Saturday, December 19, 2015

Vamp or Not? Ravenous

Recently I received a message from Leila, who suggested I watch Ravenous with a view to a ‘Vamp or Not?’ The film was from 1999 and directed by Antonia Bird and I was aware of it, however I always assumed it fell simply into the cannibalism camp.

As it stands that is sort of correct, in fact it features a windigo (or wendigo) – a cannibalistic creature from Native American traditions. Given the tendency to link vampires with many other mythological creatures it is surprising that the wendigo is not tied to the vampire myth more often. Certainly the usual suspects – be it Summers or Bane – do not feature the creature in their volumes. That said they were tied together in the film Dracula, Lord of the Damned.

getting a new posting
After a Nietzsche quote, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster” and a further anonymous quote that says “eat me” the film begins. It is set in 1847 and Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is being awarded a medal for his efforts in a battle. Following the ceremony the men are all given steaks but Boyd can barely look at his. As he cuts into the rare meat his mind flashes to bloody images of war and he runs from the table to vomit. The general, Slauson (John Spencer), tells Boyd that he is no hero and he is sending him as far away as possible – that being Fort Spencer in California. As we stay with Boyd he appears to be suffering from PTSD.

buried under the dead
Boyd arrives at the fort in winter and meets the forts oddball personnel – ably commanded by Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones). We discover Boyd’s history. He was in a battle against Mexican soldiers but froze. His company were massacred and he played dead. He was dragged off and placed in a pile of bodies, the blood from the dead running down his throat. He pulled himself out of the pile but something had changed. We see him, in flashback, break a guard’s neck with his bare hands and he then took the fort.

Robert Carlyle as F W Colqhoun
Things change when Boyd spots a man in the dark, starving and exhausted. His name is F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) and he tells the tale of settlers, lost as they were misguided by a Col Ives, and stuck in a cave through winter. He says that they ran out of food and, whilst he was out of the cave, one of the settlers died and he returned to find the others cooking the dead man’s legs. They ate their erstwhile companion but Ives changed and quickly their numbers dwindled. Colghoun left the last remaining woman with Ives and escaped.

the wendigo
Hart decides to investigate and takes a contingent out to the cave but they soon discover it was a trick and Colqhoun has led them to a place of slaughter. Before they go George (Joseph Runningfox), a Native American, tells Boyd that he believes this to be a tale of a wendigo and shows him a picture of the creature. When pushed he suggests that white men eat the flesh of Jesus and the skin with the picture on has Christ on the reverse, indicating a connection of sorts. Also, en route to the cave, Boyd actually asks Colquon if he felt different when he had eaten flesh and he affirms this, suggesting an increase in strength.

Guy Pearce as Boyd
Boyd ends up the survivor of the party, having shot Colqhoun and watched him sit up immediately afterwards. He leaps from a cliff to escape (or perhaps kill himself) and survives as trees break his fall – though he breaks his leg badly, with the bone stuck out of the flesh. We see him physically push the bone back in and then he eats of the flesh of another soldier. We then see him walk back to the fort – injured, yes, but able to walk on what is a severe break.

Cross on head
Later Colqhoun – under his alias of Col. Ives – suggests that he had been dying of tuberculosis and suffering from depression when he heard of the legend of the wendigo, how a man eating the flesh of another man would absorb that man’s spirit and become stronger but also filled with a terrible unending hunger that only gets worse with each cannibalistic meal. When Ives and Boyd have their showdown Ives paints a cross on his brow in blood and is always wearing a crucifix around his wrist, tying in the Christ (or perhaps antichrist) aspect.

blood on lip
So… is it Vamp? Well vampires are known to be flesh eaters as well as blood drinkers, on occasion, and Boyd was changed by drinking blood rather than full on flesh eating and, symbolically at least, came back from the dead. The film suggests a supernatural aspect with the quick healing (later we see Colqhoun’s bullet wound has not just healed but vanished without a scar) and increased strength. There is the theme of the endless, increasing hunger that is a common vampire trope. On the trail to the camp a man is injured and Colqhoun cannot resist and licks the wound whilst the man sleeps – waking him and forcing them to bind him. I can’t help but think that the reference to tuberculosis was purposeful given the US connection between the disease and vampirism.

a mad glint in the eye
I said that the usual suspects of the widened vampire myth do not seem to cover wendigos but some writers do. Grace L Dillon in the Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters suggests “The windigo’s cannibalistic behaviour recalls the vampire, the zombie and the werewolf. ‘Like the vampire, it feasts on flesh and blood,writes Columbo.” (pp 591-592) In this case we have a change in men just by eating flesh, but that change is supernatural and confers some of the traits often seen in vampirism – hunger, increased strength and rapid healing.

Boyd at Fort Spencer
What seemed strange, within the plot, was the small intake that was necessary to turn. Whilst Colqhuon clearly had eaten of many, and we could (from a cannibalism perspective) almost assume a contraction of Kuru, Boyd seemed to have become wendigo from a small amount of blood entering his system – this gave him the strength to overcome his fear and take the enemy fort. One thing that seemed strange was the fact that cooked flesh was just as effective when it came to healing and also (implied) for turning - especially as the flesh seemed to be a conduit for energy vampirism given the comments about absorption of spirit. Whilst that indefinable something that would have screamed Vamp was not there, on the evidence in film I think suggesting that this is, in the broadest sense, Vamp is fair.

raising a glass
As for the film itself, it was a revelation. Carlyle and Pearce are as good as one would expect. There is a quirkiness to this and black comedy that belies some serious themes – such as PTSD and other mental health impairments (when we consider that Colqhoun was clinically depressed). The oddball unit reminded me just a touch of MASH. I’d seriously recommend this one.

The imdb page is here.


Khaia said...

Interesting review. I think the connection between the wendigo and the vampire is one well worth pursuing as they are (to my knowledge) the only creatures in folklore that reproduce by infecting humans. Zombies and werewolves only gained that ability in the movies. And, in one horror movie, clowns.
Cannibalism or blood-drinking is not always required before someone changes into a wendigo. Some legends only require the afflicted to be lost in the wilderness for a time. But as the majority of stories do have this pre-requisite, I think the wendigo may be declared a closer cousin of the vampire than either the authentic werewolf or zombie of folklore.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Interesting thoughts. Indeed the "infecting zombie" of the movies (rather than the Haitian model) was derived in part from the vampire (through Romero/Russo and the impact I am Legend had on Night of the Living Dead).

Many thanks for the thoughts and for stopping by.

Kyle Van Helsing said...

It's not a vampire. It's the Wendigo. There's a HUGE difference.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Kyle... I'm not asking what they called it in the script... I'm asking if the tropes used within the film conform to that drawn around the vampire despite what they called it.