The winter of 1878 was rough on Swift Runner. A fur trapper of Plains Cree descent, Swift Runner had watched his eldest son die in his freezing cabin in what is now central Alberta. With pressure mounting to provide for his wife and remaining five children, something snapped. By the time authorities reached the Swift Runner homestead, the man had murdered, cooked, and eaten what was left of his immediate family. Which is horrible, obviously, but sadly understandable in a remote cabin with no food source. But here’s the thing: Swift Runner and his family lived just twenty-five miles from a trading post which served as an emergency food shelter. General consensus was that the pressures of the winter had so broken Swift Runner that he became convinced that he was possessed by an ancient, folkloric, cannibalistic demon. But what’s really crazy is that, while concrete scientific data is scarce, this specific delusion has been so widely reported that it has its own name: wendigo psychosis.
Perhaps best known to westerners of a certain age as the subject of a Scary Story to Tell in the Dark, the wendigo (sometimes spelt windigo or witiko) is a creature of Algonquin legend which derives its powers from eating human flesh. The true form of the wendigo varies from telling to telling, but its most insidious trick is to appear in human form, either by its own design, or by inhabiting the body of a man who has already turned to cannibalism. While it does not have quite the name recognition of other legendary creatures, the wendigo has made several notable appearances in popular culture. Cult-indie-horror auteur Larry Fessenden made it the basis of his 2001 film Wendigo. On NBC’s brilliant-but-cancelled Hannibal, the wendigo appears as a spectral stag-man, representing protagonist Will Graham’s dark temptation toward his infamous nemesis’ proclivities. And it is used to great success at the center of Antonia Bird’s profoundly underrated 1999 thriller Ravenous.
In Ravenous, Bird makes the inspired choice to conflate wendigo psychosis with similar (though less ostensibly mystical) cases which beset western American frontiersmen in the nineteenth century, from the Donner Party to Alferd Packer. As the story begins, war hero Guy Pearce and his team set out to find and rescue an expedition which disappeared somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas. When they find them, however, the sole survivor is Robert Carlyle (post-Begbie, pre-Rumpelstiltskin), who looks… well-nourished. Sure enough, he’s learned the secrets of the wendigo, and developed a case of the psychosis. The twist, of course, is that it actually works.
There’s a lot to recommend in Ravenous. Given the inherent brutality of the subject matter and the stark, claustrophobic setting, dread is palpable in nearly every scene (thanks in no small part to the score, an unlikely collaboration between legendary composer Michael Nyman and Blur’s Damon Albarn). But what really sets it apart is its cockeyed sense of humor. For starters, its eclectic cast (which, in addition to Pearce and Carlyle, includes Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, and David Arquette) tears into the material with gusto, embracing the absurdity while never winking at the camera. That goes double for Bird (a vegetarian, it should be noted), who takes her admittedly lunatic premise to its absolute extreme. The finale is worth the price of admission alone; at risk of spoilers, it can only be described as a superhero fight between cannibalistic frontiersmen. Catch it at the Coolidge tonight, but remember: snacks are available at the lobby.
dir. Antonia Bird
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The score is just fantastic – the track during the first cannibal sequence is just this accordion/banjo loop that then gets scarier and scarier as more instruments get added. This is how horror movies should be scored (see also Hannibal, some of the best TV music I’ve ever heard).