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Featured TV on DVD Review: The Ghost and the Darkness

August 8th, 2010

The Ghost and the Darkness - Buy from

The Ghost and the Darkness came out in theaters in 1996 and was released on DVD in 1998, which was very early in the format's history. It is now being re-released in Canada, so the studio sent me a copy to review. And it is truly a re-release, as I'm pretty sure it is the original 1998 release, just with a new cover.

The Movie

Val Kilmer stars as John Patterson, a Scottish engineer hired by Beaumont, a self-described monster of a boss. He is to go into Tsavo, Africa and construct a bridge so that the British can beat the French and the Germans in connecting the continent and dominating the ivory trade. He is given a very strict deadline for what will be a very difficult job. He has to deal with harsh terrain, workers who hate each other and poor working conditions, including inadequate medical facilities. He does have some help from Angus Sterling, a fellow Scotsmen hired by Beaumont, and Samuel (John Kani) a local who acts as a liaison between the various groups. He is quite pessimistic at their task and describes Tsavo as the worst place on Earth. His pessimism is shared by Dr. David Hawthorne

The bad news begins right away. The day he arrives one of the workers is attacked by a lion. Fortunately, John Patterson is a crack shot with a rifle and that night he is able to dispatch what he thinks is the culprit. Afterward, the workers' morale is greatly boosted. In the following weeks, John Patterson is able to stay ahead of schedule with the help of another local named Mahina. That's when a second lion attack occurs, this time in the middle of camp, which is unusual behavior for a lion. Also, the victim is Mahina, who is a large man, so this must have been a large lion. That night, while Patterson sets up to kill the lion at one end of the camp, the lion returns and kills another worker at the far end of the camp. It is too soon for the lion to kill out of hunger, but two man-eaters in one area is unheard of. Rare as it might be, it is confirmed when both lions attack the camp in the daytime.

With no sense of safety, the workers start to leave in large numbers and Beaumont decides to visit the camp himself to set things straight. After threatening John Patterson's reputation should he not complete the bridge on schedule, Beaumont decides to bring in a big game hunter named Remington, to take care of the lions. He and his band of Masai warriors hope to even the odds, but will it be enough?

This film earned mixed reviews, which is fitting, as I have very mixed feelings about it. I don't think the end result is what was envisioned going in. For instance, the narration by Samuel seems tacked on, like it was the result of poor test screenings rather than part of the original script. Remington as a character was a little too bombastic, which was off-putting, to say the least. The lion attacks, which should have been the highlight of an action film like this, are too chaotic to be effective. The shaky-cam style of filmmaking can be effective in the right hands, but you have to direct and edit the scenes in such a way that it is easy for the audience to follow along. If you are merely using it as a cheap way to make an action scene more exciting, then you will almost certainly fail. (And by cheap I don't mean inexpensive, I mean cheap as in, "Taking the easy road, even if it means ending up with an inferior product.")

On the other hand, there are some great shots of the African wilderness. There's a shot where we are shown grass blowing in the breeze and a lion stalking through the wave in the grass. Clearly this shot was meant to be reminiscent of Jaws, and it works; although one could argue whether setting up a comparison with the greatest When Animals Attack movie ever made was a wise thing to do.

One final note, Val Kilmer was nominated for a Razzie for his performances in this film and The Island of Dr. Moreau. However, one should not judge this movie because of that. The Island of Dr. Moreau was a mess from top to bottom and anyone in that movie was bound to get the attention of the Razzie voters.

The Ghost and the Darkness is an adequate movie, but not one of the best in the genre. There are too many little things that distract from its overall effectiveness and nothing to truly set it apart. A good time waster, but it lacks the replay value needed to be a purchase.

The Extras

Like I said, I'm 90% sure this is just the DVD from 1998 with a new cover, mainly because the film is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. I don't even know studios still made non-anamorphic DVDs. Can you even buy non-widescreen TVs? There are also no real extras, just the trailer.

The Verdict

The Ghost and the Darkness is merely adequate while the DVD is completely skippable. Maybe it will get a proper release on Blu-ray, but even if you have to wait a couple years, it will probably be worth it. Hell, getting a proper widescreen transfer will be worth it.

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