The DVDs Audiences Forgot: the intellectual cannibal comedy

The cannibal film has, of late, enjoyed something of a renaissance, perhaps because there's nothing that we all crave more than to see one of society's greatest taboos being torn down, often by a central character who we secretly admire, even as we profess horror at his or her actions; the ongoing success of the Hannibal Lecter films testifies to this, even though each film in turn has gradually become more explicit in its depiction of Lecter's 'eccentricity' than the one before. (One imagines that Brett Ratner's remake of Red Dragon will be little more than a mixture of crude gags and dismembered body parts, given his track record to date.) All the same, the success of these films, as well as the more esoteric appeal of Claire Denis' extraordinarily strange Trouble Every Day have ensured that even those people who wouldn't dream of watching the likes of Cannibal Flesh Holocaust 4 have slowly become more tolerant of cinematic cannibalism, although of course such films as Theatre of Blood prepared audiences for Grand Guignol of a similar type long before.
All the same, it might well have come as a surprise for anyone who saw two films released relatively recently, Ravenous and Titus, that not all cannibalism films were mainstream black comedies, but instead had rather higher aspirations; in the case of Titus, of course, the source was Shakespeare's infamously bloody Titus Andronicus, but Ravenous, which was pointlessly marketed as a kind of slapstick farce, was also a rather more intelligent exploration of the unmentionable. Both films have received comparatively little interest since their release at the cinema in this country, but, thanks to DVD producer extraordinaire David Prior, both have received excellent DVD releases, both of which are well worth owning.


For Mike Sutton's R1 review of the film, click here
For Raphael Pour-Hashemi's R2 review of the film, click here

Whether you love or loathe Antonia Bird's utterly bizarre black comedy-cum-philosophical treatise-cum-Western is down to your liking for films that dare to take the sort of risks that seem utterly insane on paper, and in their execution. The history of the film's production suits this insanity perfectly; Milcho Manchevski was originally hired to direct, he cheerfully announced his intention of making a film that would make virtually every other cannibal picture look tame, he was promptly fired and, on the behest of star Robert Carlyle, his old collaborator Antonia Bird was hired. Given that Bird had previously only worked on critically acclaimed but small scale British films such as the superb Priest, and that her only foray into Hollywood before Ravenous had been the disastrous Chris O'Donnell flop Mad Love, this was not perhaps the most obvious choice for a director. Coupled to the logistical nightmare of shooting in Slovakia (where Manchevski had decided to move the equipment to before he was sent packing), star Guy Pearce's vocal dissatisfaction with the upheavals, and numerous other problems- as chronicled on the trio of commentary tracks- it's a wonder that the film was finished at all, let alone that it turned out as well as it did.
Although it's a ghastly pun, the film does bite off more than it can chew, but the sheer brio with which it is executed means that the sheer implausibility of the plot, which concerns the inhabitants of an isolated military outpost encountering the stranger Colqhuon (Carlyle) and being drawn into his bizarre world, is glossed over in favour of some of the oddest scenes of black comedy ever seen in a mainstream film. Gasp as jaunty banjo music plays while a cannibal pursues his victim! Thrill with horror as a cannibal attempts to 'sample the goods' of a Bible-loving soldier's injured leg! Fall on the ground in hysterical disbelief as characters refuse to drop down dead, thanks to the healing power of human flesh! Ted Griffin, the screenwriter, is fairly unambiguous on his commentary track that he intended to write a black comedy, which is just as well, given the sheer demented brio that the various scenes of murder, mayhem and sub-Nietzsche philosophy (the film adapts the credo 'Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger' entirely literally) all add up to a nonsensical but wonderfully entertaining mix, at least for the strong of stomach and broad of mind. The utterly fantastic score, a collaboration between Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman, is also highly recommended, as it gives the film a sense of bizarrely heightened menace in keeping with the strange events on screen.
Fox's DVD release is available in both R1 and R2 versions; the R2 version is the one to get, as it is an anamorphic transfer, as opposed to the non-anamorphic R1 version. Extras are pleasing but slightly limited; there are three commentary tracks, the best of which is a thorough and candid by Bird and Damon Albarn, as well as a low-key one by Robert Carlyle and a jolly but insubstantial one by Ted Griffin and Jeffrey Jones. There are also some inconsequential deleted scenes, some stills and production sketches, and, for the more historically inclined, an Easter Egg which shows the route taken by the Donner party- a group of people who fell victim to cannibals in 1846- is included, as well as a strange advert for 'Ravenous Beef Jerky', a promotional item. Certainly recommended for all fans of the strange, offbeat and bizarre; Christopher Tookey perhaps inadvertently said it best when in his (negative) review of the film, he remarked 'If you've ever had an urge to see actors chomping down on their fellow thespians, this one's for you.'

