The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

D: Stephen Hopkins
S: Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas

Even the concept of a straight-faced white hunter pic in the politically correct postmodern 1990s has to raise a smile. That the actual film occasionally produces bursts of hysterical laughter is not so much its fault as its destiny.

Val Kilmer plays an Irish engineer employed to construct a bridge in colonial Africa who finds himself at odds with nature in more ways than the obvious when two male lions begin attacking his work force. In desperation, he eventually teams with crazed American hunter Michael Douglas and realises the spiritual dimensions of the conflict between man and beast, hunter and hunted (with suitable fluctuation regarding which is which at any given time).

It would almost be too risible for words if it wasn't based on real events, because the film is transparently modelled on Jaws and other genre films, down to the foreshadowing of the lion attacks with shots of their tails bobbing in the tall grass. Rather than create a sense of the time and place which emphasises the reality of the situation and therefore allows the attacks to become terrifying, Hopkins is content to use the beautiful photography, costumes and production design as a backdrop to the action, which is staged with less than the necessary level of excellence required to save such films from themselves.

That there seems to be a genuine attempt to engage questions of masculinity is no help, as this material is rather badly worked in. It is as if Hopkins' project of making a monster movie and William Goldman's attempt to write a treatise on our concept of the hunter are at odds with one another, which is not necessarily true by definition.

But the result is a genuinely silly film which is almost impossible to take at face value. Postmodern irony is unavoidable, especially when the film is so eager to address questions of its own construction with cinematic exclaimation points such as the lion nicknamed 'ghost' being bathed in grey dust during its climactic attack on Kilmer, and self-apologetic dialogue like: "These lions are not like lions," (which never sounds quite as menacing as Robert Shaw's aphoristic snarling in Jaws).

Kilmer and Douglas make an interesting pair. The former does his usual line in reserved concentration while the latter goes wildly over-the-top. Together they generate some moments of enjoyable contrast. Supporting performances in general are good, though the footage of real lions is rather clumsily integrated with malevolent but surprisingly unconvincing animatronics from Stan Winston.

The film looks and sounds beautiful, with Vilmos Szigmond's brilliant cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's florid score working hard to instill a sense of awe. Great effort seems to have gone into the production all around, and with Gale Anne Hurd and A. Kitman Ho pitching in as producers (among others), it must have seemed a surefire bet for rewards at Oscar time on paper. But the combination of a pretentious script and hamfisted direction results in considerably less majesty than seems to have been intended.

But for all that, The Ghost and the Darkness is actually quite watchable. It trips along nicely and makes you laugh now and then (though it's not really supposed to). It is a question of your expectations though, and it would be as easy to find the film either perfectly average or completely ridiculous. It is certainly a curio item, made thirty years too late to be taken seriously (or perhaps it's just too early).

One scene to watch out for is the arrival of Kilmer's wife at the African station clad in virginal white and holding a gurgling baby, only to be attacked by a lion leaping from the tall grass. It should be horrifying, and is meant to be significant in terms of the character, but it simply produces immediate guffaws and only the most witless viewer will not recognise 'dream scene' being written in the cinematic equivalent of large neon letters.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.