THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Violence and Gore involving Animal Attacks

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Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

Written by: William Goldman

(based on the book THE MAN-EATERS OF TSAVO by John Henry Patterson)

Starring: Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, John Kani, Bernard Hill, Tom Wilkinson, Brian McCardie, Emily Mortimer & Om Puri

Aside from Gustav the crocodile, the Tsavo man-eaters are probably the most well-known instance of a bloodthirsty animal taking a serial killer approach and offing as many people as it possibly could. The story behind the Tsavo man-eaters is a fascinating one and filmmakers have attempted to cash in on it with a variety of films (one of which was considered to be the first 3D movie ever made). Without a doubt, the most well-known take on the material is 1996’s THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS which is pretty much a glossed over monster movie that delivers great entertainment, even if it has a few clichés.

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John Patterson is an engineer hired to complete a British railway in Africa. The project looks to be a difficult one, but John has always wished to visit the continent so he accepts the assignment. While heat, tensions between workers and tough terrain bring delays. John wins the workers over by killing a man-eating lion that attacked a man shortly after his arrival. Sadly, this is not the last man-eater that John will encounter as a pair of vicious four-legged killers take to devouring construction workers at night (going as far as to enter the tents and pull a person out into the tall grass for an easy meal). With John being wildly out of his element, famed hunter Charles Remington comes to save the day. Surprisingly, this pair of lions are far more cunning and dangerous than any that Remington has previously killed. It’s up to John, Charles and native African Samuel to take down the pair of lions before they claim more victims.

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THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS was mainly shot on a game reservation in Africa and it doesn’t feel as if anything were tame about this production. You can feel the sweat, heat and danger around every corner while watching it. The cinematography is gorgeous and the whole film takes place on a grand scale. Jerry Goldsmith (who also composed the brilliant theme from BOYS FROM BRAZIL) delivers a powerful score that enhances every shot, but never takes over the film. It should be noted that Hollywood definitely prettied up the actual story to deliver more excitement and tense scenes than what actually occurred in the real hunt for the Tsavo lions. The real take down of these man-eaters required a total of 13 bullets, but that’s not what happens in the film. It’s kind of obvious why, because if you were to watch seven shots fired into one big killer cat over the course of a long day…it could get more than a little repetitive and possibly comical. This is one of those rare cases where changing the details a bit makes for a possibly better story on film.

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Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, both of whom were huge in 1996, headline this adventure as John Patterson and Charles Remington respectively. The two play well off each other with convincing chemistry in a mentor/protégé friendship. Taken in their own scenes, both performers pull their weight. Michael Douglas is essentially playing Quint from JAWS but in the jungle. Val Kilmer is a likable protagonist, but he uses a would-be Irish accent that comes and goes depending on the scene. John Kani is also quite good as the native Samuel who was probably my second-favorite character in this film after jungle Quint…er, I mean Remington. Tom Wilkinson shows up for a total of two scenes as a pompous asshole who cares far more for finishing his railroad than for the measly lives of 30 African construction workers who have been devoured by vicious jungle beasts. Meanwhile, Emily Mortimer is bland as Patterson’s wife…but isn’t necessarily an essential part of this film.

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The attack sequences and stalking scenes of the Tsavo lions are appropriately frightening. Usually, the more you reveal the monster, the less scary it becomes. There’s a lot of truth to that approach and it worked perfectly for JAWS. Though GHOST AND THE DARKNESS seems to be going for that in the opening, we do see a lot of the lions. It doesn’t hurt the tension whatsoever as these man-eaters were brought to life with five trained lions and seamless shots of lion puppets. It should be stated that the lions in this movie have manes and the real ones didn’t, but you’d probably be hard pressed to find tamed Tsavo lions who would work on film. The film delivers a number of tense sequences throughout and maintains a level of constant suspense. This is pretty much JAWS…with lions. Though it’s not as good as Spielberg’s classic (which is the unshakable masterpiece of killer animal movies), I had a blast watching this and felt my hairs standing on end during certain scenes. A stalking sequence in the fog-laden night is downright terrifying, especially when you know that the killer animal can clearly see you and you can’t see it. That suspense also translates well into daylight scenes, which is rare for any horror film.

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Stripped down to its bare essentials, THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS is basically JAWS in the jungle. That’s not a knock on the film in any sense. Though it suffers from Kilmer’s bad Irish accent and a couple of annoying clichés, the biggest of which are a cop-out dream sequence and a jump scare that replaces the cat with a zebra. GHOST AND THE DARKNESS can be enjoyed as both a Hollywood adventure and a straight-up monster movie that happens to be inspired by a real-life incident. Either way you take it, it remains a total blast to watch!

Grade: B+

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