It’s scarcely writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh’s fault that so many filmmakers decided 2007 was the time to apply the ‘video diary’ lesson of The Blair Witch Project to everything from the zombie movie (REC, Diary of the Dead) through the war film (Redacted) to the giant monster picture (Cloverfield). But they did, and Hensleigh’s take on a long-dead mini-genre only fanatics know about (‘the third world cannibal film’) can’t help but be overshadowed by the other efforts – especially since the squabbling-tourists-get-into-deep-shit-and-die tone of Welcome to the Jungle is also heavily reminiscent of a bunch of terror-by-beastie or torture porn pics (Open Water, Black Water, Turistas). Fanatical followers of the likes of Cannibal Holocaust (an especial and acknowledged influence) and Cannibal Ferox will write off anything but 90 minutes of explicit on-camera entrail-devouring as a lukewarm mainstream sellout take on their beloved sub-genre, so that’s another potential slice of an already-diminishing audience excluded.
It takes Hensleigh a little too long to get to the horror material, so that shocks come after the suspense (which initially builds well) has worn off. In Fiji, Australian Mandi (Sandy Gardner) and her American boyfriend Colby (Callard Harris) hook up with Bijou (Veronica Sywak), a blonde friend of hers, and Mikey (Nick Richey), a guy she has just got together with. Without much planning, the twentysomething quartet set off for the interior of Papua New Guinea in search of Michael Rockefeller, scion of the famous family, who disappeared in the region in 1961 – some say he was eaten by cannibals, others that he went native, many more barely remember the true-life story. As the kids leave Port Moresby and head inland, they have brushes with gun-waving bandits and militiamen but also get on each other’s nerves, with the fun-loving couple slacking off and getting stoned, slowing down the more serious, but scarcely better-prepared Mandi and Colby. The performances are convincing (especially from Sywak and Richey), but audiences can’t help but feel these people are poor company even before the group breaks up. Mikey, who keeps picking fights and acting like a dick, steals a skull from a riverside burial site and an old Aussie (Del Roy) warns the kids that the local tribespeople won’t like this. Then, fairly mechanically, Mikey and Bijou steal most of the stuff (including a camera and a gun) and head off on a raft, where they start arguing with each other, and only belatedly notice the silent, spear-waving locals on the riverbanks,who are out to hunt and capture them. Mandi and Colby dig out the spare camera to keep the record going (as in most of these films, the processes whereby folks keep filming rather than concentrating on their own survival are slightly awkward) and track their former friends – whereupon we get homages to Ruggero Deodato (Bijou is impaled in a manner reminiscent of a famous shot from Cannibal Holocaust but not a complete imitation), body parts strewn on the ground (some comedy Christian missionaries have also been killed, which tends to undercut the theme that Mikey has caused all this – though perhaps we can assume the Bible-bashing also ticked off the cannibals), a mercy-killing that isn’t as affecting as it might be, and a final act which ends in as downbeat a fashion as the rest of these pictures (no one has yet come up with an ‘and I survived to edit the footage’ punchline).
The theme that Western interlopers are worse than the cannibals because they unthinkingly invite doom by disrespecting everything is still pertinent, but seems as forced and hypocritical here as it did in the original Italian cannibal film cycle. Also, the typical US film approach to cannibalism has always been humorous (cf: The Folks at Red Wolf Inn, Cannibal Girls, Eating Raoul, 2001 Maniacs, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), so it’s hard to get back to making the subject transgressive, shocking, disgusting. When Mikey is found with most of his limbs eaten and begging to be put out of his misery, it would be more upsetting if similar, extreme images hadn’t been used in a more black comic context in Waxwork or Ravenous – and the same goes for the taboo-breaking moment when the hungry, momentarily surviving kids meet a ‘friendly’ tribe and tuck gratefully into a huge plate of mystery meat which we guess didn’t come from a cow. In some ways, this works as mid-list horror – and Hensleigh (The Punisher) brings more directing savvy to the low-budget arena than filmmakers whose works suggest they have more in common with the characters in Welcome to the Jungle than the people who made it. But it’s a trip we didn’t need to take.