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Some of our closest evolutionary cousins can be a source of great terror when it comes down to it. We've all heard the stories about how an orangutan can rip off a person's arm without much effort. What do we see in these animals that leads us to be wary? Perhaps their primitive and sometimes violent nature reminds us where we come from, and that perhaps we haven't changed as much as we think.
The gorillas get all the press. After all, it's hard to argue with King Kong, the granddaddy of them all. But for my money, there is no primate more terrifying than the baboon. The elongated faces, stretching into gaping jowls, designed to rip apart those who stand in their way. Of course, this is silly, because baboons are not typically aggressive towards humans by nature. Then again, sometimes even nature takes a turn.
IN THE SHADOW OF KILIMANJARO is based on a true story, or rather "based around actual events." In movie logic, this makes it less truthful than TORA! TORA! TORA! but more than LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.
It seems that in the early eighties, Kenya was in the midst of a terrible drought. To add to the lack of rain to the area, the people and wildlife began to run low on food and water. This caused something unusual to happen.
The baboons of the area, who regularly left the human population alone, began to turn on them. They attacked the humans and ate the flesh to feed themselves. Most scientific and ecological experts would have said the baboons would first have started killing and feeding on each other. In this case, however, several different species of baboon, at odds with each other during the normal run of things, organized. They hunted together, stalking their prey and invaded villages in great numbers.
That's where the truth of the story ends, and here's where the fiction begins. John Rhys-Davies plays Chris Tucker (not to be confused with the shrill-voiced comedian), a British entrepreneur trying to get the local mine working. He hates the job as much as he hates the area, but it's his last shot. Dwindling finances and an eye to seek out the best way to get rich quick has somehow sent him into the wilds of Africa and he is desperate to make things work.
It's an interesting character that Davies' often neglected talents fleshes out. A lesser film would have simply painted Tucker as the greedy tycoon who cared for nothing but his own success or safety. But writers T. Michael Harry and Jeffrey M. Sneller have one great strength that helps them more than once here. Their characters show an unusual sense of humanity when cardboard cut-outs is what we're expecting.
Also on board is Timothy Bottoms (THE PAPER CHASE, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) as Jack Ringtree, game warden of several thousand square miles of villages and wilderness. He's having troubles with his wife, Lee (Irene Miracle - INFERNO, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS), who is still living in California. Not surprisingly, she can't understand why he wants to stay in the middle of nowhere rather than be with his wife in civilization. Frankly, it's hard for us to understand too and it's the first moment of the film to ring false.
We understand that Jack has a love of the wild, but never fully understand the emotional distance he maintains from his spouse. This is mainly Bottoms' fault, as is his ridiculous reaction to Lee's request for a divorce. He seems to shrug it off completely and sleeps with her that night. In the morning, it's as if nothing has happened. The issue is brought up in passing from time to time, but by then the fight against the primates is already underway and there is nothing that can be done to remedy this hole in the story that pulls us out of the film entirely. Thank goodness, Miracle is a talented actress who is always interesting to watch.
Jack and Tucker work against each other in the beginning until finally banding together against a common foe. As much issue as I have with Bottoms' performance, I can take no issue with his bravery. In one scene, he allows dozens of the baboons to pour over and near him in an enclosed space, a scene that gave me chills just looking at it. The film is filled with horrifying images. Armies of primates group together and pour over the hills while men, women and children are at their mercy. None of the surrounding areas have traditional concrete buildings with cutting edge security. It's an isolated community and many of the huts don't even have doors to keep the wildlife out.
The way these shots are composed is fantastic. There are no animatronics in this film that I am aware of. All animals are real, and the film was filmed in the same area of Kenya that the drought took place. It paints a very convincing picture and is far more effective than anything that could be created with digital effects or models. It also brings emotion to the monsters. The animals are, after all, acting out of their own survival instinct, even if it goes against everything they've done in the past. In that respect, they aren't too different from the Chris Tucker character, working against their very nature to ensure survival.
However, IN THE SHADOW OF KILIMANJARO suffers from serious editing and continuity problems. Many scenes seem to begin in the middle of conversations, making the audience go through the extra effort of catching up. A perfect example of just how choppy things get is Timothy Bottoms' facial hair. He starts out the film with a full beard, only to wind up clean shaven and then have various stages of growth throughout the film. Very sloppy indeed.
The ending is also a cheat. A deus ex machina so contrived, I was stunned they used it. Without giving it away, it's the type of ending that says the writers - who I still praise for their characters - fumble the ball on the action. They painted themselves into a corner and seemed utterly clueless on how to get themselves out of it.
We're pulled in and out of the story so often, and at the end I just wanted to yell at the screen for failing to deliver on such incredible promise.
Every now and then, I found myself reminded of Stephen Hopkins' THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS, a film that came out over ten years after KILIMANJARO. That film also dealt with white man's interests in African country being thwarted by the animals that protect it. In GHOST it was lions, here it's baboons. It's an interesting comparison. While GHOST was certainly more skillful and picturesque, KILIMANJARO is much more brutal.
And "brutal" is the operative word here, as well it should be. Through good performances and some incredible footage that combines the realism of National Geographic with the terror of horror films, I am able to recommend IN THE SHADOW OF KILIMANJARO, even if it is with extreme reservations.
If horror films teach us anything, it's that Mother Nature is a bitch goddess. The earth gives and takes away and both civilized and primitive cultures are at it's mercy.
NOTE: To all people sensitive to animal violence out there, I should point out that although real animals are used, producers claim none of them were harmed. They were treated with respect. After filming, they were reintroduced to the wild, after making sure their survival skills would be up to snuff.