual, surely had an underpinning analogy for the eternally beautiful monster that he created, a monster so ugly that when he looks upon it himself at the end of the story, he dies from the shock and horror of it. Was this how Wilde saw his own sexuality, or just an examination of the abomination that most of society saw when they looked upon his kind?

The answer is impossible to know, and as fun as it is to explore, much like with Ravenous, we will probably never know. In the end though, it really doesn’t matter because as the film shows: the only difference between a monster and a man is simple perception.

 

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