Not Quite Terrified ‘The Ghost And The Darkness’ Comes Up Short In Exhiliration

FRIDAY, OCT. 11, 1996

There are some genuinely scary moments in “The Ghost and the Darkness,” a horror story set in 19th-century East Africa. But the movie, based on a true story (Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson’s “The Man Eaters of Tsavo”), is something of a disappointment. It never fully realizes its potential - the atavistic, almost-mythic menace of phantom lions who (according to Patterson) claimed more than 130 lives.

The movie is set during the era of colonial expansion when England, France and Germany are racing each other to make imperialistic inroads in Africa. Romantically enthusiastic Irish bridge-builder John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer with appealing presence but a halfhearted accent) has accepted a commission to build a railroad bridge in Tsavo. He’s ably supported by fellow Brits, Indian workers, African workers and a trusty right-hand man called Samuel (John Kani).

But the engineer’s dream bridge is not to be - at least, not immediately. Tsavo, Samuel points out in narration, is “the worst place in the world.” Unidentified animals who prowl in the swirling grasses have been preying on the men.

It isn’t long before we find out these ghostly predators - there are two of them - have big teeth, tawny manes and growl. But with their voracious bloodlust, say the locals, they are not lions, but “shaitaini,” or “devils of the night.”

Patterson’s efforts to kill the specters are unsuccessful. The body count keeps rising. It’s time to contact Remington (Michael Douglas), a long-haired, former Confederate soldier who troubleshoots all around the world. When he shows up with a vigilante band of chanting, hopping Masai warriors, it looks as though the cavalry is here.

Screenwriter William Goldman ably marries the spirit of the old colonial epics (“Gunga Din” and so forth) with a horror-movie storyline. And between the assaults (which, let’s face it, are what the audience is watching this for), he gives us occasional character-acquainting moments to enjoy.

“I have four wives,” announces Samuel, at one point, as the men await the next lion attack. Patterson tells the guide he has one.

“You like her?” asks Samuel.

“Very much,” says Patterson. Samuel looks away with a frown.

“I don’t like any of mine,” he says.

But for the most part, “The Ghost and the Darkness” doesn’t have the chops to keep us exhilarated. The lions are formidable, but they’re never quite the terrible attraction they’re promised to be.

Director Stephen Hopkins has to resort to coy, arty footage to suggest their eerie powers. And whenever Patterson, Remington et al. prepare to blow them full of holes, they miss, or their guns misfire. This is meant to demonstrate the intimidating power of the lions, but it just feels like a ploy to keep the story going.

xxxx “The Ghost and the Darkness” Locations: East Sprague and Newport cinemas Credits: Directed by Stephen Hopkins, starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer Running time: 1:44 Rating: R

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