Fair warning: If you're planning to sit down with the latest entry in the Jungle Cannibal sub-genre, my advice is this: Be prepared for a "slow-burn" horror film. That's not to say that Jonathan Hensleigh's Welcome to the Jungle is a bad flick -- because I actually enjoyed it quite a bit -- but it's not even remotely the fast-paced, hyper-kinetic gore-fest that some of you may be expecting. So while it would be accurate to say that the film takes its sweet time getting down to the meat of the matter ... once the scary bits pop up, you might be (unconsciously) grateful for all the character development and the (admittedly lengthy) set-up. Fortunately, the first two acts of Jungle (while all but horror-free) do a fine job of A) setting up the premise, and B) creating some characters who are actually interesting -- which means that when the horrific stuff pops up (and boy does it), you just might be a little more invested in the carnage than usual.
Inaccurately accused of being a thinly-veiled remake of Cannibal Holocaust, Welcome to the Jungle is about a group of four friends who (verrrrrrry unwisely) decide to trek deep into the jungles of New Guinea in an effort to track down Michael Rockefeller, a (very) wealthy young man who went missing in the area about 40 years ago, thereby kicking off the largest manhunt ever concocted. But greed and foolhardiness combine to create an inappropriate sense of bravado among our young foursome, so off they go into the wild green yonder. After much wandering, drinking, and arguing, our foursome stumbles across some ... indigent life-forms: Natives, of course, who have no problem chowing down on human flesh when the opportunity arises. (And, again, boy does it.)
Shot in a hand-held "Blair Witch" faux-doco fashion, Jungle is a grim and creepy tale that grows gradually more disturbing as the movie goes on. Big-budget Hollywood guy Hensleigh (The Rock, Armageddon, The Punisher) deserves some old-school horror props for delivering a bare-bones, no-frills, and quietly disturbing little fright flick. Act I is the basic set-up in which we meet the characters and eavesdrop as they plan their ill-fated voyage; Act II takes us with the team as they delve deeper into the unforgiving foliage, and Act III is, well, it's pretty admirably upsetting, if you ask me. Just before the horror stuff hits (and hits hard), Hensleigh tries to go in a somewhat different
direction: Our foursome has devolved into a pair of duos -- and the unfettered animosity that grows between the characters adds a lot of juicy tension to the proceedings. One half of the team is dead-serious about ferreting out some clues on Rockefeller, while the other half is content to simply wander through the jungle while getting very drunk. Arguments lead to downright hatred -- and then, like I said, all holy hell breaks loose.
Obviously made on the cheap and clearly inspired by films like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox, Welcome to the Jungle feels like sort of a gateway movie for the Wild Cannibal sub-genre. There's some truly unpleasant material to be found here, but it's not nearly as visceral as those grungy old Italian flicks. The cast is surprisingly excellent; you might not like all four of the characters (actually, I can guarantee you won't) but Hensleigh's script and the actors' performances combine to concoct a believable premise that's just compelling enough to warrant an expenditure of 90-some minutes. Hats off to Hensleigh for taking a break from his multi-million-ish projects and trying to create a stripped-down and admirably unforgiving piece of indie horror. It might not be the scariest, goriest, or most unique piece of cannibal horror we've ever seen, but as a gritty throwback to a sub-genre that doesn't get much airtime these days, I'd call Welcome to the Jungle a surprisingly effective little experiment.
[ Welcome to the Jungle had its UK big-screen premiere as part of a
(private) week-long pre-Halloween FrightFest event. The U.S. DVD arrives this week. ]