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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Beyond the Canon: Ravenous + The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Ravenous (1999) courtesy of 20th Century Fox, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) courtesy of MPI Media Group

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. This monthly series seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion.

By Lindsay Brayton

If Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is your only point of reference for cinematic cannibalism, seductive may not be the first word that comes to mind when contemplating this subgenre of films. But in recent years female filmmakers have taken cannibalism far from Chain Saw’s Texas backcountry, infusing the taboo practice with the mysticism, eroticism, and charismatic seduction most often associated with vampirism. From Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016), Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure (2015), and Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001)—a Gallic descendant of Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973)—these films depict an insatiable hunger for flesh that is both literal and euphemistic, but none see the perverse humor in this hunger quite like Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999).

Although Ravenous is not interested in overt eroticism (latent homoeroticism—yes), the euphemism is not lost on Bird. Her film opens with two epigraphs, one a serious quote from Nietzsche about self-reflection in the face of evil. The second quote, attributed to an anonymous source, states: “Eat me.” With these two words—accompanied by a hilarious sound effect—Bird lays out Ravenous’ cheeky, gallows humor.

Set during the Mexican-American War, Ravenous stars Guy Pearce as Capt. John Boyd, a war hero with a secret, who’s sent to Fort Spencer in the snowy hills of California’s northern Sierra Nevada. There, he joins a rag-tag group of soldiers who are visited one night by a stranger who calls himself F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle). Colqhoun tells the men he was part of a group of westward travelers who found themselves trapped by a series of snowstorms. The travelers were left with two choices: starve to death, or cannibalize those who had already succumbed to death.

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, cannibalism, and the film’s rotting family of cannibals, are stomach churning. By putting human bodies and bones in the place of animals—on meat hooks, barbecues, and living room furniture—Hooper viscerally communicates the brutality of the meat industry. The film could make a vegetarian out of the most devout carnivore. In Ravenous, Bird clearly delights in the dissonance between the gross-out nature of bloody flesh and the transcendent virility cannibalism promises the film’s characters. What begins as chuckle-worthy innuendo (eat me!) becomes a tempting invitation. With a mischievous grin the film asks: if cannibalism could cure mortality, would morality be strong enough to stop your hunger? As one character in Ravenous dismissively explains, “Ah morality, the last bastion of the coward.”

Robert Carlyle and Guy Pearce in Ravenous, courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

With The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Tobe Hooper dug deep into the macabre taboo of cannibalism, setting his film in an apocalyptic America in which car radios report an endless stream of horrors. Hooper created a cult classic that has maintained a double life as both a gruesome, midnight movie classic, and a canonized film beloved by cinephiles, critics, and taught in academic film classes. When Hooper passed away in 2017, the late director was publicly lauded with obituaries extolling his trailblazing genius. Antonia Bird and her film have, thus far, received no such treatment. Ravenous garnered very little fanfare and was seen by even fewer people upon its release. Bird is little known in the US, though she had a prolific television and film career in the UK before her early death in 2013. Her talent as a director is indisputable, and her work is well-worth revisiting, especially her previous collaborations with actor Robert Carlyle: Face (1997) and Safe (TV, 1993); the latter is conveniently available on YouTube.

In Ravenous, Bird uses cannibalism to question the insatiable hunger of American Manifest Destiny. Her masterful control of the film’s tonal range, her brilliant work with actors, and Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn’s perfect score keep the film from being an exercise in campy grotesquerie. Bird gives the audience a whole lotta blood, but beauty, too.

Join us for Beyond the Canon Fri, Sep 28 at 7pm

Lindsay Brayton is the Marketing and Publicity Assistant for BAMcinématek

Upcoming Beyond the Canon: Body and Soul (1925) + The Night of the Hunter (1955)

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