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He Said, She Said Review Site

The Ghost and the Darkness

What She said:


Alright ladies and gents, we have yet another “based on a true story” film this week.  The He and I are on a tear with these.  However, The Ghost and the Darkness is not your typical period piece or war flick.  It’s an action, suspense, horror film that takes place in the Serengeti of Africa.

This film is from all the way back in the days when Val Kilmer still looked fit and not-so-bloated.  Kilmer plays John Henry Patterson, a military engineer who has been commissioned to finish a bridge project down in Tsavo, Kenya during the very late 1800s.  Sir Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson) is financing the project and is a Grade A jerk.  Anyway, Patterson is eager to take on the project.   He seems to embrace the challenge, and relishes travel.  You can tell that he’s really researched Africa, its culture, and its wildlife, and he also draws upon his past experience working in India. 

The Ghost and the Darkness

Upon arrival, Patterson realizes that bridge/railroad project is not all peaches and cream.  There’s a lot of in-fighting between the workers because they’re from all different backgrounds.  Patterson must rely on the site supervisors Angus Starling (Brian McCardie) and Samuel (John Kani) to try to get the project moving forward.  He also works alongside a medical doctor, David Hawthorne (Bernard Hill), who is overseeing a hospital that treats workers.  Hawthorne says that he works in Africa because “who else would have him,” and is accustomed to handling the breaks, cuts, and bug-borne diseases that are common in that location.

No one is prepared for what happens next.  It seems that Patterson brought with him some bad luck, because shortly after he arrives a rash of man-eater lion attacks breaks out.  Patterson downplays the situation at first, but the kills become more numerous and before too long workers are fleeing the site.  He feels pressured to meet a six month deadline imposed by Beaumont, and to add further urgency, his wife is due to give birth to his first son in just a few short months.  The stakes are high. 

Patterson tries to deal with the man-eating lion on his own; however, it does not go well for him.  He’s a good hunter, but the man-eaters are just that much better.  That’s right, I said man-eaters plural, because we quickly learn that more than one male lion attacking the village.  Patterson, Starling, and Samuel must bring in their heavy hitter, and that person is Charles Remington (Michael Douglas), a renowned game hunter.  Remington arrives with his minions to plenty of fanfare, but even he is amazed by how difficult the lions are to kill.  He must team up with Patterson to try to end the savagery that has stricken the worksite.  Plenty of death and gore ensues.

The Ghost and the Darkness

Let’s start with the obvious—the story here is too big to be real.  It’s based on a book written by the actual John Henry Patterson, who supposedly went through a very similar experience.  Historians, however, contend that the kill number that Patterson cites—in the hundreds—is likely inflated.  Either way, it’s a crazy and interesting story.  But, what we see in the movie is not entirely accurate, and on a fairly large scale.  Basically, the entire character of Charles Remington was made up for this movie.  I’m all for it, though, because it would probably be super boring to watch Val Kilmer chasing around lions for two hours.  He needs a little help.

And Kilmer also needs a little help with his acting.  He seemed to get better as the movie moved along, but early on, he’s as rigid as a piece of particle board.  I think I could see his eyes moving as he read lines from a cue card.  That’s how bad his early sequences are.  Thankfully, everyone else in this movie was pretty good.  Michael Douglas comes in and pretty much schools Kilmer on how acting works.  He was effective in his role.  I actually wished he would have made his character even more over-the-top. 

The story for this film is great.  It’s got the appeal of a period piece with some good historical context.  Then we layer on the high-stakes suspense of the maulings, and that really takes things up a notch.  I’m a sucker for animal films and horror films.  Combine them, and you’ve got a winning foundation.

The production quality of the movie is adequate.  It felt very 90s, but there’s not much that can be done about that.  It was, afterall, the 90s.  Any CGI in the film is clunky, but it probably was top-of-the-line for its day.  I liked the director’s use of close-ups of the lion’s faces and eyes.  There’s this notion that you don’t want to lock eyes with the creatures, or you’ll be paralyzed with fear, and so they intentionally forced the viewer to do so several times. 

All in all, I liked this movie.  If the story had been less interesting, I think it would have been a major flop.  Val Kilmer’s acting is just so painful that it took a lot to counter its influence.  But there was just enough in the elements of the rest of the movie to make me actually enjoy this.  I’m only docking a few minor points for the moviemakers not giving Kilmer the axe after his first screen test.

Thumbs mostly up.
The Ghost and the Darkness

What He said:

The Ghost and the Darkness

John Henry Patterson is a military engineer who has been commissioned to build a bridge for businessman, and sour puss, Sir Robert Beaumont. Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson) is financing a project that will build a railroad and bridge through Tsavo, Keyna. The project is supposed to bridge the gap between nations (and make Beaumont lots of money in the process).

