Another review that I had already written and was an unadulterated work of genius that would surely have created a new religious following and cured cancer, but was lost when my word processor was stolen, I will have to construct this one from memory. And given the state of my short-term memory….
I had seen this movie a few years ago and thought it was good but not great, so when I got back from my trip to Oregon, I wanted to watch it again because it takes place in a similar environment in the early 1800s. We open with Guy Pearce at a military banquet in his honor. This is during the Spanish-American war. They are served a particularly rare steak—seemingly unaware of food-borne bacteria—and Guy pukes. Now, Guy [I wish I could remember his character’s name] is officially a war hero, but no one likes him, and he gets transferred out to Fort Spencer, in the upper California of 1817 or something like that. It is cold and snowy and at the very epicenter of nowhere.
As Guy travels he recalls the incident of his “heroism.” He was in the middle of a big shootout, and froze, lay down, and played dead. He was loaded onto a cart stacked with dead bodies, him lying at the bottom. All of the dead soldiers lay on top of him, their blood draining down over his face and into his mouth. I like that; you just don’t see a scene like that every day. I mean sure, Driving Miss Daisy was full of such content, but not most movies. Anyway, Guy says that soon “something had changed,” he felt this unusual strength, and he pulled himself out from under the pile of corpses, picked up a gun, and single-handedly captured the enemy leadership. That’s why Boyd [I remembered his name: Boyd] is celebrated as a hero, although inside he knows he’s a coward.
Now to the matter of the opening credits. This movie is intended as a horror-comedy, although I don’t really see anything funny about it. To me it seems deadly serious, so when they have elements that are supposed to be light, they just seem jarringly discordant. For example, the opening credits move into the screen with a whoosh, and off with the same noise, and it’s like “WHAT is this?” It’s like having a bad smell in the room. The friend I watched it with found a few elements quite funny, but I just don’t see the movie that way at all, and I hate these credits. While we’re on the topic, you should know that the movie was directed by Antonia Bird, who had previously done a film about a gay priest, entitled Priest, and there is quite the homo about this movie, as we shall soon discover. The music is by Michael Nyman [famed for The Piano] and Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz.
Anyway, so Boyd makes it to Fort Spencer, which is this dismal outpost in central nowheresville—circa 1817. We are introduced to their motley crew, including a Captain who is bored out of his mind, a doctor who is drunk all the time, two Native Americans, a semi-retarded person and a dork who is stoned all the time. I guess another part of the “comedy” is this society of madpeople. He’s not there long before they spy someone outside. They bring him in and warm him, and eventually he tells them his story.
This is Colqhoun [pronounced Calhoun], played by the fabulous Robert Carlysle. He says he’s been in the wilderness for three months. He was with a group headed out west when they took a wrong turn and ended up stranded. They ran out of food, ate the horses, ate the dogs, ate their shoes, ate power bars, and finally were just starving. One guy died and they ate him, and soon began to feel this mysterious, consuming hunger. Soon they were killing each other to eat. It got down to their leader, his wife, and Colqhoun, when Colqhoun split, fearing that he was next. He says he was a coward in running away, which attracts Boyd’s attention.
Now, if you’re going to watch the movie, I would recommend that you stop, because there are some good surprises. Just know that it’s a pretty good, nasty horror film with a huge homo element that doesn’t quite pull it all off, but is still worth watching.
SPOILERS > > >
So the Captain, played by Jeffery Jones, gets all on his high horse [plus recall that he’s bored to numbness] and decides that they have to go rescue the woman—who is probably dead by then anyway. They go, but before they do, the Native American guy warns them of the Wendigo, which is a spirit that infests men when they eat human flesh. They get very strong, but they also get hungrier and hungrier until it consumes them.
OH my God, obviously the movie to be made is a Wendigo story taking place in Chelsea, the gay enclave of New York City! Muscletwink Apocalypse, they could call it.
