... aka: Kilimanjaros förbannelse (The Curse of Kilimanjaro)
... aka: S.O.S. Kilimanjaro
How many pre-1990 African horror films can you think of? Out of the 54 countries located on the second most populated continent on Earth, only two (Egypt and South Africa) appear to have really contributed much to the genre prior to 1990. That makes this particular production stand out. No, not because it's really all that good, but because it is perhaps the one and only truly Kenyan horror movie made prior to 1990. (If there are any others, I'm completely unaware of them so, if you know something I don't, please let me know in the comment section down below.) What we're not really considering here are films that were merely shot in Kenya. The killer lion film Savage Harvest (1981) comes to mind, though it was an entirely U.S. production that was also partially filmed in Brazil, so it doesn't really count. This film, on the other hand, was not only entirely shot in Kenya, but was made with partial funding from the Film Corporation of Kenya, features many Kenyan locals in small roles and the director, while of Indian descent, was born and raised in Nairobi. His familiarity with the dusty terrain actually really comes through here and the locations, rock formations, shrubbery and brittle natural vegetation, wildlife and hazy orange skies at dawn are all used to good effect throughout.
During the interesting, though poorly-edited, intro, a Kenyan woman out foraging and collecting worms with her young daughter kills a cobra with a slingshot but is then stalked and killed by something off-screen. American ranger / conservationist Jack Ringtree (Timothy Bottoms), who runs an animal sanctuary near the town of Namanga, spots the young girl wandering alone in the brush and finds what's left of her mutilated and mostly-consumed mother. Rightfully fearing a drought has upset the native animal's natural food and water supply, forcing many animals to migrate elsewhere and leaving the rest desperate enough to seek out human prey, Jack informs locals to keep up their guard.
Ranger Ringtree then pays a visit to a ramshackle mining operation run by Chris Tucker (John Rhys-Davies) and passes along the same warning. He suggests they pull out of the area until things return to normal, but Chris isn't hearing it. He's on a government contract and has just a few months left to meet his quota, so he's not going anywhere. Chris is also unwilling to part with any of their water supply (basically stolen f.o.c. from an underground water table, which has further harmed the local ecosystem) to sustain the remaining wildlife. He needs the water to run his steam-operated equipment.
Jack's estranged wife Lee (Irene Miracle - INFERNO) picks the absolute worst time possible to swing into the area to pay him a visit. After getting a room from hotelier Ginny Hansen (Michele Carey - THE NORLISS TAPES), she immediately jumps into bed with her hubby the minute she sees him but then ruins everything afterward with some really awkward pillow talk: Oh, by the way, I just filed for a divorce! Now it's ultimatum time. Either he can stay married to her back in Beverly Hills or he can get divorced and stay right where he is. I'm not sure what happened to supporting your partner / spouse / significant other to help them achieve their dreams, especially when they're out there doing some good in the world, but I've seen these same character arcs 5000 times before. And why is it always nagging women demanding that their overly-ambitious men give up their dream jobs, goals and aspirations to spend more time with them? Bleh, forget about these folks! Bring on the baboons!
As I'm sure you've guessed from the poster, the local baboon population ("about 90,000" of them) have been driven bonkers by dehydration and starvation and start attacking and killing off the characters. As it's explained to us, baboons are territorial creatures and do not migrate even when the going gets tough, which means they'll get food from wherever they can, even engaging in cannibalism if necessary. They're also extremely aggressive, three times stronger than humans and hunt in large packs. After they kill a handful of locals, including a young boy, they then move on to some of Tucker's crewmen. One of them, Claud Gagnon (played by former NFL offensive tackle Jim Boeke), has the misfortune of breaking down in his jeep, gets ambushed by a baboon troop and is later found with his face ripped off. Lee promptly goes to console Claud's grieving wife, Lucille (Patty Foley), and makes us dislike her even more than we already did by being both nosy and extremely inappropriate ("I understand that you'll get your husband's share of the mine!")
Having seen enough, Jack goes to the nearest city to make a report to the district officer (Ka Vundla), who's reluctant to cave in to his demands. Tucker crashes the meeting and informs them that he's "not gonna be put out of business because of a bunch of monkeys!" He's able to get approval for a baboon hunt on a typically protected game reserve, hoping to feed some of the larger, dominant male baboons to the others to pacify them. While he's doing that, Jack hatches other plans, namely arranging to go to Nairobi to get permission to temporarily evacuate the area. While they two opposing leads bicker and scheme, the baboons waylay a supply truck, rip a line repairman's leg off, sneak into a small airplane and cause it to crash into some mountains and, finally, organize a Night of the Hungry Baboons-style attack on the hotel, where the survivors have boarded themselves in for the evening.
