Welcome to the Jungle Review
Cannibal movies have often had split personalities. Mountain of the Cannibal God is an action-adventure spiced up with a bit of gore and sex, Cannibal Apocalypse combines gut munching with Vietnam veteran angst, and Eaten Alive hovers between all-out people eating and a Jonestown allegory with a bored-looking Ivan Rassimov as the cult leader. More recently, we’ve had Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, a black comedy set after the American Civil War, and Clair Denis’ unbearable Trouble Every Day which was a cannibal art movie. So it’s not surprising that the latest genre entry, Jonathan Hensleigh’s Welcome to the Jungle, shies away from full-on entrail chomping and opts instead for a Blair Witch style shaky-cam fest. The Blair Witch Project was of course derived in part, consciously or not, from Ruggero Deodata’s Cannibal Holocaust so it’s quite appropriate that the chickens have finally, as it were, come home to roost.
You will recall that Cannibal Holocaust was built around so-called “found footage” which purported to show the terrible fate of a group of explorers at the hands of a cannibal tribe. In Welcome To The Jungle, the footage isn’t “found” exactly; we see it being filmed and the question of how it got back to us is never addressed. The protagonists this time are four dimwitted twenty-somethings – two Australian, two American – who are on holiday in Fiji when one of them relates the story of Michael Rockefeller, heir to the famous Rockefeller fortune, who went missing in New Guinea in November 1961. Although it seems most likely that he was killed in a drowning accident or was possibly attacked by a crocodile, rumours have sprung up that he was either killed and eaten by a cannibal tribe or had gone native and was living with one. Our four heroes – Bijou (Sywak), Mandi (Gardiner), Colby (Harris) and the extraordinarily irritating Mikey (Richey) – decide to go and look for Mr. Rockefeller, armed only with two video cameras, a lot of booze, a variety of cigarettes – tobacco and otherwise - and a lighter which some natives claim belongs to the missing heir.
Their journey into danger is recorded on videotape and it is this which we see, shot by different members of the group. It’s not a bad idea, or at least it wouldn’t be if it hadn’t already been done to death in recent years. But in the nine years since Blair Witch we’ve seen a morass of copies of one kind or another whose technical limitations were not always due to the chosen style. To his credit, Jonathan Hensleigh manages to keep the camera steady for much of the first half and it’s only in the more hysterical second half that we move into Cloverfield mal-de-mer territory. Nor is there much obvious cheating. It’s usually clear who is holding the camera, although there are some very arty shots here and there which are clearly the work of a professional, particularly a scene in a bar with a pool table which is shot and edited with a good deal of precision. Once the camera begins to get more skittish, it allows the filmmakers to get away with the gorier moments by simply skimming over them as glimpses. Only one or two moments of nastiness are lingered on, one of them an obvious tribute to Cannibal Holocaust, and the finale, shot at night, is very effective in the use of sound to convey what’s really happening.
Indeed, as a piece of low-budget filmmaking – shot for a few hundred-thousand dollars – there’s nothing too much wrong with Welcome To The Jungle. True, the style hasn’t evolved much in ten years, but the film is pacy and accumulates a sense of dread which is quite effective. Hensleigh and his collaborator John Leonetti show imagination in their use of limited locations and manage to make Fiji look like a reasonable substitute for New Guinea. The problem with the film is twofold. Firstly, evoking memories of a classic like Cannibal Holocaust is very unwise unless you know you’re going to be able to either match it or top it. Since that film has already done the amateur footage thing with cannibals, there’s not much point doing it again unless you have something new to bring to the table. Hensleigh’s film, for all its impressive building of atmosphere, isn’t doing anything remotely new. Secondly, there’s a lengthy build-up, presumably meant to establish character, for a very limited pay-off. The gore, so important to cannibal movies of the past, is very mild indeed – mild enough to earn nothing more than a ‘15’ certificate – and there’s nothing remotely shocking on screen. The climactic scenes have suggestions of nastiness occurring but we’re not allowed to witness it full-on.
Worse still, there’s not much point paying attention to character when the characters are as annoying as they are here. Maybe I’m just becoming a miserable old git but I couldn’t give two hoots for the four suntanned catalogue models who we are meant to identify with and I was waiting impatiently for them to be eaten, preferably at great and painful length. None of the actors are familiar names and they are limited in their talents, so that scenes where they are required to improvise arguments soon become repetitive and screechy. Bijou and Mikey make a stupefyingly annoying couple and Mandi and Colby sport permanent grimaces and whine about their travelling companions. Once the group splits up, things improve a bit and there is a small amount of sympathy built up for Mandi and Colby but never enough to make us care about whether or not they survive.
I quite enjoyed watching Welcome To The Jungle It’s not long enough to be boring and there’s a little moment at the end – not surprising enough to be called a twist – which made me smile with satisfaction. But it’s poorly acted and, perhaps the biggest problem, it’s fundamentally tame. Who on earth wants to watch a tame cannibal movie?
Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t seem to have obtained a theatrical release and goes straight to UK DVD from Optimum.
Shot on digital video, the film is presented at 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Considering the source and the intentions of the filmmaker, this is a transfer which hovers between excellent and mediocre. The daytime scenes look fine with good colours and plenty of detail. The night scenes are often very dark indeed and it’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s going on. There is some artifacting and video noise in places but this suits the style of the film so is not a major problem.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track seems a bit unnecessary really given the nature of the film. But it’s not a bad track with some ambient noise filling in the surrounds and dialogue which is generally clear except when it’s not meant to be.
The extras are limited to the original trailer, a deleted scene – eminently worth deleting in my opinion – and an excellent director’s commentary. Hensleigh is obviously a very intelligent man and he discusses his motivations for making the film and the problems he encountered. Although he seems pleased with the finished product, he also admits the faults and is refreshingly honest. What we don’t get on this R2 is the making-of documentary which was present on the R1 release.
There are optional subtitles present for the film but not the extras.
Welcome To The Jungle is worth viewing for fans of the cannibal sub-genre if only to see how it has been toned down to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Devotees of Cannibal Holocaust will be amused to spot what we might generously call homages, but won’t lose any sleep worrying whether their favourite film has been in any way bettered.