Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Movies: What a croc.

Welcome screamers and screamettes. Today your humble horror host gives you yet another reason to never venture into the developing world. We covered the hazards man-eating plants pose. Today we discuss the real and imagined dangers posed by giant crocodiles.

At the heart of Michael Katleman's 2005's giant crocodile flick Primeval is a genuine monster story: the story of the real Gustave.

The Real Story

Reports of the real Gustave began to surface in 1998. At first, they seemed incredible. Fishmen who made their living freediving in Burundi's Lake Tanganyika reported that several of their number had been devoured by a giant crocodile. They claimed this beast would show up every few years, kill several humans, and then vanish again for several years.

In 1999, French ex-pat naturalist Patrice Faye identified the giant croc. The creature was enormous: it measured about 20 feet in length and weighed a ton (making the animal about twice the size of the average adult male crocodile). The average male crocodile lives on 45 years, but Faye estimated that this animal was at least 65 years old. The animal had numerous scars from small arms fire. In one reported incident, soldiers fired AK-47s at the crocodile as he dragged down a 15-year-old student. The croc didn't seem phased by the weapons and, in the words of one of the soldiers, "swallowed the bullets."

Faye dubbed the beast "Gustave."

Park records of the animal's frequent disappearances from it "home" in the Rusizi National Park showed a correlation between this croc's absences and numerous fatal crocodile attacks along the Rusizi River. Combining park records and the reports of locals, Faye estimated the killer croc might have claimed as many as 300 victims. Controversially, Fay suggested that Gustave was not attacking humans for food. Crocodiles are not gluttonous eaters by nature. After one large kill, a single croc might not eat again for a month. By contrast, this beast would go on violent binges, attacking, in one instance, 17 human victims in the span of three months. In 2004, over the course of two bloody weeks, Gustave took five victims all within two days of each other. Faye's grim conclusion is that the animal kills for amusement.

In 2002, efforts were made to capture Gustave. A giant steel cage was built, but Gustave easily spotted and then foiled the trap. One year later, Gustave vanished. It was widely believed that he was killed by one of the heavily-armed rebel factions fighting in Burundi's off-again, on-again civil war.

In 2007, after a nearly four-year absence, Gustave appeared again. He attacked a group of fishermen, killing one of them. Since then, Gustave has been hunting the Rusizi.

The Fake Story

With such a horrific monster in the starring role, the saddest thing about Primeval is that it simply never catches fire. Despite it's truly horrific inspiration, the film never rises above the status of B-grade horror fluff. It takes the real croc, the real horrors of Burundi's civil war, and the template of the real effort to catch Gustave, and turns it all into a generic action flick with a big croc as just one of the many dangers our rag-tag team of jungle flick archetypes must deal with.

The film follows Tim, a reporter who is in the doghouse because 1) he seems incapable of buttoning most of the buttons on his shirt and 2) he just botched a story and libeled an important government official. As a make-good, he's assigned to hottie reporter Aviva and sent to Burundi to capture Gustave. Tagging along is Steve the cameraman, played as comic relief by former 7-Up pitchman Orlando Jones. Once in Burundi, our first world heroes meet up with the inevitable Great White Hunter and the naïve Ineffective Intellectual Scientist.

What follows is a pretty much by the numbers story of the hunters becoming the hunted as a semi-convincing CGI Gustave turns the tables on our heroes and begins snatching them up one by one. The croc doesn't look bad – though one of the least convincing scenes involving Gustave happens pretty early in the flick and this throws off the disbelief. Take a lesson from Jaws, kids: save the monster for the end.

Viewers are also treated to many of the standard Dark Continent Adventure plot points: there's a ritual dance by native shamans, the white woman gets sexually menaced by a savage African, somebody contrasts the beauty of the country with it brutality, and so on. The inherent racism of some of these tired stereotypes occasionally becomes weirdly explicit, as in a bizarre "joke" Orlando Jones makes about slavery being not so bad in as much as it got his people out of Africa. You might not find this stuff offensive, but I'll wager you won't find it particularly funny or interesting either.

This generic story template is given a slight tweak, however, by the introduction of a second, concurrent storyline involving murderous rebel soldiers and their mysterious leader: the bloodthirsty "Little Gustave." (As an aside, in real-life, the croc was named after the rebel leader and not the other way around.) Actually, it is in these scenes that the flick finds some of the petrol so missing elsewhere. Katleman is an able action director and his flick really snaps along when he pits his heroes against human protagonists rather than CGI monsters.

Primeval is a middle of the road flick. It is too solidly built not to deliver on a minimally sufficient level. If this thing showed up one lazy afternoon on cable, you probably wouldn't hate yourself for popping some popcorn and flopping down on the couch. But that's about as far as this flick is going to take you.


Anonymous said...

Aw... that's too bad that this is a unique and cool movie opportunity that kinda got pissed away...

Anonymous said...

Well, in part...

Although, who knows, maybe the true story SAVED this movie, maybe the original story was even MORE derivative and then someone discovered this real account, but only had time to beef up the lameness of the original in pieces.

Nah, it was probably diluted from the get-go...

CRwM said...

Screamin' cattle,

I'm pretty certain that they started with the real story. Certain elements of the real Gustave's most famous film role - as himself in the NatGeo special "Hunting the Killer Crocodile" - are lifted for the fictional treatment as well. If you youtube for him, yu can see bits of that doc. It's pretty amazing.

Heather Santrous said...

I watched this one a while back but I was doing some school work while watching it so it didn't have my full attention. Mostly what I remember was them trying to catch it in a very large cage. I want to give it a watch sometime but from your review I don't think I will get in to big of a hurry.