Last month, I started researching my new novel which necessarily entailed a great deal of reading on famous maneating animals throughout history. Because the Internets love stories about real life monsters, I found a glut of lists, usually ranking the creatures by human misery, which ironically enough is also how the Billboard Charts are put together. Two monsters kept appearing in every article I read.
Beach culture began to appear in the Americas during the latter half of the 19th Century. It was cheap, relatively accessible, and the air wouldn’t immediately turn you into a choking, Dickensian object lesson. In 1916, New Jersey was being hammered by a heatwave and polio, and one of those could be solved by going to the beach. The other could be solved by not drinking raw sewage, but this is America, dammit. We have a little thing called freedom here. Anyway, this was a very different Jersey shore than what we picture now, since most everyone was trying to swim in woolen dresses or baggy wrestling singlets. They didn’t even call it swimming. It was done with a rope and referred to as “fanny dunking.” Sharks aren’t going to stand for that level of bullshit, and soon all that fresh meat slowed by the early stages of polio attracted one.
The shark killed two men, Charles Vansant and Charles Bruder, because fuck guys named Charles. The latter man was so horribly wounded that observers reported seeing a capsized red canoe. Nope, that was the blood spurting from Bruder’s severed legs. At the time, sharks were not believed to be dangerous in the slightest, and some scientists (desperately holding in gleeful giggles) suggested that a sea turtle might be responsible. The next couple of attacks took place in a freshwater creek near the town of Matawan. For those unaware, yes, not only can certain sharks survive quite comfortably in freshwater, but the shark most capable is the bull shark, a fish that is basically made of teeth and hatred. These days most people believe two separate sharks were responsible for the attacks: the first two were likely the work of a female Great White caught on Raritan Bay, and the latter two the aforementioned bull. If any of this sounds at all familiar, that’s because Peter Benchley used it as the basis for Jaws.
The other case formed the basis of this week’s movie, 1996’s The Ghost and the Darkness. In 1898, Europe was balls deep in Africa, racing to see who could exploit the continent most effectively. France, Germany, and Britain were all trying to complete railroads, and the British one ran smack into the Tsavo river. Seeing that Tsavo is a KiKamba word meaning “a place of slaughter,” the British should have just turned right the fuck around and left the place to the Germans.
Instead, using a workforce of mixed Indian and African laborers, they decided to cross this river of death. This giant, stinking camp, filled with exhausted, sick, and bleeding men was pretty much the equivalent of ringing the dinner bell for any local monsters to line up and chow down. Still, hunting humans is not a normal behavior outside of Florida, and must be learned. In the Errol Morris documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, lion tamer Dave Hoover relates an incident where one of his giant cats tagged him pretty badly in the middle of a show. Gushing blood from the wound, he finished the act, because he knew if he showed how hurt he was, the lions would know he could be killed, and would be impossible to work with. So he finished, bowed, and hauled his massive testicles from the cage.
Once lions know we’re basically just little pink meat-sacks that make funny sounds when we’re being torn apart, they stop being afraid. The Tsavo Maneaters — a pair of maneless lions now known to be brothers — figured this out and turned into fucking serial killers. They ate roughly 30% of their kills, meaning that 70% of the time, they were killing just for the fun of it. Chief Engineer John Henry Patterson eventually got tired of his workers being eaten and erected fences of thorns around the camp, which has been the preferred way to keep lions away for thousands of years. The Tsavo Maneaters treated these with all the concern of a commuter at a subway turnstile during rush hour. With preternatural awareness, they sneaked past armed men and baited traps to drag screaming laborers from their tents. Believing them to be demons in lion form, (or possibly blaxploitation superheroes) the workers called them the Ghost and the Darkness. Eventually, Patterson tracked and killed them both, selling the carcasses to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where they can be viewed today.
The film mostly follows this sequence of events. Patterson (Val Kilmer) is hired on by railroad mogul Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson) to build the bridge over the river Tsavo in five short months. Then the lions show up. Eventually, Beaumont hires the completely fictional Remington (Michael Douglas), an American great white hunter, to kill the beasts. It morphs into a bit of a buddy movie, but there’s never enough tension between the men to make their alliance dramatically satisfying. And why the hell not? Remington wasn’t real! They could do anything they wanted with him. He could have been a crazy racist, or an ex-football player, or a twelve foot tall cyborg with laser breath.
I brought up Jaws earlier because this is pretty much the same movie, although not as good. No shame in that, since we are talking about one of the greatest action horror films of all time. One of the things that makes Jaws so great are the performances and that’s the place where The Ghost and the Darkness falls behind. I am no great fan of Michael Douglas (though he does fine work in Romancing the Stone and The Game), and here he is the Robert Shaw equivalent, the strutting tough guy who has made a career of hunting dangerous animals and might be about to meet his match. Unfortunately, where Shaw’s Quint was so alive you could practically smell him, Douglas’s Remington never truly gains a third dimension. Val Kilmer is stuck in the post Tombstone doldrums when he stopped giving a fuck and stayed until he was replaced by a fat future version of himself for the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He does an Irish accent… sort of. It’s slightly less convincing than just having his character carry around a box of Lucky Charms.
The authenticity of the film remains excellent. Because it was made before CGI infected the process, the filmmaker had to rely on practical effects. Apart from some clumsy compositing, the lions are incredibly realistic. This is accomplished by using actual trained lions. Cribbing yet another note from Jaws, the director makes sure the lions are omnipresent even when they aren’t in the scene. He focuses on ripped up tents, bloodstained sections of the savannah, and of course the lion’s distinctive and pant-shittingly terrifying roar.
Had the film hewed closer to Jaws with a better cast and no intrusive voiceover, we might be looking at a classic. As it is, The Ghost and the Darkness is a solidly made action horror film with a chilling true story to go with it.