1999, R, 100 min. Directed by Antonia Bird. Starring Joseph Running Fox, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, John Spencer, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Robert Carlyle, Guy Pearce.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 26, 1999

Antonia Bird is best known for the unsettling Priest, which tackled the issue of gay clergy head on. Ravenous is devoid of such contemporary sociological mores, but that doesn't stop it from being a minor masterpiece of suspense and, you should pardon the pun, a fully fleshed-out examination of carnivorous comedy. Set in 1847, Ravenous opens with the return of Capt. John Boyd (Pearce) from the Mexican War. Decorated for taking a Mexican garrison single-handedly, it becomes apparent to Boyd's superior officers that the good captain's bravery was, in fact, a result of stunning cowardice. Feigning death, the officer was carried back to a mass grave behind enemy lines where he found his rotting company less palatable than probable death at the hands of his enemies. Unable to execute the reluctant hero, they instead assign him a new post, at lonely Fort Spencer high in the Sierra Nevadas. There he meets a motley band of fellow soldiers led by Jones' wry Major Hart, who presides over the hyper-religious Pvt. Toffler (Davies), the besotted Major Knox (Spinella), and Arquette's hallucinogen-crazed Cleaves, among others. All misfits to a point, their dull routine is interrupted one evening with the unexpected arrival of Carlyle's Mr. Colqhoun, a frostbitten Scot with a horrific tale. Part of a party of six attempting to cross the mountains as winter set in, Colqhoun tells the soldiers of cave-bound starvation and three months of snowy isolation. In the end, he says, they resorted to eating each other to stay alive. The company's lone Native American scout, George, immediately gloms on the fact that this is the curse of the Wendigo, whereby a man who devours another man absorbs his strength and spirit. Without going too far into Bird's multilayered plot twists (Ted Griffin's script is truly a shocker -- the less said the better), suffice to say Colqhoun is not what he appears, and one by one people start turning up with little pieces missing. And so on. Griffin's script cleverly uses the idea of cannibalism as a ripe, rich metaphor for the country's voracious westward expansion during the mid-19th century, but not to worry, there's plenty more going on here than just highbrow comic turns. Carlyle (forever linked in the collective mind to Trainspotting's pugilistic Begbie) is phenomenal as the absolutely psychopathic Colqhoun: He vacillates from an edgy, Parkinsonian quiver to icily cool evil, a creature of pure, streamlined, animalistic id. Likewise Pearce, who finds the coward at the center of the war hero and runs with it. Arquette, on the other hand, ought to go back to those 1-800-Collect advertisements where he can display at least a modicum of restraint. Bird's grim, picture-perfect direction -- the Sierras are more character than backdrop, and everything else looks like it's already been digested and expelled -- augments what is frankly a small, albeit lusterless, gem of a horror show, for once with as many smarts as body parts.

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Ravenous, Antonia Bird, Joseph Running Fox, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, John Spencer, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Robert Carlyle, Guy Pearce

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