Even among those who love it, there's no real consensus as to why the 1999 horror film Ravenous is great. Because it is a punchy black comedy? Because it is an intelligent attack on social constructs of bravery and masculinity? Because it's a satire of American expansion in the West? Because it's one of the few movies to treat on the wendigo, a malevolent spirit out of Algonquian folklore? Because it's just a damn impressive gory horror movie that jumps with both feet into cannibalism, a subject most relatively big-budget American movies are far to squeamish to openly consider?

Any and all of the above can apply in more or less different combinations, based on the reviewer, and I do not doubt that I missed some of the possibilities. The point being, Ravenous is sufficiently broad to include some borderline-exclusive readings, which might arguably be just a way of saying that it's too vague to actually mean anything besides "shock value! stage blood!" But I will certainly not be the person to go there.

That said, at least this much is as objectively true as it gets, the punchy black comedy is terrific, and we're introduced to it long before the movie has set itself up as a horror film at all, or even clarified that its setting puts it denotatively, if not emotionally, in the wheelhouse of the Western. The very first thing that happens, in fact, is a title card with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche (misspelled "Nietzche", a fact I point out because even for movies that I love, I do not pretend that they are perfect), stating-
He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster

-which has less to do with the content of the film than the script thinks, but it gets us close in, anyway. Playing underneath is a military march that feels so solemn, especially with the appeal to Nietzschean authority, that the whole thing feels ripe for a piss-take, and this is confirmed when another quote pops up on the same card, credited to Anonymous-
Eat me.

-which would be quite obviously enough a sarcastic "fuck you" even without the cartoon sound effects that accompany its appearance.

My point in all this, anyway, is that opening gestures matter, Ravenous uses its opening gesture to tell us that it is a comedy, or at least that juvenile undercutting of very serious-sounding things will be a major part of its game. Now, this mood doesn't hold - in fact, beginning with its most goofy moment and end with its most subdued, Ravenous spends its entire running time growing progressively more serious, which is one of the things I like best about it, and best about Antonia Bird's gorgeously controlled directing. Incidentally, I could bring this bit up anywhere, but I shall get it out of the way now: in a just world, Bird would have been given all sorts of high-profile opportunities on the strength of what she accomplished here. Instead, Ravenous was the last theatrical feature to date out of just a handful for her, following which she returned to the world of British television, where she started. Maybe that's how she wanted it, I have no idea; certainly, it is a known fact that Ravenous had a contentious shoot in which producer Laura Ziskin got all up in everybody's business, and Bird was in fact the third director attached during production. But Ravenous is as good a calling card as you could hope for; however good it is in many ways, it is consistently and specifically great in its directing, which navigates quite a minefield of shifting tonalities and does it so smoothly that you have to actively remind yourself that this was a bloody, warped comedy before it got to be so savage and nasty.

But I believe I left things at the opening title card. From here, we are carried to a military state dinner honoring Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) for acts of heroism conducted in the Mexican-American War, and as predicted, the film is awfully eager to suck the pomposity out of the Army's stately self-regard, between the over-the-top juxtaposition of a super-earnest (but under-orchestrated) march with very prim compositions, and the even more over-the-top depiction of the Army brass devouring their fine steak dinners with disgustingly moist sound design and gross-out close-ups of food being messily chewed. For one of the other things that Ravenous can be said to do thematically is to link meat-eating with savagery that thinks itself civilised, which is not at all what I'd personally claim. But you can't pretend that it's not there, and even as an unapologetic carnivore, I salute the film for committing to its message that way.

Boyd, we'll find out in the course of some chronologically-shuffled flashbacks, is both a hero and a deserter; he survived a bloody onslaught that took out the rest of his regiment only by pretending to be dead the instant that the Mexican soldiers arrived, and after being carted back to their base camp in a pile of corpses, single-handedly killed every last one. It's not clear that this is significant yet, but this only happened after he inadvertently swallowed the blood of his commanding officer, who was positioned directly over him in the corpse wagon, and dripped over him the whole way.

