The other night, I sat down and pulled up Shudder and put on Ravenous(1999), a film I haven’t seen in over a decade. It was recently brought up on a list of horror-westerns, and I decided to revisit it. The film is still just as wild, tense, and strange as it always was, holding up well over the last twenty years. But what stuck out to me on this rewatch is the soundtrack. The score, composed in part by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman, is one of the most interesting, creative, and possibly insane things I have ever listened to.
There are no two tracks on there that are alike. It uses such a wide range of instrumentation from the time period, from violin, guitar, jaw harp, banjo, and a squeeze box. On top of that, they introduce looping and sampling over it, including electronic rhythms and distortions. It goes from feeling like something you would hear in a Ken Burns documentary about Gettysberg to a pioneer fever dream, off key banjo mixed with pulsating electronic drums. And the funny thing is, it fucking works. Albarn and Nyman tag teamed the soundtrack, each composing their own portions. It seems that Albarn’s compositions were made up of original material, and unused material for previous scores or works that he left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.
Let’s dive into the track, Colqhoun’s Story, which features the most diverse range of things happening on the score. It starts with a loop of a squeeze box, or accordion, and a pulsing beat beneath it. This gives way to a banjo being plucked in a riff pattern, while a flute plays quietly and ominously in the background. This continues to build, each voice separating itself further, or being duplicated and added to. Violins are added in a looped pattern, and every piece that had come before is still prevalent in the score. Add winding string patterns to it, and the piece becomes more muddled and frantic, with every part at the same time.
The visuals with this score add to it, with Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) retelling the story of why he has been out in the wilderness for three months. His wagon train became lost, trapped in the snow searching for a more direct route west. Snowed in and starving, the party resorted to cannibalism, and some to murder. This story, coupled with the Wendigo myth permeating this film, leads the viewer into this tense scene, where something feels wrong but you aren’t sure what. This is all accented through the stacked looping and sampling on the score, where you continue to hear the same things while it’s added to, creating confusion and tension.
For a film that has always been hard to categorize for most people, it makes sense the soundtrack would be equally as indefinable. Ravenous has been called a western horror, a satire of western thrillers, a black comedy, and everything in between. The often-humorous approach to the subject matter leads many to believe it’s done ironically, bringing cannibal horror into a quippy Old West film. But regardless of what it is or isn’t, it features some of the most original and creative scoring in modern horror. Do yourself a favor and check out Ravenous again.