Sompote Sands is one of those figures in cult cinema who casts a long shadow. Granted it’s a shadow that twists around and warps into a demon like Calibos’ shadow in Clash of the Titans, but it’s a shadow never the less. Regarding the origin story of this supremely interesting and bizarre film maker, that was spoken to when we reviewed his Ultraman-meets-Hanuman epic Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, so rather than paraphrase here, I encourage you to mosey on over and check that one out. The twisted saga of Sands’ relationship with and claim of stewardship over the work of Japanese effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya is one of my favorite film stories. For our purposes here, let us fast forward a decade or so, into the 1980s and a point where Sands had moved on from remaking Japanese superhero properties for the Thai market and had decided to indulge more substantially in his fondness for Thai mythology.
Really? This movie made so many “worst of” lists for the year it was released? I guess this is just one of those instances in which I find myself with a different opinion from the rest and supposedly saner masses of humanity. But is this really “worst of” material, especially in a year that saw the release of Norbit and Daddy Day Camp? I mean, to be sure, Primeval is no great film. In fact, it’s pretty dumb. And the smarter it tries to be, the dumber it gets. I think the film was undone for most people by the things I liked most about it: misguided and moronic attempts at “social conscience,” and a bizarre marketing campaign that framed the movie as a Wolf Creek/Hills Have Eyes new style slasher film while doing everything it could to obscure the fact that this was, in fact, a movie about a giant crocodile. It’s these two key elements that make Primeval one of the most authentic throwbacks to the era of Italian jungle and crocodile/alligator exploitation films. I said of the movie Grindhouse that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez set out to make fake grindhouse movies and failed, while Sylvester Stallone simply set out to make a movie (Rambo) and made the year’s most authentic grindhouse film. Primeval definitely deserves to be placed alongside Rambo in that regard. And heck — both of them even use real-world war atrocities as backdrops for exploitation filmmaking.
The plot involves a recently disgraced journalist (Dominic Purcell) who gets saddled with a seemingly sensationalist assignment: to accompany a TV show host (Brooke Langton) and animal wrangler on a trip to Burundi to capture a legendary giant crocodile that has killed hundreds of people — not, it seems for food or survival, but simply because it enjoys killing people (thus the serial killer angle the marketing took). Purcell is initially disgruntled, because apparently as a journalist looking for big, important stories, he wanted to be in the U.S. to cover an S&L scandal or something. Eventually, it dawns on the idiot that he’s about to be dropped smack dab into the middle of one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, and that hey! Maybe there’s a big, important story there, too. So he and his trusty (as in, you can trust him to annoy the hell out of you) cameraman Orlando Jones pack up and head to Burundi, where the small crew quickly discovers that there’s just as much to fear from local warlord Little Gustav as there is from Big Gustav, the crocodile.
The set-up is perfect Italian exploitation fare. Take a real-world horror and use it as a backdrop from your monster movie, trying in some ham-handed fashion from time to time to excuse your sleazy tastelessness by making an “important,” poorly communicated, and completely hollow feeling “point.” Primeval‘s point seems to be that civil wars in Africa suck as much as being eaten by a giant crocodile, but as long as the white people make it out alive, who really cares if the civil war, the crocodile, or both keep killing black people? It’s easy to see Ruggero Deodato or Sergio Martino churning out the same type of film (only with nudity) in 1979 or ’80. The results so many years later are pretty much the same, only with flashier camera work and a crocodile made of computer bits instead of latex and chicken wire.
The film stumbles over its desire to tell us civil war in Africa is horrible (because, you know, who could have guessed that?) by also portraying every African as either evil and violent, scared and superstitious, or smiling while splashing in the river just long enough to get eaten by a crocodile. Why not make the reporter black? Or the TV show host? Oh wait, they made the cameraman black. That’s cool, right? Except that Orlando Jones is in minstrel show overdrive, constantly bugging out his eyes (actually, I think that might just be the way his eyes look), trying to teach the Africans how to speak “black” and appreciate hip hop, and generally playing up every “wacky black guy” stereotype that action/horror cinema has thrown at us in the past thirty years. He even does that thing where he walks through the jungle talking to himself out loud in a way that no one actually does.
I don’t know what the deal is with Jones. I really don’t think he’s innately obnoxious and irritating, and I bet he could be a pretty good actor. Perhaps he’s just a victim of the age-old Hollywood prejudice against non-white leading men, coupled with Hollywood’s addiction to wisecrackin’ black men — and especially to wisecrackin’ black cameramen. In a movie that uses the horrors of the war in Burundi as a backdrop for a movie about a crocodile that eats people, you’d think there would be plenty of room for offensive missteps, but nothing of the African content of this film is as offensive and unenjoyable as unleashing Orlando Jones and his steady barrage of dick jokes.
All that said, and despite Jones, this movie is pretty tolerably entertaining if you already of a mindset that lets you tolerate things like Big Alligator River. Most of the performances are pretty good (Orlando Jones may be stupid, annoying, and intolerable — but his acting isn’t necessarily bad) or at least passable. Jurgen Prochnow shows up as the requisite “white guy gone local who is wise and knows the ways of the bush.” If, however, you are hoping for a performance as deliciously batty as Jon Voight’s in Anaconda, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. For some reason I can’t fathom, Prochnow plays the whole thing solemn and understated instead of unhinged and raving, which is the way it should have been. Purcell and Langton are there mostly to look concerned and run away from either the crocodile or Little Gustav’s death squad, and sometimes both.
The characters constantly make stupid decisions that end up with them in the river yet again. If you are being attacked by a 25 foot croc, why would you sleep on a rickety wooden veranda out in the middle of the river? But these fools can’t stay out of the rivier. It’s liek the more definite Gustav’s presence nearby is, the less ability the characters have to keep from randomly splashing around in the river.
From time to time, a pick-up truck full of thugs drive by the hassle and execute people, which becomes a point of concern when Jones’ captures one of the executions on camera, thus making the crew target number one for Little Gustav’s men. Oh, and there’s the crocodile. It doesn’t show up a whole lot, and when it does, it looks a step or two above all the CGI crocs that attack has-been actors in Sci-Fi Channel original movies. However, it does show up whenever it’s opportune for the plot — such as when Langton is about to be raped, only to be saved when Gustav shows up to eat the rapist without also attempting to eat Langton.
So I guess there’s a lot of bad and some good in this film, and both were of a type that made the movie appeal to me even as I was aware of how ridiculous the whole thing was. It’s like someone watched Hotel Rwanda and thought, “Man you know what would make this movie good? If Don Cheadle had to battle a giant crocodile! And also, if instead of the main guy, he was a sidekick who made lots of dick jokes. Get me the guys who wrote Catwoman!”
And the end? Seriously? They let the white people bring the random African kid back on the plane with them? The random kid and a random stray bush dog? Has no one who worked on this film ever gone through customs? you can’t even bring a foreign apple into the United States, let alone a kid and a dog.
So yeah. It’s a bad movie, though the kind I like. But worst movie of the year? Someone needed to see more movies in 2007. The best way to summarize the duality of this film is with a spoiler: the movie is good in that it kills off Orlando Jones. But this movie is bad in that it does it off screen. Had this been released to drive-ins in 1979, it would have been a hit. Instead, it sank at the box office and caused other, better killer croc films to get delayed and eventually end up on DVD (Rogue and Black Water, both from Australia), which is also where Primeval probably deserved to be.