Gen. Slauson (John Spencer) has no idea what to do with a case like Boyd's, so he packs him off to the Island of Misfit Toys: an outpost way the hell out in California, Fort Spencer. He arrives in the dead of a cold winter, to meet the rest of the people the Army couldn't slot someplace nicer: Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), a meek, poetic soul; Maj. Knox (Stephen Spinella), a hopeless drunk; Pvt. Reich (Neal McDonough), a gung-ho and possibly psychotic soldier; Pvt. Toffler (Jeremy Davies), a religious to the point of distraction; and Pvt. Cleaves (David Arquette), a stoner. That there is a stoner puts us on the path to teasing out what Ravenous has in mind, for one thing that comes through strongly in its first act is a flippant, '90s sense of humor (certainly, Jones's performance is as mired in the late '90s as a Fiona Apple album), constantly puncturing anything that resembles serious place-building, and making it clear if nothing else could that Ravenous is not actually about cannibalism in the 1840s, however much it's about cannibalism in the 1840s.

One of the things that chiefly serves to drift the film away from its sardonic opening is the arrival, soon after Boyd, of a desperate, starving Reverend F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle). He spins a Donner-esque story of a wagon train gone awry above the snowline, and the mad Colonel Ives, who got such a rush from eating the dead members of the party that he started getting a little murder-happy when the corpses weren't coming fast enough. To George (Joseph Running Fox) and Martha (Sheila Tousey), the native siblings who serve as general staff for the fort, this suggests the legend of the wendigo (which is, theoretically, from the wrong side of the American continent), the demon that attaches itself to a man who eats another man, giving him power but also an insatiable desire to kill again and again to keep himself strong. It shades a little bit into European notions of vampirism as it plays out in the movie, but on the whole this first-ever wide-release wendigo picture does a fair job of exploring the concept.

For aye, there really is a wendigo, as the bulk of the soldiers find out when they go up into the mountains to stop Ives and save the last of his victims, but it turns out to be Colqhoun himself, who brought them up there to catch them unawares and stock his larder with hardier meat than the starving settlers that he's been eating on all winter. Long story short, it's soon down to Colqhoun versus the coward Boyd, who once again tastes human blood when he timidly picks at the dead Reich in order to stay alive over the course of a bitterly cold night. And once again, he has a sudden flush of courage and strength, and this is enough to get him back to Fort Spencer and to the very sudden shift into the last act of the film, that I will not spoil, though oh, how I shall have to work to talk around it.

It's primarily in the end that Ravenous crystallises as more than just a gory horror film in period dress, though it bears saying over and over again that even as a simple Western-horror hybrid, this is pretty great; the single biggest problem with the first hour is in a chase scene between Colqhoun and Pvt. Toffler, with a strenously wacky banjo score playing underneath (probably by Michael Nyman; he and Damon Albarn are the credited composers, but they did not work together, each contributing around half of the music. I find that Albarn's electronically-created, ironic riffs on period style to be the far more effective at creating the weird mood the film likes to inhabit, especially his repeated theme "Boyd's Journey"), the kind of miscalculation so vast that it has left people with the idea that the whole film is scored like a bluegrass hoedown. Still, the first part of Ravenous, gooey fun that it is, and as giddy as Carlyle's monstrous performance becomes, it's not remotely as interesting as it becomes in the end, when the whole thing turns into a referendum on how men demonstrate strength and virility, while dismissing as low cowardice the desire not to die and the desire not to kill others. Bird and screenwriter Ted Griffin (the first completed project of a scattershot career that nevertheless includes Ocean's Eleven) don't belabor the point, and Ravenous came out a couple of years too early to be a full-throated attack on American militarism (still, a scene explicitly linking the cannibals' philosophy to Manifest Destiny is a little too much on-the-nose), but you can't fail to notice that it's there, and what began as a snotty bit of fun had against military men turns into a much more brutal (as the film itself grows increasingly brutal) indictment of the culture of masculinity not just within militaries, but anywhere that men goad each other into foolish attempts to prove who is stronger.

That, on top of some gorgeous location photography that makes the Czech Republic a pretty fantastic surrogate for the Sierra Nevadas, excellent performances by all involved but Pearce and Carlyle especially, and some wonderfully horrifying imagery (the interior of the cannibal den is perfect), and whate we end up with is a terrific horror movie all around, one of the absolute best of the 1990s. And being one of the best horror films of the '90s is an easy thing to achieve, but still, Ravenous is too damn good in too many ways to languish in any kind of obscurity.