Ravenous (1999) is the definitive frontier cannibal movie. It channels a story reminiscent of both the Donner Party disaster and the legend of Alferd Packer (the only American ever convicted of cannibalism) into a gruesome survival thriller with a crimson-hued streak of black humor and an elemental hint of the supernatural.
Guy Pearce is the Civil War battlefield coward-turned-accidental hero who is shipped out to an isolated fort in a California mountain pass that runs with a minimal compliment during the impassable winter months. “This place thrives on tedium,” smiles fort commander Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), who takes everything with a bemused indulgence. How else to survive a company made up of a useless drunk second-in-command (Stephen Spinella), a giggling weed-head idiot (David Arquette), a twitchy, mumbling chaplain (Jeremy Davies), and a macho soldier boy (Neal McDonough) who holds the rest of the company in utter contempt?
The tedium is quickly dispersed when a wild-eyed disaster survivor (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into camp with a horrific story of a lost wagon train, an incompetent scout, and cannibalism in the mountains. When the man is caught licking the bleeding wounds of an injured soldier (you know, tasting his next potential meal), the film takes its twist into weird and wild horror, a bizarre plot that doesn’t really make much logical sense but sure makes for a wicked mix of psychodrama and visceral body horror. You could say it’s a vampire tale without the supernatural dimension or call it a particularly gruesome metaphor for manifest destiny. However you label it, it is off-the-charts crazy, an eat-or-be-eaten thriller with a gleefully weird and savagely bloodthirsty sensibility, served very, very rare. Antonia Bird directs.