Monday, June 8, 2009

Cannibals: Learned And Swift

I complain a lot about violence in modern horror films and more often than not I attribute the problem to Ruggero Deodato being misinterpreted by a young generation of filmgoers who weren't around to get why his Cannibal Holocaust was so subversive. So imagine my surprise when, in the back catalog of the bawdy distributor Dimension Extreme of all places, I discovered a tribute to just such a cannibal film that actually understood its message. Ok, well, I'm being way, way kind because director Jonathan Hensleigh apparently claims to have never seen Cannibal Holocaust, which I find hard but not impossible to believe. Anyway, this film is remarkably well handled and actually gets by on suspense rather than flat-out violence.

Welcome to the Jungle
by Jonathan Hensleigh
Through a very simple device, we are told all we need to know about this film's character. The words "Camera 1" flash briefly and the action starts, all of it told from the perspective of a digital camera wielded by someone in the scene. That doesn't bode well for the four people we're about to meet. Bijou and Mandi are Australian twentysomething girls who've been friends for a while but haven't seen each other in years. In New Guinea for some occasion or other, Bijou disapproves of Mandi's new American boyfriend Colby until she bags one herself (Mikey, one of Colby's impetuous hard-drinking friends) and soon they're on good terms once again. The conflict proper starts when one of the boys suggests they turn their idle time to a mission. Michael Rockefeller went missing in New Guinea many years ago. In point of fact, he and the anthropologist René Wassing were in New Guinea when their boat overturned. Rockefeller swam for help and despite extensive searching was never seen or heard from again. I guess our heroes think that finding him and scoring an interview would be lucrative (Mikey and Colby will mention "millions of dollars," but honestly I don't know what they could ask him that would be worth more than the cost of printing it). So they chart a course into the region Rockefeller disappeared in, pack clothes, food, tents, and one other camera besides the one we're aware of, they get in a helicopter and fly to their destination.

Things take a turn when Mikey and Bijou turn out to be flakes, drunks, layabouts and assholes. Mandi wants not to fight but Colby wants to get the interview done. When they arrive in the jungle (after Mikey has had more than one gun pointed in his face by soldiers on the drive in), their partying and general dickishness gets old fast. Mikey keeps needling Colby until the two couples can hardly stand each other. The last straw comes when they encounter either a warning to strangers or a decorative necropolis - either way there's a whole shitload of bones and Mikey takes one, thinking he can sell it when he gets back to civilization; Colby and Mandi recognize this for the dumb idea that it is. Their bickering lasts days until Mikey and Bijou steal the camera, build a raft, and leave Mandi and Colby high and dry without any food.

Mikey and Bijou float down river for about a day before the natives show up on the riverbank; Mikey, being the confrontational fuckhead that he is, aims his smuggled pistol at them and threatens them in English. They make one more appearance before Bijou realizes maybe she bet on the wrong horse. They put their boat ashore and go foraging for food when the natives pop up in the jungle. "Camera Two" picks up with Colby and Mandi shouting at Mikey as he steals their gear on the raft. Colby makes a raft and soon the chase is on. They too encounter the natives on the banks, and its no less worrying, but Mandi and Colby have no weapons and even less of a desire to start a fight with men painted white wielding spears and bows and arrows. It's day two when they find Bijou's pack on the beach and the other camera. The sound of drums and shouting that greets them on the river a few hours later should have been an adequate warning but they're still horrified when they find what's become of their one-time friends. The only question is, are the natives going to react the same way to unarmed, benign white folk as they do to vile, belligerent white folks?

