Welcome to the Jungle

ON

Coming to DVD Tuesday, November 13th

Cast:

Sandy Gardiner as Mandi

Callard Harris as Colby

Nick Richey as Mikey

Veronica Sywak as Bijou

Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

Review:

Dimension Films may be doing a disservice to writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh’s not-exactly-a-remake of Ruggero Deodato’s notorious “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980) by releasing it under their new Dimension Extreme label. Because when absolutely nothing remotely horrific happens for about the first 50 minutes of an 82-minute movie, some horror-hungry viewers are likely to cry foul as the word EXTREME carries certain expectations. But some patience is in order as when the four would-be documentarians featured here do finally find themselves in over their heads out in the heart of the jungle, it makes for a nail biting final thirty minutes.

As “Welcome to the Jungle” begins, four young friends are inspired by the still-unresolved tale of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller (the son of future U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller) during an expedition off the coast of New Guinea in 1961, to set out on their own journey to find the lost heir with dreams of a potential fortune to be made by selling their story to the world. Now, even considering the fact that the story of Rockefeller is just a MacGuffin to facilitate the plot – a device used to prompt the character’s actions but otherwise meaningless – it’s still awfully ridiculous. That anyone would think that they’d have a chance (after forty-plus years, no less) of besting the results of one of the most well funded manhunts in human history is just asinine.

I don’t know if Hensleigh believed that this would be seen as being an irresistibly intriguing real-life hook to hang his story on, but it just proves to be a lot to swallow. Would it have honestly been that hard to just give these kids a better reason to go half-cocked into the jungle? Something a little more plausible, maybe? You know, have them sold on the idea of some lost treasure or that they’re searching for a friend that went missing in the area – but don’t have them out to find a man that was declared dead in 1964 after the best efforts to locate him all failed (and it’s rumored that Rockefeller’s mother funded an additional search for her boy in 1979). Maybe it’s just that Hensleigh simply felt the notion of searching for Rockefeller would explain why these kids would go through the extra bother of documenting their journey on film in a way that other ideas wouldn’t.

Either way, Hensleigh is fortunate to have some good actors at his disposal who do a heroic job of almost convincing us that their quest isn’t a complete crock. Veronica Sywak is especially good at conveying a sense of believability to her character and the ensuing journey she and her friends take. It’s Sywak who has the chore of saying out loud just how incredibly dubious their ambitions are. I guess the hope here is that as long as the viewer knows that these characters aren’t completely deluding themselves, then we can believe that this is all a plausible expedition. That doesn’t quite pan out but what does work is that once their trek is underway, the interpersonal tensions between the four flare up into a satisfyingly dramatic distraction.

Because foolhardy expeditions in horror movies always bring out the worst in people, it isn’t long before these four friends are at each other’s throats. The responsible, motivated Colby (Callard Haris) and Mandi (Sandyh Gardiner) are at odds with the free-spirited Bijuo (Sywak) and the loutish Mikey (Nick Richey, in his first credited screen role). And as you might expect, the heart of cannibal country proves to be the wrong place to have a falling out.

Viewers who found the squabbling characters of “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) to be obnoxious and/or unlikable to the point of distraction will have the same problem here, only more so. But for me, likeability per se isn’t always a driving factor of whether I find characters involving. The doomed foursome of “Welcome to the Jungle” are flawed characters to be sure but I also found them to be believable. Thanks to the work of the actors involved, the conflicts that drive their characters apart aren’t flagged too obviously as contrivances of the script and the way the group unravels seems true to their natures.

Sywak and Richey both come across as being more at ease with the improvisational demands of the film than Haris and Gardiner – but that also might reflect the fact that their characters are meant to be more colorful and freewheeling. Some viewers might throw up their hands at some of the unwise moves these four make, but if characters in horror films never made stupid choices we wouldn’t have many horror movies, would we?

When the tribe people do finally start to emerge from the forest to peer at the intruders in their backyard, it’s genuinely unnerving. It may be a long wait for their introduction to the story but I really started to feel my gut twisting as they began to reveal themselves, with their spears and bows and arrow in hand. They don’t say anything, they don’t even do anything outwardly threatening (well, not at first) – they don’t even spring out of the bushes to provide cheap jump scares – but by the time they make their first appearance, the reality of the film is convincing enough that their mere presence in the background is enough to generate some real dread, overriding the thought that these are just actors.

Hensleigh may not refer to his film as a remake of “Cannibal Holocaust” but yet he still goes for his own version of the unforgettable money shot of Deodato’s film. You know, that shot. Like the same infamous moment in Deodato’s film, this is also staged as a reveal. And while nothing can match the appalling impact of what Deodato accomplished (the entire crew of “Cannibal Holocaust” can swear up and down about how that “effect” was achieved but I’ll always believe the urban legend surrounding it), Hensleigh’s effort still packs a grisly impact.

While that shot stands as the film’s most notable gore effect, even with no exposed entrails being dragged across the screen the last stretch of “Welcome to the Jungle” is a harrowing ride due to the performances involved and the seemingly hopeless nature of the character’s predicament. As hashed over as this sort of story has been by countless films – the plight of the group lost in threatening territory – Hensleigh still exploits the material well. Its protagonists may not find their missing man (oops – spoiler alert!) but Welcome to the Jungle proves that even familiar cautionary tales can still yield pay dirt.