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Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, John Spencer, David Arquette Directed by: Antonia Bird Written by: Ted Griffin

Antonia Bird's "Ravenous" opens with an insightful quote from Nietzche, followed seconds later by a silly, not-as-insightful yet much more popular and widely used quote from "Anonymous". It's a clever opening, getting a big laugh from the audience and indicating that nothing which follows is to be taken seriously.

The story is set in 1847, during the Mexican-American War. An army captain named Boyd (Guy Pearce) has just received a medal for courage in surviving behind enemy lines (though we learn in flashback, it may have been a somewhat dubious honor.) As the troops sit down to feast, Boyd takes one look at the meat placed in front of him and begins to get sick. He can't escape the horrifying memory of being buried alive under mounds of bodies, having their seeping blood trickle into his throat. He leaves the table and vomits.

Of course, this enrages his commanding officer (John Spencer), who feels Boyd is not worthy of a place in his company and thus, reassigns him to the dreaded Fort Spencer - a command post out in the middle of nowhere, occupied by a group of ragtag officers who have about as much comraderie as a turret-syndrome support group. (When one of the men slips and tumbles down a rocky hill, a fellow soldier rushes to his side. Right away he reassures the rest of the group: "He's okay!" Then reaches down, slaps the hurt man to consciousness and asks: "Are you okay?") They're the usual bunch of characters: the ultra-tough soldier, the religious one, the drunk one, and so forth. Since there is only a handful of men stationed at Fort Spencer, Boyd discovers immediately upon arrival, that he ranks rather well: "So, you're a captain, eh? Well, let's see here. . . . that makes you, uh, third in command. Will that be all, sir?"

Soon, a mysterious wanderer stumbles onto the premises and collapses. His name is Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), and after he is rescued by the men, he recounts a terrifying story of how he and several others had to survive for weeks without food. The rest of the men decide to go looking for other survivors. What they find lies way beyond the realm of anything they could imagine.

There's a lot to like here. The movie contains both humor and terror, and director Antonia ("Priest", "Mad Love") Bird plays both elements up very well - there are many big laughs early on; and the scene where the men suddenly realize exactly what it is they're up against is very well-crafted and quite frightening. One of the creepiest moments comes when one of the soldiers, sensing that the villain cannot be killed or harmed physically, looks him dead in the eye and screams in a childlike manner: "Get away from me!"

There are some juicy performances as well, especially from Robert ("Trainspotting", "The Full Monty") Carlyle. He's sympathetic when he wants to be, ruthless when he needs to be, clever when he has to be, and outlandishly funny when the spirit moves him - no wonder the men can't get a handle on this guy. And the hard-working character actor Jeffrey Jones, as Fort Spencer's commanding officer, showers his dialogue with the sarcasm and dry wit a story like this needs.

Violence and gore take center stage in the film's second half, yet there are just enough good elements here to give the film a video pick recommendation. If you're in the mood for something completely unusual, "Ravenous" should go down nicely.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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