Idris Elba’s new movie Beast it’s a weak, propulsive creature feature, the kind of terrifyingly efficient man-versus-nature story that teeters with fear, then wraps up before the conceit grows old or expands. In the film, Elba plays a widower and father of two who must protect his children from a man-eating lion in South Africa. It’s a relatively small film, intimate in scope and character, more like crawl or prey how the Jurassic Park movies are overtly referenced.

For those who prefer to see their roguish stories (and their Steven Spielberg homages) play out on a grander, more ambitious scale, Beast it’s a great reminder to revisit the 1996 adventure thriller Ghosts and Darkness, another story where the intellectual prowess of human prey has a hard time matching the physical might of a large velvet predator. Like a horror story, Ghosts and Darkness it’s surprisingly tense and gory. But as a character study that actually invests in its characters as people, rather than leaving them as ticks on a “death by numbers” checklist, it’s particularly well done, in a way that’s familiar from a completely different Spielberg blockbuster.

Ghosts and Darkness nominally a historical epic based on actual events in Kenya in 1898, two lions terrorized a British railway camp on the Tsavo River for nearly a year, killing dozens of workers. British Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson – played in the film version by Val Kilmer – eventually wrote a book about the events, The Cannibals of Tsavo, in which he claimed that the lions mauled more than 130 people, although this total was later much disputed. What is not discussed is that the lions were extremely brave, working together to hunt and raiding the camp during the day – all unusual behavior for male lions, who normally leave hunting to the females of their pride.

Val Kilmer, in a British Army uniform, loads his rifle in The Ghost and the Darkness

Image: Paramount Pictures

Screenplay by William Goldman (The Princess Bride) takes a lot of dramatic advantage of the anomalies in the lions’ behavior and a lot of historical license with the story, all in the interest of bigger, livelier action. Patterson is sent to Kenya by Robert Beaumont, a ruthless aristocrat and colonialist (played with mustache-twirling evil glee by Tom Wilkinson) determined to outdo other countries in building railway trade routes in East Africa. That means connecting Tsavo, a task Patterson believes he can handle because of similar experience overseeing bridge construction in India. He confidently says goodbye to his pregnant wife, Helena (Emily Mortimer, lending her energy to a small role), confident that she will be home in time to see his baby born.

From the start, Patterson is a playful and winning protagonist, willing to listen and learn from his Kenyan camp supervisor, Samuel (John Kani, who went on to play Black Panther’s father T’Chaka in the Cinematic Universe of Marvel), and excited by African Wildlife. When he arrives at the camp, he is immediately surrounded by problems: tensions between Hindu and Muslim laborers imported from India, tensions between his new camp evangelist assistant Angus (Brian McCardie) and the cynical local doctor, Hawthorne (Bernard Hill ). And then the first lion attack happens, and the African and Indian workers all frown upon him, as the white man in charge, to sort it out.

Ghosts and Darkness it’s not a film about race, but it’s far more honest than most adventure films about the cost of British colonialism and the perfectly reasonable class and cultural resentment underlying the railway project. And it’s not a film about masculinity and masculinity, but Goldman’s script finds familiar threads in these characters—the need to prove themselves and make names for themselves, jokes about dominance that relaxes into unspoken trust or mistrust, ways how the risk is shared. a bonding experience. This way, Ghosts and Darkness it’s one of the best character pieces of its kind since Spielberg’s gorge.

Goldman takes open gorge as a structural pattern, with many of the basic story beats mimicking Spielberg’s masterpiece: the series of mounting deaths perpetrated by a barely visible creature, the slaying of an unrelated beast taken as a sign that the threat is over, the drinking of late-night booze session -and-hookup punctuated by a bleak monologue and understated by equally bleak humor. Where gorge introduces Quint (Robert Shaw) as the shark expert hired to take over when things get serious, Ghosts and Darkness casts legendary hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas) in a similar role, and with a similarly dramatic, memorable introduction.

Michael Douglas does his best bleary-eyed look

Image: Paramount Pictures

Many movies have imitated gorge over the years, usually duplicating animal attacks and leaving out memorable character dynamics. Ghosts and Darkness it’s one of the few movies that gets alchemy right. Remington is a tragic obsessive who doesn’t like to kill, but finds his services in demand because he’s so good at it. Patterson is an idealist who truly believes in his work – “Is there a better job in the whole world than building a bridge?” he says at one point, looking to the east. Samuel is a pragmatist caught between the ambition of the white foreigners and the camp he manages. Even Angus, Hawthorne and other minor characters such as the proud Indian overseer Abdullah (Om Puri) and his African counterpart Mahina (Henry Cele) are given prominent roles to play.

But all this character work would feel dry and literary without the film’s pulp-thriller energy, which lays a visceral, urgent sense on top. Bridge on the River Kwai-the literary ambitions of the style. Director Stephen Hopkins uses real lions whenever possible, and apart from some tricky shots using mannequins, their physical interactions with frail human bodies look realistic and graphic. They’re genuinely frightening, even if Hopkins and Goldman fall into the familiar man-versus-nature trap (also seen, frankly, in gorge) giving their animals human-level cunning and viciousness, to the point where the railroad workers’ belief that the lions are actually demons begins to make little sense.

John Kani sweats and stares into the night as other cast members examine a body mauled by a lion in The Ghost and the Darkness

Image: Paramount Pictures

For all the epic historical qualities in Ghosts and Darknesss — Vilmos Zsigmond’s grand vistas of skies and fields, the focus on a camp teeming with overwhelmed human endeavour, Jerry Goldsmith’s powerful score — the film also includes purely horror movie tropes, from a ludicrous false dream sequence to the first- POV characters on what it’s like to be killed by a lion.

And for the most part, they are efficient and effective films. A certain amount of buy-in to the film’s higher aspects is necessary early on: Historians think Patterson was a bit of a fabulist who exaggerated the threat of lions to glorify his legacy, and this film goes even further into the realm of fantasy to tell her story. It features native superstitions about lions as a malevolent force, but as much as anything, it’s a film about a 19th-century white man’s superstitions about Africa and a 20th-century audience’s imagination of what it’s like to you are prey .

It’s also a sly and effective thriller, however, one that uses a large cast, practical effects and Val Kilmer’s ’90s Boy Scout charm to find what could be another trashy movie when they attack animals in the realm of Night of the Sharks or Lake Placid. Ghosts and Darkness has been overlooked and underappreciated over the years, but in an era that values ​​pulp cinema for its joyous values, this film represents a rather unique marriage between the lowly creature feature and the historical ballad epic. It has a lot more texture than many modern animal thrillers – and a lot more teeth, too.

Ghosts and Darkness available for digital rental at Amazon, voodoo, and other digital services. It is available in some on-demand services.

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