As surprised as I was to find that I kind of liked this film, I was even more surprised to learn that it was produced by Gale Ann Hurd. Hurd was James Cameron's wife and producer for many years and her best work can be seen on Aliens and The Terminator. More recently, she's let herself get dragged into more questionable projects like The Punisher, but hey, we all need money, I guess, right? I give her a pass because she's now married to director Hensleigh and there's something to be said for projects born out of love. The Punisher is one of Hensleigh's few directorial credits and I'm as surprised as anyone that he made such a little film work (perhaps little films are his specialty, considering the relative quality of The Punisher). His style is a little more ham-fisted than his predecessors in the reality horror genre - there's a bit of way-too stylish editing in the first half of the film that had me shaking my head, but on the whole he does ok. If we compare Welcome to the Jungle to say Cloverfield, I'd call this a much more believable use of the style. When giant monsters fall from the sky, I turn the camera off. If the sole purpose of you're being in cannibal country is to score an on-camera interview with a presumed dead Michael Rockefeller, chronicling your journey makes some sense. So, for that matter, does filming an attack by cannibals on your raft - if nothing else, its proof that you didn't fire first. Anyway, Hensleigh had some big shoes to fill (Cannibal Holocaust, inspiration or not, wrote the book on the mock-documentary style cannibal film and did it better than anyone else) and he did a fine job making the style work for him.

The plot is actually closer to Make Them Die Slowly when you get down to it. Put the documentary aside and you have two sympathetic characters against two wholly unsympathetic. The difference: Acting! Yes, believe it or not Jonathan Hensleigh is a better director than Umberto Lenzi and chose to hire real actors. So while Nick Richey's Mikey is no more likable than Giovanni Lombardi Radice's Mike, he is a trifle more believable. I'd go further and say that Mikey is the kind of asshole that everyone has met. I've met people who get like that, who constantly need attention, who are completely inconsiderate, and who have personalities that lead you to believe they're trying to impress and put down women simultaneously. Rather than asking Richey to overact like Radice, he simply has him act like that asshole at every frat party and surprisingly it works. Consider too that Mikey is also the kind of person who wants to make his 'millions' interviewing Michael Rockefeller instead of getting a job or respecting people, and all of a sudden, its like we have a real character. The competitiveness that develops between the two couples is believable and it keeps the film moving when overwhelming odds rear their head. It's a bit of a dirty trick to base your movie on some of the worst human behavior, but, I've met Mikey in a few of my classes and so was willing to believe him because apparently so has Nick Richey - his performance is bang on the money. Veronica Sywak, Callard Harris, and Sandy Gardiner also do admirable jobs, but its always harder to play the villain convincingly. Unfortunately, that's one of my problems with this film. Though it does have a pair of mostly likable protagonists to fall back on, I don't see why we must always watch horror films where the worst people on planet earth are on screen for an hour and a half. I get that that justifies killing them, but, maybe it's time for scripts to be based around something other than a simple "punish the morons" premise. But, I guess, if this film really was paying tribute to the likes of Cannibal Holocaust, they didn't have much of a choice.

Where the film really won my favor is in the atmospherics and the violence. This is the only cannibal film that made the jungle the big, foreboding environment it truly is. The scene with the drum beats and all the night-photography are some of the slicker set-pieces I've seen in a film of this type. When you have four main characters, it becomes difficult to predict their fate, especially when you separate them. The handheld camera also made for an interesting discovery process. When we see a body with a pole stuck through its mouth like a spit (the film's most open 70s exploitation moment) Hensleigh plays around with the effect, almost like asking "how much is too much?" Would those kids film it as gratuitously as they do or not? It's a fine line, but considering the film is on Dimension Extreme, I'm guessing it could have been worse. The treatment of the natives is much better than in most of the films of the 70s and 80s, and the running commentary from the kids more or less covers the producers from accusations of racism, but a cannibal film is still a cannibal film (unless it's Ravenous). It was definitely the most sympathetic portrait of a cannibal culture I've yet to see and at no point does the film adopt a pedagogical stance or try to lecture the viewer - the four kids' biggest mistake is greed and they pay for it.
Welcome to the Jungle probably won't be remembered as a cult classic and it certainly won't acquire the reputation of its precedents, but I felt more tension watching this than I ever have in a cannibal film; it is one of the few that doesn't make you root for the demise of everybody on screen, even if they all sort of deserve it. If you'd like to see a film whose creators learned from the messages of the late 70s cannibal films, look no further. Who knows, you might even enjoy yourself.

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