Ghost and the Darkness, The (1996)
Release Date: October 11th, 1996 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Stephen Hopkins Actors: Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer, Tom Wilkinson, John Kani, Bernard Hill, Emily Mortimer, Om Puri
ven the most impossible parts of this story… really happened,” insists the narrator. It may be based on something famous and true… but it’s definitely not without cinematic embellishments. Drastic embellishments. “The Ghost and the Darkness” is narrated by African native Samuel (John Kani), who casually recounts the morbid events of deadly lion attacks in 1898; historical lead character John Patterson (Val Kilmer) also chimes in with a voiceover as he writes in his journal each night to his wife Helena (Emily Mortimer). Kilmer’s accent is questionable at best, and he doesn’t quite fit the part, but rugged, grizzly-haired Michael Douglas more than makes up for it by making a humorously grand entrance, talking tough and throwing crazed stares at everyone who crosses his path. His character is actually entirely fictional.
Engineer Colonel John Patterson is assigned the daunting task of building a bridge across the river Tsavo, in Kenya, in a mere five months. The job, given by scurrilous British industrialist Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson), is essential for the success of a railroad through Africa. On his first night in the pride lands, Patterson shoots and kills a man-eater suspected of having mauled a native earlier that day. But his military background and opportune sharpshooting isn’t enough, especially when a new pair of herculean lions begin to stalk and feast upon the camp – continuing to wreak havoc regardless of daylight, thorny barriers, fire, or complex traps. Dr. David Hawthorne (Bernard Hill) can’t imagine the big cats behaving this way, and many of the villagers believe the culprits are instead evil spirits, the devil incarnate, or resurrected avengers.
The two monsters are dubbed the “Ghost” and the “Darkness,” and strike such fear into the workers that construction falls behind. German and French competitors, the Indians and Muslims’ deep-seated hatred for one another, and a malaria outbreak also threaten the schedule. When the death toll surpasses 30, expert hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas) is called in to fix the problem. “They’re only lions.” But these felines exhibit amazing strength, no fear, blind luck, a disturbing pleasure for hunting unnecessarily, and a knack for eluding bullets.
Samuel’s not the typical cookie-cutter translator, as he’s given believable dialogue and a sensible personality. The use of real Maasai warriors and location shooting in South Africa further increases the authenticity of the production. The lion attacks are generally thrilling (save for a few anticlimactic slow-motion shots), made even more dramatic by the cinematography and editing; thankfully, there were no computer-animated beasts running amok. While the film received mixed reviews, largely because of pacing, Patterson’s blundering nature, the generic finale, and upsetting developments with the Remington character, it did win an Academy Award for best sound effects editing. And although “The Ghost and the Darkness” has decent creature feature footage, its flaws are so numerous that it’s unlikely the picture will ever be regarded as great moviemaking.
– Mike Massie