Patterson is a very idealistic man who is eager to prove himself. Though Beaumont is more interested in the money and fame the project can bring him, the whole notion of building bridges to bring nations together is something that appeals to Patterson very much. He’s a little dorky, but I attribute that to it being a different era. Railroads aren’t a big deal to us. A new one is built, nobody blinks an eye. But back then, the thought of building one where none previously existed is exciting to people. People were a lot more enthusiastic, proud, and not as jaded as we are today so I can understand how the guy might seem a little idealistic to the point it makes you laugh (or gag if you are really cynical).

Patterson likes a challenge, which is why he accepted the job. Apparently the project is behind schedule, which is why Beaumont brought him in. Beaumont is a miserable SOB. He’s not someone people like to work for. Patterson’s wife Helena (Emily Mortimer) is about six months away from having their first child. So, it’s safe to say he’s under a great deal of pressure.

Soon after he arrives at Tsavo, Patterson meets the people in charge. Angus Starling (Brian McCardie)is the supervisor of the site. He is also a bit of an idealist in more ways than one. He is excited about the railroad and also plans to convert as many of the locals as possible (I think he was Protestant). David Hawthorne (Bernard Hill) is the doctor. He seems to genuinely care about wanting to help sick and injured people, but hints at a shady past. He says something along the lines that he can’t work anywhere else. Then there’s Samuel (John Kani). Samuel is the man. His job is to keep the peace and act as a liason between the workers – who come from several different countries. Disagreements over culture and religion come up and Samuel serves as an arbitrator of sorts. He’s also got four wives (I told you he was the man)! He is a hard worker and loyal to John. Everyone should have a Samuel in their life. He’s the Robin to Patterson’s Batman.

The Ghost and the Darkness

Also soon after Patterson arrives in Tsavo, news of a death has reached the camp. Apparently one of them men was killed by a lion. One quickly turns into several and Patterson takes it upon himself to sort this situation out. At first, it is believed he solved the problem, but they soon find out he did not. There are multiple male lions attacking the camp. This is extremely rare. Male lions do not usually hunt in packs and this has people scared. Some even believe they are the spirits of evil men reincarnated as lions.

Enter hunter extraordinaire, Charles Remington. Remington (Michael Douglas) is one cool cat. He’s a very good hunter, speaks multiple native languages, and travels with a group of locals that makes all kinds of scary noises, does a lot of ceremonial dancing, and generally creep people out. He has a tremendous reputation for dealing with similar issues.
It doesn’t take long before even Remington is scared – and starts to think some of the legends about evil spirits possessing lions might have some merit to it. These lions are eerily good at killing without getting caught and getting out of traps set up for them. After a while, many of the workers begin to leave.

Patterson thinks his reputation is ruined, but he can’t walk away. Like Captain Ahab, he wants to get revenge for what these animals did to him. Remington decides to stay too. The two of them, along with Samuel, do their best to put an end to the terror.

Sure, they exaggerate how many people these lions really killed, and Charles Remington might have been completely made up for the movie, but damn this movie is entertaining. It’s like Jaws on land. These lions are animals and I don’t mean that literally. They are fearless, vicious, and terrifyingly smart. This was before CGI took over the movies, so real lions were used. This helped the movies in  both the realism and scare factor categories. It was great seeing something real and tangible. It was a refreshing change from today’s computer generated world. This movie is also a soft fantasy. There’s no definitive proof these lions are anything more than lions, but you find yourself saying, “That’s just too creepy” more than a few times. I like that it hints and teases you, rather than comes right out and gives you an answer either way. Sometimes that approach works best and this was one of those times.

I thought the chemistry between the cast was solid. There was a real brotherhood amongst the people responsible for making sure the railroad. Patterson and Remington, who’s just too cool for school, form a bond, despite not knowing one another very long. Samuel is also a part of the crew. There is camaraderie amongst these guys. They laugh together, respect each other, and have each other’s backs. I enjoyed watching them together.

The She thought Val Kilmer’s performance was bad. I don’t think it was award-worthy, but I did not agree with her. I thought that he was playing a man from another era. It was a time where people got excited about things that seem simple to us and he was an idealist for even that era. I thought he was simply a dorky got guy who got easily excited.

I remember seeing this movie in theaters with my dad. I’m not sure I’ve seen it since. I might have caught bits and pieces of it on TV over the years, but I don’t think I’ve seen it all the way through since then. I liked it then and I’m happy to say I still do now. It’s an entertaining story, bottom line.

Rating: Thumbs up.

This movie review was given the He said, She said seal of approval on November 30, 2014.