One of the guys gets injured on the way, and that night in the tent his wakes to find Colqhoun LICKING HIS WOUND! So they restrain Colqhoun as they continue the next day, and as they approach the cave where the people were, he gets more and more scared, to the point of hysteria. Boyd and this soldier dude go into the cave. They get way in deep when they find a bunch of skeletons stripped free of any meat, and they realize: Colqhoun ate them!
Now here comes my favorite sequence of the movie. Outside, Colqhoun is getting more and more excited. He’s panting, and suddenly starts digging in the ground like an animal [the film has a big gaffe here in that he was tied up and is suddenly untied]. He’s just panting and whining and scary and then suddenly he attacks and slaughters them all. Boyd and soldier come out of the cave and are soon trapped between Colqhoun and a huge precipice. Colqhoun is FUCKING SCARY, and could very well be one of the famous maniacs of the movies if only the whole thing ended up better. He soon kills the soldier, knocking him off the cliff, and Boyd, trapped, jumps off rather than be killed! He falls through the air, then through the branches, then hits the mountainside and starts rolling, entwining with the soldiers body on the way [what a coinkidink!] and both of them land in a gulch. Again, you have to appreciate that you just don’t see scenes like that every day.
So Colqhoun stalks around for a while outside, waiting for Boyd to emerge. After a while Boyd can’t stand it, and eats the soldier. This gives him crazy strength, and we also see him freaking out, and we know that he is turning into a cannibal proper. He pulls himself out of the gulch and soon makes it back to Fort Spencer. There he runs into: Colqhoun, now dressed as an Admiral [or whatever]!
This was the last thing I remember about the movie from watching it the first time, and the reason for that is that it’s the last interesting thing that happens in the movie. The homo vibe shoots off the chart, though, as we have scenes of Colqhoun STARING at Boyd as he slowly smokes his cigar. By the way, no one else knows who Colqhoun is. They have a talk outside where Colqhoun tells Boyd that he CHOSE to become a cannibal; some guy told him that you absorb the strength of the man you eat, and “I just had to try it out.” Carlysle is working his Dracula-of-the-rural-West routine here, and it works. He tells Boyd that all he has to do is give in, and there’s a little bit of the Interview With the Vampire here in his idea that they can be a happy family together, and eat all the settlers as they come over the mountains. There this whole thing about Manifest Destiny, and we’re supposed to understand the movie to be some allegory about that [ooh, excuse me, I just dozed off for a second there], as though anyone cares.
Boyd eats a little bit to gain his strength, and then it’s time for the battle of the cannibals, which is sort of like a superhero battle, and goes on forever. At last Boyd grabs Colqhoun and they fall into a giant bear trap, only this one is big enough to bag a Tyrannosaurus. As their bodies are pinned together, somewhat homoerotically, one dies first and then the other, each death giving something of the appearance that they are cumming. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
It has many things going for it. First, it’s just such an unusual topic, story and environment, that it becomes of value just for that. I also liked Boyd’s character, his history as a coward and simultaneous status as a brave hero. I also love Guy Pearce for taking roles like this. Then there are the unusual scenes like him jumping off the cliff and his time there in the gulch. Carlysle as Colqhoun is great and very scary, and the extensive homo subtext between them is fascinating. I mean, we ARE talking about guys eating each other and “taking on the others’ strength,” which becomes a consuming hunger that it’s best not to fight, but “just give in” to. Ya see what I’m saying?
Only thing is, as jam-packed with interesting ideas and developments as the first hour is, the second half can’t think of anything to do with them. It’s just tension, tension [not really, or it would be involving] until they finally have their big cannibal-off. The friend who watched it with me the second time was heard to ask “How much longer does this go on?” which is not the sign of something that has you on the edge of your seat.
The director commentary on the disc is one of those wherein you find out, to your dismay, that everything you though was stupid about the movie was quite planned and everything you thought was an ingenious touch about the movie was an accident. Nevertheless, definitely worth watching, if not quite as brilliant as it could have been.
Yes, the first hour is very good, and then you have to sit through the rest after that just to see how it turns out.