“That’s the Most Disgusting Film I’ve Ever Seen.”

On its 25th anniversary, Ravenous cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond looks back on the cannibal western classic.

20th Century Studios
Inverse Recommends

After 25 years, most genre films have probably found their place in history — even if it’s just as a niche title for fans of late-night horror. But every now and then, a film comes along that deserves not only recognition but also a seat at the big kids’ table of cinema. Antonia Bird’s Ravenous is one such film, but don’t take our word for it: for the film’s 25th anniversary, Inverse spoke to cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, who marked Ravenous as a standout in his already impressive career.

Ravenous is the story of Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a war hero sent to the farthest regions of California. Boyd’s singular act of bravery — a desperate attack on an enemy outpost — was only made possible by his decision to play dead and hide among the corpses. Uncertain whether to execute him or promote him, the United States military compromises: they’ll send him to Fort Spencer, an outpost in California for the other lost souls the military could do without.

It is there that Boyd meets F.W. Calhoun (Robert Carlye), the sole survivor of a wagon train lost in the wilderness. Calhoun and the other survivors quickly turned to cannibalism, eating the dead and not-so-dead members of their party before Calhoun fled for help. As the meager regiment at Fort Spencer rallies to save the remainder of the wagon train, Boyd finds himself strangely drawn to both Calhoun and his story, and soon both men will be embroiled in a fight to the death for the fate of the nation — and their very souls.

Antonia Bird wasn’t the studio’s first choice to direct Ravenous. She wasn’t even their second. Ravenous was originally set to be directed by Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski, whose debut feature — the 1994 war film Before the Rain — had been nominated for an Academy Award in the then-Best Foreign Language Film category. When the production fell behind schedule and Manchevski clashed with the studio, Fox 2000 head Laura Ziskin flew to Prague with his intended replacement, Home Alone 3 director Raja Gosnell.

Gosnell made an immediate and poor impression. According to Richmond, the battle lines between director and cast were firmly drawn when the two stars approached Gosnell about restoring a scene that Manchevski had previously cut from the film. “Both Guy Pearce and Bobby [Caryle] want[ed] it put back in,” Richmond tells Inverse, “and Raja Gosnell said, ‘I don't care whether it's in or out.’ So they didn't like that attitude, and they refused to work with him.”

Finally, a compromise was struck: the studio would bring in Bird, a frequent collaborator of Caryle, and production would continue. While the shooting schedule would remain difficult, Bird would quickly earn the trust of both cast and crew to bring the production home. “She was a fabulous director,” Richmond remembers. “She was absolutely wonderful with actors.”

Both Pearce and Carlyle clashed with original director Milcho Manchevski before Antonia Bird was brought in to helm the film.

20th Century Studios

Even now, what Bird and her crew were able to pull together defines convention. Ravenous is a period film that uses the framework of manifest destiny to grapple with man’s self-destruction and religious zealotry. It is a queer-coded cannibalism story that often borders on the erotic; it is a black comedy with the utmost commitment from both cast and crew. What might have read as too much in 1999 now achieves a kind of pulp perfection, mashing together high artistry with cartoonish violence to make one of the greatest westerns ever committed to film — horror genre be damned.

For his part, Richmond thought the film was a bit much for American audiences. “America is a very puritanical country,” he says. “You can have movie stars and machine guns blow away 60 people and blood everywhere, but you can't have someone eating a little bit of flesh of a dead man if they're hungry.”

But Ravenous also goes extremely hard when it comes to practical effects. One of the film’s most exciting sequences — a forest chase involving Pearce, Carlyle, and actor Neal McDonough — ends with characters tumbling from a cliff to the valley below. It is the biggest moment in the movie both narratively and practically, a shining example of storytelling through action that defines Pearce’s Boyd as a character. Given the fact that George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace would hit theaters just two months later, it also serves as a natural bookend for the kind of practical stunt work often relegated to sound stages in years to come.

Pearce stars as a war hero who learns of an awful truth at Fort Spencer.

20th Century Studios

And it’s far less dangerous than it looks. “They built a big platform out,” Richmond explains. “When [Guy Pearce] turns and runs and then we cut behind him — and I think with the stuntman jumping over — he fell probably 20 feet down or 10 feet down onto the bag.” The effect is a masterclass in practical stunt work and forced perspective; even knowing the method behind the madness, Boyd’s jump remains one of the most impressive sequences in horror movie history. “It’s a pretty good stunt,” the cinematographer admits.

That shot serves as a kind of shorthand for everything great about Ravenous. No film with production problems should ever be this good — or maybe only films with troubled productions could possibly achieve this level of madcap greatness. From the film’s pointed commentary on American exceptionalism to its excellent score and practical effects, Ravenous is one of those great accidents of capitalism that takes time to fully appreciate.

Despite its box office failure at release, Ravenous has received renewed acclaim.

20th Century Studios

Recent acclaim for Ravenous — including a stint in the digital Criterion Collection as part of the distributor’s October 2023 program on ‘90s horror — has solidified its spot among the decade’s best and brightest horror films. But Richmond still remembers walking out of the premiere all those years ago to only smatterings of applause. “I took my wife, who was a producer,” Richmond says. “We got out into the lobby and she said, ‘You did a great job, but that's the most disgusting film I've ever seen.’”

Now Richmond could look back on the film and its critical reevaluation with pride. “I have to tell you, I've shot a lot of movies,” the cinematographer concludes. “That was one of my favorites.”

Related Tags