Nature hates us. Look no further than the slew of killer animal movies for proof. Throw in movies about killer, mutated insects for good measure. Since the 1970s eco-horror and ‘when animals attack’ thrillers have become their own subgenre. Sometimes the animals or bugs make sense. Sharks and spiders are inherently terrifying. Yes, grizzly bears can be dangerous. Worms and rabbits – not so much. But lions make sense. Loosely based on real events, the 1996 action-thriller The Ghost and the Darkness was a rare big screen ‘killer animals’ movie released in the 90s. Though it didn’t strike much of a chord with audiences or critics, this story of killer lions in Africa was a passable thriller.
In turn of the century Kenya, British engineer Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson arrives to complete construction on a bridge. Tragedy strikes just weeks into the project. Not one, but two, lions begin terrorizing the construction site. Despite his best efforts, Patterson fails to kill the predators. As more of his crew fall victim to the lions, Patterson turns to a world-renowned hunter to save the project.
The Ghost and the Darkness Competently Executes a Familiar Premise
When it was released, The Ghost and the Darkness came and went with a whimper not a roar. Neither a box office champion nor a complete bomb, everything about this ‘when animals attack’ thriller was middle-of-the road. Loosely based on real events, William Goldman’s screenplay sticks closely to formula almost in defiance of his Oscar-winning credentials. When Jaws redefined the summer box office, it influenced countless imitators that stuck closely to the formula. While its production values are clearly superior, The Ghost and the Darkness doesn’t differ all that much from 70s killer animal movies like Orca or Grizzly. Goldman makes sure our protagonist has a good reason to stick things out. Just like Jaws, Goldman wraps his lions in an almost supernatural quality. Each story beat gets doled out with familiarity. Expect no surprises.
And don’t expect The Ghost and the Darkness to have anything profound to say. By today’s standards, the lack of commentary in a movie about British colonialists in Africa would on its own spark criticism. In this regard, The Ghost and the Darkness is a quintessential 90s action-thriller. Director Stephen Hopkins (A Nightmare on Elm Street Part V: The Dream Child) competently stages mild suspense and scares alongside bits of post-carnage. The absence of CGI actually feels refreshing. All of the scenes featuring the killer lions hold up well – Hopkins knows how to stage these scenes to minimize any limitations. To his credit, Hopkins pulls of a fairly rousing climax to cap things off.
The Ghost and the Darkness Found Its Star in Decline
By the time The Ghost and the Darkness made its way into theaters, Val Kilmer’s star power hadn’t entirely faced. But he was far removed from his glory days of Tombstone and Heat. Only a few months had passed since the car crash of The Island of Dr Moreau. Not surprisingly, Kilmer earned a Razzie’s Worst Supporting Actor for his bizarre turn in Moreau. But the second nomination for The Ghost and the Darkness seemed odd particularly since Kilmer was in nearly every scene of the thriller. It’s hardly a supporting role. Besides, Kilmer acquits himself just fine here. Like the rest of the movie, Kilmer is inoffensive as Col John Henry Patterson.
But the second nomination for The Ghost and the Darkness seemed odd particularly since Kilmer was in nearly every scene of the thriller.
Though he shared top billing, Michael Douglas is very much a supporting character. At least 40 minutes pass before Douglas turns up as the ‘Quint’ stand-in, big-game hunter Charles Remington. If you need more proof that The Ghost and the Darkness is a ‘poor man’s Jaws‘ look no further than Douglas’ ‘Remington’. While Robert Shaw only factored into the final third of Jaws, Quint was a fully realized character that drove the film towards its climax. In contrast, Remington adds nothing to this thriller leaving you with the feeling that much of the character’s story was left on the cutting room floor. None of this is Douglas’ fault who is charismatic for the brief time he’s on screen.
The Ghost and the Darkness a Perfectly Fine Way to Pass a Rainy Day
There may not be a more 90s studio-produced movie than The Ghost and the Darkness. And that’s not entirely meant as a criticism. In spite of its R-rating, this is a pretty safe, sanitized thriller that doesn’t aim past mild suspense and a handful of middling jumps. Don’t expect any messaging or deep subtext. This is a milquetoast thriller that amicably connects expected dots en route to a better-than-expected climax. Contrary to the Razzie’s, Kilmer is just fine, Douglas plays himself, and the lion effects are quite good.