Friday, May 20, 2022

Dancing in the Forest (1989)

... aka: Jungle Love
... aka: La danse de la mort (The Dance of Death)
... aka: Midnight Forest
... aka: Terror na Floresta (Terror in the Forest)

Directed by:
Marc (Mark) Roper

Only 20 votes on IMDb. No user or external reviews. Uber-generic, throwaway "thriller" genre classification. Just three votes on Letterboxd (the highest being 2 [below average] out of 5) and, again, no reviews. Has no one - anywhere - even bothered reviewing this film? We first have to acknowledge that the lack of material out there about certain films is entirely understandable. A lot of the Asian movies I cover here, for instance, were only given a small release in their home country (often only on VCD format) and were never released in any other language outside the original. Now all that remains are terrible-quality copies that not many people are ever going to want to sit through. But what's this film's excuse? It certainly doesn't have the language OR really even the obscurity factor going for it despite the lack of a DVD release, This was a well-distributed title in the early 90s and I found VHS releases in Australia, Brazil, Canada (on the CPC Video label), France, Germany (where it was titled Midnight Forest), Greece and the UK. Here in the U.S., it was also given a video release in 1994 by Leo Films. Granted, the box art they used was absolutely awful, it's somewhat misleadingly packaged as an erotic film and was given the hilarious new porn-sounding title Jungle Love, but still... The fact a global VHS release of an English-language film has not been able to muster up even a few errant words from any viewer on any movie website doesn't inspire much confidence, does it?

A pre-game judgment call based on experience lead me to suspect this was going to be one of those toss-offs landing in that weird cinematic void where the film is neither good nor laughably terrible. Usually films like this are more dull and derivative than anything else, yet they're too well-made and produced to be enjoyably bad. These types of films fail to rouse any enthusiasm and thus make no impression whatsoever on viewers. So just what will we be getting ourselves into this time?

Sy Winters (Darren Dalton) is an American college student, obsessive jogger and reluctant aspiring writer ("writing is a disease, it gets worse and worse") from a well-to-do-family who decided to go against his father's wishes and see the world. Now overseas in South Africa, his father refuses to send him money for a plane ticket home. To earn his room and board (and try to save up enough to get back to Los Angeles), Sy's been shacking up with childless, backwoods married couple Thor (Ian Roberts) and Tanya (Brümilda van Rensburg) Hörg and helping Thor out in his lumber business. The home where he's currently stuck is out in the middle of nowhere and Thor's miserable, mute, illiterate, wheelchair-bound father (Dick Reineke), who sits around listening to sad music most of the time, also lives on the grounds.

Thor is your typical macho, man-of-few-words outdoorsman who works hard, rides around in his beat-up truck, loves hunting wild hogs, deer and other animals, spits in the kitchen sink on top of the dishes and throws his muddy boots on the table right before breakfast. Understandably, his wife is kind of disgusted by him, yet being the nymphomaniac she eventually reveals herself to be, she's also turned on by his crude nature. What I'd like to know is when did we as a society decide that being an obnoxious bully and having terrible manners, a short temper and terrible hygiene were all defining features of masculinity? Throw in belching, farting and mass consumption of alcohol and you cover about 90 percent of the cinematic depictions of manly man behavior.

With Sy having to wake up at the crack of dawn every morning and spend his days slaving in the woods and at the lumber mill with Thor, Tanya sneaks into his room and begins reading the stories he's been working on. These end up both fascinating her and turning her on to the point where she masturbates by his typewriter. Eventually, Sy starts sharing his work with her and we get brief reenactments of a fictional love triangle Sy's been writing about using the same actors. However, something clearly is off with this couple, most especially Tanya, and Sy certainly isn't oblivious to any of that ("These people are fucking weird!"). He's merely in a powerless position to do anything about it.

Tanya soon proves to be something of a loon. She's been spying on poor Sy whenever he's out jogging or in the shower. Instead of mailing out letters to his family and friends, she's been burning them. After she successfully manages to seduce him, she scratches up his back until it's bloody. She hangs up the phone when he's talking to his girlfriend ("You don't need her!") Her obsessive crush doesn't last too long though, once her husband finds out about their affair ("You put your seed into her!"). He takes Sy into the woods to "hunt," the wife and father show up and things quickly spiral out of control. By the end of the conflict, Tanya ends up shot to death with a rifle and Thor ends up taking a nasty dive down a rocky waterfall, though his body never turns up.

Instead of fleeing back to the States, Sy strangely decides to stick around and take over the home. He continues working in lumber, takes on a ruder, cruder, more abusive Thor-like personality, tries to develop a relationship with the father (who turns out to be a former Olympic track athlete) and, at the urging of the nosy local postmistress (Vera Blacker), invites his girlfriend Karen (Janine Denison) to come stay with him. Immediately upon arriving, Karen realizes Sy has changed for the worse. Instead of making love, his sexual appetite has grown more violent. Sy is also haunted by both daytime visions (possibly ghosts), and nightmares, involving the slain couple and becomes convinced that Thor may actually still be alive, which drives him more and more paranoid and insane...

This is pretty much exactly what I thought / feared it would be: a not-particularly-interesting psycho-drama that's been put together with some technical skill yet fails to deliver anything memorable. The script is talk-heavy, slow-moving and feels aimless at times, the acting is uneven (Roberts and Reineke are pretty good, though), the music score is absolutely terrible (there's even an inappropriately sunny, poppy title theme song) and it's filled with gratuitous scenes of trees being cut down. There may be more chainsaw usage here than in the entire Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, though not in the ways most of us would like to see. Empty religious symbolism and church visits are then stuffed into the cracks, as if that will give this additional gravitas, when it actually serves no purpose whatsoever. There's not enough depth to make this really work on a psychological level, nor enough action and horror content (which don't really kick in until the end) to make this thrilling. I honestly failed to see WHY this film was made or what the point of it even was.

American leading man Dalton started out in a couple of high-profile 80s favorites (The Outsiders and Red Dawn), where has was cast right alongside a basic who's who of rising, soon-to-be-big young actors like Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio. However, while all of the others seemed to thrive throughout the decade well into the 90s, or at least received a signature role they're fondly remembered for today, Dalton's career curiously remained rather stagnant. He was downgraded mostly to TV guest spots and direct-to-video films soon after his two initial successes. In recent years he's been more prolific as a writer and director, including working for The Asylum. I'm not sure if it's because of him or the way the character is scripted, but I never really took to the lead character here.

Still, there are a few pluses, including OK camerawork / aerial photography, the fact it utilizes some really beautiful South African locations pretty well (about the only reason a restored DVD or Blu-ray would be welcome) and it begins rather interestingly before the wheels start spinning. Really, this is a pretty prototypical 2 star film on my usual scale, except I can't even award it an average rating because the resolution is so lame and half-assed it's actually insulting!

Nevertheless, the director moved on to a fairly successful career, which includes steady assistant director work on numerous big budget films. He also was a producer of the (deservedly) successful surprise horror hit Don't Breathe (2016), which raked in an impressive 160 million dollars on a budget of just 9 million. He also worked on Brad Anderson's Poe adaptation Stonehearst Asylum (2014).


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