Ravenous is a 1999 horror film directed by Antonia Bird and starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones. The film revolves around cannibalism in 1840s California and some elements bear similarities to the story of the Donner Party and that of Alferd Packer. Screenwriter Ted Griffin lists Packer’s story, as recounted in a couple of paragraphs of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, as one of his inspirations for Carlyle’s character. The film’s darkly humorous and ironic take on its gruesome subject matter have led some to label it a black comedy. The film’s unique score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn generated a significant amount of attention. The film’s production did not get off to a good start. Original director Milcho Manchevski left the production two weeks after shooting started. He was replaced by Bird at the suggestion of Carlyle.
During the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848), Second Lieutenant Boyd fights in the United States Army (Boyd is a former officer in the Army of the Republic of Texas, that merged with the US Army in 1846 – he still wears the Texas Army rank insignia of second lieutenant: one five pointed star on each shoulder strap). But in battle his courage fails him, and, to avoid being killed, he plays dead—while his unit is massacred. He is transported along with the other dead (with his commanding officer’s blood dripping into his mouth) back to the Mexican headquarters. However, in a moment of sudden bravery, he captures the Mexican command. For his heroism Boyd is promoted to Captain, but when his commanding officer learns of the cowardice by which his victory was achieved, he exiles Boyd to the remote Fort Spencer in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
After Boyd joins the seven other inhabitants of Fort Spencer, a stranger named Colqhoun arrives and describes his wagon train becoming lost in the Sierra Nevadas and being reduced to cannibalism to avoid starvation. The party’s guide, a Colonel Ives, had promised the party a shorter route to the Pacific Ocean but instead led them on a more circuitous route, and was then the one to lead their turn to cannibalism. The soldiers stationed at the fort see it as their duty to investigate and search for survivors, and so assemble a rescue party. Before they leave they are warned by their Native American scout, George, of the Wendigo myth; a story that a man consuming the flesh of his enemies takes their strength but becomes a demon cursed by a hunger for human flesh.
When they reach the cave where the party had taken refuge they realize that Colqhoun is Ives and has lured them into a trap. He had killed his five companions and sets about killing the soldiers from Fort Spencer one by one, including the commanding officer, Colonel Hart.
Boyd manages to escape the massacre by jumping off a cliff, breaking his leg in the process. He hides in a pit along with the body of a fellow soldier and eventually he eats some of the man’s flesh to stay alive. When he finally limps back into the fort he is delirious and severely traumatized; none of the remaining soldiers (who did not meet Colqhoun) believe his wild tale, and a second expedition finds no bodies or any trace of the man. A temporary commander is assigned to the fort and to Boyd’s horror it turns out to be Colqhoun, now cleaned up and calling himself Colonel Ives. The others still refuse to believe that Ives is the killer, especially after he bears no sign of the wounds inflicted on him during the massacre.
Ives tells Boyd that he used to suffer from tuberculosis, but when a Native scout told him the Wendigo myth he “just had to try,” murdering him, eating his flesh and in the process curing his maladies. Having murdered the expedition he led he now plans to use the fort as a base to do the same to other passing travellers; he compares the location of the fort, with the guaranteed supply of isolated migrants that it entails, to the notion of Manifest Destiny that draws them there.
Boyd is suspected of murder after another soldier mysteriously dies and is chained up; he watches helplessly while the last officer is murdered by an unexpected ally of Ives: Colonel Hart, back from the dead after the massacre.
Ives saved Hart by feeding him his own comrades, and now Hart is addicted, like Colqhoun, to human meat. Ives wounds Boyd and forces him to make a choice: eat or die. Eventually Boyd gives in and eats a stew made out of the last officer killed, and his wound heals. But rather than join the two men in their conspiracy to convert General Slauson (who assigned Boyd to Fort Spencer in the first place), he convinces Hart to free him so he can kill Ives. Hart does so, but asks Boyd to kill him first as he no longer wants to live as a cannibal. A battle between Boyd and Ives takes place at the climax, with both men wounding each other badly, yet they won’t die easily due to their new recuperative powers. Finally, Boyd forces Ives onto a large bear trap and springs it, pinning them both together. Ives taunts Boyd by telling him he’ll eat him as soon as he dies, but Ives expires first. Boyd refuses to save himself by eating Ives’ body and dies on top of his adversary.
Martha, George’s sister, stumbles upon the bodies of both Ives and Boyd, closes the door, and walks away. General Slauson arrives, and, while his aide looks around—the general tastes the stew that was left on the fire.
The film was shot on location in the Tatra Mountains, Slovakia and Durango, Mexico. One week before production, original director Milcho Manchevski was said to have submitted new storyboards, which would have required additional two weeks of shooting. The production company, Fox 2000, eventually agreed to an additional week, with complaints that Manchevski had refused production meetings with the producers. Meanwhile, Manchevski complained Fox 2000 executive Laura Ziskin micromanaged the production by vetoing his chosen technicians and casting against his wishes.
Shooting was delayed on the first day as Manchievski and the production were still negotiating over the production budget and shooting schedule. As filming commenced, Manchevski says Ziskin sent him notes on the rushes “every day”, complaining about the amount of dirt on the costumes and the number of closeups. Screenwriter Ted Griffin was at hand for “constant rewrites” during the shooting.
After three weeks of shooting, Ziskin arrived to the set with director Raja Gosnell in tow to dismiss Manchevski and place Gosnell in as a replacement. While Manchevski left the production, the cast has been said to have rejected Gosnell. Robert Carlyle then recommended Antonia Bird, his frequent collaborator and business partner, to take over.
Following ten days of negotiations, Bird arrived in Prague to helm the production. She, too, would criticize the circumstances under which the filming was to take place, describing the allocated studio space as “horrible” and the scheduling of the shoot “manipulative”. She also went on to say her predecessor, Manchievski, should not be blamed for the problematic production.
Bird suggests the final theatrical cut had elements introduced without her approval, as she expressed disdain over the voiceover narration and was interested in recutting the film for the European market.