For Mike Sutton's review of the R1 DVD, click here
Shakespeare scholars have never attempted to make much of a case for Titus Andronicus; it tends to be written off as a rather weak attempt by the Bard to write a (literally) full-blooded revenge tragedy in the manner of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, and is seldom revived in the theatre, if only on the grounds that the sheer amount of blood shed becomes quite difficult to re-enact satisfactorily. Critical interest seems unlikely to be revived any time in the near future. However, Julie Taymor, who is probably best known for her revelatory work on stage with The Lion King staged an acclaimed production of the play in New York, with Harry Lennix as Aaron, and decided that the play was worth filming. Assembling a fantastic cast, she headed to Italy- a brilliantly apt location, both because the play is set in Rome, and also because it is, after all, the country of Dante, Pasolini and Mussolini, all of whom are referenced in the film- and, as the excellent documentary included on the disc shows, set to work. Although the film opened to pathetically small business at the box office, and was hardly released in this country, it deserves to be seen by anyone with any interest in adapting Shakespeare effectively for the cinema.
As this is a column about 'forgotten DVDs', I can't really begin to describe the film as an adaptation of the play, except to note that it is unlikely that, apart from a famous 1986 RSC production with Brian Cox, such a strong ensemble cast has ever been assembled for its performance. Hopkins, in a welcome return to 'serious' acting after years of well-paid coasting, is magisterial, as one might expect; although there are obvious echoes of his Hannibal Lecter persona, especially towards the end, he manages to bring great pathos to this character, who can talk of his 'miserable, mad, mistaking eyes' by the end, as he realises his final search for revenge is all but doomed. He is ably supported by Jessica Lange as a seductive Tamora, a superb Colm Feore (a sadly underrated actor, whose performances have redeemed several terrible films, and, in the case of works like this and Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould have lifted them up several notches) as his tormented brother Marcus and, best of all, Harry Lennix as Aaron the Moor, who has been seen by the more generous Shakespeare critics as a dry run for Iago in Othello; however, it says a lot for Lennix's superb performance that he manages to make Aaron as enjoyable, Machiavellian yet ultimately poignant a villain as has been seen in a Shakespearean adaptation. Ultimately, if we're being honest, this is not a film likely to appeal to a desperately wide audience; on the other hand, the niche market that it aims for is superbly served by the film.
Fox's DVD presents the film in an excellent anamorphic transfer, and serves it up (as it were) with extras that emphasise quality over quantity. The first disc features an enthralling and passionate commentary by Taymor, an occasionally gripping but largely silent track by Hopkins and Lennix, and, finally, the terrifically innovative Elliot Goldenthal score as an isolated track, complete with occasional comments by Goldenthal on how he attempted to rise to Taymor's dementedly effective mix of ancient and modern with his scoring techniques. Extras on the second disc include a superb, thorough and intelligent 50-minute making-of documentary, which intelligently differentiates the cast's interviews into those who obviously understand and love the text (Hopkins, Feore, Lennix) and those who seem to have been seduced into the project by Taymor, rather than their own enthusiasm for Shakespeare (virtually everyone else.) There is also an insightful Q and A session with Taymor, which is nonetheless likely to be of little interest to those who have already listened to her commentary, and some interesting short pieces on the costumes and special effects. Like Ravenous, the film may well be an acquired taste (and one, I would venture, well worth acquiring), but the sheer quality of the DVD release is a credit to Fox and David Prior, whose work has been of a consistently high standard regardless of the project he has worked on.

Next week: A look at two of the underrated achievements of the director many might hail as the finest Euro-American auteur of them all, Stanley Kubrick...

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