While there's some good stuff in here, there's also numerous bad things... really bad things. The film is initially given a big boost in the atmosphere department thanks to the shooting locations, which are always nice to look at. A lot of wildlife is showcased here and not just the monkeys, but also rhinos, zebras, cheetahs and more. Some, though not all, of the attacks pack a real punch. There's an excellent sequence early on where dozens of baboons come rushing down a rocky hillside and charge at a victim that's quite scary. Other chase sequences make good use of slow motion and, though some unconvincing model baboon heads are sometimes utilized for close-ups and stunts, using real baboons most of the time is certainly a plus. Movies like this simply don't get made any more thanks to computer generated fx, which now gives this additional novelty value.
Other aspects of the film are less successful. The editing is frequently terrible. The script basically just spins in circles, as does the cast, who spend most of their time driving or running around in the desert discovering victims, asking questions, looking for supplies and such. The acting is highly uneven and a number of the characters, like Leonard Trolley's drunken, babbling former British colonel Maitland, don't feel like they even belong here. Rhys-Davies' work crew, Julius (Don Blakely), Mitsuki (Calvin Jung) and Eugene (Patrick Gorman), are mostly tag-alongs who are only around to throw out the occasional one-liner and don't contribute much to the plot or even the body count.
The absolute worst thing about this though is that it all ends up being a big build-up to... absolutely nothing! The entire finale is botched and botched so badly that I'm still in awe of just how terribly done it was. We're all set up for a big final confrontation with the primary cast trapped in a single location with a horde of barmy baboons trying to get to them. So then what do the maniacal monkeys do? Well, they knock the power out, bounce on the roof a bunch and then sneak in and kill an uncredited extra. No tension, no scares, no suspense, just a bunch of people sitting around in semi-darkness looking mildly concerned as the monkeys make some noise outside and then are like later bro when it finally starts raining!
The opening credits claim this is "based on a true story" and a disclaimer found in the end credits calls it "a fictionalized account of a true incident which took place in Africa during the serious drought of 1984." Though I couldn't find evidence of an incident that matches up with the events in this film, I'm sure drought has indeed caused animals to attack, kill and / or eat humans from time time. The aforementioned Savage Harvest, made four years before this one, has a near identical premise itself, only with a drought setting off lions instead of baboons.
The end credits also insist that "not a single animal was mistreated" during the making of this film, which is bizarre considering there's a hunting scene in here where a bunch of real baboons appear to have been shot out of trees. I suppose we need to look at the specific wording in that sentence, though. Saying an animal hasn't been "mistreated" is not the same thing as saying "no animal was injured or killed" and culling baboons in the name of conservation may not be considered "mistreating" them, though one could certainly argue that killing an animal just hanging out doing its thing is the ultimate in mistreatment. Another disclaimer states that the baboons used in the film were rounded up for being "a nuisance to the local population" and then relocated after their stints as movie stars concluded. While some may have been placed elsewhere, it would appear the others were relocated right into the bellies of some of the natives.
Director Raju Patel was the son of filmmaker Sharad Patel (Amin: The Rise and Fall), who served as the executive producer and "presenter" of this one. The father and son duo had just produced the hugely successful comedy Bachelor Party (1984) prior, but this film's poor reviews and box office put an end to the then-24-year-old director's budding career. However, he did find success elsewhere in show business, producing the live action Disney remake of The Jungle Book (1996) and its sequel, the crime film Kaante (2002), which was promoted as the first Bollywood film made in the U.S. with an American crew, and helping Michael Jackson (yes, the pop icon aka "Wacko Jacko") set up his Neverland Productions. Raju passed away in 2005 at the age of just 45 from cancer.
After its unsuccessful wide theatrical run in 1986, this was well distributed on VHS around the world, including an American release on the USA Home Video label in 1987. Considering the initial push this film had, it's somewhat curious that it has since fallen between the cracks. The version I watched was in English but had a Spanish title screen (En las sombras del Kilimanjaro) and the only legitimate DVD release I'm aware of is in Germany under the title Im Schatten des Kilimandscharo. That release comes with both the original English audio track as well as a German dub, though I'm not sure if it's even in widescreen. Every single other print I've happened across is full. A number of websites, including IMDb, have this listed as a 1985 release but the copyright date is actually 1986, so we're gonna roll with that here.