"Ravenous," horror for the art-house crowd, is a grisly comedy about cannibalism with enough wit to have one of its characters quote Benjamin Franklin ("Eat to live. Don't live to eat").
This is, to say the least, unusual stuff in these days of toothless "Scream" knockoffs and "Carrie" sequels.
Welcome, too -- though if the movie appeals to you at all, don't wait too long to see it. "Ravenous" is grim and nasty enough to alienate all but the most venturesome viewers, and even when approached with a forgiving eye, the film will test your patience with its uneven tone.
Set in 1847, "Ravenous" takes place at a military way station in the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains where Capt. John Boyd ("L.A. Confidential's" Guy Pearce) has been banished by his superiors for cowardice.
The soldiers stationed at Fort Spencer -- a desolate, uneventful place -- walk around in a morose stupor, waiting for something to ward off their boredom. Commanding officer Hart (Jeffrey Jones) reads Aristotle and Plato in their original languages. Toffler (Jeremy Davies), the fort's chaplain, is composing a hymn. Cleaves (David Arquette), the cook, smokes bales of locoweed to keep himself entertained.
One night, the camp gets a visit from Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), a starving, frostbitten Scot babbling wild tales about having barely escaped the clutches of his fellow travelers, who were snowbound in a cave and resorted to eating each other to survive. The soldiers follow Colqhoun to the cave to investigate, and the movie lets loose its first gruesome surprises.
Director Antonia Bird ("Priest," "Mad Love") doesn't seem to have a firm take on this tricky material. "Ravenous" has more than a few dull stretches (including a deadly first 15 minutes), and ladles on meaningful subtexts with a painfully clumsy hand, like turning cannibalism into a metaphor for Manifest Destiny ("This country is stretching out its arms, consuming all it can!").
The movie fares much better when it settles for simply being scary-funny, which it accomplishes thanks mostly to Carlyle, who is convincingly demonic here.
Despite its high-minded aspirations, "Ravenous" is also not at all shy about its subject matter (the movie is guaranteed to spoil your appetite, which the filmmakers would probably take as a compliment.)
It's too muddled to be considered a success, but the fact that such an uncompromisingly mean, loopy film can still be made within the studio system will be reason enough for some people -- and you know who you are -- to celebrate.
Starring Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle
Directed by Antonia Bird
Released by 20th Century Fox
Rated R (violence, language, drug use)
Running time: 100 minutes
Sun score: * *1/2
Pub Date: 3/19/99