The “wendigo” is a creature legendary to certain American Indian tribes. It is like a cannibal version of a vampire, only with an even less enjoyable life. Each time it eats a person, it grows in strength—and according to some versions of the legend, in size—but its desire to eat people also increases, much like someone dying of thirst and frantically gulping down salt water only making matters worse by increasing his need for water. So it exists in a vicious circle of insatiability—torturing itself by constantly increasing its craving that can never be satisfied.
So not only is it no fun to encounter a wendigo, it’s also no fun to be one.
Some or all wendigos, depending on the version of the legend, started as human beings. According to some accounts, only cannibalism itself leads one down the slippery slope to being a wendigo. According to others, things like excessive greed, materialism, exploitation of others, etc.—so more of a metaphorical cannibalism—can also cause one to become a wendigo.
So the idea, like the concept of Hell, is to scare people into obeying moral laws and not breaking taboos by pointing to the terrible consequences. Indians were taught that if they were trapped starving to death somewhere, and the only way to stay alive was to turn to cannibalism in Donner Party fashion, they were better off letting themselves die or committing suicide, since to engage in cannibalism would force upon them the hellish experience of becoming a wendigo.
Ravenous makes use of a version of the wendigo legend, combined with certain elements that reminded me of the vampire movie Near Dark that I wrote about fairly recently.
Like the Near Dark vampires, cannibals in this movie have superhuman strength and are very difficult to kill, as even serious wounds heal up almost immediately. Furthermore, again like in Near Dark, while the default is to kill your victim so you can eat him, you also have the option of attempting to turn him into a fellow wendigo, when the benefits of having an ally with whom to hunt and kill outweigh the cost of—as a character in the movie puts it—“another mouth to feed.”
Ravenous is set in the Old West of the 1840s, at a remote military outpost in California. One day a crazed, haggard fellow arrives at the outpost with an alarming story. He claims that he and his party got lost during the winter in the wilderness and took refuge in a cave. Their food ran out, and on the point of starvation they ate one of their party who had already died. This led to actually killing other members to use them as food. One member of the group in particular seemed to have become enamored with cannibalism and to have become wanton in his murderous ways. The storyteller claims to have escaped just in time to avoid becoming the next victim.
The Indians at the outpost immediately recognize the telltale signs of a wendigo.
A party from the outpost accompanies the fellow back to the cave to investigate. So we’re left to discover as the movie develops whether there is indeed a wendigo at the cave, whether this guy himself is the wendigo, whether it’s some kind of ruse where someone’s pretending to be a wendigo or to have encountered one for some nefarious reason, and so on and so forth.
Given what I had read about the movie beforehand, I frankly expected it to be a lot gorier and grosser. The reviews I read described it as being controversial, as having offended a lot of people by crossing the line of being too gory, as having provoked people to leave during the film in protest at all the blood and guts, etc.
But it didn’t strike me as anything extreme. There are some killings, and instances where people get their throat cut and blood spurts out and such, but nothing that stood out to me as more extreme than violent movies in general.
Not only are the violent scenes not unusually gross, they are also not unusually emotionally effective in a good way. The barroom massacre scene in Near Dark is much more gross and much more effective than anything in Ravenous. So are the violent or cannibal-related scenes in The Road. Heck, even the book version of The Road, with no visuals at all, had more of that kind of an impact on me than did Ravenous.
This movie incorporates a certain amount of black comedy in its telling of a story that is seemingly not very fertile ground for humor. For instance, the soldiers at the outpost are a lot closer to F-Troop (or to the way the South Korean military and police are, for some reason, routinely presented in South Korean movies in my experience) than to what you’d expect from a serious movie.
I didn’t hate those comedic elements, but I don’t know that I would say they enhance the movie. Maybe on the whole they detract from it very slightly. I was typically more engaged when the movie took its subject matter more seriously.
I would give this movie a middling grade, maybe slightly above average for the horror or slasher genre. It’s not too hard to follow, I mostly maintained at least some level of interest in how the story would play out, I didn’t find it offensively gory the way evidently many people did, it caused me to have a little more interest in the wendigo legend than I had had before seeing it, and there are no blatantly unsatisfying or frustrating elements to the storyline or ending.
Ravenous is OK, but I can’t give it a much more positive assessment than that.